Epic. This is what we were told by Ranger Rick at the Redwoods National and State Forests Visitor Center. You would think that he was talking about the trees we were getting ready to go see this past Saturday, and it is true, those are epic, indeed. But, no, it wasn’t the trees. He was talking waves. Giant waves. As we were chatting about the majesties of this northwestern coastal region, he mentioned that we might want to check out the waves on Monday because they were going to be “epic,” 30 ft monstrosities (at least for this coastal area). By this time, we were accustomed to the consistent hazardous seas warnings put out by the NWS. We have seen some epic-ish waves, though 30 ft was higher than what we had witnessed so far.
Our friend arrived, and we said goodbye to Ranger Rick. As we headed into the epic forests, we set aside what we’d heard about the waves. Until yesterday. Gail had read more about this forecast. They were predicting 25-40 ft waves along the northwest coast, with some waves reaching 50 ft. The highest waves were to be in Eureka, California, nearly 200 miles from Gold Beach, but the entire coast from Coos Bay to San Fran was to get a taste. What timing. Our friend hadn’t been to this part of the coast before, so seeing this drama was a not-to-be-missed treat. Especially when hearing that the NWS was saying that going onto the water meant “imminent death.” Now those aren’t words you hear coming from these normally stoic and reserved agency folks at the National Weather Service. Of course, we had to go check them out.
Looking at the waves in the Gold Beach area, it was obvious they were even more turbulent than they’d been thus far, but though big, they did not seem epic. Impressive, yes, but not yet epic. We determined to just see where the drive south took us, how far we would go would be determined by our moods and daylight. We would find out that this was an epic day, altogether. A grand, wonderful, joyful day, punctuated by even more epic moments, with a terrifying exclamation point at the end of a sentence in a paragraph that describes the entire day.
We drove south from where our friend was staying and pulled off at an overlook where there was a crashing display of white foam and sea spray. A moving van was pulled off there already, and its driver out taking photos. The three of us looked on at the ocean in that wonder that is ever-present out here and snapped our own pics. As we were heading back to the car to drive on, I noticed that the man had stepped over the guardrails and was looking over the edge at the appearing and disappearing rim of sand (and it wasn’t even close to high tide), holding onto his hat as the wind whipped around. He looked up and saw us, and I called out “Don’t let the wind blow you away!”
With a huge grin on his face, he called back that this was his first time seeing this. We walked towards him as he clarified that this was actually his first time ever seeing the Pacific Ocean. The look on his face. It was priceless. He was so full of glee and joy it was impossible to keep it at all contained, and he danced around in exuberance at what he was witnessing. I told him he came at exactly the right time, that he would be able to see some incredible sights if he kept driving along the coast. I asked him where he was from…
“I’m all the way from Illinois!” he said.
In unison, the three of us said, “So are we!!”
He literally started jumping around at hearing this. We found out he was from Chicago, and when we told him we were from Champaign, he laughed and told us that he is now living a mere 45 minutes away from Champaign, in Bloomington. He shook our hands and proceeded to tell someone he was talking to in his headset that he just met three ladies from Champaign, Illinois. Seeing his uncontained joy, his excitement, as he giggled and jumped and gestured, and feeling the camaraderie of sharing this moment with someone who was not only experiencing the Pacific Ocean for the first time on this epic day but who was also from Illinois…well, it made me giddy with joy of my own. I got tears in my eyes from the beauty of that moment, and it’s bringing tears to my eyes now, as I write this. Watching a 38-year-old man with the completely unguarded jubilation of a kid just made my day. And we’d only just started.
A Wave show
We continued south, stopping along the way at overlooks that were suddenly more populated than I’d seen them thus far, and it was a Monday. Seems we weren’t the only ones drawn to the promise of one of Mother Nature’s displays of power. We found, as we drove, that the best shows tended to be in areas where there was nowhere to pull off. The waves were meant to be highest on the northwest and west-facing coastlines. The northwest-facing coastlines fulfilled their promises, even more so than the west-facing ones. So, we hopped our way down from one overlook to the next, talking and ogling and moving onwards. We found ourselves suddenly just 40 miles from Eureka. How could we not go the rest of the way?
It was a good decision. We pulled off the 101 at Eureka, driving over the Arcata Channel and into Samoa. Finding a turnout beside the dunes that wasn’t full, we pulled over and climbed the short trail over the dunes to take our front-row positions at the show. Not only were the waves high, 40-50 ft, but they were coming in with such rapidity and so close together. Deep blue giants rolling in from a distance, some cresting almost out of view. They got bigger as we stood there watching and came closer in. A dog wandered by, wearing a shirt, but seemingly unattached to any person. I tried getting it to come to me, but it was completely in its own world. Gail was watching it from closer to the water. She had her back to the waves, standing in a location where the waves had yet to reach. Until then. She turned just in time to see one coming for her, but not in time to run far enough away to not get soaked up to almost her knees. Good thing we had opted not to bring extra shoes and socks along, as has been the habit when hiking along the beach…she spent the rest of the time in wet socks and shoes. The dog disappeared down the beach.
I am not sure how long we were there. At some point, I looked at my watch and realized it was after 3 pm. The sun sets at around 4:40 pm. Time to make our way back, so we would not be driving the entire 200 miles in the dark. It was difficult to tear ourselves away, but we managed. Heading north, we drove by a herd of elk grazing in a meadow. We came upon a giant bull elk grazing on the side of the road. Yes, we stopped to watch and to let our friend, who was on the right side of the car, shoot some pics, as the bull looked on, unconcerned with our presence. We headed into the Redwoods on a scenic stretch of road and promptly saw a second bull elk grazing along the side of the road, even bigger than the first. Yes, we stopped to watch again, and for Gail and me to take pics this time since it was on our side of the road. Funny how that worked out.
Still in California, and still, thankfully, in daylight, re-entered the 101 and continued north, reveling in the scenery and the experiences we’d had. We approached a pullout to our left, with a cliff wall to our right. I had just glanced out at the ocean and turned my eyes back to the road. Just. In. Time. I gasped as I caught sight of two figures running down the road, and running right towards me, in my lane, and not veering at all. Thankfully, the traffic on the other side of the road had stopped in time, but now I had to slam on my breaks, on wet roads. The two dogs still did not move out of my way. I had no idea how I was going to stop in time, and I had nowhere to swerve, with traffic stopped in the oncoming lane and a cliff face on the other side of me. Somehow, though, I did manage to stop in time. The dogs walked around to the passenger side of the car. At first, we thought they were strays or escapees and tried to get them in the car, but did not even get the door open before they were dashing back to the parking area. Turned out they were escapees, and their owners were trying to catch them. We lent a hand to the owners to get the pups into the safety of their vehicle.
Shaken, but so happy it all turned out well, we finished the drive back to Gold Beach as the winds picked up and the rain started falling in earnest. Gale force winds of up to 80 miles per hour and soaking rains were on tap for the overnight hours. Mother Nature continuing to remind us of her beauty and her power. It was truly an epic day. Punctuated by moments that make a person appreciate meeting a man full of joy at his first sight of the Pacific, seeing towering and turbulent waves, watching bull elks graze, driving through the Redwoods, and experiencing the whole of it with two of your closest friends.