Shi Shi Beach
and the Dark Age of Travel
On a backpacking trip to the Olympic Peninsula's rugged Pacific coast, I explore different scenarios for near-future travel.
y plan is to backpack the Shi Shi Beach trail, nestled between broad Pacific bays at the northwestern tip of the forty-eight states.
I am driving north on the eastern side of the Olympic Peninsula. The fog is dense this morning, I only know the Hood Canal, a 65-mile fjord, is to my right because it’s on the map.
A semi busts out of the fog, hauling down the road and shaking the Jeep, jarring me enough that I want to pull over, let the fog lift. I ease to the side of the road, get out, climb over a concrete rail, onto a set of boulders next to a shallow bridge. At the base of the bridge is a small beach camp and a smoldering fire. A pewter pot is coming to a boil. Next to the pot is a spoon, a plate, a frayed and sunworn lawn chair.
I look under the bridge, but nobody is there.
The smell of the air is the smell of the ocean— brine, seaweed, sulphur and sea creatures. It lures me out, onto a crunchy marine surface. When I finally get close enough to the water to see its silvery surface, I realize I’m walking on oyster shells.
A shift in the mist and I can see the sea for just a moment; I wonder where the man or woman who was boiling water on this shore has gone.
Who is this person? A traveler out to shuck fresh oysters? A local shellfisherman? A vagabond, making a meager existence at the edge? Whoever it is, I cannot help but to paint the picture of an older man, stooped over his teapot, sleeping under a low bridge.
Scenes like this haunt me, even more so this week: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change just updated its assessments; the picture is at odds with the one that’s been reported in the newspapers of the world. The journalists, perennially painting for us a story of hurricanes, wildfires, drought and rising seas - a world I could reconcile with.
Today, some journalists on the radio are connecting what the IPCC report is actually saying; that civilization itself is at stake; that we’re peering directly at our singular, ultimate and final failure.
The thought then occurs to me. This picture I have of that old man alone, shucking shellfish in a dying world: diseased, broken, hungry, scavenging a sad shore. What if that is just a vision of my own son or grandson, in a future my generation could have stopped?
A feeling had swept over me momentarily in this moment of seeing that old pewter pot: why do we labor over our son’s French homework, if there is no tomorrow? Why do I read history, when I cannot relate it to a future? Maybe the time is near when we will reconcile the fact that it’s time to prepare them for a world without a future. Teach them to survive and get by. Maybe it’s not a nest egg they need, but a hidden cache of freshwater?
Suddenly, a light wind washes the mist and fog away, and I can see out into the Hood Canal inlet. I reclaim that optimism, and, that reminder of how lucky I am to be able to travel. I know that I live in a uniquely easy time to pick up and go. In earlier notes, I argued that today is the true age when travel is most open, most peaceful, and most happy.
There has been no other time in history, when so many roads are open to so many people around the world, aided by so much technology and transportation and tolerance. You can be young, old, female, an ethnic minority, on limited means, gay, disabled, and you have opportunities to go places like no time before.
But, don’t we know that our golden age of travel will not last? That the fate of travel itself will soon face a reckoning? What will travel to a place like the Olympic Peninsula look like, when I am an old man?
While this peninsula is so close to the Seattle metropolis and the successful, vibrant economy of the Pacific Northwest, this place feels as rural as anywhere I’ve ever seen. Quaint, lonely, unpopulated, worn with moss and lichen between its cracks. What happens to a region like the Olympic Peninsula, as well as the visiting traveler, when the scenarios described in the most recent IPCC report begin to play out?
Backcountry Permit for Shi Shi Beach
On my long drive north, I think about the many near-future dystopian fictions I’ve read, and how, often, the plots feel as though the author is placing their own fantasies and preferences in their depiction of the future. If it is not a fantasy, it is an attempt to describe the human condition by laying it over the filter of extreme times.
The one dystopian fiction that most reminds me of how authors use the genre to play out their own fantasies is World Made by Hand, by James Howard Kunstler. In the last pages of the book, I could taste Kunstler’s active dreaming of a world bettered by its demise. The future looked like a fantasy-version of a pioneer America.
"We believe in the future, sir. Only it's not like the world we've left behind," Joseph said.
