Adventures on Washington State’s Cranberry Coast, Part I
I love cranberries. With about 30 percent of West Coast cranberry farms located along the Southwest Washington coast, it makes perfect sense that we have The Cranberry Coast to visit.
I thought this area could be easily explored in one trip. I was wrong. There is a LOT happening in this part of the state. This is Part I.
Thursday Afternoon and Evening
We leave Vancouver on a one of those frying, triple-digit July days. As we pull out of Chehalis on SR6, after our ritual stop at the Dairy Barn for milkshakes, the Wachovia clock reads 100 degrees. By the time we get to Raymond in Pacific County, less than an hour from I-5, we are down to a cool, marine 67 degrees. The Cranberry Coast is looking good already.
4 p.m. An Elegant Bed and Breakfast in “The Oyster Capital of the World” Our host Beverley warmly welcomes us at the historic Russell House Bed and Breakfast in South Bend. Russell House is a stunning 1891 Victorian home, built by John Russell as a 25th anniversary gift for his wife, overlooking South Bend and the Willapa River. Beverley has graciously agreed to store our tent camper and kayaks in the backyard while we are exploring the area. We settle in to the Bay Room with its turret window seat and spectacular view of the river.
6:30 p.m. Well-worn tavern, good beer, succulent oysters. Beverley recommends two diners in town for great oysters. We start with dinner at Chester Club and Oyster Bar, which more than one person points out has been written about in The New York Times. If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for us. A few older guys are hanging out at the bar, occasionally wandering out to smoke and greet a very popular dog in a pickup. When I taste my first oyster, I slap the table. It’s that good. Lightly battered and fried but not greasy. And it’s matched perfectly with Rogue’s Dead Guy Ale. I hope The New York Times was very, very kind to this bar. They deserve it.
11 a.m. The first of three fun museums. After a hearty breakfast of quiche, mango smoothies and pastries at Russell House, we are ready to explore the local sites. I love local museums. The Pacific County Museum provides interesting displays of local history and a fine bookstore. I purchase a copy of naturalist Robert Michael Pyle’s Wintergreen about the Willapa Hills. We don’t know it but this book will serve us in a surprising event near the end of our trip.
1 p.m. A stolen courthouse Up the hill we visit the massive Pacific County Courthouse, which received its initial records via steamer in a reported theft from Oysterville in 1893. Called “The Gilded Palace of Extravagance,” the courthouse was completed in 1911. The spectacular stained art glass dome alone is worth the trip up the hill. The local citizens are very kind to not step on me when I lie on the floor to photograph their fabulous ceiling.
2 p.m. Cranberries again. Knot Just Another Baking Company in South Bend is offering warm, pumpkin cranberry muffins. The river pier behind the bakery is the perfect place to consume them. This cozy bakery would be a great place to buy sandwiches for a kayaking trip on the Willapa.
3 p.m. Karaoke in the Park – Just up the river in Raymond, the Willapa Harbor Festival is offering karaoke in the park. We sneak into the Dennis Company, one of those rare, delightful stores that carries everything from plumbing supplies to pajamas. Their formula must work because they have been in business for more than 100 years. We admire the mural illustrating Raymond’s logging history and 250 or so metal sculptures throughout the town.
3:30 p.m. Two more fine museums. One block away, Raymond’s Seaport Museum and the Northwest Carriage Museum provide plenty to investigate. The Willapa Seaport Museum features maritime artifacts and varied collections from logging to lighthouses, documenting life on Willapa Bay and in the Northwest.
Next door, at the Northwest Carriage Museum , we find a world-class collection of 24 elegant carriages – beautifully preserved coaches used for various occasions including a movie star, a Landau carriage used in Gone with the Wind and Jezebel and a “surrey with the fringe on the top.” Donated to the City of Raymond by two generous local collectors, the carriages are displayed in a handsome museum built in 2002. Next door, the farmer’s market has luscious peaches and blueberries in stock.
7 p.m. What, no oysters?! Tonight we are ready to try the grilled oysters of the River Side Dining. The barbeque is still smoking out front but they have just sold the last grilled oysters. We are ridiculously disappointed. We buck up and continue to celebrate the mollusks (and Rogue beer) back at Chester Club where Rolf Olsen and Bruce Hughes are starting a set of jazz in the back overlooking the bay. We can’t complain.
9 a.m. A good morning for a hike. We walk off the Russell House breakfast down on the Willapa River Trail, a rails-to-trails project, and with a hike of perhaps six miles to Raymond and back. At its peak, Raymond had 20 factories and mills on the waterfront, according to a visitor’s guide. The river is quiet these days.
Noon One more try for oysters. It’s time for us to head for Willapa Bay for the camping part of our trip. But wait. The grill is smoking at the River View Dining. We decide to chance it one more time. Ordered by the dozen, the oysters won’t be ready for 45 minutes so we shop for groceries and come back to wait with all the other vulture-like diners. Manuel, the owner, carries in platters of steaming oysters and somehow figures out who is next in line for his barbequed fare. He won’t divulge what is in his special barbeque sauce. I can taste lime, cilantro and possibly molasses. It is really, really worth the wait. They are sweet, smokey and remarkable.
3 p.m. From B & B luxury to the camper. The local state parks were full when we made reservations so we check into the family-packed, Bay Center/Willapa Bay KOA and set up our camper. Like most people our age, we have progressed from backpacking to car camping to a 1978 VW bus to our aging but very comfortable Jayco tent camper. Despite still being satiated with oysters, we fix our traditional first night camping dinner – spaghetti with salad, good bread and red wine.
The friendly KOA staff provides root beer floats for dessert. Gary partakes. I’m stuffed.
11 a.m. It’s a fine day to go kayaking. We put the boats in at the south end of the US 101 bridge over the Palix River. At this point the river is quite wide with grassy banks and many forks. We keep taking new offshoots, threatening to get totally lost, and eventually end up in a narrow, clear creek. We manage to find our way back seeing only one lone jet skier with a hunting dog perched on the noisy watercraft. As we pull out the boats, two bald eagles are tearing apart a fish across the river.
Back at the campground, which is adjacent to Willapa Bay, clammers are digging their limits, 40 clams each. The bountiful Cranberry Coast can boast WAY more than little red berries.
10 a.m. A stop in Ilwaco It’s time to head home – south on Hwy 101, with a brief detour into Ilwaco for a browse at the well-stocked Time Enough Books on the waterfront and coffee and scones in Chinook.
Noon Is that who I think it is? Driving east on SR4, we take a scenic side road. Slightly lost, we ask directions from a white-bearded gentleman who is walking down the road. His face is vaguely familiar. His binoculars are a clue. It’s Robert Michael Pyle, the naturalist writer. Miraculously, his book that I purchased in South Bend is handy. He graciously signs it as we linger in the middle of the road. He tells us about the nearby forest species and chats about local butterflies, his specialty, and invites us to come back someday. We are profoundly impressed and grateful as he shares with us, perfect strangers in an old, green Subaru hauling kayaks and a vintage tent camper, a bit of wisdom about the Willapa Hills.
It’s back to the heat of Vancouver, but we have another trip to The Cranberry Coast coming up. Think sea lions and sand dollars, surfers, wine tastings and, yes, more oysters. Watch for Part II.