The northwestern-most corner of the continental United States may sound like an obscure place, but it’s a sharply delineated, dynamic little piece of the planet. I traveled to the area a few weeks ago. Cape Flattery, at the tip of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula, is the farthest you can go north and west in the continental U.S. It is a rough, steep pile of rocks overlooking churning Pacific waters, sucking in and out of the San Juan de Fuca Strait, a broad body of water separating America and Canada.
As you might guess, a rock outcrop on the west coast is a good place to catch a sunset. That was the plan.
From Seattle, a ferry ride and a few hours of driving takes you to Neah Bay, the nearest town to the cape. Neah Bay and Cape Flattery are on the Makah Indian reservation. The Makah people inhabited a good, broad chunk of land here before Europeans came and took over. Many Makah people still center life around fishing, as they have for thousands of years. Salmon were running when we arrived, boats were out, and gulls cried and squabbled for scraps in the marinas.
The small town was full of friendly people and worn looking homes, many with yards full of odds and ends.
After a perfect wood-fired pizza in one of two or three places to eat in Neah Bay, we “plotzed” on a sliver of beach at the edge of town. I climbed onto a rock in the water to get the image of a boulder perched like a stone sailboat, dead center in the foreground, with a tree-covered island in the distance.
The peaceful bayside spot was marred by trash, as was much of the area. Ignoring the beer cans, I peered into the water around my rock. Small, translucent, urn-like shapes floated and morphed just below the surface. I’d never seen anything quite like the fragile-looking, delicate drifters. Mesmerized, I watched as they whirled over the rocks, never colliding and continually pulsing and waving their appendages. I learned later that they’re moon jellyfish, found all over the world. At only an inch or so across, these were the young ephyra stage.
I wanted to photograph them, but it had been a long day of traveling and my wits were somewhere else. I forgot to use manual focus to focus on the jellyfish. With the camera on auto, of course it focused on the water surface, which I didn’t notice, being travel weary and immersed in the whole different-place-ness of everything. The images aren’t in focus but with extra processing I think they begin to convey the delicate other worldliness of the moon jellyfish.
A perfect contrast to the tiny water creatures sat nearby beside the dirt road. Almost invisible in dusk light, a weathered partial whale skeleton reposed in the weeds. Ancient, worn, and encrusted with lichens, the beached bones held onto the mysteries of the Salish Sea, which supports so many life forms. (The next evening, thanks to Pacific waters, we dined on just caught salmon, and the following day saw our first gray whale breaching in a cove on the strait).
The light was dimming – it was time to journey out to the Cape for sunset.
Following a map we got at the general store after paying our ten dollars recreation permit (most Makah lands are not open to the public), we looped around the reservation, south, then north, then west, finally arriving at the Cape Flattery trail head.
It’s about a half mile woodland walk to a series of wooden viewing platforms perched high over the sea. The Makah have fashioned a beautiful boardwalk from old cedar boards for the wet places. Slices of cedar trunks delineate the path here and there. The woods were thick with that enchanted feeling that often pervades Pacific northwest forests, enhanced by the prospect of the goal ahead, glinting sunlight shards, and the faint sound of waves.
From the first platform, we looked far below to moss-strewn rocks and bull whip kelp swirling in the foamy tide. It was exhilarating. A dozen or so people were there, speaking in soft tones, respectful of each others’ experience.
A few folks managed to clamber out on the cliffs to the south – I don’t know how.
Forbidding, darkening cliffs set with tall spruce and fir curved out of sight to the north. Vancouver Island was somewhere out there, across the strait. Only the waves below distant gulls’ cries pierced the quiet.
In 1778 James Cook captained a ship charged with looking for a water passage through North America. Here, he saw a promising opening but what seemed to be a harbor was not, so he called it Cape Flattery. Somehow he missed the strait, but it wouldn’t have led him through to the Atlantic anyway! Fifty-odd years later a Japanese ship ran aground nearby. It had gone off course and drifted for over a year across the Pacific ocean. The Makah took the last three men alive on board, later selling them to the Hudson’s Bay Company. The Makah were intimate with these lands and waters in ways no one else could be and may have saved these men’s lives. In any case, one cannot say how well or poorly they were treated, by the Makah or by the English, who later “released” them. They were sent to London, and finally back to Japan.
It wasn’t a fabulously dramatic sunset, but we weren’t disappointed – the old Cape Flattery lighthouse on Tatoosh Island (above, first photo) silhouetted against a softly setting sun was pretty enough, and the view to the northwest, with barely visible mountains of Vancouver Island peaking through the clouds, was the subtle stuff of poetry.
Clouds over water was a constant theme,
the next day at Shi Shi Beach,
…and the next.
Clouds over water, distant hills.