Exploring the Earth and Sky of the West

Ocean

From A(storia) to B(rookings) Down the Oregon Coast

As another summer comes to a close, I am enjoying looking back at some photos from the past few months. In mid-August we had the chance to spend two weeks in Oregon, most of which we spent along the spectacular Oregon Coast. While not my first trip to the coast, this was my first time visiting some of the more remote southern sections of the coast, and over the course of the two weeks we were actually able to drive the entire Oregon section of Highway 101, all the way from Washington to California.

We began the trip in Astoria, gazing at the mouth of the Columbia River in Fort Stevens State Park and visiting the site of Fort Clatsop, quarters for the Lewis & Clark Expedition during the winter of 1805-1806. From there we travelled south to visit with friends in Rockaway Beach for several nights before continuing on to Newport and then heading inland for other adventures. A few days later we returned to the coast at the mouth of the Rogue River in Gold Beach, just 45 minutes or so north of the California border. After a quick drive into the Golden State, we began moving north, through Coos Bay, Bandon, Florence, and the Oregon Dunes before returning to Newport. After a final few days in the Lincoln City area, it was back up the Columbia River Gorge to Washington and back to work! Here are some of my favorite images from the trip, arranged from north to south:

A sandy beach covered in footprints extends toward a horizon filled with dark clouds

Late afternoon light on the beach in Rockaway Beach, Oregon. The northern third of the Oregon Coast is characterized by long stretches of wide, sandy beach. Sand is relatively abundant here thanks to the Columbia River, though the supply has been greatly diminished since dams started popping up on the Columbia beginning in the mid 1900s. 

A person sits on a log on a sandy beach. Lights of a city are seen in the background reflecting off a thick layer of fog.

I had been hoping to do some night sky photography from the beach, but despite relatively benign daytime weather, most nights looked something like this, with dense mist and fog enveloping the shore. Here, lights from Rockaway Beach illuminate the fog.

A red and orage sky at sunset is reflected in pools of water along the beach as a bird soars overhead

Sunset from Rockaway Beach, Oregon.

A rivulet of water enters the ocean while the sky overhead is bright orange at sunset.

Sunset from Rockaway Beach, Oregon.

Over a dozen seals rest on a sandy beach alongside a pelican with a long beak and a seagull.

Brown pelican (Pelecanus occidentalis) and Pacific harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) on Salishan Spit near Lincoln City, Oregon.

Large waves crash up against a coastline made of dark colored rock

Thor’s Well is an interesting feature within the Cape Perpetua Scenic Area near Yachats. A ~10 foot wide hole in the rocky coastline, the Well connects to the open ocean via a small cave. The well alternately drains and fills as the waves roll in and out. Watching the water roll into the Well and waves crashing against the rocks was a mesmerizing experience.

A green plant with abundant translucent patches on its leaves grows out of a dense bog

Scattered bogs along the Oregon Coast host rare patches of Darlingtonia californica, the California Pitcher Plant. One of the few species of carnivorous plants native to the Pacific Northwest, the translucent patches on the leaves supposedly confuse insects trying to escape from inside the plants. 

A green plant with abundant translucent patches on its leaves grows out of a dense bog

Darlingtonia californica

The remains of a large tree stump are seen partially submerged in shallow water.

What at first glance appear to be rocks sticking up out of the water are actually the remains of a massive tree stump in Sunset Bay near North Bend. Large concentrations of dead trees, often partially buried in sand, are found all up and down the Oregon Coast, and are often referred to as “Ghost Forests”. Some of these trees, particularly the ones found in coastal estuaries, appear to have been killed by rapid subsidence associated with large earthquakes along the Cascadia Subduction Zone just offshore. Analysis and dating of these trees have revealed that large “megathrust” earthquakes are a regular occurrence in the Pacific Northwest. In the case of the trees seen here in Sunset Bay, it appears to be unclear if earthquakes or more run-of-the-mill processes (such as coastal erosion) are the culprit.  

