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Hope Floats in Washaway Beach

In North Cove, Wash., entire blocks have disappeared under winter waves. Learn how community members are rallying to take on Mother Nature.

December 5, 2016
It’s usually Malibu that makes the news — every winter you see images of a storm that causes a multimillion-dollar beach house to slip and slide. Closer to home, there is one town where entire blocks have disappeared under winter waves without fanfare. It’s called North Cove, Wash. Haven’t heard of it? That’s because much of the community — the post office, school, the Grange Hall, the clam cannery — are gone, gobbled up by the hungry Pacific Ocean. If you have heard of this place, you may know the town by its nickname: Washaway Beach.
It isn’t all underwater. 
“If we lose this land, we lose land our ancestors walked on 10,000 years ago,” Charlene Nelson says, strolling in front of a spick-and-span village and pointing west over a braided wetland that glints golden at sunset.
“If we lose this land, we lose land our ancestors walked on 10,000 years ago,” tribal chairwoman Charlene Nelson says.
As the tribal chairwoman makes clear, people have lived in this corner of Southwest Washington for thousands of years: members of the Shoalwater Bay Tribe. There are homesteaders who staked their claim on this glorious spot south of Westport four generations ago, the cranberry farmers. There are retirees who have lived here for a few years. And there are free spirits who just got here, picking up waterfront property for the price of a used car. 
Everybody wants to stay forever. 
Beach houses on the Shoalwater Bay Reservation.
What’s new is that these disparate groups are banding together to try to save the place they call home. Something else that’s new is the scope of erosion. It’s cut inland so far that it threatens State Highway 105 and the multimillion-dollar cranberry industry that lies on the other side of the highway. As the community sees it, having two economic lynchpins under threat could be a good thing. More about that in a minute.
What you need to know first is that North Cove is the most quickly eroding place on the West Coast, according to the Washington State Department of Ecology. Storms coupled with high tides nibble at the shoreline. Meanwhile, scientists and engineers believe man-made projects have contributed to the erosion. The dredging of the entrance to Willapa Bay has shifted currents, while dams built on the Columbia River and non-native species that were planted for erosion-control in nearby coastal communities have starved the sand dunes that used to protect this beach.
No one knows this better than Geri Benson. 
“The difference in a 30 to a 50-foot wave could change the course of my life,” she says while calmly working on one of her many art projects in the colorful living room of her cozy home. 
Benson lives near the epicenter of erosion — a ghost town neighborhood where the neat grid of North Cove streets abruptly falls into the sea. One beach-house dream in particular hangs by a thread; the next storm may pitch the rambler over the sandy cliff where it now teeters in space.
A home teeters over the ocean on eroded land in North Cove, Washington.
When Benson, a corrections officer, retired to North Cove with her husband a few years ago, the ocean was farther away. Now, her husband has passed away and the ocean is in the backyard. Despite the uncertainty, there is no place she’d rather be. 
“It brings me life — the sound of the ocean when you sleep,” Benson says. “You know, I could see myself growing old here.”
There’s a house near Benson’s that gives her — and the entire neighborhood — hope for the future. It stands alone, surrounded by water on three sides. The homeowners have continuously put down rocks to armor the land against the waves.

This is the first time that we’ve gotten all the major players coming together, looking for one solution to our one common problem.

“They’ve now become this peninsula out there, and there were a lot of knowledgeable people who said ‘It will never last.’ But, that house has been like that for 11 years,” says cranberry farmer David Cottrell. “If they hadn’t done that, I don’t think anyone would believe that we could do what we are planning to do.”
Cottrell is one of the leaders who have rallied the community to take on Mother Nature. 
“This is the first time that we’ve gotten all the major players coming together, looking for one solution to our one common problem,” he says.
Neighborhoods and roads abruptly end in North Cove, Wash., due to the rapid beach erosion which has washed away blocks of homes.
And a solution has never been more desperately needed. The waves are now licking at the edges of State Highway 105. 
“The road itself is acting like a dike,” explains Nelson. “It actually protects our sacred tribal lands, our historical lands and protects the cranberry bogs, which are also historical lands.”
If waves breech the highway, saltwater would flood the low-lying cranberry farms that stretch for miles, all the way north to Grays Harbor. Saltwater would not only kill the cranberries, but it would change the map of Washington, according to Cottrell.
A farmer  tends a cranberry farm in North Cove, Wash.
“It would basically make Westport an island with Grayland as a little tail. That’s a pretty powerful image. It’s hard to get your head around even if you live here.”
Armed with that dire possibility, the community has gained the ear of the county. Pacific County Commissioner Lisa Ayers helped arrange public meetings in which homeowners, the tribe and cranberry farmers have made their case to representatives of the Army Corps of Engineers and the State Department of Transportation. The county has also hired an engineer to propose what could be done to stabilize the land.
“I think ‘fight’ is a good description of what is going on,” says Ayers. “There is a lot of community spirit. The next step is that we’re putting a package together to go to our state Legislature — [to] get some funding.” 

We are not giving up. We are going to keep working to save our homeland, our children’s children’s land.

