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New: Living in Washington State: The Sea

Posted on Jun 20, 2016

Each summer, my family gathered at a local beach, known locally as the Spit, to dig for “gooey-ducks,” a particularly hideous species of mollusk that burrows beneath the sand and belches fountains of salt water. On these occasions, a gaggle of relatives and family friends trudged down to the tidal flats with shovels, buckets, galoshes, metal cans or tubes, and snack-filled coolers to search for our quarry. Finding the plumed spurts of water announcing the presence of a clam, the digging would begin, and it wouldn’t stop until some poor schmuck found himself lying with one of his arms wholly submerged beneath the sand, scrabbling for the fleeing neck of the ‘duck while everyone hollered words of encouragement. Though I personally never dug for a clam (usually, I elected to perform some passive and useless task, such as alphabetically organizing our cooler of snacks, while the prone digger gasped and sputtered in a puddle of goop), I relished these occasions. They were, after all, some of my earliest trips to the Puget Sound, and that has to count for something.

The Sound is unlike any other maritime environment on earth: sandwiched between the Olympic and Cascade mountain ranges, the Sound includes nearly 3,000 miles of marine waterways, more than 2,000 miles of coastline and, at its most dramatic point, dives to a depth of almost 1,000 feet. The region is also home to over 200 species of fish, 100 species of birds, and more than 10 species of marine mammals, including Orca Whales and, until relatively recently, two foolish teenage boys in possession of a motorboat and a penchant for lassoing sea fowl.

Once upon the time (or so the story goes), my old chum Oliver Partridge arrived on my doorstep to inquire whether or not I might consider helping him rustle seagulls. The proposition seemed reasonable enough (it was seven o’clock in the morning and my logical grasp on the world was tenuous at best), so we drove to the docks, untied a motorboat, and chugged toward the mouth of the Puget Sound. Out on the open water, Oliver revved the engines and plunged into the briny, ripping through the waves with exuberant explosions of surf and spray. We passed beneath the Narrows Bridge, skirted its grey pillars, and zigzagged toward a flock of seagulls. Perched at the helm, Oliver steered with one hand as he unwound the coils of his life preserver and began to swing it above his head like a lasso. He steered the boat alongside the bobbing birds and, once they scattered, flung the life preserver toward the gangly and flapping flock. It was an absurd game, and the agile seagulls repeatedly thwarted our attempts to capture them, but none of that mattered, somehow. I now doubt Oliver wanted to catch a bird in the first place. The enterprise was an excuse to be out on the water on a glorious summer day, to experience the unparalleled beauty of the Sound sparkling beneath the shaggy visage of Mount Rainier.

For all of its magnificence, however, the Puget Sound is not the ocean — it’s actually a massive estuary (the second largest in the US, in fact, surpassed in size only by Chesapeake Bay). The real ocean lies some distance to the west beyond the Olympic Peninsula, and it’s nothing like the balmy bathtub found in Southern California. Washington’s coastline is notoriously craggy and cold, a rocky expanse crowned by mossy forests, isolated lighthouses, and barnacle-clad boulders. It’s an alien world, and (in my humble opinion) one of the most wonderful places on Earth.

My most significant experience with Washington’s coastline came surprisingly late in life, during a high school camping trip to the Sol Duc River with Oliver Partridge and his family. The trip itself was calm and pleasantly devoid of drama (although I did manage to drop a package of hotdogs into the campfire, thus forcing the group to subsist on a meager repast of Oreos), and it wasn’t until we reached the coast that anything remarkable happened.

When we arrived at the beach on the last morning of our trip, we were greeted by typical coastal weather: grey skies, billowing winds, choppy surf. A few surfers stood at the edge of the water, trying to convince themselves it would be fun to lose their limbs to the frostbitten Pacific. Any sane person would have stood on the beach, admired the scenery and then, after exactly twelve minutes, rushed back to the car to blast the heat, but Oliver Partridge had no intention of doing any of these things. As we stood together on the tidal flats, Oliver casually announced that he was going for a swim, dove into the water, and paddled into the breaking waves. I remained behind.

Perched at the tip of the beach’s tongue, I was struck by the sudden bigness of the world. A vast ocean unfurled before me, and on its far side lay countless people and places and things, all of them new, all of them exciting! I’d be leaving for college in the fall, and I would finally get the chance to see the world-at-large but, at that moment, the prospect of leaving that woebegone scrap of beach was repulsive. What would I do without the fir forests or the mountains or the rain? How would I survive without a careening crowd of over-caffeinated psychos to lead me through each successive, soggy day? If I wasn’t living in Washington State, where in the world would I be?

I stood at the edge of the babbling sea, quietly considering these questions. Way out in the surf, minuscule and tangled in kelp and oblivious to my obsessive anxiety, Oliver Partridge swam down the gullet of a monstrous wave, bellowing and laughing like a madman.


Author’s Note: This is the final entry in the series Living in Washington State. To read all entries in the series, check out Pickett Street’s blog archives:


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