It is the end of September. Glen and I are sitting at the viewpoint at Tongue Point, a rocky protrusion of land poking north into the Straits of Juan de Fuca, just west of Port Angeles. We have been camping at this lovely site for a few days, enjoying the last days of a fading summer.
Around dusk we decided to finish our day by taking our camp cooked bean tacos and sitting at the outlook. This day has been a dream of a sunny day, now fading into dusk. The sunset in the west is sensational. I remark that this is a watercolorist’s dream (I dabble in watercolors); Glen shoots back, “Or a nightmare!” And I have to laugh. How is possible to catch and hold such unearthly colors?
This place is that rare thing along the the Washington seacoast: an easily accessible rocky shore. This is very different than the long sandy stretches of Ocean Shores or Long Beach: here the salt water from the Pacific rides east for 60 miles in great rolling swells that crash upon the rocky shore. All night, bedded down in our warm camp beds, we hear and feel the BOOM POUND THUMP of big swells pushing in a full tide and breaking at last on the stony reaches of the point.
These rocky beaches provide an excellent place for a sea garden of kelp to establish itself and flourish. We were here last spring for a brief visit and there was no sign of this garden; we have the photo to prove it. Upon our return this fall, the bull kelp is thick, floating and swaying some 20 feet from shore.
Kelp is a deciduous plant, like many of our leafy land trees. It starts from a spore deep down in the intertidal floor which sprouts in spring and puts out rootlike holdfasts which anchor to the rocky substrate . The plant then sends up its stipe at an incredible rate (up to 10 inches a day) growing towards the sun. Finally, it reaches the sun, and starts to photosynthesize, making carbohydrates which fuel its continued vigorous growth. It forms a bulb or float, which keeps it at the ever-changing tidal surface. It sends out long blades to collect even more sunlight. Throughout the summer, it grows and grows at a phenomenal rate: some kelp reach 200 feet from holdfast to bulb. Finally in this season of late summer, it reaches the end of its life, loosens its grip on the rocks and the tide casts it up on the beach in great heaping piles, just like the maple leaves in our front yard. Here many beach critters hide in it, and feast on it, helping to break it down, decay and provide nutrients to the next generation.
During its summer life, the kelp provides a floating mat island, and many birds take advantage of it; several gulls with crops full after a day’s feeding, perch on the kelp, facing west and watch the sun sink into the hills. A lone Great Blue Heron manages to balance itself on the mats !*! and continues to fish even in the last minutes of light. The bobbing bulbs of kelp look like so many seal heads and we are fooled, over and over again.
The rocks provide another feeding habitat that many rock shorebirds specialize in using. This is the country of Black Oystercatchers: as we watch the sunset, they vocalize back and forth from rock to rock, a mournful piping call.
This is a season of migration and transitions: we watch Pigeon Guillemots in their white winter coats, getting ready to fly to the north Pacific for the winter. Other birds come in to stay: small bands of Scoters and other seaducks move into the Straits for the winter.
This is a place of breathtaking beauty. This is a time of saying goodbye to summer. There are so many feelings: a feeling of mourning for summer lost, of reveling in in the beauty laid out before us, of anticipation for the change of the season. My heart is full.
The sun continues to sink, painting the sky and the water, too, in ever-changing colors. We watch and wait, until finally, the water turns black.
Salt Creek County Park (Tongue Point), Clallam County, Washington
close up kelp from seaotter.com
Black Oystercatcher from usgs.gov