Washaway Beach: The Moving Entrance to Willapa Bay

January 29, 2009

  • By Kathleen Sayce

    In the past 150 years, the Willapa Entrance has changed dramatically. The earliest charts of this area in southwest Washington show a long spit arching down to the southeast from Cape Shoalwater, north of the entrance, and the main channel near present day Leadbetter Point, on the south end. Successive charts map the shift of the main channel northward over the next century-and-a-half. During those decades, Cape Shoalwater eroded into the surf from its south and west edges, and Leadbetter Point built up out of the surf northward. This situation is not unique to this or any other coastline, and serves as a severe reminder of the fragility of coastal lands built of sand. Similar stories could be told for Grays Harbor and Columbia Entrances.

    Around 150 years ago, when the first charts were drawn of Leadbetter Point, the peninsula ended at what is now the north parking lot at the point, on the last high dune. North beyond this dune was intertidal flats to the west of Grassy Island, which was initially mapped as a tiny bit of upland surrounded by channels and intertidal flats. At high tide, all of this tidal area was covered with surf. A small channel ran north between the spit at the point, and island and flats inside the bay; access was not possible by land even on minus low tides in those years.

    By 1871, a long narrow spit of dunes extended along the beach at Leadbetter Point toward Grassy Island. The spit slowly widened and built up, continuing to extend northward and slowly growing westward. Then, soon after the jetties were constructed at Columbia and Grays Harbor Entrances early in the 20th century, sand flowed ashore in larger amounts and the beach and dunes rapidly built westward; extensive wetlands were created in the area of the original spit and behind the westward-moving foredune. Leadbetter Point built north and west rapidly in the first fifty years following jetty construction, then more slowly, and steadily, it continued north.

    At the same time, Cape Shoalwater was eroding. In his book, <em>The Pacific Northwest Coast</em>, marine geologist Paul Komar illustrates the shift in the main channel and the loss of the cape with information from charts made between1871 and 1891. Even in the earliest complete Coast and Geodetic Survey charts in 1871, Cape Shoalwater eroded from prior records made in 1851. In the 1930s, Cape Shoalwater spit became the first unit of Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, set up to provide wintering habitat for Pacific Brant, which fed on eelgrasses behind the spit. At the time of establishment, this unit of the refuge covered more than 1,500 acres. But the spit was already eroding. It was basically gone by the late 1980s along with the Willapa Bay Lighthouse, other buildings, and eelgrass beds on the bay side. Cape Shoalwater ceased to exist as a refuge unit late in the 20th century.

    The entrance channel also shifted over these decades. In the last quarter of the 19th century, from south to north in the entrance were the flood channel (where water surged in on flood tides), the ebb channel (where it left on ebbing tides), and the long elegantly curved spit of Cape Shoalwater. By late in the 20th century this condition had reversed, so that one deep channel on the north end served to move most of the water in and out of the bay, with minor channels full of water at flood tide to the south, and a long spit from the south that grew north year by year.

    Actually the Willapa Entrance was probably changing all the time, but by 1911 there were enough old charts to document the shift. As the main channel shifted north, it abandoned a succession of old paths, which filled in with sand and became minor channels.

    This circumstance did not pass unnoticed, particularly by fishermen and coastal residents. Elders living from Grayland and Tokeland around to the peninsula remember conditions from the 1930s onward, and talk of dunes, farms, other lands and landmarks that disappeared on the north side as the channel shifted. On the south side, they recall the extension of the Leadbetter spit and annexation of Grassy Island.

    There were also hundreds of acres of intertidal shoals and dune fields south of Tokeland that disappeared as the main channel moved north. The last remains of Cape Shoalwater became known as Washaway Beach; ultimately dozens of homes were lost to the ocean — and continue to be lost to this day. In the 1990s, as the channel approached State Highway 105 southeast of Grayland, a short jetty was installed to stabilize the channel, protect the highway and stop erosion. You may judge for yourself how effective this action has been.

    Meanwhile, on the south side of the entrance, Leadbetter Point continued to build northward, and is now well north of Grassy Island, which some decades ago connected to land. The expansion on this side is over 1,000 acres in the past 100 years. The main channel of the 1850s-1870s has filled in, and an extension of the south spit sits on top of it. The channel between the island and point disappeared in the 1960-1970s, then ceased to be tidal soon after. These days, Grassy Island can be reached at any stage of tide, as a dune connects it to a former end of Leadbetter Point. The present point is a few thousand feet to the north of the uplands of the 1850s. The Willapa Entrance now appears to have three channels: the deepest one is on the north end, with two shallow channels to the middle and south.

    Why did the channels shift north so dramatically, removing one spit and building another? Geologists speculate that the channel may have abruptly shifted to the south side in response to the last subduction zone earthquake in 1700. For a short period of time afterward, the main channel may have been just north of the high dune at Leadbetter Point, running between it and Grassy Island. Then as sand supplies and ocean long-shore currents re-stabilized with sea level, it shifted northward. Euro-Americans arrived when it was about 150 years into that process. Now, 300 years later, we may be seeing the entrance at its north extension in geologic time. Without a full 300 years of charts to substantiate this hypothesis, we can only speculate, and wait to see what happens after the next subduction zone earthquake.

    Washaway Beach

    To see the north side of the entrance, drive west on Highway 105 past Tokeland to a series of short jetties, which jut out into the north channel about a mile from the ocean and Grayland. The deepest part of the channel is a few hundred feet offshore of this site. You can see entrance shoals and Leadbetter Point to the south, ocean shoals, beach, and a few water pipes-all that remains of several homes-to the southwest at low tide. Trees, roots and all, tumble off the edge of the dunes in this area, along with the remains of several buildings.

    To see the entrance from Leadbetter Point, drive north on Highway 103 to Leadbetter State Park, and north to the north parking area, which is on the boundary between the park and wildlife refuge. Hike west to the ocean beach, then north several miles on the beach to the north tip. You can also hike around to Grassy Island, now southeast of the present tip. No signed trails go up the east side of the spit to Grassy Island, so if you cannot navigate or walk easily over rough ground, do not go up the bayside.