Death Beach

The slow, rhythmic crash and retreat of waves on the stony gray beach. Fog rolling in off the Pacific ocean. Entranced by the scene set by nature in this foreign, harsh region, I wandered up the shoreline, loosely following my brother’s tracks through the mist. We could see perhaps half a mile or less before the smoky bubble surrounding us thickened into a wall. The veil seemed to travel with us, as though receding at our advance and snapping at our heels, creating a dichotomous aura of eerie captivity and comforting envelopment.
We’d long since passed the last human presence on the beach. Not another soul had graced the shoreline at Elk Prairie National Park during the last hour of our trek. That afternoon we’d hiked four miles through a gigantic coastal Redwood forest, the first leg in a planned twelve mile loop. After our exodus from the forest, a wonderland and enclosure of an entirely different kind, the plan was to walk two miles up the mineral beach before turning inland again. But as yet unbeknownst to us, we’d missed our turn. We’d gotten too caught up in the search for an ever more perfectly round stone on the beach, or perhaps the ocean, the most ancient siren, was trying to lull our senses long enough to ensnare us in her long, foggy tendrils, to bog us down until high tide or a crashing sneaker wave could drag us, entranced and unaware, to a watery grave.

The beach was vastly different from anything I’ve seen out East. The water at low tide was calm, sending long, shallow waves yards up the shore. Instead of smashed shells, the dark gray sand was littered with smooth stones in varying shades of blue, white, pink and green. Rock monoliths protruded out of the water off the shore in the distance. The ocean, like the air, was cold, despite the diffused sunshine.

The place was one of the few special areas in the world where the forest extends almost to the beach with a short transition of thick, six-foot grass, smaller trees and dense shrubs standing between the ancient arboreal Redwood giants and the ocean. For a while, the peaceful scene stood in stark contrast to signs passed earlier warning us of tsunamis and sneaker waves, the serenity of the place in the present belying the seismic violence sometimes visited upon it.

However, as we traveled farther and farther north we began to see fewer signs of life. The already sparse stands of beachgoers and seagulls disappeared in the mist, replaced on the empty beach by piles of desiccated, dissected crab carcasses. They lay at intervals in clusters, both shattered and intact carapaces from a few inches to eight or nine across – the remains of young and old alike surrounded by limbs and joints, broken claws and mandibles scattered about the bodies. Every now and then we’d pass a fresh carcass, its limbs still articulated and limber enough to pose, but its body eaten or rotted out from the bottom as though some worm had colonized the thing and chewed away at it from the inside out until with the last of its failing strength it had crawled out of the dunes toward the ancestral burial grounds of its brethren and, utterly spent, collapsed beside the sea. We passed many of these solitary sentinels intact amongst fields of older fractured skeletons, their bodies slumped forward in the sand, resignedly awaiting their own disarticulation by time, or scavengers, or the tide.

Soon after the crabs appeared, we began to find the bodies of seagulls, equally stiff and dry, the flesh long gone from their bones, leaving only a mass of feathers, tiny skulls and scaly feet. Gradually the numbers of dead seagulls and crabs increased, littering the beach with their remains to the point where the place was robbed of its former peace and the aura replaced with an eerie desolation – until we came upon the largest deposit of all.
Here avian and crustacean alike lay dead side by side. Several intact members of each species rose like islands amid the wreckage of their comrades’ bodies, only recently begun to degrade themselves into the field of mouldy feathers, claws, skulls and thinning chitin. I could imagine a monumental battle taking place: legions of crabs rising out of the surf, claws clacking ominously in a staccato war-marshall as they marched to meet their avian foes. An alliance of seagulls, having quit their usual squabbles to address this revolutionary threat, circled at the ready above the crustacean advance, calling out their ranks and orders from the mist above the chosen killing field.
A reef of sand crabs lay dead in the tidewash, perhaps the ill-fated vanguard of the invertebrate advance. At least a hundred perished and were swept ignobly into a gulley below the main graveyard, sacrificed for the cause of freedom from predation heralded by the union of their once populous nation with the armies of their larger cousins. What heroism and villainy must have transpired on that rocky beach; what incredible struggle and destruction from the collision of haughty predator and rebellious prey on such a brutal, primal mustering grounds where met the forces of revolution and of status.

