Someday, a siren will scream out across Long Beach. People will huddle together on a man-made mini-mountain as a massive wave carries away everything they own.
The specter of a calamitous seismic event lingers over this whole region, of course. Seaside is also at risk of a tsunami, just as Portland's West Hills are in danger of vaporizing in a mud-stained poof.
But, wherever the offshore fault cracks, seismologists are pretty sure the Long Beach peninsula is screwed. The largest city on the narrow 28-mile finger jutting north from the mouth of the Columbia River is just 10 feet above sea level. It's essentially an overgrown sandbar formed by a Mesolithic mega-storm, and will someday be reclaimed by the sea. Scientists say a tsunami could hit the city just 20 minutes after an offshore quake.
Maybe it's a keen sense of mortality—or maybe it's just the failing fishing industry—but a looming sense of loss hangs in the air here. The trucks are just a little bit rustier, and the weather-beaten cottages always go an extra year without paint.
The peninsula is also a place where the abundance of the ocean spills out onto the land, where the tide chart trumps the clock and each incoming wave brings a day of sustenance. The bartenders here trade drinks for pizzas, and get clams on that pizza because clams are free, a gift from the sea given to those who make their home mere inches away from her grasp.
Float across the Columbia
A century ago, the Columbia was crisscrossed with ferry routes. Bridges have eliminated all but this one, halfway between Longview and Astoria. For $5 cash, your car gets to cruise across the mighty Columbia. The Puget Island ferry connects a lightly inhabited agricultural island on the Washington side with tiny Westport, Ore., and runs every day of the year, leaving on the hour from Washington and 15 past the hour from Oregon. The ferry is a small drive-aboard boat without a lounge or restrooms. It's a side trip well worth doing, but be warned that the route isn't really faster than U.S. 30 and there's not much to do on Puget Island besides spot Columbian white-tailed deer, an endangered subspecies concentrated there.
Duffy's Irish Pub
Chances are, you've never been on the Washington side of the lower Columbia. It's a little lonelier over here—you lose all but three FM signals as you twist around the rugged hills. Your only real reward is this little Irish pub, on the sandy banks of the Gray River, just before it spills into the Columbia. Duffy's (3779 State Route 4, Grays River, Wash., 360-465-2898) is owned by Al Salazar, a former Portland barman, venue owner and politician who retired to Grays River in 1996. It's packed with books, lamps and knickknacks, the vibe so homey you wouldn't be surprised to learn the barkeep sleeps upstairs and reads the back issues of Gray's Sporting Journal by the wood stove after last call.
Eat some of the best doughnuts in the Pacific Northwest
Bob Andrew is a Bizzaro World Tres Shannon. Like the Voodoo Doughnut kingpin, the owner of Long Beach's Cottage Bakery ran for mayor of his hometown. Except Andrew won. And he also makes much, much better doughnuts.
Actually, Andrew makes better doughnuts than pretty much anyone in the Northwest—every glazed cake doughnut, cinnamon roll, breakfast sandwich and biscotti has been excellent on my three visits to Cottage Bakery (18 Pacific Ave., Long Beach, Wash., 360-642-4441). It opens at 4 am, and you should arrive early to get the pick of the case, including the devil dogs filled with ultra-rich Bavarian cream.
Long Beach is home to three odd little museums. Hit the oddest first, since it opens first. Marsh's Free Museum (409 Pacific Ave., Long Beach, Wash., 360-642-2188, marshsfreemuseum.com) is just a gussied-up gift shop, but the oddities are something out of the sideshow described in Geek Love. The highlight is Jake, a "half-man half-alligator" that's smaller than you expect, but no less creepy. It also has a stuffed two-headed calf and old gaming machines. Around the corner, the International Kite Museum (303 Sid Snyder Drive, Long Beach, Wash., 360-642-4020, kitefestival.com) has 10,000 square feet of exhibits on the history of kites, including Blokarts, kites used by the Allies for many purposes in World War II and an endless video loop of kite festivals around the world narrated by a confused Scandinavian. A few miles outside of downtown, the Cranberry Museum (2907 Pioneer Road, 360-642-5553, cranberrymuseum.com) is a two-room museum that nevertheless manages to get into far too much detail about the nitrogen forms used to grow the sour bog berries.
