Long before the Columbia River was tamed by dams and jetties, a long sand spit formed north of the Columbia’s mouth. The sand spit grew until it partially enclosed the estuaries of several small rivers. Today, that sand spit is called the Long Beach Peninsula. The estuary on the inland side of that sand spit is Willapa Bay. At over 260 square miles of water surface, it is the second largest estuary on the west coast (San Francisco Bay is the largest). Willapa Bay is also one of the most pristine estuaries in the U.S.
Since Willapa Bay is fairly shallow, half of the volume of water inside it enters and leaves with every tide and creates a dynamic ecosystem that includes mud tidal flats and salt marshes. These, in turn support vast beds of eel grass and shellfish. And during the spring migration over 100,000 shorebirds stop here to eat and rest before continuing their journey north. Additionally, there is a large year-round bird population.
A hundred years ago, the community of North Cove was on Cape Shoalwater. Since 1911, the shore has eroded 100-150 feet per year. During the 1920s, over 30 homes were claimed by erosion or relocated. In the years that followed, erosion destroyed a lighthouse, a life-saving station, a clam cannery, a school, and a Grange Hall. Erosion also forced the relocation of a cemetery and State Highway 105. In recent decades, erosion has destroyed 20 homes, private property, and part of the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge. In 1976-77, the pioneer cemetery and Washington highway 105 were threatened with erosion and moved to their present location. In 1995, WA-105 was again threatened by erosion and the Washington State Department of Transportation constructed a $27 million submerged groin and beach fill to protect area cranberry bogs as well as the highway.
During my exploration of Washaway Beach and Cape Shoalwater on August 21, I found two homes on the short stretch of what is left of old Highway 105. Since my return home, I discovered that one of the residents has a photo journal of Washaway Beach here on WordPress at http://washawaybeachthisweek.wordpress.com/ with much more detail than I was able to manage.
In a way, it is fascinating to see the power of Nature. From another perspective, it was sobering to realize the forces that are continually at work here, reshaping the shoreline, destroying wildlife habitat as well as homes. I find it remarkable that there hasn’t been a program on PBS or the Discovery Channel; there is so much here to explore and learn about.
I came to Willapa Bay on my way to Westport to buy fresh albacore. I chose this route to learn more about Washaway Beach. I did learn quite a bit along the way and had the added bonus of seeing lots and lots of birds. My only frustration was the lack of places to pull safely off the road to get a closer look.