Stormwatching and cultural riches in Neah Bay
Neah Bay and Cape Flattery, at the northwestern corner of the continental United States, offer howling-good stormwatching and rich lessons about the people who've weathered the ages there.
If You Go
Neah Bay in winter
Neah Bay is about a 4 ½-hour drive from Seattle. Take Washington State Ferries to Kingston or Bainbridge Island and drive to Port Angeles. From the center of town where Highway 101 turns left, go 5.5 miles and turn right onto Highway 112, which is now the Strait of Juan de Fuca National Scenic Byway (www.byways.org/explore/byways/13740), a recent designation that brought with it funding for guardrails on some of the formerly exciting bits of this 63-mile stretch of winding, water-hugging, scenic, landslide-prone highway.
The choice for stormwatching with an ocean view is the tribal-owned Hobuck Beach Resort (360-645-2339 or www.hobuckbeachresort.com), on the oceanfront a few miles southwest of Neah Bay. For the best view, book one of the RV park's loft cabins, just 100 feet or so from the high tide line. Winter rate, October through April: $165. (Other, similarly priced "ocean view" cabins have lesser views. Smaller RV park cabins, at $135 in winter, overlook a gravel parking lot. Older cabins in the regular campground, $110 in winter, overlook a grassy field.) All cabins are within a short walk of the beach. The nicely appointed RV park cabins are small, wood-sided manufactured housing units, commonly called "park models," sleeping four to six.
Note these pros and cons:
Pro: A beautiful, wild beach, popular with surfers, in a remote and uncrowded corner of the Northwest. The premium cabins have satellite TV, well-stocked kitchens and electric faux fireplaces. Don't expect a corporate culture in the rental office; just friendly folks.
Cons: The muddy, potholed road that gets you the last mile. Sharply limited food-shopping choices. Dunes immediately adjacent to the best view cabins are a designated dirt-biking and ATV site (but if you're a dirt biker or ATV rider, this might be a "pro").
Winter is so uncrowded in Neah Bay that cafes might not be open every day, so be prepared to do your own cooking. A few eateries to look for, all easily spotted along the town's main drag, Bayview Avenue:
• Linda's Wood-Fired Kitchen, with salmon wraps and wood-fired pizza.
• Whaler's Moon Delight, with breakfast sandwiches, panini and chowder.
• Pat's Place, for Indian tacos.
For smoked salmon, watch for signs for Kimm Brown's Take Home Fish Co., 881 Woodland Ave.
The only full-service supermarket in Neah Bay is Washburn's General Store on Bayview Avenue, which carries a limited variety of fresh meats and produce in addition to other market wares. Note: The reservation is "dry," meaning you cannot buy alcoholic beverages on the Makah reservation and it is illegal to possess or transport alcoholic beverages.
The Makah Cultural & Research Center museum is open daily, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; admission $4-$5. 360-645-2711 or www.makah.com/exhibits.html.
Arts and crafts
Locally produced artwork and traditional crafts are available at the museum gift shop, Woodburn's General Store, and outlets such as Raven's Corner shop and gallery, 221 Halfway Creek Road (360-645-2074 or www.ravenscornerart.com), owned by a lifelong weaver and tribal drum maker.
Neah Bay Chamber of Commerce, www.neahbaywa.com
Makah tribal website: www.makah.com
Don't miss wild Cape FlatteryA stormwatcher's dream
There's an old legend, debunked by those who debunk such things, that Alaska natives have 500 words for snow. By way of parallels, the Makah people could have 500 words for "green" and another 500 words for "wet."
That thought occurred to me as my wife and I hiked the 3/4-mile trail through cedar, salal and dripping ferns to viewing platforms at the far reaches of Cape Flattery, the most northwestern point of the Lower Forty-Eight — a jutting thumb of rock and rain forest that catches a constant barrage of waves where the Strait of Juan de Fuca meets the not-so-pacified Pacific.
It's a pleasant walk on decent trail and winding boardwalk through lush greenery of every tone. Rustic, wood-railed viewing platforms offer knock-your-socks-off views of surging surf, tiny islets, sea stacks and sea birds. (Don't miss the scores of crimson-billed black oystercatchers that often inhabit a surf-pummeled rock just north of the westernmost viewpoint.)
Another reward is the up-close view of remote Tatoosh Island, once used by the Makah as a site where they dried halibut on large wooden racks because the windswept rock had no flies. Today, there's a lighthouse.
While the trail has ups and downs requiring exertion that make it unsuitable for some visitors (and the boardwalks can be slippery when wet), access to the trailhead has been easy since the Makah tribe paved the final four miles of road in 2007. There's ample parking, including bus and RV spaces.
To get there, drive to the far western end of Neah Bay and follow the signs to Cape Flattery, about 7 miles beyond town. Before you hike on this or any trail or beach on the Makah reservation, pick up a $10 annual recreation permit, available in Neah Bay at Washburn's General Store, the Makah Mini-Mart or the museum.
— Brian J. Cantwell
NEAH BAY — Riches manifest themselves in many ways. As my wife and I walked Hobuck Beach, four miles from the northwest corner of the continental United States, the obvious metaphor for riches was the unbroken sand dollars scattered so profusely that we had to hop and skip in places to avoid crushing the delicate, star-patterned shells.
That, and tide-strewn lariats of bull kelp with glistening chartreuse air sacs as big as birthday balloons, dwarfing what we've seen in Puget Sound.
Rich in resources, this place. But on this recent winter day, the cheek-stinging sideways rain blowing south from Cape Flattery, along with low clouds giving that grim and gray end-of-the-world look, prompted me to ponder what life was like here in the days before central heating and wind-tight homes.