"We're building our own New Jerusalem up the river. it's a world made by hand, now, one stone at a time, one board at a time, one hope at a time, one soul at a time. . .”
If those fictional stories can’t tell me what our near-future might really look like, is there any path to piecing together realistic scenarios myself, without the influence of personal preferences or dystopian fantasies? Since we are now certain our future faces a specific challenge, could experts help me to peer into the future?
The National Park visitor center is located at the perimeter of Port Angeles. Arriving here, I can see Puget Sound, and the mainland beyond. I chat with the backcountry permit ranger, who asks me about my bear canister; a prerequisite to getting to Shi Shi Beach.
“There are no bears out there!” he says, waving as I leave.
Makah Tribe Permit at
Washburn's General Store
ackpacking to Shi Shi Beach requires two permits, and I have to cut across the northern edge of the peninsula to pick up the next one.
I cross the northern edge of the peninsula, often driving right at the edge of the water with views of Vancouver Island in the distance. The entire center of the Olympic Peninsula, and much of its coastline, is preserved as the Olympic National Park. No roads cut through that land.
The two-permit requirement is unusual, but the Makah tribe own the land between the road and the National Park trail.
Shi Shi Beach Trailhead
and Half Earth Travel
park in the grassy frontyard of a landowner on native land; and begin my walk down the road towards the trailhead.
I am walking on a neatly-paved road; autumn leaves are scattered across it, reminding me that this is the end of the road.
Will access to places like this change in the future? Transportation accounts for nearly thirty-percent of the United States’ contribution to global climate change. Today, we await an age of low-emission vehicles, but tomorrow, in an age of panic and international requirements, could we simply say no to leisure transportation by automobile?
This same age of panic may also force us to commit to some sort of Half-Earth policy, where we agree to committing to setting aside half our land (and half the world’s oceans) to nature.
The Olympic Peninsula is already one of the most protected regions of North America; but under a global Half Earth treaty, the United States would look to places like the peninsula to quickly patch together greater levels of protection.
The federal government would look to expand the size of the peninsula’s primary park, but local governments would work with landowners to create incentives for permanent preservation of privately-owned lands as well.
In a world that would limit leisure airplane travel, my ambitions to one day visit the South Seas would be gone. My dreams of the orient, quashed. But, climate change policies might condemn me to sustainable public transportation on well-worn routes.
What a dark age of travel that would be. Or would it?
In such an age, getting to the Olympic Peninsula, and traveling in it, would become as far away to me as Greenland is today. Perhaps an overstuffed train could take me as far as Olympia. But from there, I would need to rely on bicycle and foot.
Everything about travel would change. A traveler at home in Portland might have no idea what a neighborhood in a neighboring city---Beaverton, perhaps --- might look like. A multi-day bicycle-trip to the coast or a walking trip to Hood River would be as grand an adventure as a visit to the Dolomites.
Places that were once close would become exotic, as they once were. Services would pop up along roads, catering to walking and biking travelers. Gone would be the American petrol station, with their reheated hot dogs and breaded chicken. What would replace them?
Airplane travel would continue to exist, but regulations and incentives would create more sustainable aircraft - slower, with less range. Intercontinental travel might require five or six layovers. The world would become big again.
As I drive from Port Angeles to Neah Bay, I remark to myself how this stretch of road is among the most beautiful in North America, with heart-stopping views of cliffs, beaches, and sea stacks. Yet, by car the whole thing feels frantic, too fast, demanding caution.
The road would live up to its potential only if there were no cars on it.
Now, I am truly on foot--the apex of all travel. I have a six-mile walk ahead of me, and all afternoon to do it.
Petroleum Creek and Crisis Survival
In the summer, Shi Shi Beach swells with visiting backpackers, and rangers have reported as much as a hundred tents lining the beach. In autumn, those numbers drop off.
As soon as I descend the final steep steps to the beach, I can see why. The crescent-shaped beach is a long stretch of caramel-colored sand cloaked by steep emerald cliffs and hills. At each end of the beach are towering sea stacks and impressive marine boulders.
I joyfully remove my sandals and take the edge of the waterline south towards Petroleum Creek, the single freshwater source on the trail.
