Backpacking Shi Shi Beach in the Dark Age of Travel

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Petroleum Creek and Crisis Survival

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In the summer, Shi Shi Beach swells with visiting backpackers, and rangers have reported as much as a hundred tents lining the beach. In autumn, those numbers drop off.

As soon as I descend the final steep steps to the beach, I can see why.  The crescent-shaped beach is a long stretch of caramel-colored sand cloaked by steep emerald cliffs and hills. At each end of the beach are towering sea stacks and impressive marine boulders.

I joyfully remove my sandals and take the edge of the waterline south towards Petroleum Creek, the single freshwater source on the trail.

When I arrive at the creek, which rambles gently through the forest and into the sea, I decide to pitch my camp in the sand right next to it, because I figure the freshwater might encourage a variety of birds to roost.

While I estimate there are two or three other groups of backpackers here based on the footprints in the sand, I can see none of them, nor their camps.  

This weather is so perfect, I just need pitch a mosquito net and light sleeping bag.  Setting up my home for the next few days takes less than five minutes.

When I awake the next day, I hear hundreds of gulls cackling and cawing.  I sit up and see Brown Pelicans, Heermann’s Gulls and Greater Scaups, awakening to feed. Just twenty feet from my tent, a Great Blue Heron is pitched on a rock, waiting to strike an unsuspecting crab.

I am struck by the fact that I slept through the entire night; I feel refreshed and ready to go.

It’s just a minute to boil water for a cup of coffee, a few minutes more to cook up breakfast.  The little details that go into modern backpacking gear make someone like me, not particularly adept at outdoor skills, completely at ease in the wild.

But what happens one day after my food runs out? The contents of my backpack allow me to thrive for three days in complete comfort.  But without that cache of food, and when one component of my pack disappears, I would be useless and have to pack out.

The scenario of a backpacking traveler suddenly stuck in place doesn’t escape my mind, and this is a scenario that could very well become more commonplace in the near future.  

I can’t help but to think about how a simple climate-fueled hurricane quickly cut access to civilization for hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans. One day, modern Americans. The next day, clamoring to survive in a virtual apocalypse. There is one Walmart and two Walmart Super Centers all within an hour of the Yabucoa municipality where the hurricane struck the island, but for months some Puerto Ricans were cut off from civilization entirely.  How did they survive?

We know that much of the refugee crisis in Europe has its roots in a number of crises in Africa and the Middle East that all originate from a changing climate. It’s not hard to extrapolate from such a scenario to the West: California climate refugees, clamoring for a foothold in Seattle.

From there, extrapolate food shortages, widespread poverty, martial law, highways shutting down. An increasingly destabilized Pacific Northwest, and it’s not difficult to imagine a traveler in the Olympic Peninsula finding himself suddenly cut off and forced to stay put in virtual isolation.

I walk south on the beach, then through the tangle of sea stacks and finally to a lovely patch of sand, where I sit and try to imagine how I’d survive here.

As I sit, thousands of beach hoppers, frightened by my presence, seek shelter under my legs and toes. I’m enthralled by these tiny crustaceans, which spring into the air to escape predation and which are almost certainly the inspiration for Miyazaki’s monstrous Ohmu in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

Could I eat them if I had to?

After my trip, I reached out to Pacific Northwest primitivist and National Geographic photographer Kiliii Yuyan with just that question.

“Yeah for sure you can eat those things! It works really well to build a fire on the kelp, then let the fire burn down to coals and in the morning, there will be a bunch of cooked isopods that taste like shrimp on the kelp. Best to wash them to get rid of the grit, or to stew them, but they are actually quite tasty.”

I asked Kiliii to explain how a traveler, trapped on the Olympic Peninsula, could survive for several months with no particular outdoor skills.

“Assuming that they have the luck to choose where they are lost, I would have to say it’s best to be lost along the coastline.”

“Why?” I write.

He replies:

“The coast is a place where it is easy to find the three things most difficult to acquire in survival— shelter, water and food. Shelter can be had in the form of driftwood logs that make it easy to build a semi-permanent shelter.

Coastlines have trees with wide-spreading branches that make for good bedding. And here you can walk around easily, which is very difficult in the rainforest without trails, otherwise.

Walking along the coastline you can find cedar bark that can be stripped off to make waterproof coverings for your shelter. The northwest coast is all about staying dry— it’s the thing that will kill you the fastest, in mere hours, if you cannot get dry and warm.

Warmth comes from fire, but wood inside a rainforest is always wet. Driftwood cedar logs, on the other hand, can be pried apart to give you dry interiors, which you can use to make and sustain fires.

Fresh clean water flows down towards the ocean, and streams are too hard to come by walking along a coastline. Navigation is also easy— just follow the coast and you will always know you are relative to where you’ve been.

Finally— if you are stranded for months, food is all about the water. The intertidal zone has tons of gooseneck barnacles, clams, mussels and shrimp. Intertidal pools trap all kinds of food that provide protein and fat, which is what you need to stay alive on a cold, wet coast.

A great way to kill yourself is to try to hike around the interior of the Olympic Peninsula, where everything is rotten, crumbling and wet.

You will be constantly wet from moving through the underbrush, unable to navigate or find water or much food. You also cannot see anything from inside the forest.

If you get lost and cannot find your way, then best to find a stream or river, and follow it downstream towards the sea. There your chances of surviving increase exponentially.


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