Up the Beach — Pondering pilings, area elk origins and sea swimmers

Reflections of old piling in the waters of Grays Harbor not only bring back memories, but also are nearly sacred heritage places for folks along the beach. They are rather like the Smith Tower or the Space Needle in Seattle.

Jeanne Finke has a soft spot in her heart for the old pilings marching across Bowerman Basin and has been wondering, “What are they?”

Those old pilings crossing one of the finest man-made bird areas around lead to what was once known as Moon Island Airport. The airfield was created, in part, to accommodate postal air service during the 1930s. Before, and during, WWII, the U.S. military took over 17 municipal and local airports, including Moon Island, for use as military airfields.

In 1942 the U.S. Army granted funds to expand the Hoquiam airfield as an Out-Lying Field for use for bombing training runs and as a patrol base. Expansion of the field and hangars necessitated easier access to the airfield from the highway that once led to Grays Harbor City. The piles provided transport of materials to and from the airfield.

Following the war, Robert Bowerman, a fighter pilot, returned home to establish Western Washington Airways. The field was returned to the city in 1946 and was later named for 1st Lt. Robert C. Bowerman, a co-pilot killed during the Korean War.

Now controlled by the Port of Grays Harbor, it is the only jet-capable coastal airport. Of course, Bowerman airport also was important during the development of Ocean Shores when it flew in the first aircraft of movie stars to visit the new, swanky place on the beach.

At extreme low tide, also in Bowerman Basin, near the north head of land, the piling remains of the mile-long dock for the west coast railroad ‘terminal’ of Grays Harbor City can be seen. Naturally, much of the piling disappeared when Bowerman Basin was filled in to become an industrial area.

This fascination with the ghostly piling remnants is why some beachers were pretty upset to see the state DNR remove the old Catala pilings off Damon Point. And why those who go to town via the airport road often park to watch the sun come up or set over the vast graveyard of the splendid working mills that lined the Hoquiam River.

Beachcombing treasures

Talking about water brings up the subject of beachcombing. The recent Beachcomber Fun Fair folks brought in a bunch of likely Japanese tsunami debris ,including house construction materials, a wonderful lacquer bowl, part of a sink, and other interesting finds during the Dash For Trash event. The debris was a focal point of many of the exhibits.

But one thing they didn’t find was the sand-pounders dream find. Recently a beachcomber in England was pretty darn mad when his dog, Madge, came trotting up the beach yapping about a huge soccer ball-sized nasty piece of stuff. Yanking the dog off the beach and away from rolling in the glob, he went home.

But something kept bothering him. Finally he went back and lugged the mass home. He researched on Google and found out he had a treasured piece of ambergris, a waxy bi-product of sperm whale vomit. His last offer was $68,000 (US) for the waxy, green-gray piece of flotsam. And… He isn’t mad at Madge anymore.

Queets fish plant coming

The Queets folks are getting pretty excited over the job possibilities in the community when the new Queets fish processing plant is completed. The Nugguam reports that PND of Seattle has completed the plans and specifications for the construction competitive bid last September.

Construction bids coming in during October all greatly exceeded the federal budget for the project. By Feb 22, twenty-one firms had requested plans, specifications and bidding documents for the March 8 bid date.

Turtle travels

The colder winter water in our areas sometimes produce sightings of the resident Ridley sea turtles that start their lives in the Gulf of Mexico. But they do know one Ridley, nicknamed Flip, didn’t follow her directional signals. She was found on the beach in the Netherlands in December in 1911, starving and cold-shocked. She was carted off to a sea sanctuary weighing just about four pounds and measuring less than 14 inches. This winter she was flown back home to the gulf weighing more than 7 pounds and is well over 14 inches long. You can follow her travels on www.fws.gov/southwest

Wonder if she will come visit us?

Salmon GPS

In other fish news, researchers may have solved the mystery of how salmon find their way back to home streams. It has long been known each fish scale carries an imprint of the river in which salmon spawn.

The latest research shows that sockeye use magnetic signals like an inner GPS. Nathan Putnam, a post proctorial researcher at the University of Oregon, says the salmon imprint upon the magnetic field that exists where they enter the ocean.

His works expands upon the knowledge that the earth’s magnetic field helps the salmon determine north and south. As the magnetic line moves westward, it goes into the Gulf of Alaska where the migrating salmon follow the route to open water. As juveniles, salmon imprint on the magnetic intensity of the line and use this same route when they return to their home rivers as an adult.

