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Family clam digging

Illwaco Canneries

Robin & M.J. digging sand

Illwaco Canneries

Gram & Grandpa & sisters at
World’s Largest Frying pan 1960s

Long Beach Peninsula, Washington


I am five or six years old standing in the middle of the front seat with my 10-year old brother in striped T-shirt and rolled cuffed jeans sitting next to me. Joe, the teenage son of friends of my parents drives our two-toned green 1952 Chevy along the swampy marshes that separate Seaview from Ilwaco. We are on our way to pick up our fathers from the days' fishing. The wind-swept pines are crooked and misshapen, alder is laden with moss, the beachy fens are scrambled and impossible to see through. We watch for deer and sing: “Kukaberra sits in the old gum tree-ee, what a merry merry life has hee-ee, laugh Kukaberra, laugh, Kukaberra …”

It is a time of plenty when forest, field, river, and ocean serve up bounty that we imagine will never end—salmon, venison, berries, clams, oysters, Dungeness crab. We live in a time of endless prosperity.

In my lifetime it is over.

We have overfished, overharvested and overbuilt. The peninsula is much like it was, although the ocean has widened the sandy beaches by nearly a half mile, lending the northern shores at Ocean Beach and Oysterville enough new dune land to sprout suburb-like tracts of summer homes, many ugly, most too big and uncomfortably ostentatious to remotely resemble charming beach cottages.

The Way it Was

Groups of friends and family rented nearby cabins and cottages for communal cooking, cleaning fish and razor clams, card playing and kid-watching.

One exciting summer my brother had appendicitis and I followed up his hospital stay with whooping cough. Gee, the parents must have had fun that year. I miss those summers even though I hated being dragged out of bed before dawn to hit the cold beach and dig those clams. There was something magic about driving on the beach in the dark following taillights of other cars, walking across the hard-packed damp sand searching for holes by flashlight. Then that magical pre-dawn blue sky, the grey gold blush of first light and there’s dad in his hip boots digging in the surf, mom in her pedal pushers and sweatshirt kneeling, arm to elbow sunk in a hole reaching for a clam.


Long Beach always was a vacation destination and now tourism pretty much drives the peninsula economy. There’s still oyster harvesting and some cranberry bogs, but the days of clam digging and salmon fishing are few. Ilwaco, once bustling with fishermen and shrimpers, seems eerily empty, it’s marina speckled with a handful of fishing boats and several pleasure craft, although some excellent restaurants have newly perched dockside.

Winter storms have re-sculpted the landscape at the south jetty, which separates the mouth of the Columbia River from the ocean. Access to the beach and whole parking lots have disappeared under sand and our favorite swimming cove, Waikiki Beach, is a repository for tangled stacks of whole-tree driftwood. The ocean has made scrambling on the huge rip-rap boulders of the jetty a hazardous venture since it’s carved itself an inlet between sand and jetty, a river of rushing water at high tide, nearly quicksand at low.

Looking east to the glorious headland, I can’t help but gape at the eyesore that is the Lewis & Clark Interpretive Center. It has good exhibits and fantastic views, but from below it defiles a noble rock. New trails and visitor sites enhance accessibility but I can’t help but being sunk in my own version of Cape Disappointment.


From the cape, it’s a winding drive through sparse forest toward Ilwaco. I stop at the China Beach Retreat, a renovated 1909 farmhouse, now a bed and breakfast lodging. Dubbed “China Beach” on the site where Chinese laborers gathered on breaks from nearby canneries in the late 1800s.

Owners David Campiche and Laurie Anderson meet me at their secluded sanctuary, where shorebirds, waterfowl, and bald eagles play. Immediately my spirits are lifted. There are no buildings in view, only the estuary, undisturbed headlands and spectacular vistas of Oregon mountains across the Columbia. We spend the afternoon visiting over tea and cookies. David says from here it’s just an arrow’s flight across the estuary to one of Lewis and Clark’s encampments—an authentic view of what they must have seen.

From here, time stands still. From here, there are whispers of the past. I forget about the changes. I can almost see the old Ilwaco—the clutter of boats and fishermen, the smell of sea and fish and diesel, our happy fathers’ faces as they guide the boat into the marina, holding up salmon. I can almost hear us singing: “Kukaberra sits in the old gum tree-ee…”

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