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Village of La Push, at the mouth of the Quillayute River
quileute fisherman skiff
Quileute fisherman
The Quileute Nation is a Pacific Northwest coastal tribe in Washington state with strong and active ties to their cultural traditions: fishing, their language and art, and their spiritual and community values. The Quileute reservation, up until a year ago, was one square mile of mostly low-lying forested land at the mouth of the Quillayute River on the Olympic peninsula.
quileute children
Quileute school children
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Not far offshore is a geologic catastrophe in waiting, a massive earthquake along a converging plate boundary, where stress has been building since the last release on January 26, 1700. The date of that extremely destructive quake can be pinpointed by records in Japan, where the tsunami generated by that quake caused destruction, and by tree-ring data in the Northwest, which show whole forests killed by the land lowering below sea level that year. Oral histories of First Nations people on nearby Vancouver Island describe this event also: landslides, shaking so violent people couldn't stand up, villages destroyed.

It is a certainty there will be another of these earthquakes, according to geologists. When that happens, the land where the Quileute live will be inundated. This risk has been hanging over them for years, and one year ago, they finalized a land trade with the federal government that will mitigate the dangers to their community. Follow me below the fold for the story.

tsunami sign 2
toward higher ground

First, some geology to explain why this is such a hazardous location.

Tectonically, the big picture places the Pacific Northwest along the line where the very large North American and Pacific plates meet, as you can see in this global map (at roughly 50 degrees latitude N, 120 degrees longitude west).

But the geology is actually even more dynamic than this suggests. The very small Juan de Fuca plate, diverging from the Pacific plate, is being rapidly subducted under the North American land mass about 80 km (50 miles) off the coast of Washington state. This shallow subduction creates tremendous friction, generating earthquakes in the region, as well as volcanoes in the Cascade mountain range like Mt. Rainier and Mt. St. Helens.
The Juan de Fuca plate is actually the last remnant of the once much larger Farallon plate, which has subducted so far under North America, at such a shallow angle, it has pushed up the middle of the continent, forming the southern Rocky Mountains. Here is a sequence showing how the Pacific (PAC) plate has grown at its divergent boundaries with new lithospheric rock, while the Farallon (FAR) and other surrounding plates have been nearly eliminated by collision with less dense continental plates around that vast ocean basin, descending under them with their dense oceanic rock. The Pacific Northwest Seismic Network has several good animations of this activity.
The Juan de Fuca plate is colliding with North America at an average rate of 4.5 cm/year (1.8 in/yr). But this isn't a steady movement; it gets hung up at the interface and then lets go all at once every few hundred years in a big earthquake. The Cascadia earthquake 313 years ago was the last time this happened, and it measured a monstrous magnitude 9. Similarly violent megathrust earthquakes in Japan (2011), Sumatra (2004) and Alaska (1964) were caused by the same kind of subduction, and generated devastating tsunamis.

The geology of the Olympic peninsula represents a series of mostly sedimentary bands scraped off the incoming Farallon/Juan de Fuca plate and piled in overlapping slanted layers like a messy multilayer cake. Being less dense rock, it wasn't subducted with the rest of the plate, but the disorderly deposition has left eastward facing curves in the vanguard, pushed 2400 m (8000') up, forming the Olympic mountains.

Olympics from Seattle
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This lovely snow capped range is visible throughout western Washington, on clear days.

All of this is very recent, geologically speaking. The oldest rocks in the peninsula, on the eastern side, are 50 million years old The trailing bands of those layers, as young as 20 million years old, have accreted and been uplifted since then. That rock is visible along the coast torturously twisted and warped, and aligned in a general east-west orientation. This is called the Hoh Assemblage, composed of various sandstones, siltstones, and conglomerates, a complicated "melange". You can pass a cross-section of several geologically different layers in the bedrock walking down even one beach. Hikers who are curious about what they are seeing along a beachwalk can find good, clear descriptions here.

