Kalaloch Beach is an anomaly among Washington’s slices of sandy coast based strictly on its location.
The word Kalaloch is a Quinault Indian phrase that translates roughly to mean “a good place to land” and artifacts indicate that humans have been leaving footprints in the sand there for as long as 12,000 years.
The skinny slab of wind swept coastline is located on the west end of the Olympic Peninsula north of the mouth of the Queets River and south of Forks. Kalaloch Beach was formerly managed by Washington State but in 1953 an act of Congress transformed a stretch of land that connects the Olympic Mountains to the Pacific Ocean into the newest portion of the Olympic National Park.
Those are some of the known facts that help Kalaloch stand out from other sandy stretches around the state. However, there’s a laundry list of known unknowns that seem to stalk the isolated beach like forlorn lanterns along the misty surf line.
Late in 2018 the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife released a list of proposed razor clam digging dates at Kalaloch Beach. Due to the ongoing federal government shutdown, though, the reality of those openings is currently hanging in the balance and not even the WDFW knows what to expect going forward.
“We don’t know. We haven’t heard anything from the park other than that they are okay with the dates that we had but that was before the shutdown and we haven’t been able to reach them. So we are going ahead and assume that all systems are a go until we hear otherwise,” noted WDFW coastal shellfish manager Dan Ayres on Wednesday.
The first of those proposed clam tides at Kalaloch Beach would take place on Jan. 19 so long as marine toxin tests come back with favorable results and the Olympic National Park doesn’t decide to build a moat around the beach to keep clamoring clam hounds away.
“That beach is probably unique to almost anything else that the (Olympic National) Park deals with,” said Ayres. “Congress’ language says the state will still manage fisheries the same as they always have, but one of the confounding things for us is that WDFW enforcement officers have no authority in Olympic National Park so when we open the beach we need enforcement staff to be there to enforce the rules. And as (ONP) will point out anywhere in the park they are not just the resource cops but they are also the cop-cops.”
Ayres says that over the years officials at the ONP have expressed that it can be a hardship to staff the beach during the winter when the park typically rosters fewer employees. Ayres postulates that those staffing and enforcement concerns may contribute to the relative dearth of digging days approved at Kalaloch each year. Ayres noted that the WDFW made a proposal to the ONP that would have opened up Kalaloch Beach on all 20 dates that have been scheduled for Twin Harbors this year. Instead, ONP officials agreed to clam tides on just six of those dates.
To be sure, the current uncertainty at Kalaloch Beach is nothing new.
In fact, the upcoming proposed dates would be only the second opening at the beach since 2012 when the WDFW shuttered the sands to succulent bivalve harvest due to a persistent rash of tiny clams. As fate would have it those highly anticipated digging opportunities in January of 2017 morphed into their very own saga of disappointment when the mollusks apparently vanished overnight.
Ayres says he was on hand for those digs and he became baffled when scores of diggers returned from the beach complaining that there were no clams to be had. Ayres even grabbed his trusty shovel and hit the trail for the beach only to return empty handed himself after stomping around in the surf to no avail.
“The clams that we’d seen the previous summer just weren’t there. We don’t know what happened. We had a really strong population of clams and we just don’t know where they went,” explained Ayres. “The populations there really vary. It’s just a mind boggling setting of juvenile razor clams that later just aren’t there.”
There are multiple theories as to what exactly happened to those razor clams but perhaps the juiciest theory is that migrating whales descended upon the beach and gobbled them all up.
“Two years ago we had this really weird event happen where there were just a great set of juvenile razor clams and then a pod of gray whales came in,” said a befuddled Ayres. “I mean, what else could go wrong?”
Ayres noted that a group of WDFW biologists were in the area in a zodiac boat in order to collect whale feces for a study. Those scientists counted 50 whales converging on the Kalaloch tidelands.
“There were whales turned on their side so they could feed in the shallow water. What were they eating? We were never able to confirm that but it stands to reason to me that razor clams could have been one of the things,” said Ayres.
