Paddling the Pacific Coast of Washington State August 5th to 20th 2006.

After finishing paddling all of the California shoreline I started looking at the surrounding coastlines of Baja, Oregon and Washington. My good friend Roger Lamb moved to Bellingham Washington a few years ago and I called him up to start making plans. I suggested that I could use his place as a base of operations for paddling north to the Canadian border and east out the Strait of Juan de Fuca. I assumed Roger would be interested in joining me but he was not! He said he paddled in The Strait every day and was totally uninterested in an expedition there. However when I did the Pacific Coast of Washington outside The Strait he would want to come along. That was on my list as well so we arranged to do this trip in August when the swell should be the lowest of the year.

I originally decided to do this trip just to fill in a section of my map and put a notch in my paddle. However, when I started researching Washington I discovered I was in for a treat. Over half of this coastline is the Olympic National Shoreline with few roads and a rugged looking coastline. It had many islands that were larger than any rock in northern California and I started thinking we could camp on some of these.

If you are a ranger, manager of a wildlife reserve, a Native American or a coastal property owner then perhaps you should not read any farther. If you manage or have an administrative interest in the parks, private land or Indian reservations on the coast of Washington state then reading the rest of this will only upset you. I tried, in a half-hearted way, to get permission to camp on the lands that we paddled past. But I was determined to do the trip anyway and was not going to compromise safety or increase the hardship. What we would be doing was minimal impact “Ninja Camping”. Landing on small inaccessible beaches, setting up camp at dusk, cooking with stoves, no driftwood fires, packing out our trash, leaving at dawn and leaving no trace. Camping in places that rarely see other visitors and are far from being in danger of over-use. Most of the places we camp are places no-one else in their right mind would consider camping, even if they could find them. We avoid places where our presence would disturb animals. I feel guilty doing this sort of thing on private land but not guilty enough to avoid doing it. On public land I feel I should have some rights to access but have received negative reactions from the managers.

Asking rangers or property owners for permission usually elicits an immediate knee-jerk NO reaction before you can get started on a description of what you really want to do. So it is easier to plan on asking forgiveness afterwards than permission beforehand. Veteran Ninja campers like John Lull strongly recommend that you NEVER ask a ranger for permission because it only alerts them to look for something they never would have considered possible before. I like to joke that the entomology of the word “park” comes from the parking lots. Rangers manage their parks by counting cars in the parking lots. Long distance kayakers don’t have cars near the places they camp, so they don’t show up on the radar.

Before this trip I found a report on the Inernet of kayakers going to one of the islands. Two of the islands we would explore had Coast Guard Lighthouses on them. We tried calling the Coast Guard and getting permission to land and to camp. They said they didn’t care what we did on the islands as long as we didn’t mess with the light. They told us the islands were owned by other groups and we should ask the owners for permission to land or camp. Who owns these islands? It is not the job of the Coast Guard to know this and we would have to find out by other means.

The Makah Indians sell a “recreation pass” for their reservation land and we bought one. The pass says “camp only in designated areas as shown on the map”, but there is only one campground in the whole reservation. This is Hoebuck Beach, which we camped in out of our cars the day before we launched and which was not conveniently located for our trip. I talked to a local kayaker about camping on Tatoosh Island and he cringed. He told me the Makah are hyper sensitive about that island and this would not be a good idea. Then he recommended a good place on Cape Flattery where he suggested we could camp without being detected.

Much of the shoreline we would paddle past was part of the Olympic National Shoreline. Hiking and camping along this area is allowed with a wilderness permit from the Forrest Service. I stopped at a ranger station on the way buy one of these permits. You are not allowed to purchase a permit more than 24 hours before you enter the park. We would enter the park on the 2nd day of our trip and would not be able to drive back out to a ranger station to get the permit. The ranger’s aide who helped me had to break that rule even to sell me this permit at all! Then she wanted to know the names of every location we would camp in and what day we would be there. I didn’t bother to warn her that float plans for the ocean can be delayed by bad weather and the dates were only suggestions. And no, we would not be able to drive to a ranger station and have them approve any schedule changes that we made in route. The names of ocean features that I had been studying bore no relation to the names that hikers and rangers knew. What I called “Strawberry Bay” had the prosaic name of “Beach 3” on their maps. After all this trouble it was only possible for them to give me a permit for two of the nine nights we would be camping on beaches. The rest of the nights were in someone else’s jurisdiction.

All text and images Copyright © 2006 by Mike Higgins / contact