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Winter Beachcombing

Beachcombers revel in the odd booty, from beeswax to sneakers, that winter storms wash ashore.

beachcomber Steve McLeod
Photo caption
Sole man: Artist Steve McLeod admires his latest find.

FOR THE UNINITIATED, the notion of beachcombing may conjure up a summer holiday at the shore: casual strolls across sun-warmed sands, with wavelets lapping at your feet, gulls gliding on soft breezes, and a pocketful of pretty shells to carry home as keepsakes. But as serious beachcombers know, prime time for finding treasures of the tide is winter and spring, when the surf runs high and the west wind howls.

Take last winter in Oregon, where I live. Beginning just before Christmas, a series of violent storms savaged the coast, delivering all manner of flotsam onto the seaside landscape. Huge waves bit into beaches from Astoria south to Brookings; riptides sucked the sand out to sea. After the weather cleared and the tide went out, you could prospect on shimmering gravel bars and newly exposed bedrock for fossilized snails, clams, and other relics of the Miocene era. The line of tangled seaweed that marked the tide's reach was strewn with debris: plastic rope, bleach bottles, crab shells, and the occasional Japanese glass fishing float, although they've grown increasingly rare in the Plastic era. There was petrified wood to be found, and a rainbow assortment of gemstones: carnelian, agate, jasper, even jade. Long entombed in beachfront bluffs, these prizes spilled out onto the shoreline as the rain-lashed sediments sloughed away.

After one such storm, a habitual beachcomber named Loretta LeGuee was scanning the sands south of Gold Beach, about 40 miles north of the California state line, when she spotted what looked like a gigantic golden egg. It turned out to be a 10-pound blob of beeswax that, according to archaeologists, had been part of the cargo on a 17th-century galleon—possibly the San Francisco Xavier, which ran aground near Nehalem Bay, some 275 miles up the coast. The local Clatsop gathered blocks of the wax to use in barter with other Native peoples. Indeed, the Clatsop were among Oregon's first beachcombers.

Point Reyes National Seashore, just north of San Francisco, has also seen its share of shipwrecks, beginning with that of the San Agustin in 1595. The Spanish galleon, its hold weighted with gold, silk, and other riches from Asia, fell victim to a storm while anchored in Drakes Bay. Since then, lucky hikers have, on occasion, reported finds such as pieces of Chinese porcelain from the wreck on nearby beaches.

What stroke of chance or destiny brings such artifacts across your path? That's one of the mysteries of beachcombing. Another one, often, is figuring out exactly what you've found, not to mention how it got there and where its journey began.

"It's almost as if these things are animated with a life and a story," says author Bonnie Henderson of Eugene, Ore. "You begin to recognize them as part of the natural flora and fauna." A Reebok aerobics shoe is different from a Nike cross-trainer that washes up on the same beach, and each has its tale to tell about drifting thousands of miles to that spot after a storm wracked ship spilled its cargo. As Henderson writes in Strand: An Odyssey of Pacific Ocean Debris, "Even when you can't get the whole story, the quest becomes a story in itself."

There's also a scientific value to castaway Nikes. If the coordinates and approximate dates of their launch and landfall can be determined, the data points can help calibrate a computer model called OSCURS (for Ocean Surface Current Simulations). Researchers at the National Marine Fisheries Service developed OSCURS in the 1970s to predict the trajectory of plankton and fish larvae. Since 1990, when a container spill released 80,000 pairs of Nikes into the mid-Pacific, Seattle oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer and his colleague James Ingraham have enlisted a network of beachcombers to report finds of the shoes and other items, from bathtub toys to hockey mitts. (You can read some of their more memorable anecdotes at Today, thanks to their work, we know a good deal more about the vast forces of the open ocean.

