I AM WALKING on my beach with my two rescue dogs. The sand is only 300 feet from my front door in North Cove. It’s a foggy morning, but at the edge of the sea, the air is crisp and clear. Everything is pale and devoid of color: Gray-green dune grass blends into a gray-white sky. The ocean is dark. It is desolate, and I love it.

As gulls call from high above, a lone figure emerges in the distant gloom, walking toward us. I can’t make out who it is, but my dogs have better vision, and wag their tails and run. It’s our friend David Cottrell.

The Backstory: Using artistic silhouettes to help save the beach at Washaway

Cottrell is a cranberry farmer. His family has owned cranberry bogs in North Cove for generations. North Cove cranberries are known for their quality, and on the other side of State Route 105, there are 700 acres of cranberry farms and a multimillion-dollar industry. Cottrell’s father has passed away. His mother, Christine, is 88 and still helps with the cranberry harvest by “vining,” which is removing the berries from their vines. Until last year, she helped gather the berries. Cottrell also is the commissioner of Pacific County Drainage District No. 1.

This home was nearly wiped in January 2010 by a storm. The North Cove beach lost 700 feet of shoreline in 2009. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
This home was nearly wiped in January 2010 by a storm. The North Cove beach lost 700 feet of shoreline in 2009. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

The community of North Cove, established in 1884, is between the towns of Grayland and Tokeland in Southwest Washington; this corner of the Washington coast is one of the fastest-eroding coastlines in the world. The beach we’re walking on has been nicknamed “Washaway Beach.” Over the past century, relentless winter storms have claimed a schoolhouse, a lighthouse, a Coast Guard station, more than 50 homes and close to 2 miles of land. The ocean swallowed an unreal average of 100 feet of coastal land per year. A continued onslaught from the sea almost certainly would mean waves would jump across Highway 105, contaminating the cranberry fields with saltwater, cutting off nearby communities from services, completely wiping out North Cove.

The cause of the erosion in North Cove is multifaceted and began more than a century ago. Dredging of the Columbia River dates to the 1870s. The damming of the Columbia was proposed by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1910 to harness hydroelectricity, and the plan eventually was carried out by his distant cousin, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, beginning in 1933. The unintended consequence of building the dams has been the erosion of the sand spit that once protected North Cove. Channels and moorage basins have been dredged. All this digging and damming has created a circular cycle: As the channel moves north, southerly storm waves break close to the shore, greatly eroding the beach. And now we can add the impact of climate change, and rising sea levels that are devastating coastal habitats worldwide and creating more and more powerful winter storms.

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People from all over Washington, and other states, came to our beach to stare in wonder at homes falling into the ocean. Now people come here from all over the world for a different reason.

Cottrell and I walk and talk, my dogs dancing around us. He talks about the beach, the rocks, the movement of the sand, the grass and the driftwood. He tells me, “We are letting nature do most of the work.”

David Cottrell, a cranberry farmer whose family has owned cranberry bogs in North Cove for generations, walks with his partner, Connie Allen. Cottrell, Allen and other North Cove residents have worked to find a solution to the coastline erosion that has wiped out dozens of homes and 2 miles of coastline in the past century. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
David Cottrell, a cranberry farmer whose family has owned cranberry bogs in North Cove for generations, walks with his partner, Connie Allen. Cottrell, Allen and other North Cove residents have worked to find a solution to the coastline erosion that has wiped out dozens of homes and 2 miles of coastline in the past century. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

In Cottrell’s capacity as commissioner of the Drainage District for the past 18 years, he has studied the land and the sea of our area extensively. He has watched winter storms pound our eroding coastline, engulfing homes and other structures in their fury. In March 2016, when word came from the Department of Ecology and the Department of Community Development that there was no money to invest in saving our coast, and with his ancestral farm at stake, Cottrell began looking for solutions.

TO THE NORTH of us, in Olympic National Park, there is a beautiful area called Ruby Beach. Its unique coastline has stayed protected from erosion, unlike other nearby beaches. Geologists speculate that this is due to the abundance of naturally occurring cobble (small rocks). Cottrell had noted this, and he also read up on a study in 2003 by research scientists at Cape Lookout, Oregon, where the utilization of cobble — a relatively recent approach in shore protection called dynamic revetment — was successful.

The conventional technique has been a static solution of building sea walls or using large, boulder-size rocks, called riprap. The difference with dynamic revetment is that the smaller rocks move with the waves, taking the punch out of them, whereas waves can crash over walls and riprap. “You see a bluff with a large deposit of cobble at its base,” George Kaminsky, a coastal engineer with the Department of Ecology, says of Ruby Beach. “We haven’t seen any kind of storm that would really move it. It’s as stable a beach as you can get.”

A long berm created from rocks and cobblestones was placed along Washaway Beach. It has helped reduce the damage done to the eroding shoreline. (Marguerite Garth)
A long berm created from rocks and cobblestones was placed along Washaway Beach. It has helped reduce the damage done to the eroding shoreline. (Marguerite Garth)

Cottrell approached government agencies about the idea of using dynamic revetment at North Cove. One of the people he contacted was Charlene Nelson, chairwoman of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe. Shoalwater Bay Tribal lands are located just 3 miles south of North Cove, along the coast, where the tribe had been grappling with its own erosion problems. Over her tenure, Nelson has been instrumental in receiving government funding for many tribal concerns, such as wellness programs, tsunami protection and barrier dune repair. She has proven networking skills, and is on good terms with former President Barack Obama, Gov. Jay Inslee and the major players in government and private industry that intersect with this area. If you’re trying to find funding for a relatively new and untested coastal-erosion solution, Nelson is the perfect person to have on your side.

