In 2018, before settling on the North Beach we put an offer on the most adorable, small, round-ish house we’d ever seen. Stocked with remnants of a simple mid-century modern life, Phyllis whose husband hand-built it, lived there until 2017 when she passed away at the ripe old age of 91.
It's a red zone for a good reason
Never before had we ever considered making such a large investment in something that was undeniably doomed from the start. But there, perched on a grassy knoll just off WA-105, Phyllis Egberg’s beach house sat in the “red-zone.” It’s an area between Grayland and Tokeland that despite growing up here, we’d never heard of. As you can probably imagine, a “red-zone” isn’t ideal. In this case, it’s an area where coastline erosion is so swift and prevalent that the entire town of North Cove, which once stood just a mile or so from Phyllis’ house, was long ago consumed by the ocean.
In the end, Phyllis’ family wanted more than we wanted to pay but at the time, thoughts of living a temporary life in a hand-built house on the edge of the earth while waiting for the ocean to nip at our heels was an interesting topic. As such, we grappled with the “what-ifs,” like what-if the rate of erosion slows down and we can stay there longer or better yet the state steps in and does something that saves the coastline? Or what if we could use the few years before complete disaster to dismantle the house and move it elsewhere? All of which seemed daunting, far fetched, or both. But still, it’s a place we’ll never forget and consequently return to a couple times a year. In the winter for the eerie doom and gloom grayness we all love and again in the summer for the 30-miles of Junque.
NORTH COVE (NO MORE) WASHINGTON
Perhaps it’s my own childhood near-drowning episode in the same section of ocean that devoured North Cove that makes it so fascinating to me. Or maybe it’s the proof that a town can thrive one day and be gone the next; leaving dangling roadways covered in warning signs where broken asphalt meets the sea. Whatever it is, especially during low tide you can’t go there without walking amongst and contemplating the rise of pipes jutting up through the sand where homes and businesses once stood.
Above: Remnants of pipes from North Cove homes lost to the Pacific Ocean. Courtesy of Gravel Beach Blog Spot. Click image to visit their story.
Top: Road sign for Old State Route 105 which deadends quickly into house of “Isle Knot Go” pictured below.
NORTH COVE HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
Top: Willapa Light
Bottom: where North Cove was in 1884
In the mid-1800s, due to extreme dangers along the Washington Coast and spurred by the abundance of ship travel required for lumber and other goods needed to support the California Gold Rush (1848 – 1955), life saving stations near the most dangerous points became a priority. This included the mouth of what was then called Cape Shoalwater (now Willapa Bay) where a military reservation was built and one of the first lighthouses erected (1858). All of which was ingested by the ocean beginning around 1940 with the loss of the Willapa Light.
By 1915 the 32-acre town of North Cove, platted by Captain George Johnson in 1884, had grown enough to become a seafaring rest stop between Portland and Seattle. Home to two canneries, a hotel, school, store, post office, Coast Guard Station, event hall, cemetery, and 25 houses, erosion had not yet begun.
Now with 100+ feet per year disappearing, the entire town and paved streets leading to it, including Old State Route 105 have given way to the sea. What’s left are a few hearty folks literally holding their ground in a designated red-zone while fighting Mother Nature as she threatens to jump the highway, destroying generations of cranberry farmers, the bogs they draw livelihoods from, and the highway that takes them to services.
GLOBAL WARMING, A CURSE, OR WHAT?
It would be easy to blame global warming for the disappearance of a whole town along the coast and in fact I’ve seen that explanation more than once. However, the erosion began long before we started worrying about global warming and the exact cause continues to be a mystery. Most likely, it’s partly due to the dredging of Willapa Bay mixed with damming the Columbia River, plus a lot of misunderstanding of how delicate and ferocious nature is, and global warming isn’t helping. Regardless, this section of coast has always been a terrifying journey by sea and a big contributor to the over 2000 shipwrecks we’ve endured on the Washington Coast since 1800. (Hence getting one of the first lifesaving stations and lighthouses in the state.)
ALL IS NOT LOST - TAKING A PAGE FROM RUBY BEACH
Turns out our pollyanna “what-if a miracle happens” hopes for Washaway Beach weren’t so far fetched after all thanks to another favorite day trip of ours.
Located along HWY-101 in Olympic National Park, Ruby Beach is arguably one of the most beautiful places on earth. A little hard to get to, but boasting a giant haystack, the thing I find most interesting is exactly the thing that’s saving Washaway Beach; an abundance of small-ish, flat, round rocks.
Perfect for stacking cairns to the sky, they are (unfortunately) also perfect for artists who drag bucketfuls home to paint and sell online. I say unfortunately because having visited over the years the volume of missing rocks is increasingly noticeable and extra unfortunate now that we know they’re the magic ingredient saving Ruby Beach from becoming North Cove.
IN 2020, THE SEATTLE TIMES EXPLAINED It like this:
“TO THE NORTH of us, in Olympic National Park, there is a beautiful area called Ruby Beach. Its unique coastline has stayed protected from erosion, unlike other nearby beaches.”
Geologists theorize the lack of erosion at Ruby Beach is due to an abundance of naturally occurring small rocks. The theory was tested in 2003 when researchers at Cape Lookout laid cobble that abated erosion. The discovery turned the tide on what seemed like an inevitable loss for Washaway Beach. At that point, Washington State had basically given up after years of building sea walls from large jetty rocks like those at Ocean Shores and Westport, to no avail.
In the end, it proved to be the way small rocks move with the incoming waves that disburses the energy created when surf pounds the shore. And it’s been remarkably successful.
Ocean Shores jetty rocks 2020
The pilot project began at Washaway Beach in 2017. That first year, compared to the typical 100+ feet of ground lost to sea, the loss totaled about 30 feet but only in locations where less cobble was used. The following year (winter 2018-19) with additional support, funding, and hope, more cobble was added and despite several king tides over the winter, not a single inch of land was lost!
That’s beyond incredible!
And what about that house?
Obviously Phyllis’ house still has a grip on our heart since we go back and visit often enough. I’d be a liar if I told you we never talk about it like the fish that got away 😉 Oh well, you win some, you lose some and (like the hokey, pokey) that’s what it’s all about!