Long Beach Peninsula: America's Last Coast

Long Beach Peninsula: America's Last Coast

Brown W. Cannon III
Brown W. Cannon III
On the untouched Long Beach Peninsula in Washington State, time stands still. As the seaside retreat prepares to celebrate the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition, which ended here, Michael Frank returns to his childhood summer home to see the shape of things to come

It sometimes seems to me that I loved Washington's Long Beach Peninsula before I ever saw the 28-mile-long finger of land that dips into the Pacific at just the spot where the Columbia River shoots into the ocean. My father and my aunt had spent summers at Long Beach in the 1920's and 30's, before their family moved from Oregon to California. Until I was 10, when we resumed summering there, I heard about the magical sunlit shore, with its wide shelf of sand and its stacks of silver driftwood. I heard about the old lighthouses and the chain of tiny towns that cling to the peninsula's flanks like barnacles. I heard about my great-grandparents' Victorian cottage in Long Beach itself, and I heard how Meriwether Lewis and William Clark had come "in full view of the Ocian" (as Clark, that execrable speller, put it in his journal in 1805) at this very place, our place, our beach. As a child I loved the peninsula the way children love summer places—intemperately and unquestioningly; as an adult, I've figured out why, and have come to love it all the more.

In geological terms, the Long Beach Peninsula is quite young, having been formed about 10,000 years ago, when winter storms washed sand north from the Columbia River. Lewis and Clark ended their journey of westward exploration at its headlands, where they marked their names on a tree, forever changing the history of the West. Just 100 years later, during the area's heyday, sun-seeking Portlanders like my great-grandparents came downriver by train or boat to Astoria, Oregon. They took a ferry across the Columbia to the Washington side, then boarded a stagecoach or, later, the beloved narrow-gauge railway that until 1930 ran up the peninsula. The onetime daylong trip now takes 2 1/2 hours by car from Portland and 3 1/2 from Seattle.

Lewis and Clark's big bicentennial celebration begins locally in 2005, and for miles around, people are getting ready. The area hasn't looked this good in a long time. Museums are expanding, monuments are being restored, restaurants and hotels are opening. An eight-mile "trail of discovery" is being laid along the explorers' presumed path to the sea. Maya Lin is even designing a sculpture in commemoration of their journey. Finally, the peninsula is coming back.

I have visited the region for 30 years, and I find that every summer, as soon as I arrive, there is always a moment, several moments, during which I pause to marvel at its physical beauty. WORLD'S LONGEST BEACH, a sign asserts—maybe. Among the most untouched—certainly. While I don't swim here (the fierce tides pluck a life or two every summer), I do walk, for hours on end. And let the pristine air bathe my lungs. And beachcomb. And feel time slow down.

I pause on the beach, and at the lighthouses above it. North Head (built in 1898) reveals the finger of the peninsula, boldly pointing due north into all that ocean. From Cape Disappointment (built in 1856) you can see the wily bar where the Columbia River spills into the Pacific. "One of the most fearful sights that can possibly meet the eye of the sailor," said an experienced naval officer, Commander Charles Wilkes, in 1860. And it is as true today as it was then. Since 1792, when Captain Robert Graydiscovered the river, more than 2,000 vessels have been wreckedin these waters and some 700 people have been swallowed up in the place nicknamed the Graveyard of the Pacific.

But it's not all drama and dread. The peninsula has miles of grassy, deer-and-quail-filled dunes that accreted after jetties were built between 1895 and 1917 at the mouth of the Columbia to guide all the imperiled sailors. Its primeval woods are so thickly canopied and silent that when I hike through them I feel I have stepped outside of time. Its bounty is breathtaking. From the water come oysters, clams, crab, tuna, halibut, sturgeon, and salmon (which are much diminished but still manage to hang on). Berries, a staple of the Native Americans' diet, thrive here. Greens can be common (watercress) and less common (goosetongue, sea bean). Mushrooms are almost infinite (chanterelle, angel wing, shaggymane, slippery Jack). It's a feast, and local restaurateurs have developed what amounts to a peninsula cuisine in response.

Recently, when I paid a visit to the area, I began, as always, in Astoria, on the Oregon side of the Columbia River. The oldest white settlement west of the Rocky Mountains, it was founded in 1811 as a fur-trading post by John Jacob Astor's men and was where Lewis and Clark spent the miserable, rainy winter of 1805-06 (at Fort Clatsop, just southwest of town, there's a re-creation of their log stockade).

