By Drew Foster
I was deep into Leadbetter Point State Park, both literally and figuratively – the trail’s standing water was north of my knees – when I experienced a Lewis & Clark moment: The elements were against me, the hike had turned into an expedition and glimpsing the Pacific Ocean was my newfound obsession.
Most of my hiking, since relocating to the Long Beach Peninsula over the summer, has been confined to Cape Disappointment State Park on the Peninsula’s southern end. I like the trails’ elevation changes, and Cape D is just down the street from my apartment, so the location is ideal. But since Cape D doesn’t quite live up to its name – the state park never disappoints – the trails attract quite a few like-minded visitors.
I love Cape D, but there are days I’m greedy for a trail of my own. And Saturday was one of them, so I pointed my car toward the Peninsula’s northern reaches.
Mine was the only vehicle in the parking lot when I pulled into Leadbetter Point State Park, a sign I interpreted as a good omen. (Quick note: Make sure you bring your Discover Pass because you can’t buy one at Leadbetter). I headed for the stretch of Dune Forest Loop Trail that runs along Willapa Bay. Despite the empty parking lot behind me, it took only a few steps on the beach to realize I wasn’t alone – just beyond my boots were bear prints in the sand, and just beyond those was evidence of something hoofed having visited. I felt slightly vulnerable, a little exposed. It was exhilarating.
The Dune Forest Loop Trail is an easy 2.8-mile path with mostly level terrain. The stretch along Willapa Bay merges with the 1.2-mile Bay Loop Trail and then the 1.3-mile Bearberry Trail, which sits in the far-north Willapa National Wildlife Refuge and bridges the Peninsula’s fingertip, connecting the bay with the ocean. It was on the Bearberry Trail where I rediscovered my inner Lewis & Clark. But more on that in a minute.
I’d heard that Leadbetter Point State Park is for the birds. Or at least for the birders.
Well, I’m no birder. I’ve never traveled anywhere just to view the resident birds. For much of my life, I thought the National Audubon Society involved German car enthusiasts. I can’t tell a cockatiel from a canary. So, yeah, I’m no birder. But I do know a bald eagle when I see one, and the breathtaking bird soaring above me at Leadbetter Point State Park was none other than our national animal. It froze me in my tracks. I may have saluted. Further down the beach, I spotted a pair of peregrine falcons, and I think I saw a great blue heron as well. Tiny shorebirds hopped and darted about the water’s edge throughout the morning. The park teemed with non-human life, a prerequisite for any great outdoor adventure.
Another prerequisite is peril.
It was at the entrance to the Bearberry Trail where I encountered the warning: Trail may be flooded. Flooded? My boots were waterproof, so I didn’t blink – some ankle-deep water wasn’t going to slow me. Soon, however, the water reached my calf and threatened to breach my boots. I retreated and ventured instead down the Weather Beach Trail, another path to the Pacific. Same issue, but this time an ill-timed step sent water over my boot. My feet were wet, my pants were soaked and all bets were off. My inner Lewis & Clark emerged, and I was going to reach the Pacific Ocean come hell or high water. Or at least come high water.
Trudging down that flooded trail, with chilly water sloshing in my boots and cold air swirling overhead, made me think of Lewis, Clark and other early Pacific Northwest explorers who sometimes floundered in inhospitable weather and rough terrain. The frigid water was well past my knees and the dense foliage closed in from above, but the faint sound of crashing waves propelled me forward. I pushed through the dense flora and batted brambles with a makeshift walking stick. The sound of waves crashed louder and three words came to mind.
Dunes appeared and the three words grew more pronounced. I climbed the sandy hill, spotted the mighty Pacific and let the words pass my lips – “Ocean in view,” I said, a nod to the phrase uttered by members of the Lewis & Clark Expedition at the first sight of the Pacific Ocean about 200 years ago. No, I wouldn’t be spending the night on that cold beach, and, yes, I had a dry car and functioning heater waiting for me back at the parking lot. But, if only for a moment, my excursion stoked my imagination and took me to another time. I sat down on a dune and watched the waves break. The beach was empty in either direction. The Pacific Ocean was booming, and my obsession, at that moment, had been quelled.