One sort of perfect day, part 2

posted in: Serendipity, Travel | 9

The afternoon of the day that started with the bike ride to Oysterville was equally satisfying in a different way.

I've been to the Long Beach peninsula in southwest Washington State once before, and was able to go up in North Head Lighthouse. The site was completely socked in with fog at the time, which made the visit short on views but long on the reality of what lighthouses are about. We weren't able to hike over to Cape Disappointment Lighthouse at the time because the Coast Guard was having shooting practice and the surrounding area was closed for an extended period.

There are two lighthouses at this location, the mouth of the Columbia River, because these are some of the most treacherous waters on earth. In fact, the stretch of Pacific shore along here is known as the Graveyard of the Pacific. It took several extra years to build the Cape Disappointment Lighthouse (the older of the two) because a ship carrying materials for it wrecked near the site of the current lighthouse and its cargo was lost. This is history, but it is not just history: ships can be lost there even with every bit of modern safety equipment in play.

More than 2,000 vessels have been lost at the mouth of the river alone, along what is called the Columbia Bar, where weather and water systems meet in quickly shifting turmoil. Specially trained pilots board ships to help them traverse the Bar; it's highly skilled and dangerous work. then other specially trained pilots help the ships navigate the Columbia River past the Bar.

On the previous day, we'd been to the Columbia River Maritime Museum, where we'd learned a lot more about the Columbia River, the Bar, and the Coast Guard. It's also handy to have a brother-in-law around who has built boats and spent more than two decades fishing for salmon in Alaska. He knows a bunch of stuff and is more than willing to help the rest of us understand it.

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It's a great museum. There are a lot of actual boats inside (one is a replica, but it was built to the specifications of a type of boat of which no originals remain), and terrific interactive exhibits. Good for both inquisitive adults and rambunctious kids. (Or vice versa.)

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Thanks to my brother-in-law's quick action, I also got a tour of the Coast Guard Cutter Steadfast, which is in its home port right now. Half our group went on to locate lunch, while a contingent waited for me to come back from the ship and tell me where they'd gone.

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The last ship I got to visit in port was the historic fireboat John J. Harvey, in New York, thanks to Jessica DuLong, one of the world's only female fireboat engineers, who gave me a fascinating tour. The engines on that fireboat are astonishing. (Jessica's new book, My River Chronicles: Rediscovering America on the Hudson, will be released in less than a month, in early September 2009. My copy is pre-ordered at my local independent bookstore. I've been following her work for a number of years and am thrilled that this book is being published.)

So the afternoon of the following day—the one-sort-of-perfect-day afternoon—my mother and I set out to explore Cape Disappointment, and to consider the possibility of seeing the lighthouse we hadn't caught on the previous trip. Because of my visit to the Steadfast, I knew the Coast Guard did not have the area closed and didn't intend to close it. They'd already practiced shooting for this season.

We arrived at the park, and got our bearings.

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We found the trailhead for the Cape Disappointment lighthouse (North Head is a short, fairly level walk from the parking lot; Cape Disappointment involves an actual hike, shortish but not a stroll in the park).

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My mother is 85, and has some problems with her feet that in past years have made even a trip around the block less than comfortable. But this year she's doing well and she was game for a go at this adventure. We went prepared to turn around at any time, if either of us chose to, for any reason. As it turned out, we went to the lighthouse from the trailhead at the parking lot and we returned by way of the trail to the interpretive center, so we didn't have to retrace our route completely.

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The distance markers on these signs may be slightly distorted. This said we were .5 mile (.8km) from the lighthouse. After going a way in, we came across another sign that said we were still .5 mile (.8km) from the lighthouse. That diamond-shaped indicator at the far right means "steep ups and downs." It was correct. I don't have any photos of the ups and downs, but I have a few of the trail.

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That's the Coast Guard station down there with the red roof.

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We took the hike at a very leisurely pace, frequently checking our desire to proceed. At one point, we met some folks on the return trip and asked them if (1) there was in fact a lighthouse at the other end and (2) whether the trip was worth it. They said, YES, and YES!!!

Shortly after, we came to an overlook for Dead Man's Cove:

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What you can't tell from the photo is how high we were above the beach . . . or how gorgeous it was. The photo just hints.

We made it all the way to the lighthouse, one step at a time and always ready to call it a day and call it good, rather than push ourselves beyond our comfort level.

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Mom's still saying how glad she is we took that walk (especially during the long drive to her home today, when we needed to get out of the car several times to stretch our legs).

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The two lighthouses, in service since 1856 (Cape Disappointment) and 1898 (North Head), still serve critical functions for marine safety along the Bar.

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Here's a view of the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center from the site of the Cape Disappointment lighthouse:

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And here's the Cape Disappointment lighthouse from the interpretive center:

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On the way back to rejoin the rest of the crew, we stopped at Dooger's to share a serving of marionberry cobbler. It was as good as we hoped it might be: not too sweet, even with the scoop of real-vanilla-bean ice cream we added to it.

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9 Responses

  1. lynne s of oz

    Sounds like you’ve had a lovely time and good on your Mum for walking so far when she has mobility problems! (My Mum used to go for walks with 2-3″ heels! LOL) Dead Man’s Cove looks sooo pretty.

  2. Angie

    Your mom looks great and I think it is great you were able to enjoy the hike to the lighthouse together. Beautiful photo of the cove.

  3. Jo-bird

    Coincidence – cleaning up my favorites, I noticed reference to WA and Cape Disappointment. Read about your exploration, hike to Lighthouse. Allowed my husband and me to return to our visit and hike at same spot last May on a trip to West Coast from Maine. Had similar feelings about hike and loved!!! area.
    Enjoy your writings always!!

  4. Deb Robson

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    Thanks for your comment! I have a small poster I got of the lighthouse when I was there that I need to put up in my office (which is halfway underground) as a reminder of that hike. It was so cool to be able to do it with my mother.

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