The cape, the captain, and me

Posted by Ken Campbell March 23, 2008 0 Comment 444 views

In March of 1778, Captain James Cook went looking for the Northwest Passage. The northern route to Europe was the Holy Grail for mariners of the time, the search for which had consumed the careers of many a ship’s captain. Ultimately, it would turn out that the polar regions were too frozen to be of use to shipping, although with the climate change that we are experiencing these days, an ice-free Northwest Passage is probably not too many years away.

Cook left Hawaii, where he had wintered that year, and arrived off the coast of the Olympic Peninsula near the spot where Juan de Fuca had claimed to have discovered the passage that would connect these shores to Europe. Back in 1592, de Fuca was the navigator on a Spanish ship that was exploring the region and had described the strait that would later bear his name as having an entrance that was protected by “a great headland or island with a high pinnacle or spired rock, like a pillar.”

When Cook saw the island of Tatoosh and the Juan de Fuca Pillar he got excited. A mariner of great reputation already, his fortunes would be assured if he could sail through this passage and back to Europe. But it was not to be. You can practically hear the disappointment in his journal entry: “Between this island or rock, and the northern extreme of the land, there appeared to be a small opening which flattered us with the hopes of finding a harbour. These hopes lessened as we drew nearer; and at last we had some reason to think that the opening was closed by low land.”

That’s the story, more or less, of how Cape Flattery got its name. Now, 230 years later, it’s one of the best kayaking locations in Washington, if not the world. The coastline just south of the cape has old-growth forests, endless sandy beaches and elegant rock formations that are ideal for sea kayak exploration. What it does not have is a road. The 42-mile section of shoreline between Makah Bay, just south of Cape Flattery, and La Push, is the last significant stretch of roadless coast in the contiguous U.S.

What strikes me about this story, and so many others like it, is how recent these events really are. “History,” in this part of the world, is a thin veneer that has been laid over millenia of untold and unrecorded wonders. It is not nearly as established as the history of the eastern seaboard, 400+ years or so, which still is short-term, in a historical context. Europe goes back thousands of years; Egypt, Greece and China go back much further. We here in these parts are newcomers, and even those who got here before us are newcomers. If what precedes human history is a type of wild and uncharted life, then we still have the chance to be a real part of that. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the frothy waters of Cape Flattery.

I have kayaked here before and I can’t wait to get back.

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