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Mike Vouri: South Beach trail's origin story

  • Written by Mike Vouri

American Camp’s South Beach trail is as ancient and practical as it is spectacular. Its beeline route from the parade ground to the springs above Salmon Banks Road—precisely two miles there and back— has carried hunter-gatherers, shepherds and their flocks, and soldiers hauling artillery to and from the beach or driving water wagons.

It only took us 40 years to build it for hikers. Here’s how it happened?

The trail cuts across the open prairie, giving on to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Olympia Mountains to the south and Griffin Bay and the balance of the archipelago to the north. On temperate days, the lone white cone of Mount Baker rises above Lopez Island, while to the west the tip of Vancouver Island and the city of Victoria push into the strait forming a corridor that European explorers thought might be a shortcut across the Americas. Very rarely, another volcanic cone, 14,000-foot Mount Rainer, rises above Admiralty Inlet off to the southeast.

This scene can change in a matter of minutes with a shift in the wind and the incursion of weather from the north Pacific. The water turns first, deepening to slate, hewn with white caps, then the panorama is soon ringed by cloud, from spume to mountain top, isolating the island from the rest of the world, or so it seems. On some  days the Olympics seem born of cloud, disembodied from earth and sea while the sun gleams on the shrinking snow cap.

The park’s management team decided to build the trail c. 2009/2010 as a more direct and accessible route for visitors to walk from the visitor center to South Beach. Since the park opened in the late sixties, the only way to reach the beach on foot was by the bluff trail, which meanders down the hill to Grandma’s (or Granny’s) Cove, then traces the bluffs above the log-strewn bights east to South Beach. Decades of hikers have worn the sandy soil into holloways, calve-deep ditches that limit groups to single file and turn to pudding following a hard rain. The hiker then wades through often wet grass (spring and summer), or a series of basaltic casemates (where eagles often perch) until exiting just above the abutment of Alaska Packer’s Rock at west end of South Beach.

Though no one was ever injured, to my knowledge, over my 21-year tenure as a ranger, the management team decided the new, more direct, path made sense. There were four of us involved in the planning and I clearly remember the route debates as we bushwhacked through nascent blackberry vines and tall grasses. We were mindful of rabbit holes as we descended toward the springs and the rabbit-proof fence with which we bisected the prairie in the early 2000s, hoping to blunt rabbit warren incursion. (You still have to watch out for holes.) This preceded the decision to exterminate the animals when the population was at a low ebb.

I won’t get into the “Save Our Bunnies” controversy of 2010 here, other than to say it was not a good moment for the park. But I do recall a “shoulda said” from a fiery public meeting at the Mullis Center, highlighted by the appearance of Francie Hansen in full bunny costume. One contrarian concluded his tirade by turning to those of us in uniform, jabbing a finger and sneering, “Take your badges and get out of here.” Whew, boy. We were too stunned to reply, and, truly, I didn’t think of a rejoinder until I returned to my office at American Camp. Then it came to me:

“We don’t need no stinking badges.”

Anyway, I had always loved the rock formations along the bluff trail and stumped for a detour following existing human and animal treads. But the superintendent, Peter Dederich, and my colleagues Gerald Weaver and Ken Arzarian (still here) had the right idea all along. Why not follow the route Lieutenant Colonel Silas Casey prescribed during the Pig War crisis when he ordered his reinforcements to drag eight naval guns from the USS Massachusetts, weighing a ton apiece, from the beach to the summit of the ridge, where they were to be emplaced in an earthwork (the redoubt)? He was not unaware that the Hudson’s Bay Company had been driving its sheep from Belle Vue Sheep Farm down to the  spring, grazing as they went. When the crisis was over the guns were hauled back down the route, which was by then recognized as so convenient that a road was constructed, over which details of soldiers hauled water from the springs to the parade ground. This latter track is shown on maps from the period, and had been pointed out by the archaeologist, Julia Stein, during her annual archaeology walk for staff and visitors at South Beach.

But none of this was articulated during our planning and try as I might, I still don’t recall us ever consulting those historical maps that I have included here! Perhaps it is a trick of memory. Or maybe we simply did the same as those who came before: followed the path of least resistance!

Construction began that summer. To protect the archaeological resources in the vicinity of the spring, park maintenance worker, David Harsh (still here as well), labored to build a hardened gravel surface, aligned with rocks. Meanwhile, others on the crew, including Steve Ray and Todd Narum (also still here and with the park), used a brush hog to clear and mow the balance of the trail to the old county road at the southeast corner of the parade ground.

Some park visitors, locals as well as those from elsewhere, thought we should have hardened the entire path, as initially the tread was spongy and tough going in places. Have no fear, we assured, soon it will be as firm as pavement, which it is.

Literally, a walk in the park!  

Mike Vouri is a retired national park ranger and historian. He is the author of The Pig War: Standoff at Griffin Bay and four other histories about San Juan Island and the Pacific Northwest.

Last modified onSaturday, 05 September 2020 16:52

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