As it turns out whales are not the only marine animals who have been accused of fleecing Kalaloch of its precious razor clams. Ayres says that a case of unintended consequences may also be hindering the prosperity of those shellfish.
“We are seeing, and this has been a really hot topic lately, we are seeing large populations of sea otters on the north coast,” note Ayres.
Ayres says the otters were transplanted from Alaska to Washington in the 1970s in an effort to replace native populations that were trapped and hunted to extinction by pioneer settlers by the early 1900s.
“Over the decades those populations have continued to grow and sea otters are primarily shellfish eaters. And, in areas of Alaska where they have been transplanted they have had the ability to wipe out entire fisheries,” Ayres said.
Ayres said that some studies have shown that sea otters are capable of eating up to 200 razor clams per hour and adults require 30 pounds of salted sea flesh each day in order to sustain their body weight.
In the face of that series of setbacks Ayres remains optimistic that the tides will turn at Kalaloch soon. He noted that when stormy weather wipes out opportunities on southern beaches like Twin Harbors and Long Beach the conditions are typically more tepid north of Grays Harbor.
“When conditions are rough you are always going to do better in the north. Twin Harbors always struggles in rough weather and the southern portion of Long Beach as well,” explained Ayres. “Twin Harbors is a little bit like Long Beach in that it’s a flat beach and when there’s a high tide the water will surge up farther.”
Still, with less than ten days until Kalaloch Beach is set to open up to antsy clam diggers again Ayres is waiting with bated breath to find out if this will be the time dig that puts Kalaloch back on the clam digging map.
“Let’s just say that Kalaloch can be a real head scratcher sometimes. It just gets a lot of curveballs that other beaches don’t seem to get,” said Ayres, who made sure to distinguish the government shutdown from the wild animals and shifting sands that usually add an air of mystery to Kalaloch Beach. “This is sure one that I wouldn’t have anticipated.”
Managers at Kalaloch Lodge were unavailable to comment on this story and multiple attempts to contact staff at the Olympic National Park have gone unreturned over the last two weeks. The Olympic National Park is not closed during the federal shutdown.
The razor clam digs proposed thus far for 2019 include the following dates, tides and beaches:
Jan. 17, Thursday; 3:39 p.m.; 0.4 feet; Twin Harbors
Jan. 18, Friday; 4:30 p.m.; -0.4 feet; Twin Harbors
Jan. 19, Saturday; 5:18 p.m.; -1.1 feet; Twin Harbors, Mocrocks, Kalaloch
Jan. 20, Sunday; 6:05 p.m.; -1.6 feet; Twin Harbors, Copalis, Kalaloch
Jan. 21, Monday; 6:51 p.m.; -1.8 feet; Twin Harbors, Mocrocks, Kalaloch (Martin Luther King Holiday)
Feb. 1, Friday; 4:48 p.m.; 0.2 feet; Twin Harbors, Copalis
Feb. 2; Saturday; 5:28 p.m.; 0.0 feet; Twin Harbors, Mocrocks
Feb. 3, Sunday; 6:04 p.m.; -0.1 feet; Twin Harbors, Copalis
Feb. 15, Friday; 3:11 p.m.; 0.4 feet; Twin Harbors, Mocrocks
Feb. 16, Saturday; 4:08 p.m.; -0.3 feet; Twin Harbors, Copalis, Kalaloch
Feb. 17, Sunday; 4:59 p.m.; -1.0 feet; Twin Harbors, Copalis, Mocrocks, Kalaloch
Feb. 18, Monday; 5:46 p.m.; -1.4 feet; Twin Harbors, Mocrocks, Kalaloch (Presidents' Day Holiday)
Feb. 19, Tuesday; 6:31 p.m.; -1.5 feet; Twin Harbors
Feb. 20, Wednesday; 7:14 p.m.; -1.3 feet; Twin Harbors
Feb. 21, Thursday; 7:56 p.m.; -0.8 feet; Twin Harbors