~ Gone Solo at Shi Shi Beach ~
This beach was one of the last additions to the Olympic National Park in 1976. It is the longest continuous wilderness coast in the continental United States. I backpacked solo here for 3 days. This is my story.
I had initially made plans to backpack to this beach last year, but the forecast changed and dashed my opportunity for any chance of camping or photographing this rugged, and yet, pristine 73 mile shoreline of Washington. I finally got my window of opportunity this year and trekked my way through 2 miles of rain forest and 2 miles of flat beach to photograph Point of the Arches. I camped well above the shoreline among several old-growth spruce trees. It was a beautiful location, plenty of fresh water close by and only a short 3 minute walk to one of the most scenic beaches of the Pacific Northwest - Shi Shi Beach! Looking to the north, I had great views of the farthest northwest point in the lower 48 states and Vancouver Island.
My first night on the beach proved be to quite challenging, millions of Blue Jellyfish washed up on the shoreline with their tiny sails sparkling in the sun. I was captivated by their sheer number and odd triangular shape, but they simply overwhelmed the beach. I moved away from the shoreline and centered my tripod between two prevalent rows of rocks running toward the beach. I shot low and used my 17-40 wide-angle lens. The sky was neutralized by using a 0.9 stop Graduated ND. I was perfectly content with all the elements in my composition and continued to shoot from this spot well after sundown. As I made my way back to camp, I felt like it was only the tip of the iceberg, I still had more exploring to do in the daylight hours to find another composition for the following evening. I usually review my images on my LCD monitor at the end of the day but with all the condensation in the air it just wasn’t feasible. I warmed up some green tea, set my alarm, and rested peacefully to the soothing sound of the surf.
The following morning the tide was low with overcast skies. I was sitting on a large rock on the beach enjoying my coffee when that familiar sound from high above echoed from the forest. It was a series of high-pitched whistling from two bald eagles roosting in the trees near my campsite. I watched them glide up and down the beach with a keen eye in search of a potential target, only to find out later, they were collecting small twigs and branches for nest building. I knew at that moment this was a place of timeless beauty, this remote and tranquil coastline was everything I had imagined. All I wanted to do is capture just a small part of that mysterious ambiance which had eluded me from the past, an unforeseen and untouched wilderness, that was first laid eyes upon by the Makah, but yet, she holds her mystery beneath the sand, parallel rows of rocks leading the way toward those iconic monoliths!
I returned to camp, cooked breakfast, secured my bear canister, and made one last minute tide check (-0.9 at 9:23 a.m.), ideal conditions for photographing starfish and sea anemone! I mounted my 24-70 lens on my camera and put on my polarizer to cut down on glare and reflection. I left camp and headed toward the tide pools. It was a slow go crossing the algae-covered rocks, but my micro spikes clung tightly to all those slippery surfaces that you would typically find on remote northwest beaches. Traction has always been one of my top priorities while going solo into the wilderness, not only for my personal safety, but it allows me to go off the beaten path that would normally be inaccessible.
I found the tide pools to be a treasure trove of colorful marine life! On one rock, about the size of a compact car, I counted 21 starfish. They clustered close together to form their own little communities inside many of the narrow crevices and below the outcroppings, their solid colors of red, orange, and purple glistened in the morning light. Hundreds of sea anemone flourished throughout the tide pools, many of the rocks were speckled with their brilliant green circular shapes. To capture detail and clarity, I looked for compositions in the water no higher than 6” to 12” inches deep. I was close-up, and shot an assortment of single and HDR images @ f/8. A tripod and shutter release was used, my camera set on manual, and live view was selected to focus for sharpness and stacking purposes in Photoshop. I had recently heard that the Pacific Starfish populations were declining rapidly in the northwest. A deadly pathogen was discovered from warmer water temperatures created by an El Nino. Although, all of the starfish I photographed looked perfectly healthy on this beach.
On my way back to camp a doe and her twin fawns emerged from the forest. The twins looked small next to their mother, probably about 1 to 2 weeks old. They were frisky and trotted ahead of mom on the hard packed sand before veering off into the thick salal brush. Hiking alone is my personal choice. I do it to enjoy the silence and solitude of my surroundings. It’s a way of keeping connected to myself and nature. I can get much closer to animals when traveling alone, as there is no excessive noise or unusual sounds that would normally cause them to flee.
