Bruce, a salty volunteer ranger with a missing finger, comes by to make sure my backcountry camping permits are in order. When I ask what there is to do on the beach, he glances at the pounding white waves and massive stone spirals rising out of the sea, baffled at a question about what to do in paradise.
"Well," he says slowly, as if my tentmate and I are challenged in some way, "you can walk around and make friends. You can drink whiskey and go cuckoo. Or," he adds, squinting toward the south end of the beach, "there's a dead sea lion that washed up."
We ponder our options and stifle our laughter.
Sitting at the northernmost tip of 63 miles of pristine coastline, Shi Shi (pronounced shy-shy) is a true wilderness beach. Huge driftwood logs back the 2-mile stretch; a misty emerald green spruce forest rises steeply up the banks of the headlands. For years, official access to this legendary Olympic National Park beach, a few hours from Seattle, was possible only via a difficult, sometimes dangerous 13-mile trek--several hikers have died over the years. This is the second summer the beach has been open via a new, heavily wooded 3-mile trail through Makah Indian reservation land.
Most visitors camp at least one night to appreciate the rhythms of the beach: rising and receding tides; morning ocean mists floating into the cedars; bright midday sun shining on delicate sea creatures revealed by low tide. It's possible to go swimming, but the surf can be very strong.
A surfer trotting by in a slick black wet suit tells us of a campsite in the woods. But we pitch our tent on the beach. Starting a fire is easy with bone-dry driftwood. With a tent and a fire, the beach becomes more than a place to indulge in trashy bestsellers--it starts to feel like home.
On a moonless night, the beach is nearly pitch black. Fires dot the coastline, revealing the shore's gentle curve. Since the sun has set, low tide has extended the beach at least 50 feet. In the dark, it's hard to tell where land ends and ocean begins. I wander in the blackness, past where the waterline had been earlier that day, moving toward the sound of the surf and feeling as if I were walking into an abyss.
During low tide, the ocean pulls back to reveal slick rocks and sandy shallows teeming with life. At the south end of the beach, rows of shiny blue mussels cover huge boulders. Plump purple starfish congregate, growing fat feeding on mussels, abalone, barnacles, and snails.
After hours of peering into the tide pools and exploring shallow caves (wear waterproof hiking boots or high-quality water shoes), we notice that the tide is rapidly returning. Keep track of the water level to avoid being trapped on a rock formation far out at sea.
I take a last look at the bizarre twisting sea stacks, some topped with a few lonely trees, relics from when the formations were part of the headlands. I pick up an orange and pink streaked curl of a shell as a memento, but when I turn the shell around, a shy crustacean quickly folds itself deeper into his tiny home. Gently, I place it back in the shallow waters. This beach should remain exactly as it is.