31 May 2016

Like Bottles on the Beach

View of Grays Harbor from Bottle Beach State Park.
You can try all you want to make something become what it isn't, but the secret is knowing it for what it really is.

I know Grays Harbor pretty well. I grew up in the surrounding area, made plenty of stops in the cities of Aberdeen and Hoquiam, and drove through many times to points beyond like Grayland, Ocean Shores, and the Olympic Peninsula. However, two weeks ago, I found two parts of the harbor I hadn't previously discovered. They were right under my nose, and they gave me a new appreciation for an area that has disappointed many people's attempts to make it more than it is.

For this summer's adventure list, I slotted exploring the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge into the leadoff spot. Best known for its annual shorebird festival, the refuge is otherwise largely overlooked. In fact, I'd driven past it many times, but until May 17, my knowledge of its location had remained vague. As it turned out, the refuge wasn't hard to find.

Migrating shorebirds typically move through Grays Harbor in late April and early May, so I knew I was a little late for them (mostly, I wanted to explore the refuge), but even without many of its star attractions, the refuge didn't disappoint. Sandpiper Trail, a boardwalk path running through the refuge, revealed a diverse ecosystem with tidal areas and thickets of alder, willow, salmonberry, and elderberry. Many of the shorebirds had already moved north, but the songbirds, including cliff swallows, marsh wrens, and goldfinches came out in force. My mom and I also ran into two members of the refuge management team, and they showed us some Caspian terns and a black-bellied plover. One of the women suggested we go to Bottle Beach State Park on the south side of the harbor, saying we might see more birds there.

Although seeing shorebirds hadn't been the main goal of the trip, we decided to find Bottle Beach. Like the wildlife refuge, the state park wasn't difficult to find--right of the highway in plain sight. Despite that, neither of us had even known it existed prior to our conversation with the refuge manager. The beach soon showed itself to be a hidden treasure. Empty of people and nestled into the cove near Ocosta, the beach contained an active group of shorebirds, including more black-bellied plovers and a host of red knots, as well as a spectacular view of the Olympic Mountains. My mom and I capped the trip with lunch, ice cream, and saltwater taffy in Westport, and we left the harbor with the feeling that we'd come to know this familiar body of water much better.

At one of the informative sites on Bottle Beach, we learned that Grays Harbor had once been earmarked as a port site that could rival San Francisco. The silty harbor had other ideas though. While it does a fair amount of shipping business, it isn't deep enough to be a major port. I wouldn't trade things like Bottle Beach or the Grays Harbor National Wildlife Refuge for that anyway. They are much more true to what the area is.

Recently, some have tried to turn Grays Harbor into a main coal and oil shipping terminal, but those efforts have met fierce resistance from the local communities, and the fight against the projects makes perfect sense when you really know the harbor.