Understory

If someone had told me there was a grove of ancient cedar trees on a 6-plus mile stretch of island near Long Beach I might not have believed it. Or even that there WAS an island near Long Beach. But there it was and I was invited to see it for myself this past Saturday. 

My friend Cathy invited me to join she and her sister for a Friends of Willapa Bay Refuge event. A barge trip to the uninhabited (by humans) island and an opportunity to hike to an ancient grove of cedar trees. There is a lot of history here. You can read more about it here. The Western shore is a public shellfish beach where famous Willapa Bay oysters are found. There are five beach campgrounds with a total of 20 campsites scattered among them. You can only reach the island by boat, kayak or barge. There is known to be an abundance of wildlife on the island including deer, elk, black bears and porcupines. You might also spy a rough-skinned newt! Fascinating creatures.

In the parking lot, before piling onto the barge across the highway, I smear bug repellant on my exposed parts. I wear long pants and long sleeves and dab the scented lotion on face, ears, neck and hands. I’m as prepared as I can be. The mosquitos and biting flies are vicious this year. Best to be prepared. The barge ride is beautiful. I’d guess there were over 60 of us but plenty of room for everyone to grab a seat and take in the views. There is something wildly alluring about coastal air. 

The path is carpeted in moss and the understory here is as rich as anywhere I’ve ever been. Deer fern, wild huckleberries and salal. There are nurse logs and a “hugging tree”. Lichen and fungus are growing everywhere.

Along with several guides from US Fish and Wildlife leading smaller groups, there was Naturalist Rebecca Lexa, leading a group through the woods. She is a unique combination I would call part Master Naturalist and part storyteller. There is nothing better than being engaged by someone who clearly knows and loves what they do. You can read about her and sign up for one of her many online and IRL tours of Washington and Oregon here. 

The scattered old growth cedar trees here are as much as 800-1000 years old. It isn’t really as much a grove like you might conjure hearing the word, so much as a remnant of a once thriving cedar forest. A little imagination helps to see this place as it might have been several hundred years ago. This over six mile stretch of island was logged a generation ago and as recently as 1986, Weyerhauser came in with the intention of logging the remaining cedars. They were met with much resistance. Don Bonker, a congressman representing Washington’s 3rd District was instrumental in helping to preserve Long Island’s cedar grove ( the Cedar Grove Trail bears his name) as a part of the Willapa Bay National Wildlife Refuge. His preservation efforts also included the Grays Harbor Wildlife Refuge, Protection Island and the establishment of Mount St Helens as a National Volcanic Monument. He also helped ban the export of Western red cedar. 

I stayed with my friend at her home near the coast overnight so I would be able to relax fully into the day. We talked about the experience of being in this old growth sanctuary and how the woods were filled with scent and quiet. As I mentioned, the understory here was as stunning as the forest floor, as stunning as the giant cedars sprinkled among the much younger Sitka Spruce and Western Hemlock. The soft, carpeted moss paths were like walking on air. 

We talked into the wee hours about life and practice. We shared with alarm about the raging world outside of us and all the things that trip us up in our own lives. It’s been a very long time since I’ve been up intentionally past midnight and even longer since I was able to engage with another human with such ease about the things I am both passionate and curious about. Such a wonderful time. 

On my drive home, I finished the book I had been listening to shortly before I headed to the coast. Bittersweet, by Susan Cain, is based on the concept that light and dark, birth and death, bitter and sweet are forever paired. The book took me down the road of grief and longing and the idea that we need both to make us whole. I learned some things about myself. I was able to come away with new permissions in my own mind about the value that melancholy or bittersweet feelings have, both on my everyday existence, and in all things creative. As someone who all too often seeks validation from others, I found a new comfort in being exactly who I am in the world. That is, exactly who I have always been, only now without apology. 

“Whatever pain you can’t get rid of, whatever joy you can’t contain … make THAT your creative offering”  – Bittersweet/ Susan Cain

Last night I realized that for all my diligence around bug repellant, I was still eaten alive. I have a couple dozen bites from skeeters that went straight through my long sleeves. Kelly slathered me in Calamine last night and I took a half dose of Benadryl. The bugs this year are relentless. With more stagnant water and rising temps it is an ideal breeding ground for mosquitos. I’ll wear my pasty pink arms as a badge of honor today, although next time out, I’ll plan differently. When we know better, we do better. At least that’s the theory. 

It was such a great weekend. Summer feels like it’s in the long homestretch. How can it be the 15th already? With an epic hike on the horizon this week and several shorter ones before the end of the month, I am eager to get back outside and take in all of the gifts nature has to bestow. 

Thank you for being here. I probably don’t say it enough, but those of you who follow me and engage here mean so much to me. Enjoy these extended dog days of summer. So happy to have you along. 

30 Comments on “Understory

  1. What a wonderful post. Thank you for bringing us there. I did not know that was out there either, and it’s very accessible for me, probably an hour from my home to Long Beach. I want to see if I can join Rebecca Lexa on a walk somewhere in the future. Your photos are outstanding as always. I particularly liked your macro views of tiny plants and creatures, and the close ups of huge cedar trunks and stumps.