Astoria is a layered town—literally, since its center burned in 1922 and was rebuilt over the ruins, and in almost every other sense, too. It has 200 years of history behind it and 10,000 quirky citizens living in Victorian houses and Craftsman bungalows on steep, San Francisco-like hills. Artists—the photographer Robert Adams, the painter Noel Thomas—seek refuge in Astoria largely because of what Thomas, who paints in a former 1920's dentist's office near the river, calls its "self-pride." Astorians, he says, are "house-proud and lawn-proud, they are proud of their history and their old wharves and their old boats. There is a feeling of creative enterprise that has kept the place from selling out to the tawdry and the touristic."

Nevertheless, in anticipation of the Lewis and Clark bicentennial, the downtown is being tuned up. A train connects Portland to Astoria for the first time since 1952, and minutes from its station down by the river, the recently enlarged Columbia River Maritime Museum sets out the gloomy but glorious history of the nearby waters. The 1925 Liberty Theater, once a picture palace, now a performance space, has been halfway restored; the Hotel Elliott across the street is three-quarters of the way there. Chester Trabucco, an Astoria son, has invested more than $3 million in the 1924 building, producing a well-tailored boutique hotel with an Edward Hopper palette, gas fireplaces, and cedar closets in the rooms. The Elliott, Trabucco told me, is his way of "giving something back to the city."

I go to Astoria for its antiques shops and its used-book stores. Each summer I climb the 164 steps of the Astoria Column, a monument inspired by Trajan's Column in Rome, no less. Clad in a sgraffito pictorial frieze that illustrates important points of Northwest history, the column presents the land-and-sea-scape from so high up that it looks like a map. The skeleton of the four-masted Peter Iredale, one of the wrecked ships, lies aground in nearby Fort Stevens State Park, and is every year eaten away more poignantly by time and sand and sea. Food is a special delight: the farmers' market on summer Sundays abounds with berries, corn, goat cheese, smoked fish, and fruit that tastes as though it had been kissed by the sun. Restaurants range from the eccentric (the Columbian Café, where Uriah Hulsey spices his vegetarian and seafood dishes to order) to the calming (the riverside Gunderson's Cannery Café) to the elegant (Home Spirit, in a grand Victorian up in the hills).

For me, though, Astoria's most beloved—and useful—monument is its bridge. Lacy green, stylishly upswept, it carries visitors across the Columbia to the peninsula, where the first, southernmost town is Chinook. Named for the Native Americantribe, the settlement was so prosperous that in the freewheeling fish-trapping days of the 1880's it was said to have more gold per capita than anywhere else on the West Coast. Nowadays Chinook is known for having Washington's oldest salmon hatchery (well worth touring) and the Sanctuary, a first-rate restaurant run by Joanne Friberg Leech, whose grandparents and father immigrated from Sweden. Housed in an old white clapboard church, the restaurant serves Northwestern products with a Scandinavian twist: "Scandi-sushi" (made with lefse, a flatbread, instead of nori) and krumkake (crumbcake with whipped cream and lingonberries).

Next comes Ilwaco, once a bustling marina, now, with the decline of fishing, a town in transition. While it is still possible to go charter fishing from Ilwaco, the town is more interested these days in emphasizing its sleepy beauty and richly storied past. Home to the Heritage Museum, a trove of regionalhistory, and a fast-growing Saturday farmers' and crafts market, "It's like Nantucket or the Hamptons thirty years ago," says Bruce Peterson, a photographer, "on the verge of coming into its own." This is thanks in part to people such as Peterson, who, with his wife, Wendi, has started up a photography gallery that wouldn't be out of place in Portland. And it's thanks to brothers Jeff Marcus and Paul Coile, who in May opened the lively Pauly's Bistro. Marcus, who says the goal is "simply to have fun," has a whimsically organized menu ("Things with Which You May Start," "Things in Bowls," "Things on Plates") that manages to embrace both fish tacos and roasted pork tenderloin, all in a cheerful room with a sparkling marina view.

Hidden in a tranquil cove just west of Ilwaco is the three-room China Beach Retreat. It takes its name from the dormitories that stood on the site at the turn of the last century and were used by Chinese workers who labored in Ilwaco's canneries. The Craftsman-style house turned hotel is from the peninsula's best-known hoteliers, David Campiche and Laurie Anderson, whose Shelburne Inn, in neighboring Seaview, is the last surviving Victorian hotel of the half dozen that stood in my great-grandparents' day. Filled with antique dressers, patchwork quilts, and stacks of board games in the lobby, the Shelburne has an air of congeniality that makes you feel as though the owners are personally kindling the hearth even in summer, when there's no need for a fire.

