When we think of beaches and dunes we usually picture a seashore, probably by the ocean. But just over the bridge from my home there’s a breathtaking stretch of beach backed by sand dunes and a narrow strip of forest. Walking along that beach feels a lot like being at the ocean, so much so that you might not guess it’s 90 miles away. Masses of cold, Pacific water funnel down the Strait of Juan de Fuca twice a day, creating a rich maritime ecosystem. Luckily for the plants, animals and humans that pass through this particular spot, a state park was established here almost a hundred years ago, protecting this unusual habitat on the northwest corner of Whidbey Island. Whenever I want to walk along a beach and listen to waves lapping at my feet, this is where I go.
1. I usually come here late in the day. The beach faces west and at sunset, even on the coldest days, someone is always enjoying the view. The bulge on the right is a rough shelter made from driftwood that piles up in heaps, providing creative opportunities for amateur architects.
5. Behind the shoreline, wind and water sculpt the land. There are round rocks dotted with lichens that could have been tossed there by storms decades ago. Tough plants that tolerate blowing sand, sporadic moisture, and poor soil are here, too, and in the forest there’s a surprise: an immense Douglas fir tree that has been there for over 800 years.
6. A close look at a lichen-spotted rock found in the sand dunes. Everything is worth a look!
7. I think this is American silvertop (Glehnia littoralis), a plant in the carrot/parsley family. Up to its neck in fine sand and swimming in seeds, I’m confident this plant has done its job. I’ll look for the flowers next year.
8. The old, contorted Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) sprawls on high ground just above the dunes. Standing under its sheltering limbs I feel a stillness resonating from the core of the tree, passing through every cell and into the air around and inside me.
9. A view toward the water from behind the old Doug fir.
10. Broken branches and Sitka spruce (Picea sitchensis) cones litter the mossy ground on a dry August day.
11. In the forest, Western dogwood (Cornus nuttallii) trees display warm Fall colors on branches hung with an assortment of gray-green lichens. You may recognize this scene – a similar one is in my previous post, “What it Might Be.”
12. On a scrubby hillock an ancient, toppled Western yew (Taxus brevifolia) tree pushes its branch tips up toward the light. This is The strong, heavy wood can be used for bows, paddles, digging sticks and awls. The slow-growing Pacific yew is not at all common here. It is the original source of taxol, or paclitaxel, an important cancer drug. Thankfully, the drug can now be c̓əx̌bidac, the bow wood tree. , taking pressure off wild trees. manufactured through cell culture techniques
13. Yew bark, the precious substance from which paclitaxel was made.
14. Colonies of lichens are at home on the deadwood. But why call it dead at all? Life springs up, reaches out and cycles around, even here.
15. This fierce little denizen of the dunes is the Douglas squirrel (Tamiasciurus douglasii) who is busy scolding me.
16. The middle dunes are anchored by tough grasses and Douglas fir trees.
17. A glimpse of Salish Sea waters and the San Juan Islands through a thicket of Sitka spruce, Douglas fir and beach grasses.
18. A pretty Seashore lupine ( Lupinus littoralis) flower emerges from a clutch of Western Bracken fern (Pteridium aquilinum) in May. Lichens are liking the poor, sandy soil. The tiny chalice-shaped lichens are a species of Cladonia, perhaps C. chlorophaea. Bird tracks run from plant to plant in the dunes and once the rains begin, mushrooms will appear. These orange mushrooms, photographed in November, look like poisonous Amanitas – steer clear!
19. Bullwhip kelp ( Nereocyctis luetkeana) blades shine orange in the late sun on the beach. The blades (like leaves) are draped over the stipe (the stem) of this huge seaweed that grows abundantly just offshore. Follow this link to learn about early uses for Bullwhip kelp and find out how to make a Bullwhip kelp rattle. 🙂
20. Here’s a contemporary use for Bullwhip kelp – spontaneous beach sculpture.
21. These two pieces of driftwood formed a nice minimalist picture at sunset.
22. Raindrops speckle colorful rocks that were tossed into a driftwood cavity by the waves.
23. The Salish Sea has many moods, from stormy to peaceful and everything in between.
24. A corny sailboat-in-the-sunset image – it’s trite but it’s hard to resist recording scenes like this.
25. The sun has set. Time to go home.
The unknowable ocean flows
down the strait
mixing currents and creatures,
ceaselessly anointing the beach
with life. A woman walks along the shore
barefoot in winter, carrying nothing.
A child climbs a driftwood pinnacle,
three Buffleheads bob among the breakers, and
a crab claw lands at my feet.
The wide, pale sky blesses it all.
Dedicated to J-J. P. He was a great neighbor who was taken from his family and friends way too soon. RIP