Just after I wrote this in early September, wildfires covered the west coast in smoke for almost two weeks. I couldn’t bring myself to publish it when we were unable to leave the house (a quarantine within a quarantine), and folks were losing homes and lives. Now the sky is blue again, and I need the reminder of a summer’s end day.
I needed a cleansing, an exorcism even, after our anxiety-laden trip to southern California. August was a month long farewell to my mother-in-law, and now we were waiting for the epilogue: cleaning out her apartment. Her senior living facility has been on a strict lockdown and we had to wait for the State to give us the green light.
We were anxious to get past that final hurdle of going into her rooms. There were a few things of sentimental value, but more daunting was the spectre of the living space of someone who loved nothing better than to shop. When she was unable to go to the stores, she shopped by catalog, and was famous for squirreled away unopened packages, clothes with tags still attached, and a mixture of costume jewelry, greeting cards, socks, and cheap wrist watches in every drawer. Retail companies loved her. A bargain was her holy grail, and piles of thumbed through catalogs accumulated by her chair, on the coffee table, spilling onto the floor. We hadn’t been in her apartment since the March lockdown began, and we waited for this final task with a mixture of sadness, curiosity, and dread.
So in early September, still reeling from our travel, quarantined away from our grandkids, school kids back in school, and weeks of hot weather predicted, the time was perfect for a hike on some lonely beach.
Sitka Sedge State Natural Area is described as “rarely visited” – just the ticket for a tired and anxious soul. We take Highway 6 as it winds over the Coast Range from Portland through Tillamook State Forest alongside the Wilson River. Heavily wooded slopes rise straight up on all sides, and while the highest peak is almost 4000 feet, the pass crests at just 1500 feet. The transition from city to forest to coast is transformative, and I begin to grow lighter and breathe easier.
Heading south from Tillamook on Highway 101 we soon arrive at Sitka Sedge, named for the grasses that cover much of the dunes and tidal flats. The 350 acre park sits along the Pacific Ocean between Cape Lookout to the north, and Cape Kiwanda to the south, a stretch of the Oregon coast that I love for its wide lonely beaches and long views.
The walk begins on a long dike above an expanse of marshy wetlands, with a broad view of mud and grasses. The muck is a delight for shore birds who dot the vast area. That it’s called Sand Lake seems mysterious, as I see neither lake nor sand, but the answer would be revealed later on.
Rather than taking the path straight to the beach, we follow the mile long Estuary View Loop, through thickets of short conifers and a dense understory of shiny green salal with dark blue berries. If I could find out whether they’re edible I might sample some, but the area is blissfully out of cell range, and I remain happily uninformed, just wandering and watching. A bald eagle soars overhead. Another deep breath.
On the beach, the cool breeze blows right through us. Wind and fog skitter over the sand, forming a familiar pattern of ridges. The waves are small, but relentless and loud, with a solid shelf of dark grey on the horizon. The vast beach is mostly ours. Pelicans soar in the near distance, wings pumping then gracefully wheeling back, they hover, aloft on the breeze in search of a meal. A girl skips alone through the waves, dancing and flinging her limbs about with joyful enthusiasm and wild abandon, and in my mind I’m skipping too.
To the north is a long stretch of beach cordoned off for the endangered snowy plovers who nest here, and beyond is Cape Lookout poking into the water. Fog drapes over the long finger of cliffs, like frosting on cake. To the south is Haystack Rock, emerging out of the misty water just off Cape Kiwanda, peeking in and out of the grey.
The return walk winds around the mile long Kinnikinnik Woods Loop. Kinnikinnik (bearberry) has bright red berries now, and spreads low amongst blue berried salal and red rose hips on wild rose bushes. The feeling of fall is right here, inevitable and beautiful, I must admit, though as always I’m sad at summer’s end.
We come out of the woods to a dramatically changed landscape. The tide has rolled in, and the estuary is transformed from a sticky marshland into an expansive saltwater lake. The water’s surface ruffles in the wind, a swirl of blue covering the thickets of sedge that now lay hidden. I’ve been watching tides roll in and out all my life, but they’re magical to me still. That the moon’s pull has the power to change the face of land never fails to astonish me.
A heron shows up in time to bid us farewell, until the next time, and the ritual casting out of demons is complete, for now. I’m reminded that it’s a process I need to repeat, and not let it go for too long next time.