The Shoalwater Bay Tribe is leading the way in this effort, in part because it has succeeded in getting the Army Corps of Engineers to restore a sand dune on Graveyard Spit, a $7 million project which provides a measure of protection for the reservation.
The goal is that something similar — but bigger in scale — could shield the larger area from pounding waves and tidal surges. 
“We are hoping that the Army Corps of Engineers will come out and nourish the beach,” Cottrell says. “Put enough sand out there to rebuild the dunes so that every 10 or 15 years, with a little bit of addition, we can hold that line.”
In the meantime, Cottrell is taking matters into his own hands. He got a small grant to reinforce the beach below the cranberry fields using rocks as armor — similar to the strategy that the one homeowner has utilized so successfully. The project will protect cranberry fields but could also save buildings, including Geri Benson’s home. However, it is not meant to be the final fix.
“We are not giving up,” Tribal Chairwoman Charlene Nelson says. “We are going to keep working to save our homeland, our children’s children’s land.”
“We are getting some Band-Aids on the worst holes in the hopes that we can hold the line until federal agencies can do the job right,” Cottrell says.
Will the Band-Aid hold? Will government agencies step up? As the winter storm season begins here on the northwest edge of America, the citizens of North Cove refuse to simply wash away.
“We are not giving up,” Nelson says. “We are going to keep working to save our homeland, our children’s children’s land.”


Made possible in part by

Jenny Cunningham

Jenny Cunningham’s favorite kind of story is the one she hasn’t done before. Whether it’s reporting for TV or writing for magazines, travel or tribulation, Cunningham likes discovering something new. At KCTS, Cunningham has covered everything from the history of Hanford’s race to build the atomic bomb to biodynamic wine to opera supernumeraries. Cunningham has been honored with television journalism's most prestigious awards including Emmy Awards and the Edward R. Murrow Award for Best News Series in America.

As a writer for magazines and newspapers Cunningham’s features have appeared in publications including the Irish Times, Sunset Magazine, Seattle Magazine, the Vancouver Sun, The Oregonian and Wine & Spirits Magazine.

Cunningham has a master’s degree in Broadcast Journalism from Northwestern University and she graduated cum laude from USC with a BA in Journalism and a BA in Theater

More stories by Jenny Cunningham

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<p>The area where the woman talks about her home near the edge of the ocean is not far from where my parents bought property back in the late 1970&#39;s and growing up we would camp out there all the time. We use to walk all over in the roads that are no longer there and even when my parents and i moved there in 1986 you had to walk a long way before you could see the ocean. Now at the other end of the road where i use to live with my parents is disappearing and it is very sad to see what was once a very nice area with people camping or living there full time now is all gone.</p>

This has been an ongoing issue for many years.  The channel of the river was dredged by the Army Corp of Engineers. Sorry don't have the time period.  However, if you really would like to learn about Washaway Beach visit Thomas (Pat) Doyle at Channel Point, Hoquiam, Wash.  He and his wife, Catherine worked diligently to get the old graveyard moved to across the highway.  Catherine (Jacobson) Doyle's parents lived there and Catherine attended school about a mile and a half out into the water.  They had to move their house to a corner of their property across the road. It once was part of a much larger piece of land. Catherine died recently but Pat could give you the history.  If you care and want a complete history Pat would be the source.  He is in his late 80's now and should be "mined" (so to speak) before he doesn't remember or dies.One of their children has a scrap book that has a bunch of history in it.  There is a great deal more to the story than you conveyed.Pat and Catherine Doyle were my neighbors when I was a child and I used to go to the home of the Jacobsons after church for Sunday lunch.  They were (are) wonderful, knowledgeable people and they worked very hard at getting all the graves moved as the coffins were beginning to wash up onto the beach.  Thanks for your story. It brings back many fond memories.   Julie HorneChico California    

we have been there about every year for several years. it is such a beautiful place. we watch and take photos of all the changes that have taken place since we first visited there. i did some reading of the history by looking up stuff online. i find it quite interesting but sad. this area belonged to all families,generations! it saddens me to see all the house stuff just go into the ocean when we try to be so consious of our environment,pollution dumping grounds that pollute our oceans. its all about money! who should take responsability? there should be a law against it. what will it be like in 50-100 years? i have met a lady who said her brother went to school out there!! not sure when the school was taken along with everything else. we would go to a place we called our island just past cemetary. just a little knob last time. there were some trees and brush. the trees i remeber had a couple crosses on them. wondd if lives were lost or it was symbolical .a an who took care of the cemetary has a memorial there. he was the caretaker. you can find info. about the people there buried some where. i looked it up before.the an mowed the cemetary and i discovered he was related to willy keil who came by wagon with family from back east. willy passed on the way! there is a rock memorial on the way to ocean shores along the hiway. it has been very interesting to me to do research on the area and peoples. to wonder what theyr'e life and land was like back then! i bet it brought great joy for them. it was theyr'e special place by thee pacific. they probably never dreamed or knew of the fate over the years! they were content as it was. there was a cannery, light house,post office and unsure what else. i am interested in abook to read,but don't know if one exists. we met a lady that works at visitor center in south bend who knows info. of the area. it is a very cool place to explore!

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