Oversea Debris

Sea kayakers search for tsunami wreckage on Washington's roadless coast

This photo is featured in the Buyer’s Guide 2013 issue of Canoe & Kayak Magazine which can be purchased here.

Photos and Words: Ken Campbell

Surveying Washington's Olympic Peninsula.

Photo by Ken Campbell

I hardly knew what hit me. It was a wave, obviously, no different from any of the last waves, except that in an instant, I was upside down. I tried to roll, but the breaking wave tore the paddle from my hands. In that moment, all those roll clinics I’d attended (and taught!) made no difference. I came out and could only hold the tip of my overturned kayak as the waves pushed me through a gap in the rocks and into quieter water. Fortunately, my companions spotted me and quickly helped me back in the boat. I paddled out from the rocky coast of Cape Flattery to the waves and wind once again, more cautious, more aware of the massive prerogative of the ocean. There’s a power in the water that can make all of our efforts seem tiny and small.

On March 11, 2011, the Tohoku earthquake, centered off the coast of northern Japan, generated powerful tsunami waves that slammed into 400 miles of the Japanese shoreline. Entire towns were wiped off the map by waves of up to 120 feet high. When the waters finally receded, more than 20,000 people were dead or missing and millions were left homeless, their world changed forever.

Ikkatsu Expedition

Photo by Ken Campbell

The waves washed more than 5 million tons of debris out to sea. Most of it—boats, cars, buildings and a host of everyday items—quickly sank. The rest began a voyage from one side of the Pacific to the other, carried inexorably eastward by the ocean currents. In the fall of 2011, some of the estimated 1.5 million tons of remaining flotsam—everything from buoys and boats to entire shipping containers—began arriving on North America ’s west coast.

This summer, Steve Weileman, Jason Goldstein and I set out in our kayaks to survey the most remote beaches of Washington’s Olympic Peninsula. We hoped to inventory the debris that had already arrived and to establish a baseline for future accumulations. I dubbed it the Ikkatsu Expedition for a Japanese term that means “together,” because of what I saw as the underlying reality that the tsunami so tragically demonstrates: Events that take place on the other side of the world have a profound effect on us. The ocean doesn’t keep us apart; it brings us together in ways that we are only beginning to understand.

Collecting debris at Olympic Peninsula beaches.

Photo by Ken Campbell.

Steve, Jason and I were in it together for 17 days. We started in Neah Bay, near the northwestern tip of the Olympic Peninsula, and ended some 80 miles south at Ruby Beach. This stretch of coast is inaccessible by road, and frequent heavy surf makes boat access difficult. The area around Cape Flattery, at the tip of the Peninsula, certainly delivered boat-flipping, conflicting currents and big seas. Past that first crux, however, conditions were remarkably benign. It was the scene off the water that kept us engaged, with a staggering selection of debris at every stop.

North of Hobuck Beach, we were digging through a tangled pile of lumber and driftwood, pulling individual pieces of flotsam from the twisted jumble, when it struck me that we were in someone’s house. Smashed and broken on a wild Pacific beach were the remains of a blue plastic laundry hamper. Farther down in the mass of wood was a medicine cabinet with bottles of cough syrup and iodine. A child’s potty seat and a piece of a washing machine, some cleaning supplies and a toothbrush—all that’s left of a home that once stood 6,000 miles from here, half a world away.

Photo by Ken Campbell

Photo by Ken Campbell

We used NOAA’s Standing Stock surveying procedure. We’d divide a 100-meter stretch of beach into 20 transects, choose four of them at random, and then catalog the debris from the waterline to the top of the beach. We left it to scientists to examine the numbers we sent to NOAA, but certain items were hard to quantify as mere pieces of data. We found a soccer ball on the beach that we have since learned came from Otsuchi, a small town that was decimated by the earthquake and tsunami. The soccer club may not even exist anymore; we’re still simply trying to find someone to whom we can return the ball.

Sitting around the fire as the trip wound down, Steve and I talked about the things that we’d found. We kept coming back to the idea that all of this debris, most of it plastic, was choking an overlooked environment that few people ever see—and one that will only get worse as the main body of tsunami flotsam starts to hit the beaches. There is, so far, very little in the way of a coordinated approach to any kind of cleanup operations; returning this coast to its pristine condition will take every bit of will and genius our society can muster.

So we’re left now to keep sorting through what we learned along the way, and are working on another trip to a remote Alaskan island in 2013. We’ll continue the search for tsunami debris and try to make sense of the things the ocean has to teach us.

It is a big ocean, but it is a small planet.

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