Shuck your lunch at Oysterville Sea Farms
Time the tides right, and you can easily claim a meal of wild oysters and clams on the peninsula. Or, you can avoid trudging around the muck in rubber boots and spend your afternoon lolling on the porch outside this historic farm, where a dozen oysters go for just $7 and the cocktail sauce is $1 more. Oysterville Sea Farms (34300 1st St., Oysterville, Wash., 360-665-6585, willabay.com) anchors a historic village on the northern tip of the peninsula. Out back, there's a redwood deck with Adirondack chairs overlooking the placid waters of the Willapa Bay. You still have to get your hands dirty, as the farm isn't licensed to shuck and serve, instead giving you a garden glove, a knife and a quick tutorial. There's something satisfying and primal about sticking the knife into the oyster's hinge and twisting it to reveal a nutrient-dense lunch, then tossing the shell over the rail, into nature's recycling bin.
Afternoon stroll on Leadbetter Point
The northern tip of the peninsula, where the bay meets the open ocean, is called Leadbetter Point (northern end of Route 103, Ocean Park, Wash., 360-642-3078, Washington parks pass required and not sold on-site).
You take a one-lane road up to the parking lot, where there's no cell service. The trails on this sandy marsh are often flooded in winter months, and summer months birth mosquitos so big they leave thick black guck on your arm when swatted. It's a paradise for birders and clammers, and worth exploring for its remoteness and ruggedness.
Early-evening stroll along the Discovery Trail
Walk toward the beach on the lower peninsula, and you'll intersect with a paved path through the dunes. It's smooth enough to Rollerblade, though most folks you'll see are biking or walking.
The Discovery Trail runs for 8.3 miles, between the Peninsula Golf Course and downtown Ilwaco, Wash., at the foot of the peninsula. If you're feeling ambitious, and staying near the trail, you can walk down to Ilwaco for dinner and then walk back on the beach.
Dinner at Serious Pizza
Downtown Ilwaco's finest restaurant is a spinoff of a camp store. Serious Pizza (103 1st Ave. N, Ilwaco, Wash., 360-642-3060, capedisappointmentstore.com) started as a little shop selling flashlight batteries, toilet paper and wood-fired Neapolitan pies to the campers at nearby Cape Disappointment State Park.
Now, it has a proper shop downtown, still with coolers of canned beer and startlingly professional service. The excellent pies are made with "00" flour and fresh mozzarella, satisfying even pizza-geek specifications.
Nightcap at Long Beach Tavern
This is a place where you'll see women in pink camo singing along to Everclear and where some men greet each other with a playful "fuuuuuck you." There's lottery, billiards, pizza and all the domestic beer you want.
Brunch at the Pickled Fish
If you're staying at the hipstery Adrift Hotel, chances are you've made your way up here to the Pickled Fish (409 Sid Snyder Drive, Long Beach, 360-642-2344, pickledfishrestaurant.com), a fourth-story restaurant overlooking the beach. If not, welcome. The Pickled Fish is hit or miss, but there's an expansive view of what the locals claim is the longest beach in the world. On a clear day, it feels like you can see the whole doomed peninsula.
Where to Stay
Our Place at the Beach
1309 Ocean Beach Blvd., Long Beach, Wash., 360-642-3793, ourplacelb.com.
This modest hotel just off the main drag in Long Beach meets the minimum requirements for everything you want in a beach spot at prices as low as $65 per night. Around back, there's a path through the trees to the beach, though it may be flooded in the winter months. There are two hot tubs and a steam room, though they're nothing fancy. The rooms are basic, clean and don't have any views.
3728 J Place, Seaview, Wash., 360-642-2542, souwesterlodge.com.
If this artsy lodge, campground and RV park is your scene, you probably already know it from your friends' Instagrams. Five years ago, this century-old retreat was purchased by Portlander Thandi Rosenbaum, who has turned it into the go-to escape for a certain strain of scenester, as well as the venue for artists' retreats and an annual arts festival known as Spaceness.
For about $150 per night, you can rent a refurbed trailer stocked with vinyl and a turntable—I was happy to get the Pretenders and some old Detroit soul—or camp out and pop into the trailer outfitted as a twee thrift shop. It's a place with intense feelings and quirks aplenty. You're never to have an open container of alcohol outside your room and the parking is secretly assigned, to the point that they'll send someone to rap on the door to ask you to move your car from one parking space to another, for no reason you can divine.
Those records skip, as records are wont to do, and some of the wall light fixtures are controlled by switches you won't find after 15 minutes of searching, leading you to just give up and go to sleep with the lights on.
409 Sid Snyder Drive, Long Beach, Wash., 800-561-2456, adrifthotel.com.
Adrift stands out for its sheer size, as well as the rooftop restaurant and well-appointed game room, where you can drink a canned Cavatica stout while playing shuffleboard without putting your shoes on.