Layers of tan rock sit tilted alongside the ocean

These tilted rocks at Shore Acres State Park near North Bend have appeared in many a geology textbook! Shore Acres is home to one of the world’s most striking examples of what geologists call an “angular unconformity,” where flat-lying sedimentary rocks (visible in upper left) rest directly on top of older, tilted sedimentary rocks. The boundary between the flat rocks and the tilted rocks represents a large chunk of geologic time missing from the rock record. Several hundred years ago, geologists recognized angular unconformities as some of the first strong evidence of the Earth’s immense age, as they require multiple cycles of sediment deposition, burial, uplift, and erosion in order to form.

A small island of rock sticks out of the ocean. Many seals and sea lions lie on the rock and adjoining sand. A boat passes by in the background.

Sea lions and seals hauled out on Shell Rock near Simpson Reef. Interpretive signs at this overlook proclaimed that this is the largest haul-out site for sea lions on the Oregon Coast. 

Sand dunes along the beach with rocks sticking out of the water in the background. Wavy white clouds fill the sky.

Coastal sand dunes mirror the clouds at Myers Creek Beach south of Gold Beach, Oregon

A view of several rocks sticking out of the ocean. One rock has an archway in it and the sunlight is passing through the archway, forming a narrow beam of sunlight on the ocean surface.

Sunset at Arch Rock, between Brookings and Gold Beach, Oregon

A large rock protruding from the ocean has an archway in it and the sunlight is passing through the archway, forming a narrow beam of sunlight on the ocean surface.

A closer view of Arch Rock.

Several large rocky islands protrude from the ocean. The sky is dark blue and the first quarter moon hovers above them.

The first quarter moon hovers over sea stacks along the Oregon Coast south of Gold Beach, Oregon.

A panoramic view of a grassy slope, a sandy beach, blue ocean, and several rocky islands

A late afternoon view of Lone Rock Beach and Twin Rocks from the Cape Ferrelo Viewpoint near Brookings, Oregon.


Backpacking the Olympic Coast

Clouds and mist surround several large rocky islands sitting in a calm bay
A hole in a rock along the coastline is filled with large green anemones, while waves crash in the background.

A tidepool filled with giant green anemones (Anthopleura xanthogrammica) along the coast of Washington in Olympic National Park.

Living in the desert of central Washington, it can be easy to forget that we live in a state with over 3,000 miles of coastline. While the high volcanic peaks of the Cascades are visible from our backyard (and thus remind us of their presence daily), the damp shores of the Pacific remain out of sight and out of mind most of the time.

Our most recent summer trip took us all the way to Washington’s western edge for a short backpacking trip along the coast in Olympic National Park. Coastal backpacking comes with a few unique challenges. For starters, predicting the weather along the coast is notoriously difficult, in part due to the relative lack of surface weather observations over the eastern Pacific and Gulf of Alaska, where most of our storm systems approach from. This fact ended up rearing its head on the final night of our trip.

Perhaps even more importantly, safe coastal backpacking requires that you know how to read a tide chart. The Washington coast experiences a fairly large tidal range, up to 10-12 feet during certain parts of the month. That’s enough to make vast sandy beaches completely disappear. A successful trip requires acute awareness of the timing and magnitude of the twice-daily high and low tides. The coast features many headlands (rocky outcroppings that jut out into the sea, often without any sort of “beach” whatsoever) that can only be traversed when the tide is below a certain level. Getting the timing wrong can (at best) result in having to sit on the beach for hours waiting for the tide to go out or (at worst) getting trapped in a dangerous situation as the tide rises and cuts off your escape route.

As this would be our first coastal backpacking trip, we obtained a permit for a fairly short and straightforward route beginning at Rialto Beach, heading north past the famous Hole-in-the-Wall, and eventually camping for two nights on the beach near the Chilean Memorial, the site of a shipwreck that killed 18 sailors all the way back in 1920. The terrain along this section of the coast was quite variable, ranging from long stretches of soft, sandy beach, to the slightly more annoying cobble and pebble beaches, to large boulder fields and headlands that were somewhat difficult to navigate with a heavy backpack:

A hiker with a large backpack navigates a pile of boulders along a coastline.

Picking our way along the rocky Olympic coast en route to our campsite at Chilean Memorial.