    • Thank you ! She is a wonderful guide and shares so much about the Northwest. A birder, too! I’ll have to keep an eye on her schedule. Without my usual zoom, I saw the world a little differently that day. I love those moments we can really focus, quite literally, on what lies right in front of me.

  2. You have captured this magical trip we shared so beautifully in words and pictures. The day and you are such a gift!! Much love and gratitude my friend 💜

    • The smells, the forest floor, the understory and the company … all so perfect. But the energy of those magnificent trees beneath my hands was so amazing. Loved our time together so much 💚 Thanks for the invitation to walk a sacred couple miles with you.

  3. Excellent column, Bonnie Rae! I did not know about this island—either its history or its natural history. Thank you for sharing in such terrific detail. I was right there with you . . . and did not have to suffer the mosquito bites.

    • Thank you so much, Ann. It inspired me to take your beautiful Keepers of Trees off my shelf and I will dig in. These ancient cedars were pure joy to lay my hands upon.

  4. Thank you for these pictures and words–and for all the previous, and all the coming! I love going along with you and am by your side as you continue this journey in the art of life.

    • Thank you so much for being here. I think of you and the circle often. Exploring new places is such a joy and I’m beginning to feel a new story bursting through. Grateful for your presence and support.

  5. What magnificent beings you were able to meet and hang out with! Even the mosquitoes! I am glad you enjoyed your visit and am sure the cedars were equally pleased to meet you!

    • Thank you, Jude. They really were magnificent and laying my hands on a few really gave me the sense of their true majesty. Really fun day.

  6. It was lovely to meet you, however briefly! I am so glad you enjoyed your time in the grove. It’s always marvelous to see that wondrous place through others’ eyes, and your photos do a great job of hinting at the majesty of that rare place.

    • Thanks for sharing Rebecca! I checked out your site and will be checking back to see what fun trips you have coming up. While I heard several birds, I didn’t see many on our walk. Maybe spring is the time to revisit. Enjoyed learning about the island and grateful to be a lucky recipient of your expertise.

  7. That is crazy pants! Who knew. So glad you got to have this adventure, just when you think you know all the places. Or at least of them. (Hooray for Don Bonker! Take that Weyerhaeuser!) As for mosquitoes? Nope. They care not about Deet. They have super powers this year.

    • Ues, the bugs are voracious this summer. I wonder how many other cool places like this there are throughout our PNW that I’ve never heard of. A cool trip to a storied place. Hard to get much better than that.

  8. Wow, this trip hit all the high points on so many levels, everything a big explore can do, and the reason we get out of our comfort zones to do something adventurous. Thank you for sharing it all from the nature of the island to your inner nature. I’m happy to be your friend! And good to know this place is there, and that people still fight for what’s important.

    • Thanks so much, Nancy. It really was a cool place to get to visit. We had to marvel at how springy the mossy path was with so much less exposure than most hiking trails. The Naturalist, Rebecca, also shared that in the middle of that cedar grove the marbled murrelets nest on the mossy branches. Fascinating stuff. A shorebird nesting in the middle of a forest. Who knew?

  9. Thank you for sharing that special grove with us!! What a treat. I knew nothing about it!

    • Thank you, Bailey! It was a fun trip and always exciting to explore a new place. I knew nothing about it either!

  10. I never knew cedars were so gnarly and “Harry Potterish!” They look very “other-worldly!” Sounds like you had a great adventure.

    • Despite the bugs, it was a great day to explore a new place. Yes, the cedars have quite a history, bark and all.

  11. Beautiful place. Alma had a second house on Willapa Bay in Nahcotta by the Ark Restaurant on the Long Island Peninsula when I first met her but we never went to that island. We sure miss those Willapa oysters and the razor clams. Thanks for those beautiful photos and your words.

    • I love that, Don. I have a history, or rather, a story about The Ark. Had I been a bit more courageous and grounded in my 20’s, my whole life might have taken the path straight into the heart of that kitchen. I loved Jimella. I wonder if Alma knew her?

      • Yeah, she was the owner. Alma’s son Alex, was a cook there and his niche was fried oysters. I was only there once but loved the place and his dish.

        • Love hearing that! Maybe I even met him. Jimella invited me down for the weekend and offered me a job at the end of it. I said yes … and then no. I wonder what my life might have been like had it gone differently? The next year I started at the P.O. Night and day.

  12. I did not know of those cedars either. Thanks for sharing their story. Loved the pictures showing cedar bark! Indigenous peoples made good use of it in their clothing, basketry, etc.

    • It’s pretty exciting to discover a new place in the PNW. While there are many places on the list I keep in my mind, I had never heard of this either. The oldest among the trees in the grove is close to 1000 years old. I had to lay my hands on that one. Ancient energy *

  13. Another great adventure that I can almost smell. Thanks for sharing.

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