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Shi Shi beach: a Washington summer surf trip

Given that it’s summer, I should have at least one story about a trip to the beach, right? In So. Cal that’s what defined summer for us—trips to the yellow sand, the scorching sun, Wahoo’s Fish Tacos, tents from the surf contests. In the NW, “the beach” has become “the coast.” A stretch more mystic, more elegant; really, more welcoming to my kind. I’ve haven’t been yet this summer. But here’s a story about one such trip. It was to be published last summer, before the magazine of intent dissolved, like so many others.

Surfing in the Northwest rejects the stereotypes of sun-kissed bodies sailing down big bountiful waves. But in quiet substitute are experiences in nature only begotten where the forest meets the shore, and where there’s a small community of pale bodies hardened by the cold and souls softened by the mist. Nowhere is this more evident than Shi Shi Beach, the northernmost accessible beach in the Olympic National Park on Washington’s peninsula.

Here an especially good summer day might mean head-high swells. But on average, the waves tend to be more fickle than those at the easily accessible Westport or Seaside. Violent winter weather makes this area a summer destination, says Frank Crippin, owner of North by Northwest Surf Co., located in Port Angeles since 1995.

Though Shi Shi is a pilgrimage for Northwest surfers, the chilly breaks are just one element of the overall ambiance. On the Makah Indian Reservation, Shi Shi rests at the end of a 3.3-mile muddy path through several types of forests. Large prehistoric-looking leaves are tucked beneath the tree canopy. Beyond old trunks, fog sits atop the new-growth pines. All is sun-dappled if the day is right.

Descending down the last stretch of path from the forest and out onto Shi Shi’s shore, is like stepping into the mystic. It’s the land of dinosaurs, with fern-covered cliffs cascading down to the sand and ancient rocks delicately designed by wind and water. Giant sea stacks and arches to the north and in the Point of Arches to the south, wade into surf like creatures on a western trek.

At the end of July, 3-to-4-foot swells were found to be breaking about a quarter mile down the beach from the end of the trail. The kelp in the water made for less than smooth rides and no other surfers were present. Only five other small parties had set up camp in the nooks at the foot of the cliff on the long ribbon of beach.

A silvery dusk and golden sunset, again if the day is right, is the reward for overnighters. Though planning for rain regardless of the forecast is a definite.

We were lucky enough to share the evening with a sea otter lazily rolling over in the evening ocean. Several ladies who’d hiked up from Ozette to the south, told us they’d spotted a whale. Nature smiles on the patient.

Getting to Shi Shi from Seattle begins with the Edmonds/Kingston ferry, a nice 20-minute transition from the big-city life to the coastal towns on the peninsula. From there you’ll continue north on Hwy 104, then on Hwy 101 toward Port Angeles. P.A. the best place to stop for supplies and visit North by Northwest Surf Co. for any rentals you might need. (Chippen recommends a 5/4/3 wetsuit with a hood if you only buy one for Washington surfing, “Because it’s better to be too hot than too cold,” he says.) Then it’s 60 plus miles on Hwy 112 along a flower-lined coastal drive to the Makah Reservation.

Permits are required to park at Shi Shi and can purchased for $10 from any of the mini marts just as you enter the reservation. They are good for the rest of the calendar year. Overnight campers are advised to leave their cars for $10 a night on designated private property a short way up from the start of the Shi Shi trail to save from drunken vandalism. Posted signs guide first-timers through these tasks.

Washington and Oregon have a rich history in hardy surfing along savage coastlines. But a surfing trip to Shi Shi offers the feeling that you’re at the beginning of it all.

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