Alternating bands of dark and light colored rock stretch to the horizon along the coastline.

Tilted layers of sediment have been planed off by wave action near Hole-in-the-Wall, Olympic National Park, Washington.

Small plants grow along a rocky coastline

Cape Johnson, Olympic National Park, Washington. With not much beach to speak of, this is a great example of a spot where being aware of the tide situation is essential! 

After a little more than four miles of hiking, we arrived at the small, unnamed cove home to the Chilean Memorial and found a campsite just above the high-tide line among large pieces of driftwood. This sheltered cove made for a relatively quiet and peaceful camp, as the myriad rocks and sea stacks just offshore caught the brunt of the surf, limiting the amount of wave action reaching the beach. We enjoyed watching the landscape of the cove change over the next few days as the mist and tides repeatedly swallowed up and revealed the sea stacks and small rocky islands. We quickly discovered that the largest sea stack (pictured below) was connected to the mainland via a rocky isthmus at low tide, and ended up hiking out to it one evening to look back on our campsite.

Clouds and mist surround several large rocky islands sitting in a calm bay

View out into the Pacific Ocean at sunset from our campsite on the Chilean Memorial beach in Olympic National Park, Washington

Orange and purple light is reflected in the calm waters of the ocean surface at sunset.

Looking back toward the Chilean Memorial beach and Cape Johnson from the base of the large sea stack in the previous photo.

While we had our fair share of clouds and mist, it did clear up enough on one evening to reveal the night sky. The moon was just past full, so the Milky Way was only barely visible, but it was still fun to see the southern stars rise and set over the Pacific:

The Milky Way is just barely visible in the sky over the coastline

A faint hint of the Milky Way reveals itself despite the light cast by the rising moon (just behind the trees at left). 

Two people sit on a log illuminated by the glow of a campfire.

Enjoying a driftwood campfire on the beach.

Our trip came just a few days after the full moon, meaning that the low tides were some of the lowest of the month. These so-called “negative tides” are the best for exploring tide pools along the coast, as they reveal a greater variety of sea squishies:

Two large bright green anemones on a rock

Two giant green anemones in a tidepool in Olympic National Park, Washington.

A variety of marine life in a small rocky pool of water.

A crowded tidepool containing multi-colored aggregating anemones (Anthopleura elegantissima) in Olympic National Park, Washington

A hole in a rock along the coastline is filled with large green anemones, while waves crash in the background.

A tidepool filled with giant green anemones along the coast of Washington in Olympic National Park.

In addition to the living tidepool organisms, we also observed large quantities of dead jellyfish (at least three different species) washed up on the beaches, including several massive (~2 foot wide) lion’s mane jellies:

The gelatinous remains of a red and orange jellyfish sit on the beach next to rocks and seaweed

A deceased (?) lion’s mane jellyfish (Cyanea capillata) washed up on the beach in Olympic National Park, one of many, many such jellies we found on our trip.

For our third and final night, the original plan was to hike most of the way back to the car and camp along Rialto Beach near Hole-in-the-Wall. Prior to departure, the weather forecast for this night had called for a fairly robust storm coming in off the Pacific. With an ailing tent that has become somewhat more, shall we say, permeable than one would desire, we briefly debated whether to just call it quits to avoid the chance of getting soaked. Surprisingly, we were able to get enough cell service on the beach to check an updated weather forecast, which showed a drastically reduced chance of rain and little precipitation expected. Consequently, we decided to stick with the original plan and set up camp in the trees at the north end of Rialto Beach. Our decision to stay was quickly validated as we observed a number of whales spouting and breaching throughout the afternoon just offshore.

A camper sits next to a tent under a tarp, scanning the skies with binoculars.

Our final campsite along Rialto Beach. From this vantage point, we saw a number of whales (likely humpbacks) spouting and breaching off-shore throughout the afternoon and evening. 

12 hours later, at 3 AM, when I was emerging from the tent for the third time to re-secure our tarp and shelter in the face of driving rain, wind, and large, deafening waves crashing up against the bluff just a few feet from our tent, I wasn’t so sure. A great example of the fickle coastal weather I suppose, and a good character building experience as Calvin’s dad would say.