We had come here, to the homeland of the Makah tribe, for a weekend of stormwatching from a cozy cabin.
With a view of spray blowing off the crests of surf, and a hike to wild and wonderful Cape Flattery, we weren't disappointed.
And just up the road, a world-class museum offered a respite from the rain and a chance for a rich lesson about the people who call this climate-challenged place home.
The Makah have a physical record of their cultural heritage like few others, thanks to the unearthing in 1970 of a 500-year-old Makah beachfront village at Ozette, 15 miles south of the tribe's present-day home of Neah Bay.
A landslide had buried the village, perfectly preserving items of everyday life. For more than a decade, archaeologists from Washington State University worked a dig at Ozette in what some consider the most significant archaeological find in North America.
Those artifacts are displayed at the Makah Cultural & Research Center museum in Neah Bay. The collection provides a remarkable window into what life was like for the people who depended on cedar for canoes, shelter and weaving fiber; whales for bone tools, blubber and meat; seals and otters for fur and skins — anything they could use to make life more comfortable in a land of rain-soaked winters, relentless wind and pounding sea.
If you go in a group, arrange a guided museum tour. We spent two hours there with Greg Colfax, 63, a Makah master carver who, as a young man, helped in the dig at Ozette, where his grandfather had lived in a latter-day settlement.
Pointing to a dog-hair blanket, dark and matted in a display case, Colfax remembered the autumn day when diggers pulled it from the earth.
"When it came out it looked like this," he said, pointing to a modern wool blanket with colorful designs. "You could see the pattern, you could see everything, it was beautiful!" But exposure to oxygen and light quickly darkened it.
Such blankets were made from the hair of special dogs prized for their long hair and kept isolated on a small island just offshore from Ozette so they wouldn't interbreed, Colfax told us.
Other finds reflect a life in which everything came from nature: a harpoon point of mussel shell, lashed with nettle fiber, held in place with bits of elk antler encased in spruce pitch. A carving tool made from beaver teeth.
For those early Makah, life could be a struggle.
"It looks like there's a lot of food here, but it was rough," Colfax said, for the population to support itself — with as many as 4,000 people in the early 1800s, compared with Neah Bay's modern population of about 900. While the Makahs, related to the native people of Vancouver Island, generally believe their creator meant for them to be at Cape Flattery, Colfax said tribal wars over food helped keep them there.
The museum also links ancient life with today. Showing off a 30-foot whaling canoe carved from a cedar log, Colfax held up a sealskin float he made for the exhibit using techniques passed down from his elders — except for the car-tire inner-tube valve ("Your ancestors would turn over in their graves!" an acquaintance had chided).
"They would take these canoes 40 miles out in the ocean, where they named fishing banks," Colfax said.
Above the canoe hangs the skeleton of the gray whale the tribe killed in 1999 in a federally sanctioned but controversial revival of the Makah whaling tradition.
"The high-school kids took it all apart and cleaned it up," Colfax said.
In small towns, everybody pitches in.
In the carving shed
The old ways survive elsewhere in Neah Bay. We found a hidden world inside an unassuming shed next to an old trailer house along the town's main street, where you might get stopped by a dog wandering down the centerline but you won't find a traffic light.
As we stepped into tribal member Wade Greene's carving workshop, the pungent smell of cedar enveloped us like a billow from a smoky campfire.
We met Greene, 39, and his uncle, George David, of Port Orchard, a world-renowned Nuu-Chah-Nulth carver who has created carvings and totem poles seen all over Puget Sound, including two canoes that mark Chief Seattle's gravesite on the Kitsap Peninsula.
The two carvers have teamed up to start a new totem pole, which they had started from a raw cedar log a week earlier.
Before looking over the new project, we got a close-up look at a 40-foot totem pole that is nearly completed, a project Greene undertook for the Hoh tribe. As a 1950s recording of his forebears singing and drumming played softly in the background, Greene pointed out features of the totem, caressing it like a loved child.
"We Makahs usually dance with a wolf head [mask] on our heads — well, here is a wolf ready to dance as a human," he pointed out, with a touch of humor.
Greene and David this day were texturing the new log and beginning to transfer a design Greene has drawn. Topping it is an image of a long-haired, crouching man that Greene said fleetingly appeared to him one day atop a tree as he was driving by the forest. A singer and drummer by his family's tradition, dreams have inspired some of his songs.
As he worked with adzes to texture the wood, David noted that a tree such as this could be made into lumber or paper or many things.
"But us, we take a dead tree and give it new life," carving figures from nature that are meaningful to their families. "It's art alive!"
Greene is thinking of inviting touring groups to his workshop in the future to see carvings in progress. In the meantime, look for the works of native artists at the museum's gift shop and at other stores and galleries in Neah Bay (see "If You Go").
Steelhead for dinner
One little liability of a winter visit to this remote outpost: Few restaurants are open full-time in the offseason. But we found a tasty alternative, beckoned by sweet smoke wafting from Kimm Brown's happily ramshackle smokehouse a block back from the bay.
We were lucky to find him just hoisting a fresh batch of fish from the smoker. He helped us choose a nice piece of steelhead that we bought for dinner.
Back at our Hobuck Beach cabin, we whipped up some fry-bread mix we'd picked up from the museum gift shop and wrapped the fish in the thick fried dough for our own version of a local favorite: Indian tacos.
This place is still wild around the edges, and that's a big part of the allure. But with an ocean to watch, heat that turns on with a switch, and good food to nosh, you can feel, well, rich — especially when the wind's whistling outside and the rain's blowing sideways.
Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or email@example.com