Shortly after dinner, I started to prepare for another night on the beach. It was imperative that my composition had the sun setting inside the saddle of the Point of the Arches. This is when it will be at its lowest point before the silhouette of the rocks block the light. When I arrived at the shoreline millions of small sails from the Blue Jellyfish lay scattered along the beach. I had to move away just as I did on the first night at the same location. The sky was cloudless and it was about 30 min before sundown. Under these conditions my 24-70 lens would capture a tighter composition and fill my frame better than my wide-angle. I positioned my tripod between the parallel rows of rocks to connect my foreground with my background. My camera settings varied from ¼ to ½ sec, @ f/11. I shot 42 images. I felt very fortunate to have gotten good light through the saddle on the last two nights. As I walked back to camp in the dark I felt as if the pressure was finally beginning to wear off, I wouldn’t worry about having to return for better light. I hunkered down in my tent, slightly chilled and exhausted, but thrilled about another great night on the beach.
I woke up at sunrise and unzipped my tent door to check the weather. It was foggy with overcast skies. I laid in my sleeping bag contemplating about the possibility of heading back to the tide pools or staying in my tent and going back to sleep. I slept for another 2 hours. I eventually got up and filtered some water at the nearby creek to make my cherry chocolate flavored coffee. I needed some instant energy! As I sipped it overlooking the beach I was treated to some warm rays from the morning sun. The month of May can be chilly on this 73 mile coastline, but this year winter and spring were almost non-existent in the Pacific Northwest. Annual snowpacks and rainfall levels have been way below average for this time of year.
My last two nights had been focused on the Point of The Arches. Tonight would be spent on another beach south of my campsite, but I needed to do some more exploring before sundown. I left camp and made my way around a small cove that overlooked several large monoliths. One of them had 3 caves with visibility straight through to the horizon. It was a great composition, but it would have required my 100 - 400 telephoto. It weighs 3.5 pounds, not too practical for backpacking. I couldn’t justify the extra weight or room on this trip. I continued to trek south toward several impressive sea stacks that towered above the beach. I stopped hiking when a rocky headland extended well beyond the shoreline. I could have pulled myself up a rope on a steep trail that would have allowed me access to the next the beach, but I was running out of daylight. I still needed to return to camp, cook dinner, and set up my camera for some sunset shots.
As I started my long trek northward, I knew my lens choice would be the 24 -70. The sea stacks were too far out for my wide-angle. I arrived at camp with plenty of time to set up my camera, my settings were: AV mode, 1/5 to 1/8 sec, @ f/16, ISO 100. I attached my 0.9 stop Graduated ND and brought my 17 - 40 along just incase the sky really got dramatic.
I departed from camp and went as far south as possible before being cliffed-out by the steep headlands. Dusk was beginning to fall and the silhouettes of the sea stacks acted as ancient guardians of the night, wisps of clouds were turning to a pinkish orange hue, and the tide was gently advancing toward the beach. I began photographing several of the sea stacks from selected locations that I had scouted out earlier in the day. I shot low across the broad sandy beach and found several rocky tidal pools that made a great foreground. I aligned those pools with sea stacks for my background. Nearly all of my compositions were vibrant with soft colors, which from my experience can be difficult to achieve from this beach, marine layers are notorious for blocking the light on the horizon in the last hour or so before the sun sets.
As the twilight gave way to darkness it was difficult to see anything, I put my headlamp on and used additional light from my flashlight to cross a small logjam next to my camp. I walked a short distance into the forest and kneeled down to unzip the door on my tent, and almost instantly there is a low-pitched growl coming from the nearby brush! It was no more than 15 feet away. I slowly went into my tent, closed the door and heard another low-pitched growl. I knew it was a mountain lion. It was a warning to stay away, a very scary warning when it’s dark and you’re alone in the wilderness. I stayed up half the night wondering if it was still lurking around my tent or did it quietly slip away without making a sound. The next morning I broke camp and found fresh tracks in the sand next to some large logs on the beach. It would be exciting to see a mountain lion and photograph it in the wild, but it would have to be further away than 15 feet and preferably not at night.
The Olympic National Park has always inspired me with its diverse landscapes and seascapes. Shi Shi Beach is rugged and wild, it is perfectly capable of producing world class compositions. Overall, what a great camping trip! The low tide revealed the hidden parallel rows of rocks, no marine layers at sunset, and the temps remained warm for May. While hiking back to my car I found another scenic shoreline just beyond a rocky headland at the north end of Shi Shi Beach. It had plenty of potential and the compositions looked endless, but my journey had come to an end. I felt very good about the images on my memory card. I had no doubts about that!