But in the end, what tragedy. It would seem that none of the many participants understood that their world, so harsh and terrifying for the fearful, scuttling crab, so spare and lonely for the circling, hungry gull, had always been at balance and fair. Mother nature is indiscriminate in the giving and taking of life. All creatures, whether they make their home in the dunes and the waves or circle the ocean of the sky must die and become nourishment for the next generation of life. In their rebellion and retribution the two warring nations seemed to have accomplished nothing but the untimely hastening of the inevitable. No crabs scurried across the dunes or bubbled beneath the surf here. No gulls cried out for joy to the hunt or for loneliness to the waves any longer. The beach was quiet, and still. The fractured warriors, revolutionary and overlord alike, had as one given up their ghosts.
I, a transient observer, took in the scene quietly, and moved on. Not long after, I passed a solitary crab on a smooth patch of beach, slumped face-forward in the sand. Johnny, walking ahead of me, had stood up a single gullfeather beside it – a fittingly sanitized and solemn monument to the tragic destruction of the CrustAvian War.

After the battlegrounds we encountered a tidepool nestled under a ten foot sand ridge, but upon approaching found it dried up. We could tell just where the last pockets of water had pooled because hundreds of tiny fish lay stacked and stinking on top of each other atop the cracked silt. We weren’t even surprised anymore at that point. After walking for an hour and a half, the last hour or so in total isolation, and encountering many more dead things, we began to look in earnest for our point of exodus from that God-forsaken beach. We had exited the redwoods earlier onto a gravel road traveling north to south between the beachside scrub and the forest, then taken a short path through a cleared beachside campground toward the ocean and turned north. The trail we planned to take is rather poorly documented, and the only guide I could find instructed us to walk two miles along the shore before taking a right turn back toward the road, marked only by a “notch” in the wooded bluffs backed up the old growth forest. That should have been a red flag in the planning stage, but for better or worse it went undetected.
We’d been walking on the harder packed wet sand by the water’s edge for most of the trip, which was a gamble because the tide had deposited a sand bank between the ocean and the main expanse of the beach tall enough to obscure our view to the scrub and potentially to our turn-off. After making the decision to brave the more punishing dunes above, we rested a moment on a massive, gnarled bleached-white tree trunk upended in the sand bank before turning inland. About fifty meters of dry sand stretched between the scrubline and the tide ridge, dotted with bleached driftwood and small tufts of hardy grass. As we crossed over and walked along the dunes beside the scrub, the fog lifted enough to see farther down the beach – too far. There was nothing but emptiness for a mile or more in either direction.
We were getting worried. The afternoon was wearing on, and if we didn’t find the path soon we’d have to admit defeat, turn around and once again slog across the interminable expanse of what we’d by that point dubbed Death Beach – or risk stubbornly overextending our hike and getting caught on the cold, windy dunes at nightfall in sneaker-wave territory with no equipment and dwindling supplies of water and food.
Neither option sounded particularly attractive. The earlier trance of the place thoroughly broken, we grumbled and stumbled stubbornly on, unwilling to make a decision.

Eventually we spotted signs of life – two actual, factual human beings far off in the distance. They had to have come from somewhere, and maybe, just maybe, they’d know where our trail was. Elated, we picked up our pace. But after about ten minutes of speedwalking through sand, our quarry was hardly getting closer, and we were burning precious calories and daylight. We made the decision to split up. Johnny would make a scouting run through the scrub to try and find the gravel road, which in theory should have been just a couple hundred yards away, while I doggedly continued to chase the mysterious figures ahead.

Elk Prairie National Park, one of several public lands that make up Redwood National Park, is so named because of the large elk herd that roams the beaches, meadows, and forests of the protected land reserve. We’d first encountered elk on the rim of the Grand Canyon the week before when an enormous cow sauntered across our path outside the campground. It was taller than me at the shoulder, and the bulls are even bigger. We’d seen some grazing around the park entrance here, and we’d been warned that there was a very territorial part of the herd that liked to hang out around the entrance to Fern Canyon, which happened to be the next stop for which we were searching on our ill-fated trek. In retrospect, it probably wasn’t the best idea to send my fifteen year old brother thrashing through the scrub alone in elk country with a high probability of surprising a group of aggressive, twelve hundred pound animals. But I mean, I’d have done it if I were alone, so I figured what the heck. Neither of us wanted to spend the night on that beach.

After a few minutes, Johnny came running out of the scrub, frantically waving his arms. He hadn’t found the road, but he had found the herd.

