A mile down the muddy trail from Washington's secluded and unsullied Shi Shi Beach, Gloria and Vinnie Vanwyen's cellphone was ringing. Grinning and flushed, with a feather tucked...
MAKAH RESERVATION A mile down the muddy trail from Washington’s secluded and unsullied Shi Shi Beach, Gloria and Vinnie Vanwyen’s cellphone was ringing.
Grinning and flushed, with a feather tucked into her hair and mud caked on her sneakers, Gloria Vanwyen exuberantly told the caller: “You’ll never guess what we’re doing right now.”
The Vanwyens of Tucson, Ariz., are new visitors to one of the Washington coast’s most scenic beaches, long the subject of backpackers’ lore and word-of-mouth directions. People have trespassed to Shi Shi via an unofficial trail for decades, paying local homeowners a few bucks for a parking spot on their front lawns or in their driveways.
And instead of trespassing along an old logging road and an unmarked trail, visitors can traipse easily along a flat, cedar-planked walkway.
The three-mile trail was a long-anticipated project of the Makah, who some tribal officials estimate have been working on it since the 1970s. It winds around private property owned by tribal members who wouldn’t grant easements for the trail.
Before now, the only alternative to the illegal route was from the south through national parkland. That two-day, 11-mile hike involves rope ladders, fording a river and following a tide chart to make it over headlands without getting stranded.
The tribe hopes its new trail now a leisurely day hike will bring more tourists to its far-removed piece of waterfront on the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula. Tourism could bring more money and jobs to the isolated and cash-strapped tribe.
The trail goes along with a revitalization plan for downtown Neah Bay, which has only a few worn-looking motels and three small restaurants mostly catering to seasonal sport fishermen.
Area tribes gave the Makah their name because of their reputation as great hosts; Makah translates to “generous with food.” That reputation isn’t so well-deserved now, tribal leaders admit, in part because of a water shortage that has forced them to halt all growth on the reservation.
Tourists come to go fishing and to hike along the half-mile Cape Flattery trail to the state’s most northwestern point, but they often spend only a day because of the lack of facilities to accommodate them in town.
“We’re trying to do everything we can, I wouldn’t say catering to the people, but trying to meet their needs,” said Makah Tribal Chairman Nathan Tyler.
Making a legal route to Shi Shi Beach was an obvious step, he said.
The Travel Channel recently declared Shi Shi to be one of America’s top-10 beaches. The two-mile swoop of sand meets steep, vegetation-covered cliffs at its back, adding to the beach’s sense of isolation. Waves crash against headlands, and, besides the sea life in tide pools, visitors sometimes see seals and whales from shore.
Most of the beach is part of Olympic National Park, but it sits between two of the Makah’s five traditional village sites. The tribe probably used it for bathing and prayer, tribal historians say.
“It’s a special and important place,” said Janine Bowechop, executive director of the Makah Cultural and Research Center.
Part of the reason for the trail is just to share “a piece of the paradise that we have out here,” said Alice Langebartel, realty coordinator for the tribe.
That thrills visitors such as the Tucson couple with the cellphone, who learned about the trail on TV and planned their trip on the Internet. But it upsets some who liked the trail better when it was a secret.
“I was very disappointed,” said Robin Leonard of the Olympic Peninsula, who first visited the beach in 1979.
“Hardly anybody knew about it … and then they started running articles in newspapers,” he said, adding: “It’s not bad for the Makahs because it brings the tourists out here.”
Del Davis of Seattle has brought his 7-year-old son, Jack, to the beach for the past three years for a weeklong camping trip. The two of them set up camp under a rocky outcropping and spend their days hiking down the beach and exploring. But this year, they spent half a day cleaning up after hikers before them.
The aluminum cans that littered their portion of the beach weren’t the only ones. Clothes, food wrappers and other debris were evidence that the beach has been fairly heavily visited this year.
But Davis said the new portion of trail made it an easier hike.
The tribe spent about $215,000 in grant money on the first mile of trial, which is part cedar-lined gravel trails and part cedar-plank walkway. The final one- or two-mile portion is the same as it always has been flat but muddy, even on dry days.
The state Department of Natural Resources awarded the tribe a $167,000 grant for the trail in 1997. Later, the tribe got a $50,000 grant from the U.S. Forest Service. The tribe doesn’t plan to improve the rest of the trail anytime soon.
It plans a grand-opening ceremony sometime this month, and after that intends to add overflow parking to the small gravel parking lot that is already built.
“I think the people are going to come no matter what,” Tyler said. “There’s no better place to come than here, because you’ve got everything here.”
Emily Heffter: 206-464-2420 or firstname.lastname@example.org