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Weekend in Willapa Bay

Published on 5/6/2014
A couple years ago I visited Willapa Bay for the first time and was enchanted by its beauty.  I kept a promise to myself to return with kayaks this April 11.  The goal of the trip was to scout out kayak destinations and to try and observe birds during the spring migration.  Three WKC paddlers joined me on a perfect weekend for the exploration. The float plan included a paddle up Smith Creek, a circumnavigation of Long Island, and a crossing of Willapa Bay to Leadbetter Point.  This ended up being overly ambitious, but we were quite satisfied with what we were able to accomplish.  We did learn much about conditions on Willapa Bay that only such a scouting trip could uncover, and intend to return as soon as possible.   

We knew we were heading into kayaker’s paradise when we arrived in Raymond on Friday at noon and saw the welcome sign.  Raymond was very pleasant and friendly, famous for its sculptures, a Carriage Museum and a Seaport Museum.  Paradise comes complete with the excellent Pitchwood Alehouse, one of many good reasons to plan a visit to the area.  


Our first outing was at Smith Creek, a beautiful place for a short appetizer paddle.  There is a boat launch here, which we discovered is a must for paddling in this area.  Without one, it is quite easy to sink waist-deep in mud!  This boat launch also serves the North River and access into the north side of Willapa Bay.  We spent a couple hours here.  Smith Creek passes through a Sitka forest and has beautiful undergrowth of vaccinium, false lily of the valley, and salmon berry.  We spotted kingfishers and a nesting snowy plover.  It was necessary to turn around after a mile or so upstream since the current against was getting strong.  After paddling downstream into Willapa Bay we then attempted to paddle up the North River, but it also has strong current right at the mouth that limits distance one can travel upstream.  So we explored the small bay for a bit.  There was no sign of migratory birds, but we did see a solitary greater yellowlegs that was plumbing the sandy beach.  Mud flats were starting to appear late in the afternoon, indicating it was time to head for the alehouse, where we had a superb goat cheese flatbread pizza and the excellent Cavatica Stout from Fort George Brewery in Astoria.  


Also on the agenda for the day was a visit to River View Dining in South Bend, Oyster Capital of the World.  The BBQ oysters served here can only be described as a Religious Experience.  You have to wait for it while the maestro grills them outside, so we ordered the clam chowder and the deep fried mushrooms. Then, when the oysters arrived, all you could hear from the table were slurps and yummy noises.  The maestro came over to wake us from our food-induced reverie to ask how we liked them.  After falling to our knees, Linda was brave and asked what they were made with.  The answer -  Love.  Linda persisted, hoping for some ingredient suggestions (although we already knew there was lots of garlic involved), so he gave us a hint – a little bit of this and a little bit of that.

We stayed in the camping cabins at the KOA of Bay Center for both nights.  This campground was very nice, located in the woods with a short trail to the scenic beach.  The owners have turned this into a great vacation spot for a family, with lots for kids to do.   Its central location is ideal for much of the paddling destinations in the area.  One of the few launch sites into the Willapa is located just 1 mile away.  As already mentioned, developed launch sites are important.  Our plan to paddle Ledbetter point on the last day was thwarted by high winds.  We had a backup plan of paddling on the Bone River.  This was featured in newspaper articles found online, and highly recommended by someone we met in the alehouse.  This plan was thwarted by mud, even though we attempted entry close to high tide.  What would have worked best instead – launching from Bay Center and paddling a couple miles to the Bone River.  The Bay Center launch would also serve explorations of the Paxil (I mean Palix) and Newaukum Rivers.  
On Saturday we intended to circumnavigate Long Island, but due to high winds and substantial opposing currents, we only got as far as Smokey Hollow.  There is only one launch site for Long Island at the refuge near the south end.  One must launch on a rising tide to avoid the flats, which means the current will always be against you as you head north around either side of the island.   This is one factor that must be planned for when visiting Long Island.  The other locals also warned us about – strong winds are common especially in the afternoon.  We experienced this as well, and found ourselves paddling into 15 knot winds from NW and a 1 knot current as the tide came in.  So, it would be best to plan a two or even three day circumnavigation of Long Island, to enjoy all the delights it has to offer.  
We still had a great time even though these plans were also thwarted.   Smokey Hollow campsite is beautiful; we had a nice lunch feast, then went to hike through the ancient cedar grove (the loggers somehow left a few).  It was perhaps a 4 mile round trip, longer than expected.  We saw no evidence of a dense bear population, but did see elk.  The trail was hard to find – look for it about 300 yards south of the camp, poorly indicated on the map which shows it coming right out of the camp.  There was still no sign of a bird migration, but we were treated to sightings of Arctic Turns.

On the last day, as already mentioned, we did not get to paddle.  So instead we just went to eat more oysters in Tokeland.  We visited ocean beaches on the way home, then stopped at Bottle Beach on Grays Harbor, noted as one of the best birding spots in the state.  We were actually two weeks early for the start of migration, which we learned from locals begins with a bang, on one day, rather than a gradual buildup.  So at first, after a about an hour, all we could see was a robin and a raven, and all we could hear was the invisible marsh wren.  We could also see the new 520 floating bridge being assembled in the harbor, and Mt Olympus in the distance. 


But then it happened.  At first a small flock of sandpipers appeared out over the water.  In just a short time that small flock turned into what can only be called thousands.  I wonder if we just witnessed the first arrivals of the migration, but it could also have been just the local flock moving around.  We watched the masses do their shimmering acrobatics.  The Blue Angels cannot even approach this level of synchronization and acrobatics.  We walked out on the flats of the quickly receding tide and were able to get a look at them feeding on the edge, able to discern through binoculars that there were in fact a large variety of different birds in the mass.  These included Sandpipers (but which kind?) Dunlins, Curlews, Wimbrels, and most easily identified, the Black-bellied Plover.  Then, all of a sudden, like a twisting threaded puff of smoke, they vanished into the distance.  And, so too, we headed home.

 (See also the photo album)  

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