Notes from a Pacific Northwest Road Trip – To the lighthouse(s)
On the southern section of Long Beach Peninsula is the once-named Cape Disappointment State Park. An interesting name, to be sure, one garnered from one man’s – I bet you guess it – disappointment.
One of the little history plaques – either that, or the pamphlet in the hotel – talked about a navigator named Captain John Meares. He was trying to find a way into the Columbia River from the Pacific Ocean, and, apparently, he failed. In fact, the Columbia froths into the ocean right there. The two major waters collide with steep, sharp rocks, pulling at the earth like a vacuum. Rocks tumble and fall into the sea. The winds slap against the rocks.
It’s no wonder that this area is also known as the Graveyard of the Pacific.
The entire “graveyard” extends from the northern most part of Oregon’s coast, along Washington state, and up to the tip of Vancouver Island in Canada. Thousands of ships and hundreds of lives have been lost in this coastal area because of fog, bad weather, waves, storms, and, especially around the Columbia River mouth, the Columbia sand bar. I believe the latest shipwreck was just back in the early 2000s, when a ship got stranded. For some really interesting history, the site Friends of the Columbia River Gateway has additional information on this area that helps set the scene for visiting it and understanding the maritime importance which the river and ocean still have.
Also, it makes sense that there are two prominent lighthouses on this slip of land. The first one built, appropriately called Cape Disappointment Lighthouse, was placed to the south so that the beacon could guide ships either along the coast or into the river. It is the oldest lighthouse on the West Coast that is still operational.
With all the fog and waves and storminess, however, ships still continued to wreck at a very high rate. Many of the hapless ships couldn’t quite see the Cape Disappointment light, which was still miles off, before getting cast into the rough waters of the Columbia. The second lighthouse built was the North Head Lighthouse, guiding ships coming from the north into the Columbia River.
Mom and I drove into Cape Disappointment State Park on a particularly overcast and foggy afternoon, which sort of set the scene, really, as this area is foggy for about a third of the year. Getting into the park near Ilwaco is easy enough, and the North Head Lighthouse was a simple park’n’ walk affair. One thing to note, however, is that you must buy a Discover pass to put on your car, which you can get from a machine in the parking lots of most state parks. The 24 hour pass is a good bet considering you can park inside the state park for the day at various locations.
The keen sense of isolation was palpable, and we weren’t the only ones out by the North Head Lighthouse. A thickening fog was rolling in from the sea, the clouds looked ready to collapse under the weight of rain, and the air was incredibly heavy with the smell of salt and sea. The lighthouse just stood there, like a silent sentinel, on the rock cropping, and I could only imagine what life had to be like for a lighthouse keeper back in the day.
Finding the Cape Disappointment with the GPS proved to be as much of an exercise in futility (and disappointment) as Captain Meares’s original search for the Columbia. Mom and I tried to follow the GPS around the cape, hoping to run into the lighthouse, but signs seemed to be evading our notice. Finally, I pulled over to sort out the map I’d taken a picture of at the North Head Lighthouse, and then, a friendly group of park rangers also pulled over to see if we needed help.
They set us on the right course, and finally, we pulled into the parking lot for the Lewis and Clark Interpretive Center, which, unless you want to make a steep climb to the lighthouse, provides a fabulous view of it with relatively little physical effort. Well, some, as the center is uphill, but, according to the ranger, not as much as actually going to the lighthouse. Mom seconded the notion of just walking up to the Center.
The Cape Disappointment Lighthouse was just as lonesome and sad-looking as the North Head Lighthouse. It sat, exposed to the hellish elements, out on a cliff, sort of like the checkmate in chess. Again, the life here had to be difficult, freezing cold most of the time, and just plain frustrating from all the ships which still managed to wreck nearby.
After viewing the two lighthouses and driving around the park a bit, Mom and I headed back into Seaview for dinner, finally heading to placed called Lost Roo’s, or something very Australian for it being in Washington state. I went for a local speciality – mac and cheese with steelhead – for dinner. Steelhead is a variety of fish like the rainbow trout, though these fish go out to sea and have a great time there. It has an interesting flavor, which, combined with cheese, was amazing. Especially when it comes in super-American-sized servings.
After dinner, it was back to the Victorian, fringe-loving Shelburne Inn, where we tried not to break any antiques or accidentally pull fringe off the lampposts getting in and out of the very high bed.
Or, rolling out of bed in the middle of the night, hitting the floor, and continuing to roll down the sloped hall …