On Sacred Ground

Surfing in the Pacific Northwest

Crowned by the snow-capped Olympic Mountains and running east to west along the Strait of Juan De Fuca, the Olympic Peninsula is equal parts robust and majestic. Bordered to the west by the great North Pacific ocean the Peninsula creates the northwest edge of the continental United States and is a rugged landscape of craggy peaks and temperamental seas.

Words by Matthew Vanatta
Photos by Ashley Camper

Crossing the Puget Sound by ferry, wind blows up and around the observation deck and the dark green sea laps up against the steel hull of the giant ship. From Edmonds, you head West to the tiny town of Kingston, all the while being immersed in the beautiful stretch of wooded coastline, ripe with bald eagles and marine life.

The Olympic Peninsula is an outdoor lover’s paradise offering a wide array of adventure and recreational pursuits for both the novice and avid outdoorsman and woman. An area well known for an abundance of salmon, lush rainforest, untamed peaks and elusive waves, the Peninsula is a dreamers dream of wild potential.

But right now we are hunkered down in a tent at Hobuck Beach on the West Side of the Makah Indian Reservation. Wind whips through camp and rain comes down in sideways sheets. Our tent is being lashed by a storm that most likely originated in the Bering Sea and is just now making landfall as we try to fall asleep. Shivering, wet and hungry we curse the reservation dog that hours earlier snatched our last pack of hotdogs as we mistakenly stoked the fire with our backs to him.

The Makah are an indigenous people that have subsisted off of the land and sea in this region for over 3,800 years. Unlike many other indigenous tribes, the Makah have been a mostly sedentary people throughout their history, as their innate ability to navigate and live from the North Pacific has allowed them to live and protect this land for thousands of years. We are here only as humble guests and we respect both the land and the sea that the Makah so generously share with us. Even hungry and cold in our tents, our hearts are filled with gratitude as we slowly drift off to sleep.

Throughout the night I toss and turn and dream about the day before when we were surfing fun and dumpy beach break waves in La Push. La Push sits directly South of Hobuck, but because of the rugged and roadless coastline, we have to push up and around, skirting the western edge of Olympic National Park on our way towards Neah Bay.

My co-pilot and I settled in at Hobuck and found a nice consistent left-hand wave just South of the campgrounds and shared it between the two of us until dark. The wave peaked up and sent us firing down the left-hand face and while it wasn’t quite barreling it would lift my 6’6 single fin slightly out of the water. I would free fall for the briefest moment before my fin and rail engaged and slung me out along the open face. We traded waves mostly in silence as the dark brooding sea continued to build.

The wind continues throughout the night and sleep is intermittent as there are moments when it feels like the gusts will take us away. The sea is churning and gurgling and the air and water seem as if they may envelop us and deposit us into the frothing abyss. Morning comes and as we unzip our sturdy tent the sun awaits us and shines through the fly. A beacon of light to guide us along our way.

As we slowly pack up camp, our bodies sore and cold from the surf and long night, we haphazardly throw wet and frozen rubber into the truck of our car. Slowly driving down the reservation roads we see the reservation dog that stole our hot dogs, he is trotting towards us with a dead rabbit in his mouth, reminding us of who is local and who are the guests.

Even though we are groggy and under-caffeinated we chattered on excitedly. Usually, the long drive back to the city is filled with silence and sad outlaw country songs as we city dwellers know we are leaving our sanctuary and heading back into the fray of daily life. However, today we know there is swell and there is a good chance that some of the hidden gems of this region are springing to life.

We drive slowly, checking the nooks and crannies along the way, but this is the Pacific Northwest and even if all of the tide, swell and wind factors align, waves are never a guarantee. Each time we pull off the main road we feel that familiar rise of anticipation, and each time we are brought crashing back down to reality, as the water looks as flat as a lake.

Our minds are racing as we inch closer to home. There should be waves, but we have been surfing this region for long enough to know that nothing is guaranteed on the Peninsula. We should be grateful for the goods we’ve gained and feel blessed to be in such abundant wilderness, but we wait months for these conditions and there is a palpable tension in the car. The chatter has all but ceased.

There’s one last chance, a long shot, a spot that can handle a variety of swell, but most likely isn’t working. It’s off the main road and we debate whether or not we should even check, the lack of sleep and core chilling coldness we endured over the last several nights is starting to take its toll. With the last shreds of our morale in place, we decide to turn our transportation towards the sea.

As we come around the final curve our eyes are transfixed on an almost unbelievable sight. For a brief moment, we stare in silence, jaws slightly agape, trading confirming glances. Directly in front of us appears what for a moment seems like an apparition, long peeling head high waves. We scurry towards the sea, park and throw our cold and damp wetsuits on with giddy anticipation.

As we sprint towards the water we start to notice some familiar heads bobbing in the lineup and we share a short knowing glance, not only are we about to score we are about to do so in the company of some of our good friends. We make our way into the lineup and exchange greetings with our brethren. For the next several hours we share head high peelers that are more likely to be found in a far off tropical archipelago than in a strange notch of coast in Northern Washington.

That’s the Northwest for you though – unpredictable, strange, beautiful. We bathe in the glory of our discovery until our arms cease to function and the painfully cold water zaps us of any remaining energy. As we fumble out of our wetsuits we share the story of our journey with our friends and wish them safe travels as we prepare to make our way back to the city, to our daily lives, to reality.

The sun sets behind us as we start the drive back to Seattle, we are too tired to talk much and the last three days replay through my mind like an epic film. Our passion for adventure and our love of untamed wilderness inspires and guides us. It allows us to navigate life with a sense of purpose and grounds us in a world of clutter. We dream of the land and sea that calls our names and we count down the days until we can return to these wild places where we can revitalize our spirits, where we can honor the past and enjoy the present.

We take one last look behind us as our ferry slowly navigates its way across the Sound, it’s almost dark and the last light slowly fades on the horizon. I reflect on the time spent here, about the people who are indigenous to this land, about the rich history and dynamic landscape. We find truth in the land and sea, we feel connected when held in the deep embrace of nature. We find our true footing, our true meaning, our true purpose, on sacred ground.

We find truth in the land and sea, we feel connected when held in the deep embrace of nature. We find our true footing, our true meaning, our true purpose, on sacred ground.

Share This Story:

Shop Related Products