By Nicole Hardina

When Chelsea suggested our group of friends go camping at Third Beach, outside of La Push, I was excited. The Olympic Peninsula is one of my favorite parts of Washington. Then she said we should build a beach oven and have a seafood bake, and I began to worry about the ways the project could go wrong. 

Camping at Third Beach is technically backcountry camping, but it’s backcountry for babies. There’s a pit toilet at the trailhead, but no facilities or potable water at the site. Campers have to bring in their own water, and bear cans are required. Then again, the trail from the parking lot to the beach is a mostly flat, well-groomed walk of just over a mile. Worst case scenario, we could make multiple trips to the car for supplies.  

In the days leading up to the trip, I thought of how difficult it was just to get several adults with different schedules together, and I questioned how we’d make sure everyone was prepared. Because of COVID-19, REI wasn’t renting bear bins, and the Wilderness Information Centers (WICs) were closed to the public. Who would bring the seafood, and how would we keep it cold? Were we really going to carry shovels and buckets in addition to all the other supplies? I committed to the idea that on this small scale, even a disaster would be an adventure.  

The parking lot was packed when my friend Ford and I arrived. Hiking in we passed shelf fungi the size of our heads and tiny ferns sprouting on tree snags, and my worries began to dissolve. Soon, Ford spotted the break in the trees. The trail descended a few root-covered switchbacks, and we were there. Volcanic rocks stood like shipwrecks in the rising tide, and sea stacks marked the southern end of the shallow bay. We found half the crew already around a fire they’d built in a pit that would become our beach oven.  

The logistics I’d worried about had been easily solved. Chelsea and Braden contacted the WIC folks and picked up bear bins. They also had water filters and a feather-light avalanche shovel. I’d found burlap sacks for the beach oven at a hardware store. Braden went to cut some cedar fronds to place over the coals while Ford set up our tent. Lainie and Bretton had already arrived and were chatting with Ben and Izzy, Chelsea’s grad school friends. Alex and Annie were the last piece of the puzzle. They were bringing dinner. We settled around the fire to wait. 

Camping on the beach in western Washington, on the Olympic Peninsula.
Beach camping on the Olympic Peninsula. // Photo: Nicole Hardina

Hours later, we were still waiting. The fire had dwindled to coals. Chelsea dragged the fronds onto them, scenting the smoke. Sunset came and went, and we watched for the comet Neowise through low clouds. Whether or not the beach oven worked out, we’d managed to put aside the pandemic for a while. We’d spent the day moving between togetherness and solitude, each finding a way to recharge. Bretton took a solo hike; Chelsea, Ford, Ben, Izzy, and I explored tide pools; Lainie napped in the sunshine and fashioned some witchy art out of beach stuff; and Braden kept the fire going. Later, the beach oven project gave us something to think and talk about besides whatever worries we’d individually left at home.  

Finally, they arrived. Annie carried an enormous bedroll, and Alex had what looked like a Baby Bjorn holding eight pounds of clams and two Dungeness crabs. It was beach oven go time. Chelsea and I soaked the burlap at the shoreline, getting it sandy in the process. We laid the burlap with seaweed over the fronds and chucked in corn and sweet potatoes. Then the clams went in. Braden snipped the bands off the crabs and threw them on top. We spent an hour anticipating, laughing, and being together in a way that felt luxurious compared to pandemic-inflicted isolation. 

“How will we know it’s done?” I asked. 

“One way to find out,” Braden said. He pulled back a corner of the burlap.  

The sweet potatoes looked ready to slip out of their skins. The corn husks had a light char. The clams had opened. The crabs were hot. Well after midnight, we loaded our plates. Everything had a little bit of sand in it. We poured garlic butter on top and sucked down the smoked seafood and buttery sweet potatoes and corn, grit and all. Sated and happy, we cleaned up, doused the fire, and let the early morning waves shush us to sleep.

Originally published as “Beach Oven Adventure” in the Last Page section of the September-October 2020 double issue.

Nicole Hardina is a Seattle-based writer training for her first marathon and praying the circus reopens soon so she can go back to her new love, flying trapeze.