When I arrive at the creek, which rambles gently through the forest and into the sea, I decide to pitch my camp in the sand right next to it, because I figure the freshwater might encourage a variety of birds to roost.
While I estimate there are two or three other groups of backpackers here based on the footprints in the sand, I can see none of them, nor their camps.
This weather is so perfect, I just need pitch a mosquito net and light sleeping bag. Setting up my home for the next few days takes less than five minutes.
When I awake the next day, I hear hundreds of gulls cackling and cawing. I sit up and see Brown Pelicans, Heermann’s Gulls and Greater Scaups, awakening to feed. Just twenty feet from my tent, a Great Blue Heron is pitched on a rock, waiting to strike an unsuspecting crab.
I am struck by the fact that I slept through the entire night; I feel refreshed and ready to go.
It’s just a minute to boil water for a cup of coffee, a few minutes more to cook up breakfast. The little details that go into modern backpacking gear make someone like me, not particularly adept at outdoor skills, completely at ease in the wild.
But what happens one day after my food runs out? The contents of my backpack allow me to thrive for three days in complete comfort. But without that cache of food, and when one component of my pack disappears, I would be useless and have to pack out.
The scenario of a backpacking traveler suddenly stuck in place doesn’t escape my mind, and this is a scenario that could very well become more commonplace in the near future.
I can’t help but to think about how a simple climate-fueled hurricane quickly cut access to civilization for hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans. One day, modern Americans. The next day, clamoring to survive in a virtual apocalypse. There is one Walmart and two Walmart Super Centers all within an hour of the Yabucoa municipality where the hurricane struck the island, but for months some Puerto Ricans were cut off from civilization entirely. How did they survive?
We know that much of the refugee crisis in Europe has its roots in a number of crises in Africa and the Middle East that all originate from a changing climate. It’s not hard to extrapolate from such a scenario to the West: California climate refugees, clamoring for a foothold in Seattle.
From there, extrapolate food shortages, widespread poverty, martial law, highways shutting down. An increasingly destabilized Pacific Northwest, and it’s not difficult to imagine a traveler in the Olympic Peninsula finding himself suddenly cut off and forced to stay put in virtual isolation.
I walk south on the beach, then through the tangle of sea stacks and finally to a lovely patch of sand, where I sit and try to imagine how I’d survive here.
As I sit, thousands of beach hoppers, frightened by my presence, seek shelter under my legs and toes. I’m enthralled by these tiny crustaceans, which spring into the air to escape predation and which are almost certainly the inspiration for Miyazaki’s monstrous Ohmu in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.
Could I eat them if I had to?
After my trip, I reached out to Pacific Northwest primitivist and National Geographic photographer Kiliii Yuyan with just that question.
“Yeah for sure you can eat those things! It works really well to build a fire on the kelp, then let the fire burn down to coals and in the morning, there will be a bunch of cooked isopods that taste like shrimp on the kelp. Best to wash them to get rid of the grit, or to stew them, but they are actually quite tasty.”
I asked Kiliii to explain how a traveler, trapped on the Olympic Peninsula, could survive for several months with no particular outdoor skills.
“Assuming that they have the luck to choose where they are lost, I would have to say it’s best to be lost along the coastline.”
“Why?” I write.
“The coast is a place where it is easy to find the three things most difficult to acquire in survival— shelter, water and food. Shelter can be had in the form of driftwood logs that make it easy to build a semi-permanent shelter.
Coastlines have trees with wide-spreading branches that make for good bedding. And here you can walk around easily, which is very difficult in the rainforest without trails, otherwise.
Walking along the coastline you can find cedar bark that can be stripped off to make waterproof coverings for your shelter. The northwest coast is all about staying dry— it’s the thing that will kill you the fastest, in mere hours, if you cannot get dry and warm.
Warmth comes from fire, but wood inside a rainforest is always wet. Driftwood cedar logs, on the other hand, can be pried apart to give you dry interiors, which you can use to make and sustain fires.
Fresh clean water flows down towards the ocean, and streams are too hard to come by walking along a coastline. Navigation is also easy— just follow the coast and you will always know you are relative to where you’ve been.
