A three-day adventure to this uninhabited island became a personal Swiss Family Robinson escape.
WILLAPA BAY, Pacific County — The herd of elk running on the beach was my first hint that Long Island wasn’t going to be a normal getaway.
When my wife spotted a porcupine peeking over a bluff a short while later, I was convinced that we had somehow leapt onto the pages of an adventure novel.
As I was to learn in the days ahead, everything about Long Island felt more like fiction than normal life.
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Never heard of Long Island, other than the one in New York? Join the club. As part of the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, this seven-mile-long island is hiding in the middle of a saltwater bay that’s better known for oyster farms than as a place to live out your desert-island fantasies.
But that’s exactly what we were doing. A three-day kayak camping adventure to this uninhabited island became our own personal Swiss Family Robinson escape.
The elk and porcupine were just the beginning.
Less than an hour after departing the boat launch, we were pitching our tent at Pinnacle Rock campsite, with a 180-degree view of the bay.
We’d heard whispers about a stand of old-growth cedars near the center of the island, and we set off in search of the ancient grove that somehow managed to survive the days of early coastal logging.
The trail simply marked “road” on our map was straight out of a Hansel-and-Gretel fairy tale with a wide path of lush grasses, ferns and wildflowers tunneling through the tree canopy. With a misty coastal sky overhead and a palette of rain-forest greens below, our walk felt otherworldly, and it carried on like this for miles.
The forest floor came alive with natural oddities. We poked at carnivore scat to uncover bits of hair and tiny bones inside. I narrowly avoided stepping on a little brown stick as it sprang to life and skittered out of my way.
The reptile had sandpaper skin and translucent feet. Thanks to a strong phone signal I gleaned that it was a rough-skinned newt, which shows a bright-orange belly when threatened and can be fatal if swallowed.
We would have been content to wander the lush path the rest of the day, but the centuries-old giant cedars turned out to be more than a myth.
As one of only two groups on the island, we had the stand of trees all to ourselves. We took our time inspecting their enormous girth and gawking at branches that were larger than most regular trees.
Instead of backtracking to camp, we decided to follow the beach trail. When we arrived at the shore, we were stunned by the sight of Willapa Bay. The large expanse of water we had kayaked across that morning had been replaced by miles of mud flats at low tide.
As we hiked, we detoured into the mud to shuck a fat Pacific oyster, but most of the time we hiked in wet sand where we tried to separate the fresh elk tracks from the bear tracks, and guess at the tiny paw prints that rambled from the forest to the beach.
Easy shellfish pickings
When I travel, I like to play a game called, “How would this place fare during the zombie apocalypse?” Long Island ranks pretty high on that meter.
Most of the western side of the island is a public shellfish beach where world-famous Willapa Bay oysters and clams are easy to collect (state shellfish license required, open year-round). In some places the oysters are so abundant you can’t walk without stepping on them.
Meaty Manila clams were only steps from our tent, beneath a few inches of mud. With a garden rake we uncovered handfuls of clams with each pull, and in eight minutes we gathered our daily limit of 80.
We lit a driftwood fire at our campsite and threw a few clams and oysters on the grill. Soon they were popping open, spewing seawater onto the coals, which sizzled with a briny aroma.
As we devoured our harvest, I decided that this was probably the easiest hunter/gatherer experience in human history. Yet foraging for my dinner satisfied a very primal itch that only helped me believe that I was living on a fantasy island.
So much wildlife
While the amount of fauna doesn’t quite reach Swiss Family Robinson levels (don’t expect penguins, lions and kangaroos), Long Island is simply throbbing with wildlife.
At dusk we saw raccoons slinking over the tide flats in search of an easy meal. From our kayak we watched a family of bald eagles reinforce its nest with driftwood.
One evening, we heard a tremendous splash and saw the moonlit silhouette of a deer swimming into the bay. We thought it would take shelter on Pinnacle Rock, but it kept swimming into open water until disappearing from sight a mile later.
On our final night, my wife woke me with a whisper, “I think there’s a bear outside!”
We’d seen enough fresh scat to know there were plenty of bears on Long Island, and the sound of snapping sticks was getting closer.
I roused from our tent, prepared to shout away a bear, but when I flicked on my light, I discovered another porcupine.
I imagined he was stopping by to make sure we knew how special his home island truly was.
As if there was any doubt.
If you go
Long Island is a boat-in destination, a short crossing from the boat-launch ramp at Willapa National Wildlife Refuge headquarters, near Milepost 24 along Highway 101, northeast of Long Beach. fws.gov/refuge/willapa/ or 360-484-3482.
Kayaks may be rented from Raymond-based Willapa Paddle Adventures, which organizes drop-off/pickup service (3-day single-kayak rental in August 2016, $240). willapapaddleadventures.com
Where to stay
There are five beach campgrounds with 20 sites scattered around Long Island. Each has picnic tables, fire rings and vault toilets but no potable water. Dogs are not allowed. The three campgrounds on the island’s west coast offer the easiest access to public shellfish beaches. Camping is free and first-come, first-served. Exception: During bow-hunting season, the first two weeks of September, campers must register at the refuge headquarters.
When to go
Long Island is open year-round and typically sees few visitors outside of bow-hunting season. You must pay attention to the tides when you travel by boat. Campsites are difficult to access at low tide.
Greg Johnston’s guidebook “Washington’s Pacific Coast: A Guide to Hiking, Camping, Fishing & Other Adventures” (Mountaineers Books) has a helpful chapter on visiting Long Island.
Willapa National Wildlife Refuge has a helpful web page about Long Island: bit.ly/2atSbyF.