While intense, the storm was brief, and by morning the skies were clearing, making for a pleasant stroll down Rialto Beach back to the car. All in all, the trip was a refreshing change of scenery from our predominantly mountain-based adventures the rest of the summer!

White puffy clouds dot the sky over a long sandy beach

Benign clouds greeted us in the wake of the storm for our short hike out to the car on the final morning. 


Alaska (Part Three)

White and blue glacial ice contrasts with lush green carpet of vegetation
A valley containing a glacier is partially obscure by a bank of clouds

Morning clouds partially obscure the Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

The last destination on our Alaskan journey was the Kenai Peninsula and the town of Seward. After a few days respite from the wildfire smoke in Wrangell-St. Elias, it returned with a vengeance as we headed back to Anchorage and down to the the coast:

Tree dotted grassy plain with mountains obscured by smoke

Wildfire smoke obscures the Chugach Mountains en route to Anchorage

After baking in the heat of the Alaskan interior for the last week, the marine climate of Seward was a welcome change. We even had a bit of rain for one of the few times in our entire trip.

While temperatures in Seward we’re somewhat more mild, the coastal location meant the humidity was not. On our first day in Seward, we partook in a brutal hike up to the Harding Icefield in Kenai Fjords National Park. The hike itself was not abnormally difficult, but we were definitely not used to the combination of heat and humidity, leaving me feeling physically ill at several points during the slog up the mountain. The day had started off overcast, but as we climbed, the clouds evaporated leaving us with stellar views of the rapidly retreating Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield from which it originates. An icefield is essentially a large mass of interconnecting glaciers. The Harding Icefield is the largest — and one of only four — remaining icefields in the United States. The Exit Glacier itself has retreated more than a mile in the last 200 years, leaving trees and other vegetation to begin re-occupying it’s former valley.

A deep mountain valley with a braided stream and some clouds

Looking down the valley partially occupied by the Exit Glacier just a few hundred years ago.

The white and blue ice of the glacier made for a stellar contrast with the lush green vegetation of the alpine zone:

White and blue glacial ice contrasts with lush green carpet of vegetation

Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Looking out over the Harding Icefield, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Deep fissures in glacial ice

Crevasses in the Exit Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

The wet climate of coastal Alaska results in extremely heavy snowfalls, making this one of only a handful of places in the world where glaciers flow all the way down to sea level to meet the ocean. Known as tidewater glaciers, these glaciers exhibit complex patterns of advance and retreat that, unlike standard alpine glaciers, are not purely the result of variations in climate. While warmer temperatures or prolonged drought can certainly reduce their mass, the movement of tidewater glaciers is also subject to complex interactions between the ice, the geomtery of the ocean floor, and the depth of the water into which they flow.

On our second day in Seward, we took a water taxi into the heart of Kenai Fjords National Park and then kayaked to within about a quarter mile of the terminus of Holgate Glacier. Tidewater glaciers have a tendency to “calve”, in which large chunks of ice break off the glacier and fall into the ocean, necessitating a safe distance. Glacier “social distancing” if you will. It is not hard to find videos on YouTube of people getting too close to calving tidewater glaciers, with quite predictable results. From our safe distance, we observed and heard several calving events in the few hours we were kayaking around the bay, but unfortunately I was not adept enough at kayaking into position quickly enough to actually capture one on camera.

Two kayakers approach a large glacier

Kayaking toward the terminus of the Holgate Glacier, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

A hand holds a small piece of ice that has broken off of a glacier

Tiny iceberg, Kenai Fjords National Park, Alaska

Our boat ride back to Seward through Resurrection Bay also resulted in sightings of sea lions, seals, puffins, and even two pods of orcas: an exciting end to the trip!

The fin and head of a black and white whale is visible just above the water line

Orca, Resurrection Bay, Alaska

Three black fins just upward from the ocean surface

Orcas, Resurrection Bay, Alaska

A small black and white bird with orange beak and feet

Horned Puffin (from the Alaska Sealife Center in Seward, because the photo was better than the wild ones…)