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Along a Wild Coast

This is an interesting story about a family’s experience while hiking along Washington’s Olympic Coast. We've taken an excerpt from Michael Lanza’s book, Before They’re Gone, that describes his family’s pursuit to appreciate the natural beauty of the national parks before climate change alters the landscape of these iconic places. 

Over the course of a year, he journeys with his wife and two young children across the country exploring the Grand Canyon, Glacier National Park, the North Cascades, Mount Rainier, Yosemite, Yellowstone, the Rocky Mountains, Florida’s Everglades, Joshua Tree National Park, and the Olympic Coast.

Michael Lanza is a veteran freelance outdoors writer and photographer. He is the northwest editor of Backpacker magazine, where his articles about the impacts of climate change on Montana’s Glacier National Park and other wild lands helped Backpacker win a National Magazine Award. Michael is also the author of Seven Summits – The High Peaks of the Pacific Northwest, Winter Hiking and Camping, and Day Hiker’s Handbook. He runs the website The Big Outside, a database for outdoor adventures across the United States and the world.

Now that the blazing temperatures of summer are upon us in Central Washington, a trip to the Olympic Coast is a great way to get outdoors without the fry factor.


Along a Wild Coast
by Michael Lanza

The waves are crashing closer to us.

This anxious thought comes to me uninvited as we scramble, slip, and stumble over a beach tiled with abrasive conglomerate boulders, all coated green with wet, slick kelp and barnacles. Every step feels tenuous, made more unsteady by our heavy backpacks.

Another set of waves smashes the rocks on my left, seawater slithering up between them to within a couple of feet of the boulder I’m balanced atop. The waters recede to feed the next wave set, which inches a little closer. Thirty feet to my right, the beach butts up against a crumbling cliff that stretches ahead of us for a half mile. A flat, gray cloud ceiling hovers just overhead, kissing the forest canopy atop the cliff. It seems to make our shrinking space between ocean and earthen wall feel a little more claustrophobic.


Driftwood tree trunk on the southern Olympic coast.

Beside me, Alex slips off a rock, lands hard on her behind. She meets my look of concern, chirps, “I’m all right,” pushes herself to her feet, and accepts my hand. We continue on, step by agonizingly slow, measured step.

Perhaps fifty feet ahead, Penny and Nate stagger along, arms outstretched for balance. And not much beyond them, Penny’s brother, Tom Beach, standing more than six feet and lean, and Tom’s fifteen-year-old son, Daniel, with hair to his collarbone and a six-foot frame bursting with teenage growth, move with similar caution.

I glance at my watch: almost noon. According to the tide table for Washington’s Olympic coast, a copy of which is in my pocket, we still have an hour before high tide inundates this rocky shore up to the cliffs, carrying off any misguided terrestrial creatures still on the beach. On a rational level, I know we have plenty of time to get beyond this minefield of greasy rocks to the safety of the wide, sandy beach ahead. But when waves crash at my feet, closing the gap to a cliff as I plod forward hand in hand with my child, rational thought is as easy to hold onto as water in one palm.

On the list of specific threats to the lives and limbs of my children that I had compiled before we began this series of park adventures, somehow, getting swept out to sea by an incoming tide had never popped up on my radar.

This strikes me now as a conspicuous oversight.

ea stars and sea anemones on a boulder in a tide pool on the beach north of Mosquito Creek.

We are ninety minutes into a three-day backpacking trip along part of the longest wilderness coastline remaining in the contiguous United States. On the outer edge of the Olympic Peninsula—that thick forearm that the state of Washington raises defiantly toward the battering Pacific—Olympic National Park protects seventy-three miles of undeveloped seashore. There are no hotel strips, warehouse-size homes, fried-seafood joints, or moped rentals. The rocky beaches and sea cliffs look essentially no different to us than they did to the first people who settled here at least six thousand years ago, living off shellfish, salmon, and marine mammals hunted from cedar canoes.

On this windward side of the Olympic Mountains, twelve to fourteen feet of rain a year sustain one of Earth’s largest virgin temperate rainforests, an ecosystem possibly containing more living biomass than anywhere else in the world. Sitka spruce and western red cedar soar to 150 feet tall, with diameters of ten to fifteen feet, while Douglas fir and western hemlock climb to well over two hundred feet. Ferns grow so densely that you rarely glimpse the ground. Mosses carpet every rock and trunk and hang from every limb. Thirty miles inland, the Olympic Mountains reach their apex in 7,980-foot Mount Olympus, which, thanks to abundant snowfall, supports the third-largest system of glaciers in the Lower 48, despite standing little more than half the height of Mount Rainier.

Salmon spawn in wild rivers. Bald eagles, tufted puffins, and seabirds thrive. Offshore upwellings of nutrient-rich cold water in summer nurture a food chain ranging from the foundation species of all life—phytoplankton and zooplankton—to invertebrates; fish of all sizes; seals; sea lions; sea otters; and humpback, gray, minke, and blue whales. Over five hundred known species of marine invertebrates and seaweeds live here, more than anywhere else on North America’s west coast, from Alaska to Panama. This diversity drove the preservation of 3,300 square miles of Pacific Ocean as the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary.

All along this wild coast, land and sea engage in an ancient contest in which the land has no hope to win, only to forestall its inevitable demise. In this epic battle, the malevolent sea pummels the shore relentlessly. Waves roll stones up and down beaches like billions of dice, tear down headlands, and topple giant trees into the surf.

But the land doesn’t give up without at least a good metaphorical fight. Sprinkled liberally along this coast, scores of stone pinnacles—called sea stacks—rise out of the ocean. While it’s tempting to imagine them as eternal features of the seascape, they were once part of the mainland. Composed of harder sandstone than much of the headlands that face the Pacific, the sea stacks remained standing after softer rock and dirt surrounding them eroded away. Some lie close enough to the beach to walk to them at low tide; others erupt from the sea hundreds of yards offshore. Some are no taller than a small house and composed of bare rock, others are two hundred feet or taller and topped by a thin skin of soil and grass and a copse of trees, or a solitary tree.

Walking on the beach in the Strawberry Point area.

Remnants of the former shoreline, they stand as stark, lonely symbols of how the past cannot be retrieved, only reflected on from a distance.

Another wave set crashes into the rocks, nearly licking our boots. I steer Alex higher up the beach, where the rocks are bigger and more difficult—and slower—to maneuver over and around.

And it occurs to me, as the tide creeps in on us, that we are walking through a window on the future of the wildest American coast south of Alaska.


You are about a third of the way through this chapter and, if you’ve made it this far, we’ve done a terrible thing – we’ve gotten you hooked without having the rest of the story available. Oh, the agony of excerpts!! We’ve tried to locate the rest of the chaper online but, alas, if you want to finish this story (and read many more equally good stories) you’ll need to do it the old-school way and get the book.

Barnes & Noble
Beacon Press