Finally— if you are stranded for months, food is all about the water. The intertidal zone has tons of gooseneck barnacles, clams, mussels and shrimp. Intertidal pools trap all kinds of food that provide protein and fat, which is what you need to stay alive on a cold, wet coast. A great way to kill yourself is to try to hike around the interior of the Olympic Peninsula, where everything is rotten, crumbling and wet.
You will be constantly wet from moving through the underbrush, unable to navigate or find water or much food. You also cannot see anything from inside the forest. If you get lost and cannot find your way, then best to find a stream or river, and follow it downstream towards the sea. There your chances of surviving increase exponentially.
Passive Aquaculture on the Olympic Peninsula
s day fades away, the tide continues to fall, and with nowhere else in particular to go, I follow the tide toward the sea. Today and tomorrow’s tides are unusually negative, meaning I can walk out much further than almost any other day of the year.
Walking along a narrow band of sand beneath grand amphibian monoliths, I can see a line of purple and orange sea stars, ten feet above me, adorning a living surface of rock.
This is the same common and emblematic species as in Oregon, but I remember how, just a few years ago, the population of these starfish on Oregon’s north coast plummeted.
While the Starfish Wasting Syndrome that had been held responsible for the decline was being widely reported in Northwestern newspapers, it was not until I saw it for myself that I truly believed it. Taking my family to the tidepools of Oregon one day, we didn’t see a single starfish. Local populations had crashed.
But at the same time, starfish along the entire Pacific Coast of North America were facing unprecedented and rapid declines. Scientists believe that Starfish Wasting Syndrome, like coral bleaching events around the world, is synonymous with rising sea temperatures and possibly ocean acidification; the first chapters of the impact of excess carbon on grand scales.
The sea plays an outsized role in the economy of the Olympic Peninsula; most particularly in seaside towns like Neah Bay, where commercial fishing dominates the economy.
If I can see the results of a changing climate on the ocean today, how might that impact the Olympic Peninsula in thirty years from now? Traditional agriculture will be one of the first major victims of climate change, and agriculture is also one of the leading causes of climate change, accounting for somewhere between ten to twenty percent of the problem globally.
To lower the impact of climate change as well as to create a more climate-resilient food supply, the United States might very well look to the Olympic Peninsula.
After my trip, to learn about one possible future for the Olympic Peninsula, I turn to Galen McCleary, who oversees new product development for Patagonia Provisions.
I ask, “I am specifically interested in the new mussels product, especially as it relates to places like the Olympic Peninsula with its vast inland waterways. Why mussels?”
With mussels, we wanted to add to our ocean story beyond just salmon. For mussels, we essentially took that same lens of agriculture and asked: what does a restorative food system look like in the oceans?
A polyculture of kelp, mussels, clams and oysters in an inland waterway creates all kinds of benefits. For example, storm mitigation. But most importantly, it produces a large amount of food in a small area, because it’s vertical farming. Essentially, you are farming the whole water column.
On land you have just the surface to till, but when you enter the ocean, you have, say, the entire twenty meters from surface to bottom that you can farm. With the ropes that our mussels are grown on, that whole twenty meters is twenty vertical feet of farmable space. You can get close to half a ton of mussels per every rope.
I ask, “How many ropes can you have in a given space?”
In Galicia, Spain, you have what are called concessions, where each person has a raft, and a permit to operate. You are allowed 80 ropes per raft. There is an E.U. organic certification layered on top of those permits with very specific criteria to this certification. The certification avoids synthetic ropes, for example. Part of it is material use, limited paints and a whole spacial management plan where you can only have one rope per square meter.
I ask, “Is there a negative to having too many ropes?”
Too many ropes is not good for growth. Mussels float on free-floating organisms and phytoplankton. If you lay too many ropes, you limit the distribution of feed to all the mussels. It’s the same premise with kelp, oysters and clams. Kelp is one of the fastest growing organisms in the oceans, and it sequesters large amounts of carbon. Our oceans and algae are among the largest carbon sinks we have.
We’ve been doing agriculture for way for ten-thousand years, and we’ve developed yield and optimization techniques. With the ocean, it’s more of a blank slate. We can look at the oceans with a whole new perspective and take what we learn on land and apply the most sustainable methods in the oceans. We have a massive opportunity to tell the story of a future of responsible sea farming.
