Sunday, February 17, 2019

Unsettled Sound

The Puget Sound is a sorrowful sea that’s separated from the Pacific Ocean by the Olympic Mountains to the west.

The large body of water lies above the tectonically active edge of North America. 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. 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 corn meal in so they could spit out stomach sand as they fed. From there into a steaming pot where they open their hinged shells to reveal tender meat inside. Today I’m lucky to find one of these after 30 minutes of raking.

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. While Chum’s beach retains much of its scenic wonder, something is unsettled just beneath the surface, refusing to be fixed.

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