There is a tiny beach on our island that I’ve been in love with for years. I managed to grow up here without discovering Rockaway Beach until my high school marine biology teacher took us there on a field trip during a low spring tide. I couldn’t believe such a place existed on “my” island, so very different from all the other beaches I knew well.
It’s a pocket of wave-worn rocks and intertidal creatures with a geographic structure unique among our island beaches, all accessible by foot when the tide is low enough. The park is half an acre in total, from the tiny parking area to the water, and it packs more enchantment into that space than any other small park I can think of.
The Bainbridge-Seattle ferries run past offshore and you can see the big city across the curve of the sound. When you stand at Rockaway, you really do feel like you’re truly on an island. Strangely, this feeling can be hard to come by on this island, partly because of geography (our shores are quite close the Kitsap Peninsula at many points, making for short views from here to there) and partly because we have relatively little public beachfront. Washington State allowed for the sale of public tidelands to individuals from 1889 – 1971, so that today approximately 60% of our state’s beaches and tidelands are privately owned (more about that here). This makes spots like Rockaway all that much more important. For families like mine that can’t afford waterfront homes, the small road end beaches and the few larger public waterfront parks connect us to our island’s shores and the sound that surrounds us, they remind us that we’re islanders, too.
This past weekend, I realized that my kids had never experienced the magic that unfolds at Rockaway at a low tide. It’s lovely at high tide, yes – There’s a small grassy spot with a bench and, at least this week, an old leather swivel chair, where you can enjoy the view of Puget Sound, Seattle, and the Cascades behind the city (if you’re lucky enough, weather-wise).
But at low tide, Puget Sounds tips just far enough away to expose tall rocks covered, literally, with life. It’s hard to find safe places to put your feet, so that you can walk without leaving a path of death behind you, but that’s OK. No one wants to move fast – There’s so much to examine with each step: Sea stars and sea cucumbers hide under rock edges; colonies of aggregating anemones wage their slow-speed clone wars; barnacles, mussels, and snails cover the surfaces not taken up by anemones and rockweed; the world’s largest octopus species lives just offshore. There are holes, kid-sized caves, cracks, and an arch to explore, there’s the swivel chair to spin in, and even a pocket of meadow to rest in, all in a half-acre of public space.
My girls fell under the spell of Rockaway Beach this weekend. After their first trip there with their dad on Saturday, they organized an all-family visit again during Sunday evening’s low tide. We ended up eating dinner late, and that meant a slightly late bedtime for a Sunday, and it was completely worth it. Rockaway is proof that people don’t need huge spaces to discover the magic of the natural world.
It’s also proof that sometimes, when you’re really lucky, the spots that enchanted you as a child will survive for your own children to discover, and if you’re even luckier, these spots will still seem just as amazing to your own adult eyes as they did when you first saw them, way back when. Rockaway Beach is my own bit of luck. What’s yours?