As the weather warms and is somewhat tamed by the change of season, we hanker for outdoor activities that inspire and challenge us. One of our favorite things to do is to go kayaking on Willapa Bay, specifically to Long Island, in the middle of the bay. Spangled by bright sunlight, the water gleams and glistens as our kayaks slice through it. A small copse of western cedar, hemlock and Sitka spruce are all just a few steps from the shoreline of Long Island. The only sound other than the raspy protest of a Stellar Jay is the low prayer-like gurgle of water rubbing stone. Such simple treasures abound on Long Island, the jewel of Willapa Bay on the east side of the Long Beach Peninsula.
Four kayakers paddle the ten mile round-trip from the Willapa Bay Refuge up the western reach of the Naselle River and then around Pinnacle Rocks to Smoky Hollow, one of five camping destinations in the federal park. Eight miles long and half as wide, the island was saved from the chainsaw by Congressman Don Bonker, lock, stock and barrel in the late 1980’s. Last year the 160-acre grove of virgin cedar—crown jewels—was christened with the ex-congressman’s name, the Don Bonker Grove, and now stands in perpetuity as a natural cathedral to those who follow the call of the wild.
The kayakers leave their boats perched over a fallen log above the high tide-line, then hike south along the beach to a trailhead left unmarked by the park rangers. That trail leads the travelers to the entrance of the grove, just uphill and an easy ¼ mile south along the old Weyerhaeuser logging road. Within minutes they enter the grove, and are greeted by 200 foot giant cedar with candelabra tops. The trail loops for about a mile, not a long jaunt, but each footstep laced in a hundred shades of green. Two owls are practicing their mating calls, and the celadon-blue sky sneaks between the dense flat boughs. Dozens of varieties of fern, moss and lichen dangle green lace and frond along the forest trail.
Later on the beach, we indulge in the picnic lunch we have packed. We’re ravenous from the exertion of getting here. Sunshine bathes pale arms and faces—winter has been long and wet.
Hugging the flood tide, the wayfarers push off, the silky bay waters warm and soothing. A northwest wind blushes blissfully against their backs, and the shoreline rushes by as they pass steadily up the bay.
Willapa Bay is rarely docile, requiring boat, kayak or canoe in the hands of a capable waterman. The easiest crossing is the short paddle from the public launching ramp at the refuge to the old truck landing on the south end of the island, only about a ½ mile. From here, the old logging road ambles about four miles to the cedar grove. The trail is subtly marked all the way to the campsites and the grove.
Be forewarned: paddling around the west side of the island can be dangerous. On the day that the four seasoned kayakers traveled safely up-island, two men in a kayak capsized and an elderly gentleman drowned. Every few years, the bay claims the unwary. Travelers on this shallow oyster bay must show caution. None-the-less, the rewards of such adventure remain rich and satisfying. There are few areas in the contiguous 48 states with such accessible isolation and natural highlights. These opportunities are but a 30 minute drive from Astoria, or 11 miles east on Highway 101 out of Seaview.
Though major portions of the island were logged heavily in the latter years of the 20th century, many of those scars have healed. This wildlife preserve—home of Roosevelt elk, white-tail deer, black bear and numerous forms of wildlife and wildfowl—remains the legacy of a wise Congressman with a keen vision. Before the next century comes to a close, second-growth will blossom into the majestic cedar giants that once covered all corners of the Pacific Northwest. In those latter years, our grandchildren and theirs will thank these caretakers who protected this sanctuary.