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Another key figure to enter our fight was Connie Allen, Cottrell’s life partner. As a former ship captain, she has excellent problem-solving skills. Cottrell and Allen were unsure they would be able to secure funding for the dynamic revetment project. Allen held bake sales, and she created the “Washaway No More” slogan, using the artwork to design and handprint articles of clothing that are sold at local retailers. These small, community-based fundraising projects provided money for the initial installment of cobble for our beach in 2016.

Cottrell says, “This is home. Why would we not fight to save our home?”

PLANS WERE DISCUSSED about how to proceed. A group was formed, called WECAN. In March 2016, Nelson wrote to government agencies: “We started this group supporting one another, and although our official name was Willapa Erosion Control Alliance Now, we were WECAN, and we believe these words.” Nelson sent out fundraising letters, saying, “Highway 105 protects the Tribe’s historic homeland and the historical cranberry bogs. It protects beloved homes and lands; it is access for all of us to hospitals, services and needs. The beach protects the highway and the people who live on the edge of the great ocean.”

Charlene Nelson, chairwoman of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe, has been a key person in North Cove’s fight to stop coastline erosion. (Marguerite Garth)
Charlene Nelson, chairwoman of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe, has been a key person in North Cove’s fight to stop coastline erosion. (Marguerite Garth)

In spring 2016, Nelson called a meeting at the Shoalwater Bay Tribal Center. In attendance were representatives from the state; the state Senate; the Army Corps of Engineers; the departments of Ecology, Fisheries and Transportation; the Pacific County Conservation District; and others. Nelson called it a meeting of “collective wisdom.” WECAN obtained a $50,000 grant from the Conservation District and another $50,000 from the Drainage District, with $10,000 in funding from the Pacific County Marine Resource Committee. The grant from the Drainage District required a 20% match, which was met by Allen’s community fundraising events.

With the grant money, two local North Cove construction firms were hired to transport the cobble to the beach and lay it along the shoreline. They have worked the past two winters and the current season, sometimes rushing in to lay rock just ahead of a storm. But the coast has held. In 2017, about 30 feet of land was lost in a few areas using limited amounts of cobble. With more cobble, and despite several king tide events during the 2018-19 winter, no land loss occurred. Zero.

In 2017, Washington State Rep. Brian Blake, who lost property in North Cove, and former Pacific County Commissioner Lisa Ayers worked together to obtain a $650,000 grant to determine the most effective solution for our erosion problem. Last April, the results were presented by Vladimir Shepsis, a lead coastal engineer at renowned engineering firm Mott MacDonald, to our residents in a meeting at the Tribal Center. Dynamic revetment was declared the clear winner and the least costly option. Allen says the study, “though expensive … gave our plan credibility to get more funding.”

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And more funding was indeed attained. With the study, and the choice of action determined, Kathy Spoor, the administrator for Pacific County, and Mike Nordin, district manager for the Grays Harbor Pacific Conservation District, put together a proposal and received a $600,000 grant for more revetment work to be done. Spoor is working on another large grant from the State Department of Transportation for the implementation of local revetment. The work that has been done is holding, but funds will be needed annually to reinforce the revetment. Spoor says media attention of Washaway Beach and “the local tenacity, perseverance and knowledge of the beach created a perfect storm for the major players to come aboard.” Blake says he is “ecstatic with the results.”

Silhouettes, like this one, have been set up overlooking the North Cove beach at the end of Sea Mobile Road to help photographers monitor coastline erosion. The silhouettes represent the likeness of North Cove residents. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Silhouettes, like this one, have been set up overlooking the North Cove beach at the end of Sea Mobile Road to help photographers monitor coastline erosion. The silhouettes represent the likeness of North Cove residents. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

Nelson puts it this way: “Political people backed us because we were so active, and we had a good idea.”

OUR BEACH SOLUTION has attracted national and worldwide interest. Film crews have come from PBS, NBC and the Netherlands to document the changes, and scientists from Great Britain have tracked rock movement in North Cove.

Local construction crews are working on our beach to prepare the coast for the next winter storms. In 2018, Cottrell had the idea to lay down an initial defensive mound of cobble to protect a dune that was starting to form. This concept worked so well, it’s being implemented along the whole beach. Allen calls the idea “wave trippers”; Cottrell calls the piles “speed bumps.” As the waves come ashore, they roll with the first rise of small rocks, depositing sand in between and on the cobble that lines the shore, building dunes and places where dune grass can take hold.

“Dune grass is the sign of a healthy beach,” Cottrell says. In some areas, the beach has widened 50 feet or more, the past three years. Dunes and beachgrasses are starting to flourish.

The attitude of North Cove residents also is shifting. Ken Smoak, owner of one of the construction firms that worked on our beach, says he is “happy to be a part of the solution.” His wife, Mary, says, “There was no hope before. Now there’s hope.”

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Angela Bridges, whose property with her partner, Russell McDaniel, sits right on the shoreline, says, “We’re looking forward to a peaceful retirement at the beach now.”

Marguerite Garth, with her rescue dogs, Fiona, left, and Saoirse, is part  of the North Cove community trying to solve the problem of erosion at the beach, known for decades as Washaway Beach. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)
Marguerite Garth, with her rescue dogs, Fiona, left, and Saoirse, is part of the North Cove community trying to solve the problem of erosion at the beach, known for decades as Washaway Beach. (Mike Siegel / The Seattle Times)

But the fight is not over. Things do look promising, but, as Nordin warns, “We are not done yet. We must stay vigilant. We are managing, not conquering, Mother Nature.”

Personally, I feel proud to be a member of the North Cove community. We are a resilient bunch, always willing to lend each other a hand. I am one of those people that “live on the edge of the great ocean.” It’s something I appreciate every day.