The Ebb…

The tide is going out. Burner Point beach in Port Ludlow is a fine place to sit back and become immersed in the slow motion actions taking place.  Six hours in.  Six hours out… or thereabouts. Couple of minutes longer, or perhaps less. Not that I care to measure it. Only the scientific sorts really care to be exact by watching and documenting every aspect of a big slow moving thing such as a tide, or the movement of stars.  I respect their tenacity and perseverance. Within the scope of who I was before retirement, I attempt to shadow their behaviors, systematization, ethics, and documentation. Pharmacy and medicine are both sciences and arts. And recently, I really only feel that I’m making small inroads on the arts side of things. Not that it matters one way or the other. Watching the ebb is enough for me just now.

Oh…  I’ve seen the bay fill and empty.  But… I’ve never been patient enough to slow time down to be able to watch the entire spectacle. Twelve hours, or so, is a very long time to sit and watch anything…  even something as dynamic and important as tidal flow.  Now, clearly… most people can stand still and watch a sunset to experience the dynamic ebb of daylight.  But the tides… that takes practice… and patience, something that is harder to master. Like most things things that cross my path, I attempt to tease out the details, asking the who, what, whys… that lead to a basic understanding of what I’m seeing. Perhaps practicing the art of patience is one of those things. Perhaps I’m just atoning for moving too fast through life. Perhaps its just that now being retired, I have the time. The following are some observations and a bit of history. Why not? I’ve got the time. Share some with me.

We’ll start at Burner Point. It is such a good tide watching spot, eh?  This was taken Looking NE. The top of the beach is mostly fine sands giving way to pebbles and gravel which give way to larger cobbles; essentially the remnants of glacial moraine separated by the timeless actions of the tides at this location. During this low tide you can now see mostly beach cobble topped off with differing types of drying kelp, The “beach wrack” at it has been so named. It is a miasma of bits of differing kelp species, wood, shells, broken off crab legs, pieces of unlucky jellies that washed ashore, tree branches, and whatever flotsam that were landlocked as the water receded from the bay. Amongst the wrack and cobbles, the ends of pilings break through above the beach aggregate. What were they supporting? How long ago were they put in place? How were they put in place? Who put them there? What peoples did they serve?

You are looking at Admiralty Inlet, a major conduit that connects the Eastern Strait of Juan de Fuca to mid and lower Puget Sound… which has transmogrified into the Inner Salish Sea. The misty shores of Whidby Island can be seen in the background, clouds behind. Thought you’d want to know… 

A lower tide yet… on a warmer day. The lower the tide, the more cobble is exposed… Looking across to Tala Point.

Pivoting 180 degrees and looking to the SW, the gravelly beach gives way to a large round cement structure. It is an historical remnant: the foundation of what was once a wigwam burner. Peering back through the swirling sands of time… this geographic location wasn’t always a place associated with bucolic times drawing one to pass the time watching a tide ebb. The arrival of Americans to the region brought ship building and logging. Port Ludlow became an important ship building center and then… an epicenter of logging and a rather large lumber mill.

During our time it is has reverted to a rather ideal tide watching spot. Sand, gravel, water, Olympic mountains in the background, history woven through it all. What it is in this incarnation… arose out of what it was. What is now in this place, will eventually morph into something else. That is the way of places.

Since the last glaciation period, these shores have been witness to many changes. The Chimicum tribe lived in the area prior to the influx of American settlers… for millennia. Not that their existence was a bucolic paradise. There was tribal rivalry and disease brought to them by the exploring Europeans. Let’s recall, that Washington wasn’t made a territory until 1853, so before that, setting up a large, expensive business was not an opportunity for many investors. So… in 1853, Port Ludlow became a shipbuilding mecca and… a sawmill. Ponder that for a moment or two. Lumber was king. Jobs, jobs and more jobs. Brutal work. All by hand. Imagine being there. The noise, the cold, the wet, the hard work… the danger, the rewards. For some…

The shipbuilders in Ludlow were the Hall Brothers. They built 21 or more ships ranging from small tenders to five masted ships before moving their shipyard to Port Blakely on Bainbridge Island. Why Port Ludlow?: The availability of large trees, the heart of ships of the time.

Hall Brothers shipyard, Port Ludlow, 1875.

So… where did the wood come from to build the twenty plus ships they built. That’s the next story of what was here before the townhouses, marina where we moor Great Northern, and placid bay. In 1852, just as the territorial decision was being made, the Puget Mill Co. at Port Ludlow was established with 2 sash saws by John R. Thorndike and W.P. Sayward. In 1858, the Port Ludlow mill was leased to Amos & Phinney, and later to Josiah Keller, Andrew Pope & William Talbot. Pope and Talbot enterprises were the dominant force in logging and milling for the next century, and are still a force in the world of mechanized lumber and pulp.

A Pacific Ariel Survey view of Port Ludlow mill, circa 1915. But sawmilling began here in the mid 1800’s.
Hard to wrap your understanding around how trees like this were cut down and hauled out of the forest. All by hand, using horses, oxen and… men. And then, to saw them up into board feet that supplied building projects along the coast and anywhere a ship could sail and a market was available. Wood was king. Fortunes were made.
The mill at ground level
An aeriel view of Port Ludlow via Google Earth satellite, circa 2021. A little over 100 years later. What will be here in 100 years?