Kelp, mussels, clams and oysters—These things have huge regenerative benefits. They are filtering water and cleaning waterways. There are no feed inputs needed. No strain, no antibiotics. Basically no human inputs at all. The term I’ve come up with is ‘passive aquaculture’ because sometimes you have to seed the ropes, but you leave them in the water and come back nine to twelve months later, and harvest an incredible amount of protein and sustenance.
All they’ve done is feed and filter water and when you have them in that system, they create a habitat for other species of fish. NOAA has done some interesting studies in the northwest where they are finding that mussel rafts can host up to a hundred ocean fish species.
I say, “How realistic is all this on a larger scale? I know that shellfish are an important part of the Hood Canal region, where oysters, geoducks and clams are harvested commercially. But the Hood Canal has seen increased oxygen dead zones from algae blooms, causing declines in fish stocks and biodiversity. Could regenerative aquaculture play a role in a scenario like this?”
The oceans have a massive potential. I think that coastal areas, if they can regulate and farm and deal with their areas responsibly, have a much better chance from a food security standpoint.
What we at Patagonia Provisions are really trying to do is force the bigger players, like General Mills, to adopt regenerative, sustainable practices. General Mills is a great example, because now they are working on their own regenerative agriculture products, and this is a sixteen-billion dollar company.
Farms and Forests on the Olympic Peninsula
he next day, I seek shade after being in the sun all day, and so I wander along the creek. This is how I imagine most of the peninsula— dark, green, heavily forested. But I know that outside of the protected zones is patches of private logging land, farms, dairyland and denuded forestland.
How might the private interior lands of the peninsula look in an age of climate-change action? To help answer this question, I reach out to Kristin Ohlson, author of The Soil Will Save Us.
I say, “I talked to Galen McCleary of Patagonia Provisions about Patagonia’s passive aquaculture products. He talked a lot about how traditional agriculture has turned soil to dirt. He also mentioned how the farmers they worked with were experimenting with innovative ways to sequester carbon. Why is it important to have soil, instead of dirt? Why does agriculture need to sequester carbon?”
Kristin replies, “Some ancient farming practices were bad and released carbon from the soil, like slash and burn, but nothing quite matches industrial farming for land and planet ruination.”
The deep tillage releases carbon and destroys the beneficial soil ecosystem of microbes and fungi; monocultures deprive both the soil microorganisms and the wild creatures above the soil of diversity; bare fields starve the soil microorganisms and leave the land susceptible to both erosion and further carbon loss; and all the chemicals of modern agriculture kill diversity and weaken the overall ecosystem.
Even chemical fertilizers weaken that system: they disrupt the natural feeding relationship between plants and soil microorganisms, in which the former feed the carbon fuel made by photosynthesis to the latter through their roots and the latter bring the plants mineral nutrients in a form they can use.
The industrial model is just bad in every possible way—bad for the quality of the food we eat; bad for farmers who use toxic chemicals; bad for waterways—sick soil turns to dirt which loses its capacity to hold water, so it erodes into the watershed taking all those agricultural chemicals with it, it’s bad for the air and climate; all that exposed farmland erodes into windblown dust, as well, and those particulates increase global warming by radiating heat.
“What’s the alternative”, I ask?
All those bads are reversed with regenerative agriculture, which reduces or eliminates tilling, keeps the lands covered all the time with cover crops or companion crops. Those companion crops are grown alongside the market crop or in the off-seasons, to keep pumping carbon into the soil and protect it from erosion, reintroduces animals to croplands; and reduces or eliminates farm chemicals.
Regenerated land becomes a carbon sink, not a source, as all that extra vegetation pulls in more carbon dioxide through photosynthesis and pumps it into the soil. That carbon stored in the soil isn't released through tillage. The latest IPCC report emphasized that in order to avert catastrophe, we have to not just stop emissions but also remove the carbon that's already overloading the atmosphere—and pointed to building soil carbon as one way to do that. Industrial farming has reduced millions of acres to what are essentially dead lands. Dead lands can't feed us. They can't sustain the wildlife which has has a claim to Earth. But the really good news is that lands can regenerate fairly quickly, in two to four years with careful management. They not only become productive for the humans but also richly biodiverse and an asset to the other creatures we share the earth with.