Ebbesmeyer is a confessed "filter feeder" for tales about floating objects. In his forthcoming book, Flotsametrics and the Floating World: How One Man's Obsession with Runaway Sneakers and Rubber Ducks Revolutionized Ocean Science, he gives a voice to objects whose stories might otherwise be lost—a bottle containing the will of a British heiress, an unmanned Japanese vessel that bumped ashore on Washington's Olympic Peninsula in 1927. "The literature of things that float on the ocean is so scattered that it doesn't make much sense until you compress it all," he says.

One of Ebbesmeyer's most passionate beachcombing acquaintances is Steve McLeod, who gained fame organizing swap meets so people could pair up right and left athletic shoes of the same size and model. Intrigued by his story, I tracked him down and persuaded him to take me beachcombing.

We met on a blustery March weekend to explore his favorite haunts and attend the annual Beachcombers Fun Fair in Ocean Shores, Wash. First stop was an isolated cove near Oregon's Cape Falcon. After rappelling down a steep bluff, we set out on black sands. Alas, the pickings were slim ("The wind is all wrong," McLeod groused), so we drove up to Ecola State Park, where we struck pay dirt. In an hour of hiking, McLeod found hockey gloves and aerobics shoes that were on Ebbesmeyer's watch list. My scores included a translucent gray agate and a black plastic fishing float exquisitely veined with cross-hatching. It spoke of days, perhaps years, at sea. "All those sunrises and sunsets," McLeod said, admiring my treasure. "There's a little bit of magic in it."

Afterward, I began to see how beachcombing can become an obsession. At the Fun Fair, I met a plumber from Forks, Wash., who showed me a photo of his fishing float collection—a pile in his backyard 50 feet in diameter and three feet high. Another passionate scavenger confessed that he had filled his attic with more than 1,000 floats. (His wife, fearing that the ceiling would cave in, made him move them.)

Since then, I stalk beaches with my head bowed, looking for treasure and stories. My float sits in my living room, inside a wooden calabash brimming with agates and fossil shells. Each is a touchstone; all are imbued with magic.

"The beach is a connection to the wider world," Ebbesmeyer says. "It's a window onto a part of the planet we rarely get to see. It's more than half our world, and often the only way we know about it is by what washes up on our beaches."

We've scouted the edge of the Pacific for beaches where you can start your own treasure hunt. Wherever you go, be sure to check local rules about what you're allowed to touch and keep.

For easy access, try the public beaches in Ketchikan (800-770-3300). To go deeper, hire a boat to explore those on Prince of Wales Island. The more out-of-the-way a beach, the more likely you are to locate ivory, fishing gear, and other surprises caught in the Alaska Current.

Root out weathered wood and big shells at Witty's Lagoon in the district of Metchosin, 13 miles west of Victoria.

From Tofino (250-725-3414), strike out for the white sands of Cox and Chesterman beaches, or rent a boat and head northwest to explore the western edges of Vargas and Flores islands.

Between the giant rock at Morro Bay (800-231-0592) and Cayucos Point stretch miles of pristine beach spotted with sand dollars and shells. Twelve miles north of San Luis Obispo.

Take to the 10 miles of sand at Gold Bluffs Beach in Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park (707-465-7354) with an eye for shells and driftwood.

Look for sand dollars and the wreck of the Peter Iredale at Fort Stevens State Park near Astoria (800-551-6949).

Between October and May, Lincoln City plants locally blown floats in the dunes and invites the eagle-eyed to seek them out. (800) 452-2151.

Try Iron Springs Beach, near Moclips, 30 miles northwest of Aberdeen. In March, see the winter's best finds at the Annual Driftwood Show contest or join the Annual Glass Float Roundup in Grayland, five miles south of Westport (800-473-6018).

A nine-mile ring of boardwalk trail delivers you to wild coastline on the Ozette Loop in Olympic National Park (800-833-6388). As you uncover mysteries of the deep, keep an eye out for bald eagles and petroglyphs. —Eric Smillie

Photography by Michael McCrae


This article was first published in January 2009. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.