In those days sawdust was a waste byproduct and mostly… it was burned. Ponder that. What an ecological waste. That being said, there was no market for sawdust back then. Everyone had access to wood for the cutting. Now it is a high value product used in the manufacture of many marketable items. Nuf said on that topic…

This is a picture of a Wigwam Burner. It is not THE Port Ludlow Wigwam burner that was anchored to the round cement structure on Burner Point, but, these and their teepee ilk dotted the landscape of the Northwest and other places where sawmills were located. What was their purpose: burning sawdust. I am old enough to remember being driven past operational sawmills that had Wigwam burners burning full tilt 24/7.

So here I sit on Burner Point in my lo-boy folding beach chair. Legs splayed out. Boots in the sand and beach wrack. It’s 40 degrees.  A 5 to 10 knot breeze is blowing in from the South.  It is not a warm, cozy supportive wind. Warm cozy winds are rare during the late fall season just before the official start of winter.  Clearly. My wool socks, wool hat, hiking boots, down parka and gloves can attest to that. Winter is lurking about and Autumn is getting ready to exit stage right. The Olympics to the West, are sporting a fresh coat of snow.  The water, 5 feet from my roost, is cold. Forty seven degrees or thereabouts. The light breeze blowing towards me from across the outlet of Hood Canal and Admiralty Inlet blows across that cold water and is attempting to infiltrate my layers of insulation.  But, I have to say, I’m used to it at this time of year. Dress up. Dress down. Shorts and flip flops or insulated foul weather gear… I love the weather patterns of the Pacific Northwest. Today: no rain in the forecast… well unless there is.

I’m gazing across the inlet that controls the flow of water in and out of  Ludlow. Lots of water is moving just now. Moving out, emptying my little bay of water that has taken 6 hours to fill, and will take 6 hours, or so, to drain. How much water you might ponder? Using what small percentage of my scientific brain I have access to at this time… It is an interesting volume:

This morning’s flood tide was 9 feet, 8 inches. From that peak, the ebb will only drain out 7 feet, 2 inches of water. That means, after calculating the surface area of the bay and its average depth, a mere 230 million gallons of saltwater, nutrients, etc. will drain out of Port Ludlow into the slosh that is draining from the Salish sea into  the Strait of Juan De Fuca. Some of that water flows North, through the San Juan and Gulf Islands, up through the strait of Georgia. Billions of gallons of seawater on the move. Lots a swirling going on at any rate folks. Lots of detritus. Lots of nutrient. The nutrients feed phytoplankton, which are eaten by zooplankton, that end up being eaten by snails, clams, crabs, and worms and myriads of benthic creatures. That is not the end of the food fight by any means. Various larvae and small fish get into the melee. Well… they are eaten by larger fish, who are then eaten by grebes and cormorants eagles and… fishermen. And so on… Talk about primordial soup… It makes it’s way to your dinner table daily. And… I get to watch all that flow past me perched on my little beach chair, practicing patience, perhaps more.

Earlier I was gazing out of Great Northern’s salon windows. A raft of eared grebes were milling about. Diving, fishing, sometimes eating, often not. A cormorant surfaced amongst them. No worries to them. It was summarily ignored by the grebes.  But… unlike the grebes, it was eating. They weren’t.  With the grebes, their efforts appeared to be more hit and miss.  Cormorants are great fishers. There was one grebe… slightly larger than the others. Perhaps a parent? Every once in a while, all of the little grebes would stop their mongering and zero in on the larger birds location, paddle in, and form a tight ring about it. Grebe fishing lessons perhaps? Mom or Dad and offspring? I’m sure there are those who would know. A few post-doc students at Cornell who earned their stripes studying grebe behavior, or… first nations peoples who live amongst the grebes, year in and year out. They have studied and understood grebe behavior for millennia. Take your pick.

Eared Grebe. Immature adult / non breeding (Audubon credit)

Double Breasted Cormorant (Audubon credit)

A raft of sea ducks, buffleheads are being carried along with the outflow. Are they aware? Of course they are. Their species goes back at least 500,000 years according to the known fossil record, probably longer. Ours… well not nearly as long as that. A fleeting thought: they will be around long after we are gone.

The tide is now half way out. Merganzers, gulls, western grebes, and the odd loon all drift by, flushed from the bay along with the flotsam that was trapped by the last incoming tide, following the small fish being washed out with the current. Dinner time.

A few glaucous-winged gulls (grey-winged) are gathering on the near shore seeking tidbits to dine on.  They turn over rocks and bits of green lettuce kelp with their beaks picking up small crustaceans and worms silly enough to have remained outside their little caves and hidey holes.  One of them perched on a scrap of driftwood is surveying the beach scene, waiting for others to find edibles that he can steal.  It is his mission in life.  There does not seem to be much room for honor amongst foraging  gulls.  A prize found is a prize gained, and a tasty morsel found by one ignites a fracas. (Photo credit EBird)

A few crows have arrived as well. A family. Mom, Dad and a few offspring. This years batch and a couple from last years batch. One of the adults stands watch for predators and pesky gulls while the others forage. The watcher gave me the hairy eyeball as only a crow can do. But it’s seen me before and knows that I’m no threat. That’s not anthropomorphism. It is a crow. As they tease through the exposed palette of protein and locate tasty morsels they don’t turn it into a kerfuffle.  They poke at it, find a tidbit and others come over to give it a look. One of them grabs it and flys off. Most likely back to a nest to feed another family member. Their behaviors seem more communal than the gulls. The Cornell Lab has identified these behaviors in corvids while studying them. Don’t believe it? Just ask the First Nations peoples. They will most likely concur, and have many stories to tell. Just watch them grazing on a beach… or anywhere for that matter. Given patience and time you will see it too.

Well, enough time practicing the art of patience, and being observant. The breeze is up and the ebb is slowing. See you next time.

…Blair

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