Sleeping in the sand and mist is mysterious and fun

There's something magical about camping on the beach. The land ends leaving only ocean as far as the eye can see.

I'd hoped to watch the golden sun melt into the wine-dark sea as the roaring surf sang its wild lullaby beside my warm sand bed. Instead, a thick wall of gray sea fog hugged the coast well into the forest. It added a completely different, more mysterious and mystic ambience to my latest visit to the coast from Ozette.

My wife, Mandy, and I arrived in late afternoon, a hot sun beating down from overhead. The trails to Sand Point and Cape Alava are about three miles long and relatively easy - much of the way traverses a boardwalk over mostly level terrain. The boardwalk can be slick when wet, though it was quite dry on our visit.

The trail starts at the Ozette Ranger Station with a bridge crossing the tranquil, tannin-stained water of the Ozette River. The slow-flowing waterway looked like a river of brown tea. Lake Ozette is visible by the absence of trees.

The path soon splits in the woods, one branch heading west toward Cape Alava, the other southwest to Sand Point.

Each trail forms a leg of a triangle loop hike, with a 2.9-mile stretch of beach forming the third leg.

The path traverses an up-and-down path through young spruce and hemlock trees packed tightly beneath with ferns and other greenery. There are several prairie clearings that would have given a glimpse of blue sky were it not for the sea fog clinging to the treetops.

A friendly park ranger checked our backcountry permit and bear canister on our way in and soon the sound of ocean surf and the fresh whiff of ocean air spurred our weary legs to the campground. There were a handful of camps in the forest along the beach edge; they were full. We took the ranger's advice and picked a spot on the sand just beyond Wish Creek.

I set up the tent and promptly got down to the business of making dinner: clam linguine with porcini mushrooms in a white wine sauce. I find that the little luxuries make roughing it a little more pleasant.

We walked to the surf and startled a flock of seagulls sleeping on the beach. The fog was so thick the ocean seemed to disappear after just a few yards. Our campsite was alone in the mist, hidden at the edge of the dark forest behind a tangle of bonelike beach logs.

The sand wasn't as soft a bed as I thought it would be. I needed a few minutes of yoga in the morning to iron out the worst of the kinks.

We left the bulk of our gear in the tent, taking only a small daypack with water, first aid supplies, camera and knife.

A stroll along the beach sounds dreamy but is an ankle-bending jumble of rock, gravel and slick seaweed. We met many denizens of the ocean tide pools - tiny purple shore crabs, mussels and barnacles, black snails and ochre sea stars - as we picked our way through and around tide pools or over shifting sand.

Some recommend sturdy boots but I've been hiking in sandals almost exclusively for the past year and have found my once weak ankles have toughened up incredibly and I no longer have to worry about getting my feet wet. It was fun to splash through the water.

We were glad when we finally reached Wedding Rocks - named after a pictograms depicting a man and a woman with sexual symbols of a bisected circle. Though there are about 40 carved pictograms, I have found just a few. Next time I go, I swear I'll remember to pick up the map pointing out where they can be found.

The carvings are estimated to be some 300 to 500 years old: One depicts a two-masted sailing schooner and the style is identical to 500-year-old art found at a Makah village site excavated just north of Cape Alava.

Ozette Village was excavated for 11 years beginning in the late 1960s; The artifacts are stored the Makah Cultural and Resource Center in Neah Bay.

I set the daypack down while I scrambled upon the rocks, keeping the camera with me for pictures. I directed a man and two teenage boys who showed up to the easiest-to-find pictograms (whales and faces) near where I left my pack. I climbed a waypath high up the rocky headland looking for more carvings but found none. When we returned to the pack several minutes later, my knife was missing from its sheath and a zipper had been undone.

I chased down the suspected perpetrators but they denied having taken the knife. Lacking proof, I headed back grumbling about my lost knife.

We made our way back to camp as the sun came out from behind the mist. Fortunately, nobody had pillaged our campsite.

We went back the way we came rather than make the loop trek (it's a pretty similar hike either way and we didn't want to carry the heavy packs along the rocky beach). I reported the theft at the ranger station on principle and was given a knife lost by another hiker months ago in exchange.

The new knife is quite nice - it's more of a hunting knife with a decorated wood handle and sharp blade - but not quite as multi-functional as my stolen military surplus survival knife.

If you go, make sure to make all necessary preparations (permits for camping and the like), get the map of the pictogram locations at the ranger station, be prepared for a soul-stirring experience and keep an eye on your stuff: If you don't, somebody else just might.

Leif Nesheim is hiking columnist and a former reporter for the Sequim Gazette. He is editor at the Montesano Vidette. He can be reached at editor

Cape Alava, Ozette Loop

How long: 5.1 miles to Wedding Rocks via Sand Point; 9.3-mile loop.

How hard: Moderate.

How to get there: Take U.S. Highway 101 to Sappho, turn north on 113 to 112. Take Highway 112 past Clallam Bay and Sekiu. Turn left on Hoko-Ozette Road. Road ends at the Ozette Ranger Station. Trailhead is at the station.

Other information: Camping reservations and a backcountry permit are needed to camp at Sand Point or Camp Alava. Make reservations by calling the Olympic National Park Wilderness Center, 3002 Mount Angeles Road in Port Angeles behind the Visitor Center, at 360-565-3100. A pass is required to park at the trailhead. Dogs are not allowed on the trails. Plastic bear canisters are required for camping.

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