Luckily he’d managed to sneak off undetected and decidedly untrampled, gored, or otherwise irresponsibly damaged in a manner that would be difficult to explain to the parental units, but either way, we hadn’t found a path out and the distraction had cost us much of the precious little ground we’d gained on our human quarry. At the end of our rope, despairing of catching up, and running demoralizingly low on trailmix, we decided to walk a little farther north of the herd and launch a last ditch effort to bushwhack to the road, path or no path.

Up to this point Johnny had been periodically groaning about what had originally been planned as a two overnight, three day backpacking trip in the park but which had been compromised down to our ill-fated twelve mile day hike instead. Our current predicament would seem to validate his complaints. But after the elk incident, I’d noticed a change in his attitude. This was a real adventure now. If we didn’t play our cards right, there was a very real chance that we wouldn’t make it. This was an unforgiving region that claimed lives nearly every year. In reality, the chance was very small, but still there, and we both knew it. Our search began to take on a new sense of excitement.

Finally forsaking our quarry ahead, we turned inland. This was my first foray into the no-man’s land between the sea and the forest, and as usual, tough it may have looked like a straightforward passage from the beach to the road on the hazily remembered map, the reality was much different. Perhaps fifty meters of bushes and sparse greenery quickly gave way to towering tufts of tough, tawny grass. My first step into the thicket fell about a foot below previous ground level and I found myself consumed by a dense sea of grass, sharp blade edges at once proclaiming the displeasure of the residents of this unlikely wet-land savannah at our passing. As I followed Johnny’s head, bobbing through the top of the grass on its six foot five perch, I suppressed the image of a giraffe with a snicker and gratefully followed my much taller brother toward the distant wall of trees.

Just as I was beginning to feel somewhat claustrophobic and running out of patience with the mega-prairie’s angry protest against the integrity of my epidermis, we burst through the grass into a grove of small trees, whose understory, much to my chagrin, was populated by somewhat shorter – about hip-height – grass. At least I could see again.

Johnny leveled a look at me as if to say, “Great idea. Now what?”. There was no road in sight. I shrugged and said, “Lead on.”

We began picking our way through the forest’s underbrush, feeling very much like explorers in a foreign land. There is very little left in the geography of our world that has not been discovered by humans, and what remains is probably better off that way. But as others have done before and will do again – when desiring adventure but left without an unexplored place, the solution is simple: throw out the map. Our knowledge of this place amounted to the cumulative research conducted in about half an hour in a cricket-infested hotel room somewhere the central California valley a few days before and what we’d gleaned from reading exhibits at a visitor center earlier that morning. This environment was the furthest thing from what we’d expected to encounter in Redwood National Park. We knew our way around forests and the typical dangers thereof, but this was something entirely different. Who knew what could be lurking in the grass or crawling through the mud, just waiting to pounce?

A string of expletives interrupted my thoughts as something stung my leg, and continued stinging it as I crashed through the vegetation in an ineffectual attempt to distance myself from my attacker. I caught up to Johnny in a clearing, skin burning and stinging still in several places. “What the hell was that!?” It had gotten him too. Stinging nettle is not so vicious as that in New Jersey, but then again, our resident members of the deer family are not twelve hundred pounds either. It probably takes more venom to deter an elk’s appetite.

It was obvious at this point that we weren’t going to find the road quickly, and if we continued searching we risked wasting precious time as the hour marched toward our temporal point of no return, when it would be too late to make it out of the forest before sundown even if we turned back the way we came. A steep wall of rock sloped up beyond the clearing, blanketed in small trees that kept us from seeing how high it climbed. We were in the heart of elk territory now, not far from where Johnny had spotted the herd, and we were wasting daylight. We needed to move.

A few months before, toward the tail end of my service year with AmeriCorps, a friend had given me a gook about the psychology of survival – a look into the minds of those who make it out of desperate situations, those who don’t, and those who understand how to stay out of bad situations in the first place. Predictably, most people who avoided life or death situations in the same context as others who hadn’t, such as hikers on the same trail, climbers on the same mountain, or sailors on the same seas, were successful because they were much better prepared far in advance. They studied the maps, they knew the dangers, they avoided predictable bad weather or dangerous routes. They learned what they needed to in order to avoid a desperate situation long in advance. In other words, survivors of Everest, or solo ocean voyagers, or deep backcountry adventurers dared greatly, but thought hard first.

These were the ones who by the combination of their own preparation and chance or God’s good graces never encountered a life or death scenario for most of their careers, until one day something went wrong. The book presented a number of case studies where adventurers on another expedition of a type that had always completed successfully before, or just hikers on a mundane trip, made a small, usually irrational mistake that had the chance to snowball into a catastrophe if not checked quickly.

