The sea spills its guts out to anyone who will listen, just hurls itself up and forgets it’s told the same story before: two black heads in the water floating that could be humans staring at us but they are seals, and I swim out to where the river lets into the ocean and the current draws me out further than planned, my towel getting smaller on the shoreline. I think what an embarrassing way to die, alone in my underwear with my kids building sand castles out of sight and Loren, down by the river. So I flip over on my back to catch my breath and swim to the shore gasping, falling on a bed of rocks and hissing spray.
Two bad dad moves on the camping trip to the coast: (1) forgot the kids’ car seats, (2) neglected sunscreen (they were calling for clouds).
The sun hangs there lidless all day, won’t go down. We are all the color of raw salmon, pink-orange, which makes for good photos.
The beach is just .9 miles from the parking lot and yet we have it all to ourselves. It’s down a dirt road not many people know about that leads to a place called Oil City, that doesn’t sound like what it is.
Each time we come here, we gather armfuls of driftwood, shells and river rocks to decorate our homes, our yards. On walks, we gather more than we can carry and leave cachés that resemble witch-bundles of charged objects, bad charms.
This year there are no fires on the beach. The rangers said an A-star helicopter arrived this week as a replacement with a seven member helitack module to combat the Paradise fire in the Queets river drainage — started as a lightning strike in May and went from 200 acres to 1,200 like that, and they’re not putting it out, just confining it — it would take too much water from the river so they’re letting it go for ecological purposes, a fire in the rainforest.
So we make a fire ring with round river stones and a piece of driftwood that looks like a hedgehog in the middle, a frozen fire.
The beach is a graveyard of driftwood logs you can skip over and practice your balance; most of the logs don’t move when you step on them, they’re wedged in so tight, but some do a slow roll and you have to jump.
We wait for the tide to go out so we can walk down to the rock scramble, where Loren and I nearly got caught that time we underestimated the significance of the tide and had to make a split-second decision on how to get around or over the rocks, with the surf coming in hard. Loren moved like a spider up the side and I took the low-road, nearly went under.
There are rock pillars that look like haystacks in the distance, cleft down the middle, a lighthouse, a large promontory called Hoh Head that juts out with a tuft of old-growth on top and an overland trail: you have to climb a rope ladder that’s cut in the side of the cliffs, and it’s enticing as hell to my kids to get there, but we run out of steam on the rock scramble and I have to carry Charlotte most of the way back, and just as Lily shouts you should put her down going over the logs it’s not safe, I go down and Charlotte topples over me, my back makes a crunch like a bag of chips that’s got none left, and Charlotte’s OK but asking if I am and I lie, yes.
I make fun of Loren at the restaurant because he’s editing his phone pictures and he says isn’t that the same thing you do with your writing, you crop them?
The Hoh river comes down from Mount Olympus, from the Blue Glacier, which my friend Brad and I crossed six years ago before we moved to Germany the first time. It’s the glacier, and all the sediment it carries, that gives the river its milky green glow, a stone in a wizard’s ring, some sick cat’s eyes.
The river and the ocean have a game with the tide pulling and pushing each other back and forth, and that makes for good fishing — with raptors, pelicans, cormorans and seals that look like people wearing hoods in the water.
And the kids have no problem finding things to do. They get an old rope and fashion it to the end of a log that’s stuck several feet in the air, and swing off it and practice rappel moves, and it needs resecured every few times but they don’t care and nor do I — they establish a private bathroom and a routine of using the rope to climb up and over the log, out of sight. Charlotte even does this first thing in the morning, just grabs the rope and hops up over the log with a Ziploc bag.
Loren parks his car by a burned-out house on a side street in a town called Montesano, near a road he can take back to Portland. He chooses the last set for the car stereo as we pull out of the Top Foods in Aberdeen, the kids with donuts and chips — they asked me at the beach if they could get donuts when we leave and I immediately said yes, and they both said in unison Daddy, I love you, and meant it.
I help Loren carry wood and rocks out to the car — past the pinch point on the beach trail that can get hairy if you come upon it at high tide, if you’ve got kids and lots of beer you’re trying to maneuver.
The driftwood looks like an anteater and feels about as heavy, and I hold it like an Uzi at anyone who might appear on the trail, but no one does.
And there is a rock that weighs more than a bowling ball, that’s got an eyeball in it that could be a dinosaur egg or a piece of hard candy where someone’s sucked a layer off. Loren put that one by his fireplace and says he looks at it every day.
The kids collect their wood scraps from a small city they built in the sand, with a salamander, a piece that looks like a plumber’s wrench, a bench you might find outside an art museum, a crumbling sculpture with eyes and melting smiles in it, a squid with a tangled beard.
When we say goodbye we say I love you, beach — and the tendrils the sea’s thrown up are drawing flies, the same story told a thousand times, it can’t remember telling it and rearranges the facts but still smells the same, drawing us back to remember those special times.