On a bright day last Fall I drove to the end of the earth and parked. A boardwalk of cedar planks led from the trailhead, through stands of western hemlock, red alder, and cedar draped with epiphytes, to Cape Flattery and the northwestern most point of land in the contiguous United States.
Cape Flattery is a wild and unruly place listed in Joseph Conrad’s Mirror of the Sea as one of the four great capes of the world, in the company of the Cape of Good Hope and The Horn. It is a place often obscured by fog or stormbound on a coast that invites shipwreck.
The cedar boardwalk winds three-quarters of a mile from the muddy trail head through the Makah Wilderness to a cliff that falls abruptly into the sea. Stunted Sitka spruce have been bent by the sea wind into the shape of breaking waves.
In 1778 Captain Cook wrote of this place: "Beetling cliffs, ragged reefs, and huge masses of rock cut by the waves abound on every side." The cliffs are riddled with sea caves where the waves surge and sound like distant thunder. During Winter gales the thunder rolls and the Cape trembles beneath your feet.
Tatoosh Island lies less than a half-mile off the pitch of Cape Flattery. It’s the largest of the rocks and reefs that girdle the Cape. Even so, it’s only a fifth of a mile in diameter, 20 windswept acres without a single tree. The wind sometimes blows so hard it’s tumbled light keepers ass over tea kettle and once blew a bull into the sea. God alone knows why a bull was kept on an island of only 20 acres. It emerged from the cold water unharmed but in marvelously bad temper.
On the island there are thickets of salmonberry, thimbleberry, and fireweed growing shoulder high. The smell of cow parsnips mingles with sea salt and guano.
Tatoosh is mostly inhabited by sea birds—gulls and guillemots, petrels and cormorants. The cormorants nest on the vertical cliff faces wherever a displaced rock or erosion has created a burrow slightly larger than themselves. The Makah traditionally believed that sea birds were their reincarnated dead; the birds’ raucous cries at the approach of a storm warned the living to avoid the Cape until the storm passed.
On Tatoosh eagles prey upon the chicks of common murres and gulls, snatching them from crevices in the sea cliffs and nests secreted beneath salmonberry brush. The eagles are fastidious eaters, gleaning the meat from each rib, polishing the bones with their beaks, then cleaning themselves on the salmonberry. Crows scavenge the bodies of auklets beheaded by peregrines.
The westerly swell bends around Tatoosh Island, a phenomenon called refraction, so that they meet head-on at a shallow ledge of rock in the narrow channel between the island and the shore. The channel is known locally as The Gut. When the surf is heavy The Gut literally erupts into geysers of white water and spume where two halves of the same wave collide head-on.
There is a dramatic temper to the Cape like that of a Greek tragedy. This is land’s end, the uttermost bulwark against the sea hammered by the weight of the Pacific. In this war of attrition the land is fated to lose.