An experienced, fit, veteran hiker, climber seaman or other adventurer would go out on what seemed like a routine trip to them, something they had accomplished many times before in similar context. Then, something small would go wrong: they would realize they had used more water than planned, or the temperature was sightly higher than expected. Maybe they sustained a minor injury, or realized they took a wrong turn and that backtracking to the right path would leave them with too little time to reach their planned destination safely. What would often happen would be that the person had planned their trip so meticulously and for so long that they wouldn’t or couldn’t bring themselves to see their view of the future, their well-laid plan, change. To turn around, to re-evaluate, to admit the possibility that completion of their goal was no longer safely possible, was emotionally painful and rationally distasteful in light of the relative sacrifices undertaken to bring the person to the execution of their plan.

The author makes a very convincing case for the answer to the mystery of how experienced, intelligent people continually make simple but lethal mistakes, backed by studies conducted by similarly puzzled researchers. A combination of rational cost analysis given urgency by a powerful subconscious, emotional force which resists the reconfiguration of a preconceived plan that points toward the emotional gratification promised by summiting the mountain, completing the voyage, or successfully navigating through a storm to a destination pushes people to shortcut the trail, continue into weather threatening a storm, or push on toward the end of a wilderness trail with a rolled ankle.

The book delves into the role of the subconscious as a primal survival mechanism and its influence on rational thought in dangerous situations, with the goal of making the point that though modern man supposes himself so far removed from the visceral world of nature, we would do well to understand how the vestiges of our own emotional survival mechanisms influence us to this day. It’s an exploration of a very complex system and makes for a fascinating read. I finished the book, called “The Science of Survival” a couple months before this trip and had given it to Johnny, who was reading it concurrently.

In that clearing, we were at the pivotal point in our own case study. We had the benefit of youthful fitness which can absorb a lot of physical punishment resulting from blunders in the wild, but other than that we were unprepared. We had little useful knowledge of the flora and fauna in this region, nor its weather patterns. We had no map. Our supplies of food and water, prepared only for a day hike, were dwindling. We had no wet or cold weather gear and no camping supplies. Basically, we had researched, prepared, and equipped ourselves only for a moderately ruged day hike through marked trails in a relatively familiar arboreal ecosystem – but that wasn’t what we encountered.

Perhaps, if we subscribe for a moment to the arguments of the aforementioned author and of my college psychology professors, I had made an irrational connection in the planning process when reading through the part of the trail guide that said the turn off the beach would be hard to see, as it was marked only by two notches in a cliff. I’d found the trail in what at the time seemed like worse places with more ambiguous instructions before and no negative consequences, so why should I be worried now? However, the part of my brain that instantly bypassed thought and emotionally connected ambiguous trail-markings with ultimate success at a rewarding challenge failed to synchronize with the rational part that would have told me that in every one of those instances I lost a significant amount of time mucking about the woods, or the basalt lava flow, or the mountain bald trying to find the trail – but I was fully equipped with gear and supplies which allowed me to camp wherever I wanted in a warm tent and eat and drink my fill with a minimal amount of added discomfort when I could no longer reach my pre-planned destination in time, thereby absorbing the negative connotation of that lost time with a more powerful sense of success and adventure.

Here, on the fringes of Death Beach, three thousand miles from home in a foreign ecosystem, we did not have the luxury of gear and supplies, and so learned a valuable lesson in the importance of contingency planning.

That clearing was the point in the case study where the outcome could go several ways – we could have stubbornly persisted in our belief that the road was right over the ridge where it “should” be according to my likely faulty mental image of the map and overconfidently muscled our way into the forest, traveling farther and farther off the beaten path. We could’ve easily gotten lost, injured, dehydrated, disoriented and stranded in the dark, damp, and increasingly cold forest. We were off the trail and no one knew exactly where we were. Or we could have said to hell with the road to hell with going back, and walked on down the beach in search of wherever the people we’d seen earlier had come from, though they could’ve been as lost as us – and just as easily been caught on the beach at nightfall, and high tide.

Right there, we were in very little real danger. But as I considered our options I had to wonder at how easy it is to misstep; how we are only ever moments from death, and one seemingly small choice can tip the scale between adventure and catastrophe.

Luckily, when you have an active imagination and someone else’s skin beside your own to worry about, a little danger goes far enough. We bit the bullet and turned around.

