By Tom Groenewal
December 14, 1991
December 14 Saturday
A beautiful sunny morning despite temperatures below freezing. I have been waiting for a day free of rain so I could hike Rialto Beach. At the coast, temps will be several degrees warmer due to the moderating effect of the warmer ocean water.
A side note: the North Pacific Ocean is not warm. Compared to freezing it is warm but in terms of the human body, it’s not warm. I grew up swimming and body surfing waves in the Atlantic Ocean with water temperatures at 70 degrees in August. The water is so cold on our Pacific coast that standing knee deep in the ocean produces a biting tingle similar to chewing on tin foil.
The North Pacific Ocean is not a good place to swim. Offshore fisherman wear cold-water immersion suits to prevent hypothermia should they fall overboard. Even surfers need a neoprene hat in addition to a body suit. To be caught unprotected in our ocean water for longer than a few minutes, seconds even, can cause stiffness of muscles and soon death.
After stuffing a few things into my pack I jump into the truck and head for the coast. There is thick frost on the road. The wind has not blown much ocean air into the interior so the moisture is still solid rather than liquid. In the 15 miles from home down to the coast the temp. rises about 10 degrees and after hiking a mile I am down to a canvas shirt, jeans, and boots.
It is sunny, not a cloud in the sky and the wind is 10-15 mph from the south. There always seems to be heavy surf at Rialto; the beach is steep and erodes anything in its way. I once saw a 12” glass float on this beach that was smashed into big pieces wedged behind a log on the upper beach. Everything gets smashed on Rialto. Most definitely not a place to swim.
1.5 miles north from the mouth of the Quillayute River is a 30’ high 15’ wide arch, which can be used as a trail during tides below 5’ to avoid taking the headland trail. I choose the arch. The tide is above 5’ because the only path to the arch is to inch my way along a rock shelf along a vertical wall to make it into and through the arch.
It probably isn’t smart for me to scale a rock ledge and watch waves curling past me, going the other way and breaking onto the beach 50-100 feet behind me. The water is 55 degrees and far too cold to be bobbing in the waves should I fall off the ledge.
I move slowly along the ledge and try to get a good hold on the coarse rock on the vertical face. This probably isn’t a good choice; I should turn around. But, I don’t listen and continue and jump over a gap while trying to hold onto the cliff face. It is difficult, not what I predicted. I can’t turn around. Oh man, I’m gonna fall.
The best decision is probably to stand here and let the tide go out another foot. I could go ahead but I think I would fall where the ledge gets too narrow. This is the third time, I tell myself, that inching along the ledge is a safety issue. I go anyway. Ready, go. I run along the ledge toward the arch. One wave swamps my boots. I make it, no real harm done.
Beyond the arch is a flat stretch of bedrock that has 3-inch vertical grooves creating hundreds of small waterfalls with each wave’s retreat. Other rock formations are tilted, with concretions and rocks cemented into ancient beaches. Deer walk about nibbling on seaweed, I think. Maybe they are licking salt. Eagles are perched far up on the tops of wind-broken Sitka Spruce, resting and checking out the ocean, looking out for a meal.
Massive old trees are piled at the upper part of the small beach lying between headlands. The smell of cedar and salty air and being on a wild beach with no people in sight is as good as it gets for me.