Chasing the King Tide, Embracing the Wet at Ecola and Cape Disappointment State Parks.

“From this point, I beheld the grandest and most pleasing prospects which my eyes ever surveyed, in my front a boundless ocean… the Seas break with great force and gives this coast a most romantic appearance,” William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, January 12th, 1806.

Shortly after moving to the Pacific Northwest, I commented to someone about the area not having as much rain as I thought. They replied, “Shhh, don’t tell anyone.”

After more than a decade here, the Pacific Northwest gets just as much rain as I thought. The summers are spectacular. We rarely stay inside on a nice day. The winters are the complete reverse; it feels like we seldom leave the house.

A few years ago, we stumbled across the saying, “Live like the mountain is out.” On perfect summer days, Mt. Rainier is visible for hours in every direction. During the winter months, all the mountains are shrouded in gray, and you can go long periods not seeing them. It has been our inspiration to not let rainy weather stop us from enjoying the day.  

In a PNW photography group, I started seeing stuff about the King Tides. I have been here a while, and somehow their existence had evaded me entirely. Some of the photos were insane. The Tillamook lighthouse or Terrible Tilly was built on top of a sea stack. The lighthouse was built above the ocean. The way Lighthouses usually are built. So when I saw a photo showing waves going over the entire lighthouse—It caught my attention.

One of the many photographers out looking for glory.

I wanted to see the King Waves myself.

The King Tide happens during the Winter and Spring when the moon is closest to the earth and is in the New Moon phase. The tide winds up being pushed quite a bit higher than usual, and it usually brings nasty weather right along with it.

King Tides are dangerous. News stories nearly every year report on people drug out to sea and drown by “Sneaker Waves.” Yet, the event draws hundreds or thousands of photographers each year who try to capture the waves. You should absolutely go check it out, just stay away from the beach during the King Tides. There are plenty of places to watch it safely.

If you would like to see the Tides yourself, the next series happens between December 13th through the 15th, 2020, and again January 11th through the 13th.

I had two shots I wanted to try. The first at Cape Disappointment, I thought that with the combination of headlights and lighting equipment, I might be able to capture the waves at night. Something about night photography appeals to me. Besides, I would get to avoid people during a pandemic.

The problem I ran across once arriving was the road that leads to the parking area was closed off by a gate. It was pouring. It was cold. I was not particularly willing to endure the elements with less light than I had planned to attempt the shot.

The second was using the Moza Slypod, a slider/monopod that I had recently purchased to take some moving time-lapses. Honestly, I just wound up not wanting to carry it with me along with my heavy camera bag and tripod.

After realizing that I would not be able to get close enough to the waves at Cape Disappointment, I drove down into Oregon. Oregon has a spectacular coastline. Tons of areas I could park along the side of the road and safely shoot down towards the ocean.

I quickly researched shooting locations and decided on Ecola State Park just north of Cannon Beach. Primarily because I stumbled across the image of the wave going over “Terrible Tilly.”

It was around 2 a.m when I arrived at Ecola State Park. It was a dark, moonless night . I could not see much of anything and was hesitant to go wandering around in the dark in a state park. I could see the nearby cliffs and decided to hop back in my car. I found an overlook where I could shoot the tides, which were now approaching low tide. I was able to catch the bioluminescent plankton in the water.

The blue in the water is created by Bioluminescent Plankton.

After an hour of that, I returned to Ecola State Park and slept in my car till the sun rose. Photographers were already starting to pull into the parking lot. I hopped out of my car into the rain. Threw on my heavy-duty rain gear and shot a time-lapse. I was just too far to get a good enough image of the Tillamook “Terrible Tilly” Lighthouse.

A friend from Portland showed up to hang out with me, and we headed to the second parking area in the Ecola State Park. I thought I could get closer to the rocky shoreline and take a few better shots. The waves were huge and more frequent than usual. Just nothing mind-blowing was crashing on the shore. The lighthouse was obscured from view as well.

There was a trailhead for the lighthouse viewpoint. It was less than a mile long. There are two trails to the lighthouse viewpoint—a well-groomed shorter trail and a longer and substantially more challenging trail.

As we started hiking up, my buddy said, “According to the sign at the trailhead, Meriweather Lewis described this as the most miserable mountain he had ever climbed.”

Strange tree on the hike up.

That was unintentional foreshadowing.

It was pouring, trees had fallen across the trail from recent storms, and we two men far closer to our 40’s than our teen years and not exactly in good shape struggled to get to the top.

My buddy kept suggesting we turn back, but I was not about to miss one of those waves. I did miss those waves, but I was hopeful. I kept shrugging off his repeated suggestions because I really wanted that photo. Plus, all the best images usually involve some sort of misery. This was my penance to get that photo, which I did not get. Not for lack of trying, I have nearly 300 pictures of that lighthouse.

At the top, we noticed another trail running alongside ours. Except this trail was wide enough for a vehicle. At the very top, an elderly couple enjoyed the view as two soaking wet, muddy, and exhausted guys approached the viewpoint.

I really want to go back and visit with my family now. They have some log cabins with bunks built into the side that are first-come, first-serve for campers. The top also has one of the WWII era artillery emplacements that was once part of America’s shoreline defense.

The view was just as amazing as described by William Clark 214 years before my own expedition.

We headed back down the main trail, which took us all of ten minutes to descend compared to the two-plus hours it took us to get to the top.

We headed into town, grabbed a burger and some clam chowder at Tom’s Fish and Chips, and laughed about our incompetence.

After that, I crossed back into Washington, swung back by Cape Disappointment, and snapped a series of photos.

Then drove home in the pouring rain.

But now, I know where I will go when I return for the upcoming King Tides. I’m also looking forward to dragging my young children up that mountain for an exciting camping trip when the “mountain is finally out.”


Written by Corey Dembeck

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