However, there was still the matter of digging ourselves out of the current mess and reaching the beach again. To the west, the way we’d came and the most direct route back to relative safety for the night, lay the fields of six foot razor sharp grass and stinging nettle. Neither of us relished the thought of revisting that, so in a bid to bypass the certain discomfort of the pseudo-jungle we turned south – toward the elk herd. We’d been told earlier at the ranger station that the herd patrolling this particular section of the park was especially territorial, and had recently treed a pair of bikers who had raised their ire for some time. As we were effectively babes lost in the bush in this environment (say what you will about James Cameron’s Avatar, aka Pocahontas in Space – the scene where Jake Sully is rather angrily rescued in the jungle at nightfall by his blue alien crush is a good depiction of the wilderness intelligence of the average modern American) and presented an even less daunting target on foot to a large angry mammal, this news was understandably the source of our trepidation about the herd.

I could see now, as the grass was still shorter in the section of no-man’s land, so I took the lead this time. We soon found traces of the elk’s passing: flattened grass where they’d bedded, hoof prints in a path and voluminous piles of crap. It was clear from the direction the grass bent along their path that they’d been going the same direction as us, south, which made sense considering where Johnny had spotted them earlier. The huge animals had flattened a relatively small game trail, a narrow swath perhaps a foot wide at ground level but nearly completely filled in at the top by neighboring tufts of grass. Still, it was the clearest way through, so we followed it into the ever thickening sea. It was just like tracking deer in New Jersey, only the deer were five times the size, aggressive, and this wasn’t a New Jersey hay field. As I pushed wave after wave of dry grass out of my face, suddenly over my head again, I felt very much like I was bushwhacking through some preternatural prairie harboring beasts of a scale proportionate to their browsing material, lurking just out of sight.

After a couple minutes of this, we were getting anxious. We could only see a few yards at a time, and we were utterly trapped should we stumble on an elk calf and its mother, or a bull. I’d catch my breath around every turn, half expecting to be gored the next instant, but we pressed on. Finally the grass thinned, and we stumbled out of the sucking mud onto terra firma, back in the scrublands. Immediately Johnny’s head snapped to the left and he started forward, long legs crossing yards in a second before I registered what was going on. But he stopped as quickly as he started and said sheepishly, “thought I heard something.”

I laughed at him, but I really couldn’t say anything. I hadn’t heard anything. It’s a silver lining of hearing loss, though also a curse. Most of the frightening unknown things that go bump in the night, or in a super-meadow, are both harmless and beyond my range of hearing, and so don’t disturb my peace when they keep others awake. But then, some things are most certainly not harmless, and I miss them all the same. I’d have to have a dog with sharp ears if I ever lived in some post-apocalyptic wilderness. Or a little brother. Same difference.

We quickly crossed the scrublands, noting with no small sense of relief as the elk prints, which had swelled since the single file path to reveal the size of the herd, turned away and continued south as we headed back toward the beach. Upon finally reaching the sand, we allowed ourselves a brief moment of celebration before beginning the long, slow slog back to the beach trailhead.

It was every bit as awful and interminable as we’d imagined it would be. But we were hyped up now with the thrill of adventure, and the fact that the sun was still declining on its arc. We weren’t out of the woods yet. Figuratively anyway. But we marched on across the dunes, together this time. The sand seemed to roll by both faster and slower as we retraced our steps , entertaining ourselves with conversation and by skipping the beautiful round stones found in abundance there across the dunes. After an interminable expanse of time and beach, we encountered signs of life, or rather, past life – we’d hit the dried up tidepool filled with piles of dead fish, and the site of the CrustAvian wars followed soon after. Eventually, we made it back to the campground where we’d turned off that damned road onto the beach.

After briefly considering hiding in the showers at the crowded pay campground that night, or God forbid, asking a ranger for a ride back to the visitor center trailhead, we eyed the position of the sun, or rather the brightest spot in the ever-present fog, and decided to take our chances and hoof it back through the forest for the reward of unaided success, a meal, and a good night’s sleep.

We half walked, half jogged the four remaining miles back under the towering redwood canopy over a trail much darker than we remembered it being over six hours ago, and finally burst out of the forest alive, sweaty, and with time to spare. The sun was setting over a meadow where several elk were grazing peacefully beside the road. We ate our dinner of canned soup and cold kidney beans in the car and basked in gasoline-powered heat and the wi-fi emanating from the locked visitor center. As I watched the herd and opened a fresh sleeve of saltines I could swear I saw one of them wink.