The Puget Sound is an unsettled sea that lies above the tectonically active western edge of North America. This large body of water is separated from the Pacific Ocean by the Olympic Mountains to its west and the Cascades to its east.
Glaciers occupied the Sound during the last ice age, advancing from the north. When they retreated some 13,000 years ago they left behind large deposits of interglacial sediment. These deposits, in turn, were carved by frequent rain and sea erosion to form high, unstable coastal bluffs, which were soon covered by a dense blanket of cedar, hemlock, maple, alder and fir.
As erosion progresses these trees slide down high bluffs in slow cascades that often take decades to complete from hilltop to shore. The process is sped up when the northwest rains are heaviest. Landslides can carry trees, sedimental clay and underbrush to the beach in an instant. Once they’ve settled on the shore the floral detritus enters the marine ecosystem, where it functions as nutrient, shelter and barrier.
In the last centuries, human structures have been added to this tumult. Houses perched on bluffs afford spectacular views and command high prices, but they also face the sad prospect of being splayed on the beach following a prolonged downpour. Much of this hilltop construction occurs with little immediate awareness of the risks, or the role of erosion in maintaining both the geological and biological integrity of the Sound.
Even the engineering intended to slow the inevitable poses serious implications for the long-term health of the region. A common response to erosion is to line the bank with black basaltic stones quarried from ancient lava beds. The proliferation of these bulkheads throughout the Puget Sound has resulted in a phenomenon called “shoreline hardening.” Approximately 60 percent of the Sound’s shoreline is now armored with stone and concrete reinforcements.
This happened to the beach where my family has lived for nearly a century. in the 1970s and 80s, property owners built stone bulkheads to shore up against sliding. It’s as though they could fix in time something that’s always in flux. The results of their intransigence have been devastating.
Within years the beach became barren. As a child, I can remember clawing a hundred Native Littlenecks and Manilas from the sand and clay beneath beach rocks. We let the clams sit for a couple of hours in a bucket of seawater, sprinkling cornmeal in so they could spit out stomach sand as they fed. Once full they’re transferred into a steaming pot where they open hinged shells to offer up their tenderness. Today I’m lucky to find one of these after 30 minutes of raking, though they might make a comeback should we remove the human fortifications that have denied them their nutrients.
Whenever I visit the Sound, I think of my grandfather Chum who loved this stretch of water and what it could yield to any of his grandchildren willing to put some time into it. Chum left us 20 years ago, and while his beach retains much of its scenic beauty and wonder, something remains unresolved just beneath.