Monday, September 14, 2009

Never the Same at the Coast

At every National park, the Rangers talk about change. Largely, change on a geological or glacial scale, but on the coast it is literally different every day.

This photo was taken back in July. It was a quiet day on Rialto Beach features birds feeding in the surf and waves dropping from heights of just a couple of feet.

Take my daily patrols and programs on Rialto Beach. The texture of the beach is in flux from hour to hour and tide to tide. In the late afternoon, my feet will be sinking into small diameter cobbles or fine grain sand, turning my ankles and making me work for every step. The next morning I will be cruising on compact sand making double the time it took me the previous afternoon. Hundreds of tons of material moved every six and a half hours.

Sea foam, consisting of algae, plankton and gaseous mixtures (perhaps "emulsions" would be a good word) made the beach almost a winter scene on Friday.

There is also the surf. Without weather systems to excite the it, it generally stays unexcitable. Every now and then, a six foot surf will replace the normally 2 to 4 foot surf. Some days it seems, I have more energy than the Northeast Pacific.

Then there is the weather. It has been extraordinarily dry this summer by Olympic Coast standards, but I also discovered a line when to expect fog. When the temperature rises to about 78 inland, the fog rolls onshore. For a guy that hates heat, this summer has been heaven.

If you are looking for the small things, you are always rewarded at this beach.

On Friday September 11th, I arrived and found that one, the temperature on the beach was near 80 degrees. It was clear and crisp and the surf was a nutty 8 to 12 feet (wave heights) on the shore. A four foot tide line now became a seven foot tide line. High pressure in the Pacific Northwest and a deep low pressure center in the Gulf of Alaska caused a deep pressure gradient and heavy winds well off-shore. It was enough to make our corner of the ocean very active. There was no beach and backpackers were flocking to use the beach as their personal walk way into the North Coast Wilderness. I am quick to compliment our backpackers on their intelligence, but on this day, their common sense reached a limit.

Logs and driftwood up to 24 inches in diameter were being tossed about like Lincoln Logs and gathered speed up to 20 miles per hour. One lady suffered a fracture on Second Beach and had to be wheeled out on a liter.

I checked in with the area ranger that assured me that he had never observed these kinds of conditions during the summer.

"We have them all the time in the winter, but there are no people around".

As I traversed the route behind the driftwood to survey safety, I found a mom and dad heading out with a baby to camp overnight. I showed them the easiest route possible that included three locations where you out ran waves and then crossed Ellen Creek three times on a rather inconvenient mass of logs. Once in the backcountry I checked on all the packers and their locations relative to the surf.

The arch at Second Beach demonstrates the excitement of the surf even on Sunday after it had calmed down a bit.

On Sunday morning, the beach had returned from the wrath of the angry surf. It was not normal, but on its way. On the north end of the beach was a Stellar Sea Lion hauling out (resting). As I talked to a couple of guys that had discovered it as well. We debated its health and concluded that it was just exausted from facing the powerful currents and surf.

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"I wouldn't want to go back out there" quipped one of the visitors.

a href=""> The sea lion studied the surf and decided better of it. She simply curled up next to a piece of driftwood to rest.

The potentially other unrelated problem that jumped out, was that Surf Scoters (Sea-Ducks) were coming ashore and presenting a sad show of nature's sometimes cruel reality. Something was making them sick and many were dying on the beach. Again, most visitors to a National Park take events like this in stride, remembering that human assistance here is unquestionably not allowed. I could tell in their eyes though that each visitor was wry in the back of their mind, hoping that this wasn't something humans had done to directly or indirectly effect the population of Scoters. Until we know more it just has to be taken at face value.

Surf Scoters, small sea-ducks gathered together on shore at 2nd beach on Sunday afternoon.

A male (left) and female (right) Surf Scoter.

The current explanation is that the ducks have been eating shellfish that had gathered a toxic algae bloom and weakened them to stressful levels. Tests are being conducted in a Wisconsin lab and should be available later this week. The true hope is that it is not at fault of humans and that it is something that is truly out of our hands.

Gulls picked at the remains of Scoters on Second Beach on Sunday.

When you talk of warmer waters and currents moving and causing life to live in places that it has never been, can you really rule out human influence?
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