“Tell me about the farmers that are part of the regenerative agriculture movement?”
What I've loved about getting to know the farmers who are pioneering this movement is to see how they've changed just about everything! For the most part, many of them began as conventional farmers: spraying and tilling, because that's what they were told they needed to do to be successful.
Many of them found that they were not successful using those approaches because their lands were so sick that they lost resilience to weather vagaries. But once these farmers started to appreciate the whole of their ecosystem, it changed the way they felt about the land overall—so that grizzled old guys who used to look at birds, for instance, as a potential pest now views them with wonder and gratitude for their role in the ecosystem.
I ask, “I am curious how policies to incentivise regenerative agriculture might affect the Olympic Peninsula region specifically?”
Kristin replies, “There could certainly be big changes to the logging and recreation in the federal land around the park. The same kind of relationships that should exist between plants and soil microorganisms, and the same need for biodiversity above ground applies to forests, as well.
When we clearcut forests, we are disrupting a huge and important ecosystem, sending tons of carbon into the air.
So yes, thirty years in the future, I hope we never see those clearcut hillsides.
I ask, “will the organic farmers of the Olympic Peninsula play a role in teaching midwestern farmers these climate-friendly practices?”
These days, I think it's the farmers in the Midwest that have much to teach the small boutique farmers in places like the Olympic Peninsula! Not all of them, certainly, but the pioneer progressive farmers who have been learning the ropes of regenerative agriculture over the last twenty-five years.
Many organic farmers are operating on ideas from the nineteen-seventies; they eschew chemicals and use compost, but they still till—it's how they control weeds— and may not understand as much about the soil ecosystem as a progressive commodity corn grower in the Midwest.
Ideally, the small organic farmer and the midwest regenerative farmer can come together and learn from each other—and that, in fact, is happening all over.
“What about the existence of forests and tributaries adjacent to farmlands? Does this impact the crop health?”
I think the truth is the reverse: the presence of regenerative agriculture near forests and rivers will help those ecosystems function better and store more carbon. Too many people who revere forests and streams hate agriculture and assume that it's all the same—an assault on the natural world. But life doesn't exist in a parcel; it extends over a landscape. So it's important for those who care about wildlife and natural areas to care equally about the quality of agriculture going on at their borders.
I ask, “If everything goes right, and in thirty years the Olympic Peninsula is practicing regenerative agriculture and forest expansion, what would that look like?”
There will be no bare agricultural fields or deforested lands. There will be much more biodiversity— you won't see in those agricultural fields the long bare rows of one plant and the bare rows between them.
Vegetation will cover the ground and there will be so much diversity that you'll have a hard time telling what the crop is. It will be messy. Nature is messy. It will be the same in the forests. Trees grow best when they grow in communities with other plants. So you won't see tree plantations or replantings with just one variety growing on a denuded hillside.
Alone at the End of the Country
awake in the morning and see the light of flashlights in the dense, hazey darkness. I look out and see a column of backpackers leaving the beach.
I wave to them, but they don’t see me. Why did they wake so early to leave? When I count them, it suddenly dawns on me that as they leave, I’ll be alone here.
That feeling of being completely alone in nature—it’s not good, it’s not bad; it’s a rare moment of being in a different place: one both relaxed by the genuine solitude, and more aware: no time to break an ankle.
I think about that man with the pewter pot back along the Hood Canal. Did he love his solitude?
hen it dawns on me, that maybe my fictional beach dweller is actually me, in thirty years from now, waiting for my son to arrive. Maybe I called my son up, asked if he’d be willing to meet me at the end of the light rail line in Hama Hama?
I have an oyster permit, I might tell him. The rail line has expanded all the way to Hama Hama. We can eat fresh oysters and then maybe we can make it all the way to Shi Shi Beach!
That’s a hundred fifty miles away, dad, he might say, you don’t bike anymore, do you?
But we could walk it, couldn’t we? Besides, I want to see those new aquaculture farms! And the new forests! And the way they’re converting those farms in the Chimacum Valley!
Then, maybe remembering an old article I wrote thirty years ago, he’ll tell me: and if we run out of food, we can always roast some beach hoppers!