The Shelburne is the cynosure of Seaview, a village that has no obvious center. The inn's location, on the main road, is one reason, but mostly it's because the hotel houses the Shoalwater, a top restaurant in the area. For more than 20 years Tony and Ann Kischner have been serving meals in the original 1896 fir-paneled dining room. Lynne Pelletier, the chef who works with Ann, combines classic saucing techniques—vin blanc and beurre blanc for example—with local berries, mushrooms, and herbs and matches the results with regional seafood. "Anything that grows here goes with anything else that grows here," Ann believes. "The approach goes back to the Chinook—though our sauces are probably a touch fancier."

Also in Seaview, and also excellent, is the 42nd St. Café, run by Blaine and Cheri Walker, who used to cook at the Shoalwater. For Cheri, peninsula cuisine is "partly about the quality of the food—wild salmon as sweet as candy, oysters crisp and minerally and like no other—and largely about learning how to stay out of its way." As soon as you sit down, corn relish, jars of marionberry conserve, and homemade bread appear on the table. Cheri's cedar-planked salmon and her eight-hour pot roast are unparalleled.

Seaview has one of the most appealing points of access to the beach, the approach road capped with a wooden arch. But before heading down to the water I like to take a tour of the Victorian cottages that bracket it for about 10 blocks to the north and south. Platted in the 1880's by Jonathan Stout, these lazy lanes still contain some of the peninsula's most enchanting board-and-batten, shingled, or gingerbread cottages. Some have been in the same family since they were built. Several are named, and winningly: hand-lettered signs read BAT CAVE and CRANK'S ROOST and CARE-AWAY and NO SEE SEA. The best, the black-and-yellow-turreted Schulderman-Collie house (1888) is under restoration but will soon emerge as the queen bee of Seaview it once was.

What can I say about Long Beach, the town that shares its name with the peninsula, except that not much has changed since my childhood. It's a town with a carousel, saltwater taffy merchants, and amusements for the kids—every seaside area has one like it. On a rainy day, it can come in handy; otherwise, it's probably a good idea to limit a visit to the Cottage Bakery (for a danish or a deli sandwich) and Campiche Studios, a gallery that sells watercolors of peninsula scenes by local artists and hand-tinted photographs made by its owner, Nancy Campiche.

Twelve miles north of Long Beach lies Ocean Park, which was promoted in the late-19th century as a gathering place for religious visitors. "Families may be safe from all contaminating influences," one early organizer promised. Today the quiet village is home to Catherine O'Toole's well-edited bookshop, new and used, and Jack's Country Store, whose oak showcases and shelves with track ladders date to 1885. A few minutes east along Bay Avenue, Eric Wiegardt, another of the peninsula's gifted watercolorists (he, John Campiche, and Charles Mulvey, who died last year, make up the core group), sells his work in a house that has been in his family since 1897. Wiegardt, who grew up in the oyster business, has painted in France, Portugal, and the Southwest, but the peninsula, he says, "still excites and moves me most of all." Hanging in his gallery are watercolors of crab floats and oyster racks, fishermen standing on the jetty, and Astoria street scenes. "The peninsula is an artist's paradise—those beaches and old buildings and boats," he says. "We have all of the subject matter Winslow Homer found on the East Coast. But because it's the Northwest, people don't seem to recognize it yet. They will, in time."

It's impossible to speak about the peninsula's north end without mentioning oysters—or at least their shells, which appear just about everywhere in tall, snowy mounds. In Nahcotta, which faces Willapa Bay, commercial oystermen work alongside independents like Larry Warnberg and Sandy Bradley, who raise their oysters without pesticides and with minimal handling. Their oysters appear on the tables at the nearby Ark, whose chef-owners, Jimella Lucas (she cooks) and Nanci Main (she bakes), were championed by James Beard early in their career. Since they started the Ark in 1981 the two women have published four acclaimed cookbooks and have set the standard for local cuisine. They were the first chefs on the peninsula to blacken salmon and update bouillabaisse (they call it potlatch and give it an Asian inflection). The dining room is a little too dolled up, with year-round holiday lights and geegaws, but it has an unmatched view of Willapa Bay, which is peace incarnate.

Four miles north of Nahcotta is incomparable Oysterville, the point of origin and place of rest of my friend Willard Espy. Wede, as he was nicknamed, grew up in the village and attended a one-room schoolhouse (it still stands) before going off to New York to make a career as a writer. His memoir, Oysterville: Roads to Grandpa's Village, tells the story of how the town, which was co-founded by his grandfather in 1854, flourished for a generation before the oysters died out. By the time Wede was born, in 1910, the village was in woeful, to him also rather wondrous, decay. (The oysters were brought back, from Japanese seeds, in the 1930's, though the town never again thrived as before.)

