Walking through the din of a coastal maelstrom

  • Alan Kesselheim


The five of us walk slowly along the spongy Pacific Coast trail, showing flashes of color in the green and brown, mossy forest: My daughter's polka-dot rain jacket, my son's electric-blue backpack. We have gotten by the sections that require low tide to cross. The path climbs into the rainforest while storm squalls canter overhead. Hail beats down in fierce bursts.

At the crest of a muddy ascent, an opening invites us off the trail. Without discussion, we enter and set our packs down. The sun breaks through and shines on us.

I sit on a soft patch of moss. The wind buffets the treetops hundreds of feet up, but on the ground it is calm. Blue sky opens overhead. My wife gets Water For Elephants out of her pack, this trip's read-out-loud book.

Her voice flickers as I drift away. Around us the trees stand, patient and vigorous, swaying in the wind. Spruce, cedar, hemlock, the coastal behemoths. Each of them is an entire ecosystem. Rampant stalks of energy, aisles of them, cast their generous shadows across us.

I know this is illusion, but I hear a faint hum from them or a steady pulse, a beat as slow as glaciers. Whorls of bark, exquisite waves and knurls of tree skin, flow upward into the dazzle of light and pummel of air. I sense the interlocked roots beneath me, tendrils feeling through the frail, sandy soil. I think about the winds that recently raked this coast, toppling hundreds of trees, peeling them out of the ground, throwing them down, where the agents of decay, new life, pounce. This slow, inexorable drama; I close my eyes and listen for it.

It has been a very loud trip, March on the Pacific side of the Olympic Peninsula. I knew it might be stormy on the coast, but the sound of it! This was no symphony of crashing surf, with its regular cadence. This was the overwhelming roar of ocean, a sustained crescendo of raw power. We've had to shout to be heard above it.

The rest of the tableau was arresting enough. Rugged sea-stacks of rock enduring the pounding -- black columns succumbing, grain by grain, while gray waves kept breaking as far out as we could see, churning over reefs and sandbars, frothing through channels, hurling spray against cliffs. Hunks of sea foam floated on the wind like giant, soapy snowflakes.

Our camps perched on the upper fringes of beach or in sheltered openings in the forest. Right off the bat our cook stove failed. Despite hours of tinkering, it wouldn't hold pressure, and we have been cooking on fires ever since. The driftwood is waterlogged, the trees are dripping, and the dead wood on the forest floor is slimy. We have earned our fire-building merit badges, hoarding bits of dry kindling, hunting for wind-dried dead grasses and gathering twigs in protected thickets. We stoop over each hopeful match.

At night I'd lay awake in the pitch dark and listen to the sea, a reach of water stretching unimpeded for thousands of miles. Overhead, hour after hour, a lash of wind ripped through the towering forest. I tried to remember whether there were dead trees anywhere near. Sometimes, when I woke, the tide was high and the roar was close enough that I felt the concussion of water hitting land, shivers in the ground.

Living day after day with the loud ocean, buffeting wind and the heavy fists of combers crashing against the continent, I think we began to feel roughed up, a feeling both heady and fatiguing. We wanted peace. One dawn, a bald eagle keened and chipped nearby. Oystercatchers flirted with the surf, their bills red as blood. At low tide, after breakfast, a seal hauled out in the rain on some black, wet rocks, indifferent to the bellowing, airy cacophony. Neighbors.

Marypat finishes the chapter, closes the book. I am brought back. The sun flickers behind a cloud again as the temperature drops. The trees stand mute, keeping their slow, imperceptible beat.

I have not heard a word of the book. Rather, I have been thinking about energy, the energy that we strip from the earth, cook down, refine and burn to sustain the way we live. And the monstrous, unchanneled energy I have been surrounded by for four days of a single storm, a power grid of air and water and rock -- coast-eroding, rock-crushing, tree-toppling energy. That and the pulse of vegetation thrusting into the air, sheer gravity-refuting tonnage just standing strong, humming in the wind, for century upon century.

Alan Kesselheim is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Bozeman, Montana.

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