Cape Johnson, north, to Second Beach
Adding to the variety are loose boulders, sand and cobbles from very recent Pleistocene glacial deposits which have collected in the faster eroding stretches between headlands. Here's a pretty sight: pink sand washing down creeks out of Ice Age sediment deposits inland. The pink particles are bits of garnet, a heavy mineral that collects in the beach sand. This photo is from a creek at the north end of Second Beach.
garnet sand 1
Actively eroding in the path of incoming oceanic swells, the harder, more resistant rock projects as headlands and sea stacks, while softer layers have been scooped out leaving sandy or cobbly beaches, lined with driftwood, and swept clean everyday by tides and waves.

Sea arch and exposed bedrock, all photographed at the north end of Rialto Beach (except one 4 miles south - can you guess which?):

Hole in the Wall
fractured and curved
strata, flipped sideways
fretted erosion
fretted erosion
twisted sed rock face Rialto
twisted rock
offset sed rock Rialto
offset strata
horse?
wave eroded
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Much of the peninsula's coastline is protected as part of Olympic National Park, so these are wilderness beaches, accessible only on foot. Walking these glorious wild beaches awakens and renews, fills all your senses, soothes your spirit, warming and envigorating....and a new experience every time. I've been beachwalking out here for 50 years - many of these beaches countless times - and each visit is different. The dynamics of seasons, tides, winds, and waves tumble sand and driftwood, shaping soft rock, carving stacks and caves and tide pools.

Some wilderness beach moods:

Point of Arches
Point of Arches
north Shi Shi
Shi Shi Beach
gulls 3rd beach 2
Third Beach
Second Beach, sunset
Rialto high tide
High tide at Rialto. Can you hear the rattle of stones as the wave washes down the beach face?
Rialto Beach, with Hole in the Wall at the headland north
Navigating the Pacific Northwest coastline by sea is notoriously dangerous; it's known as the Graveyard of the Pacific. On western Vancouver Island just north in British Columbia, there is a 76 km (47 mile) coastal trail you can only hike by backpacking and camping. Old-timers call it the Shipwreck Trail, memorializing the hundreds of ships gone aground there, swept in by huge oceanic swells and unpredictable currents, usually in stormy winter gales, wedged onto reefs and shoals.

Even ships powered by the "iron wind" get into trouble, like the Soviet freight vessel Lamut wrecked in 1943 at Teahwhit Head in a storm. The crew's rescue on that night was only possible from land; it required bushwacking through dense tangled salal, and then shinnying along a knife edged ridge in heavy rain blowing sideways. Here's an account of that drama. The photo below is one from that collection.

Lamut shipwreck
Lamut wreck
mystery artifact
Sometimes bits of ships remain, like this mysterious iron piece I found north of Rialto beach. Any readers know what it was?

These rough unpredictable waters are the home of the Quileute people, who lived well off the bounty of the sea and lush forests here for millennia, intermittently warring and trading with their neighbors the Makah and the Quinalt until the appearance of white settlers. Like most stories of the collision of native and white cultures, the Quileute Nation was left, after treaties and an Executive Order in 1889, with very little land: about 1 square mile at the mouth of the Quillayute river, essentially their old fishing camp now called La Push (after a Chinook French influenced jargon "la bouche", meaning "the mouth").

1889 boundary of Quileute Indian Reservation (Wash.Dep.Natural Resources)
Originally this area was used seasonally, for fishing, whaling, carving canoes, making clothing and baskets from cedar bark, celebrating art, stories, history and spiritual life. The Quileute today are 21st century folk but the tribe today is also actively revitalizing their culture in the local school and many activities, to maintain a fluency among the young people.
carving
learning carving
quileute children cedar
pulling cedar
Children, and some adults, learn the Quileute language, almost unique in the world as one the the handful with no "m" or "n" sounds. It is unrelated to any other living language, including those of other Native tribes in the Northwest.
quileute alphabet
It uses 8 different "k" sounds. Some letters have no equivalent in English.Here is a brief video tutorial on the Quileute alphabet where you can hear the language.

The Talking Raven, the Nation's newsletter, has an occasional column with stories of local history and Quileute legends. Check out page 6 of the September 2012 issue. September in Quileute means “king salmon getting days”.