But Oysterville's decay comes with an epilogue. This is, after all, the West, a place of new beginnings and reinventions. Wede eventually moved away, into the wider world. His sister Dale moved from the wider world back to Oysterville. In 1976 she and her husband, Bill Little, helped get the town onto the National Register of Historic Places, and they restored buildings such as the church and the schoolhouse. The next year Wede published his memoir, and people followed the book to this special, sleepy hamlet by the bay, which today has a census that Sydney Stevens (Dale's daughter and Wede's niece) likes to break down into "fourteen full-time residents, forty-two part-time residents—and two ghosts."

And there you have it: a once-gutsy, busy, racy, raucous town (in the 1860's it had seven saloons—but no bank), on one of the most blessed and beautiful bays imaginable, falls on hard times and is forgotten. Then it gets a face-lift and eventually becomes so prized that a handful of newcomers decide to give something back: in 1998 they start up a literary foundation and name it for Espy, the hometown boy made good. They invite writers to come stay in its cottages for a month or two at a time, so that as they work they can listen to the tide in the bay and the birds in the grasses, to all of nature that vibrates here with such resplendence. Oysterville, like the entire peninsula, is memorable in every season, but summer, I know it well, is truly the best.

MICHAEL FRANK is a contributing writer to the Los Angeles Times Book Review and Architectural Digest.

The Facts

The Long Beach Peninsula is most buoyant in summer, but spring (rhododendron season) and fall (cranberry season) have their charms, too. Winter isn't bad if you like to cozy down and watch storms roll in.

Hotel Elliott DOUBLES FROM $135. 357 12TH ST., ASTORIA; 877/378-1924 OR 503/325-2222; www.hotelelliott.com
China Beach Retreat DOUBLES FROM $179. 222 ROBERT GRAY DR., ILWACO; 800/466-1896 OR 360/642-5660; www.chinabeachretreat.com
Shelburne Inn DOUBLES FROM $129. 4415 PACIFIC HWY., SEAVIEW; 800/466-1896 OR 360/642-2442; www.theshelburneinn.com
Blackwood Beach Cottages Individual cottages with kitchens, close to the ocean. COTTAGES FROM $149. 20711 PACIFIC HWY., OCEAN PARK; 888/376-6356 OR 360/665-6356; www.blackwoodbeachcottages.com
Caswell's on the Bay A Victorian-style guesthouse. DOUBLES FROM $130. 25204 SANDRIDGE RD., OCEAN PARK; 360/665-6535 OR 888/553-2319; www.caswellsinn.com
Washington State Parks & Recreation Commission Unusual accommodations—including the North Head Lighthouse keepers' residence. FROM $230. 800/360-4240; www.parks.wa.gov

Columbian Café DINNER FOR TWO $50. 1114 MARINE DR., ASTORIA; 503/325-2233
Gunderson's Cannery Café LUNCH FOR TWO $25. 1 SIXTH ST., ASTORIA; 503/325-8642
Home Spirit DINNER FOR TWO $55 (CASH ONLY). 1585 EXCHANGE ST., ASTORIA; 503/325-6846
Sanctuary Restaurant DINNER FOR TWO $50. 794 STATE RTE. 101, CHINOOK; 360/777-8380
Pauly's Bistro DINNER FOR TWO $30. 235 HOWERTON WAY, ILWACO; 360/642-8447
Depot Restaurant In a former train depot. Locals love Thursday burger night. DINNER FOR TWO $50. 1208 38TH PLACE, SEAVIEW; 360/642-7880
Shoalwater Restaurant DINNER FOR TWO $70. 4415 PACIFIC HWY., SEAVIEW; 360/642-4142
42nd St. Café DINNER FOR TWO $50. 4201 PACIFIC HWY., SEAVIEW; 360/642-2323
Cottage Bakery LUNCH FOR TWO $15. 118 PACIFIC HWY., LONG BEACH; 360/642-4441
Ark Restaurant DINNER FOR TWO $70. 3310 273RD ST., NAHCOTTA; 360/665-4133
Moby Dick Hotel & Oyster Farm The eclectic menu changes all season; in an atmospheric hotel. DINNER FOR TWO $60. 25814 SANDRIDGE RD., NAHCOTTA; 360/665-4543

Promoted Stories
Explore More
More from T+L