There is the possibility that the long practice of putting magnetic wire-coded tags in the nose of juvenile fish may account for the lower survival rate of hatchery fish. Perhaps their inner maps are scrambled by the iron pipes and electrical wiring that surround their tanks.

White Salmon River returns

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service reports that salmon and steelhead are returning to the White Salmon River for the first time in nearly a century since the removal of the Conduit Dam. More than 700 pounds of dynamite were used to blow the dam to provide the unobstructed flow of the river and the return of steelhead and Tule fall Chinook.

According to USFS biologist Rod Engle, a strong genetic connection to their pre-dam descendants make these fish “very unique.” Having a hatchery produce fish endemic to an area for over 100 years is very rare, according to Engle. Besides their DNA, the fish are special because they immediately moved into the new habitat a year after the dam removal.

The Chinook gained six miles of habitat, while the steelhead gained 33 miles. Good news for the local fishers who sometimes just have to take a break from local waters and prove they can catch their limits on other rivers.

Sea otter transplants

Since we are on a sea kick, it is interesting to note that Alaska is overrun with sea otters and are now proposing a bounty on the fuzzy-faced darlings. Introduction of a $100 bounty for each otter would be paid for lawfully killed animals in an effort to control their predation upon shellfish beds.

It is doubtful any laws could be passed that will meet USFS regulations.

Alaskan Sea otters were released off Ocean Shores in 1972 in an effort to reintroduce the species in offshore waters. It was not known at the time that the otters depend upon the 1,000 hairs per inch on their pelts to keep warm, since they have no body fat. The otters were transported in open wire cages on the deck of ships and most died from pneumonia in the process.

Later transplants were successful but the Sea otters much preferred the Quinault Reservation waters to the fancy-dancy new city and promptly moved north to live off Point Granville.

Funny-looking things like sharks always interest beachers. One hundred million is the latest estimated number of sharks killed annually, which amounts to 6.4 percent of the total shark population. The annual allowable kill is set at 4.9 percent to maintain a viable population. So now you have a new fact for the doomsday predictors.

Elk origins

Hooved critters seem to be in the news lately. Caribou in southern B.C.’s mountains re-located from Dease Lake to the Kootenays largely die due to cougar predation. Liberalized hunting and trapping seasons for predator control and sterilization of wolves are in the works.

Here up the beach, a real Elk-a-holic, Dan Boeholt, who is also a long-time member of the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation, checked in to correct a long held rumor in the recent elk information in this column. The local elk are all Roosevelt elk, with nary a Rocky Mountain elk anywhere on the Peninsula.

The rumor started when about a dozen Rocky Mountain elk transplants were introduced in the Mount Rainier area. Even those genetics are believed to have been wiped out.

As old-timers argue the merits of native elk and Roosevelt elk, they maintain the elk with palmated horns, deeper orange chests and butt coloration are native, not Roosevelt.

According to Boeholt, DNA studies of locally captured elk transported to Alaska years ago show they are identical to our current Roosevelt elk. He is of the opinion that herds do show all sorts of differences in coloration and in antlers — with the crowning points being typical of Roosevelts.

The difference in elk the pioneers remembered could have more to do with the browse and lack of sunlight in old growth forests as opposed to the open land available to elk in this era.

Another dearly held long-time rumor among the local hunters is that Weyco imported wolves and coyotes. Again, not so. So this latest round of information should provide some more heated conversations over coffee cups. But, heck. That is the mission of iconoclastic people.

In the Snoqualmie Valley, east of Seattle, hunters and wildlife biologists are keeping a lookout for limping elk. Herald Erland of the local Elk Management Group said three of the valley’s 450 elk have been found dead. Autopsies have shown a lack of selenium and copper in the dead elk.

Salt blocks fortified with the missing chemicals have been put out to see if that helps the herd of 150 living near North Bend.

The remainder of those herds were introduced by the state Department of Game and held on an island in the middle of the old Weyco log boom just east of Snoqualmie Falls until they had acclimated to the valley.

So, if arguing over elk isn’t enough to keep you occupied during the changeable March weather, go find your favorite set of pilings that are near and dear to your heart and imagine their origins and mission.

Gene Woodwick is available at genewoodwick@coastaccess.com or (360) 289-2805.