The Quileutes' economy is based mostly on fishing

smelt fishing, c.'50s
smoking salmon
fishing boat in the marina, end of the day
and tribal businesses, notably their Oceanside Resort, an assemblage of modest cabins, motel rooms and camping sites along First Beach. The tribe has expanded and renovated these over the years into self-contained, comfortable and weather-tight vacation refuges, even in stormy winter rainstorms. The Quileutes chose not to go the casino-route as many Native American tribes have (and the benefits of those to tribes are debatable). Instead, they attract visitors seeking nature, in one of the most beautifully dramatic wilderness areas in the world. Many come back frequently ("Hi! I'd like to reserve #29"). We spend a week here every year, taking day hikes on the beaches, in the forest, and then returning to our cabin to dry off and warm up. It is remote and not for everyone: cell coverage is iffy, no tv, no internet service. But the remoteness is a plus for many...the resort is usually fully occupied.
Old postcard of La Push. The resort is along the shore, the town behind it, and the marina beyond that.
The very small area of the reservation, right at sea level, and at the mouth of a river valley, means there are serious flood risks. Whether from inland, as runoff into the Quillayute river in this rainforest area that gets as much as 400 cm - that's over 12 feet (FEET!) - of rainfall annually, or from the sea, the village would be inundated. The river floods more frequently these days, possibly from deforestation inland, possibly from climate change shifting precipitation and melting patterns in the mountains.
quileute flooding 2
The concern about seaward flooding has always existed, but it became acute seeing the effects of megathrust-generated tsunamis in the last decade, most recently in Japan two years ago. Looking at this topographic map, we can see that the land rises fairly steeply uphill on all sides of La Push, and the broad channel of the river would be an obvious route for tsunami surge to power inland. Rising sea level will inevitably amplify flooding effects from the ocean.
quileute land topography
U.S. Geological Survey
View south on 1st Beach. The resort is on the left, with the cliff of Quateata headland at the end of the beach.
Mouth of the Quillayute River, looking downstream. La Push is around the corner on the left.
tsunami sign 1
on the road, uphill
The tsunami evacuation plan is to get to high ground immediately, on the one road out of town, should that still be passable. Since the coming earthquake is predicted at the plate boundary just offshore, a tsunami would arrive in just a few minutes. Folks would be left behind, including school children and elders.

The Quileute Nation spent many years appealing to the federal government, which owns the land around the Reservation, proposing possible ways to reduce these risks. With no sign of any movement, the tribe eventually used its leverage to draw attention to the issue. In 2005, they closed off access to the trail that winds from the road through half a mile of forest down to Second Beach. While the beach itself and part of the trail is National Park land, the trailhead is on Reservation land. And since the headlands at each end of the beach are utterly impassable, Second Beach - a favorite of many and a photographer's dream - was off limits. Suddenly there were lots of phone calls and letters and news stories. The recent attention directed by fans of the "Twilight" vampire series, set in this area, also generated interest in La Push.

After negotiations with Quileute representatives, Washington senator Maria Cantwell and Representative Norm Dicks proposed legislation to transfer 785 acres of National Park land at higher elevation to the tribe in exchange for permanent beach access, both the Second Beach trailhead and the southern end of Rialto Beach across the mouth of the river. That land was lost to the Quileutes in the early 1900s after a big storm changed the course of the river and the Army Corps of Engineers constructed jetties to improve access to and from the US Coast Guard Lifeboat Station just inside the mouth of the river.

quileute land transfer map
map showing final land transfer boundaries
The agreement would also restore Thunder Field, the land along the south shore of the river, an area of cultural and historical significance.

The portion of the new land uphill will be used for new tribal infrastructure, including the school and senior center. The Community Center is already up on the hill. At 76 m (250 feet), these sites will be safer when the megathrust tsunami comes ashore.

After dying in the 111th Congress, the reintroduced legislation passed both Houses last year and was signed by President Obama on February 27, 2012. This was a nearly miraculous achievement, considering how abysmally unproductive the 112th Congress was. To be sure, it cost no money, and both sides benefited. Still, I am amazed. Credit is due to the persistence and pragmatic negotiations of the Quileute tribe in bringing this about.

Many things are out of our control. People who live with nature know that better than most. With this legislation, the Quileute Nation has created a little breathing room for its people.

quileute canoe
Traditional Quileute cedar sea-going canoe, heading out

Originally posted to Backyard Science on Thu Feb 28, 2013 at 12:00 PM PST.

Also republished by SciTech, Native American Netroots, and J Town.

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