Opinion

KVI Beach draws plant lovers, bird watchers and dogs

By ANN SPIERS

For The Beachcomber

Under a winter night’s fullish moon, Ellisport’s KVI Beach on Point Heyer supplies a worthy hike for the sure-footed. If the tide is low, a sand spit forms, creating a glowy ramp into the darkened sea. Airplane lights spark, first south above Portage, curving north to travel above the Island, then again south to descend in a neatly spaced line at Sea-Tac airport across the water. KVI Radio’s tower proudly blinks its red lights above. And its sisters, to the southwest on Maury and north on Vashon, blink their own identifying patterns. In season, lovers snuggle in the driftwood, and kids of all ages roast marshmallows over beach fires.

As I cross the bridge that spans the outflow stream from Heyer Marsh, a great blue heron, a heavy shadow, lifts from its night perch in the trees. To the left, the salt marsh, a rare surviving ecosystem in Puget Sound, mixes fresh water with the salty tides’ ebb and flow. The marsh is enclosed by sand eroded from the bluffs to the point’s north and carried by nearshore currents flowing south down the Island’s east shore.

Pickleweed (Salicornia virginica) thrives in the marsh’s saturated soil and high salinity. The leafless plant forms mats, and its segmented stems turn upward. People worldwide eat it as a vegetable. Another mat-forming succulent, fleshy jaumea (Jaumea carnosa), has weak, trailing stems with opposite leaves. Both plants exude salt. Salt-marsh dodder (Cuscuta salina), lacking chlorophyll, twines orange threads around the pickleweed in a symbiotic relationship.

Foraging on pickleweed, green-winged teals overwinter in the marsh. During spring and fall migrations, ducks sojourn, finding refuge and food.

In the 1910s, ethnologist T. T. Waterman recorded Point Heyer’s name as Tuqo’olil or “hidden spring.” The legend recalls a young girl who hid here to avoid an unwanted suitor. An old woman brought water in a basket to her, and that basket was changed into a spring. Like the girl was, the spring is still hard to find, most probably a seasonal creek off the hill above.

Cedar posts mark the path along the marsh to the beach. Ecologist Estella Leopold suggested, during a 1990s Walk on the Wild Side program, that humans and dogs were degrading the upper marsh and grassy dune to the path’s right. Vashon Audubon, supporting a summer youth project, installed the cedar posts.

Many of the posts are gray with age and many fallen, but they still serve subtly and effectively as a barrier reminding walkers not to trample the marsh and further degrade the sandy matrix of the spit’s interior field (site of killdeer nests — a small depression scratched into the sand that holds the small eggs). The posts testify that “crowd control” doesn’t need to clash with a site’s ambiance. All in all, this gentle reminder has worked — except for the dogs. Some dogs (or should we blame their owners?) are not guided, but tromp into the rare ecosystem.

KVI Beach, aka DogDoo Beach by some Island birders and neighbors, is used for dog outings. For the dogless, meeting a friendly dog lunging with glee can be energizing when it happens once. But at KVI Beach, one can be greeted by four dogs per outing. After two labs wet with recent swims and two lap dogs twirling with joy and four owners saying, “Don’t worry, my dog is friendly,” one is prompted to reply, “How come humans can’t invade a walker’s personal space, but dogs can?” This is another reason to prefer KVI at night.

The KVI tower can be viewed as a rigid intrusion into the soft landscape of sand, grass and beach drift. Or the installation can be considered as art. Interpretations are varied. Perhaps the tower is our culture’s totem pole — metal, outsized, faceless. Or it is a communication-age icon — like a Space Needle without the pinched waist. At night, it points to the stars, and during the day, its orange and white accents the rare blue or mostly gray sky.

But it is the tower’s owner, Fisher Communications, that generously permits access to their property. In the 1930s, KVI-AM moved its radio tower from Tacoma to here. KVI engineers pioneered AM-tower placement in Puget Sound flood plains and on saltwater shores. FM-radio and TV towers are placed high and dry. Wet ground, and more ideally salty wet ground, serve as the best AM-signal transmitter or, more accurately, radiator.

All 431 feet of the steel tower produces the AM-radio signal. Buried underfoot, 120 copper wires radiate out, even into the salt water. The copper acts as the ground to the tower by being the necessary physical contact with the earth and highly conductive salt water.

Strewn over the entire point’s shore and dune are drift logs. These logs, mostly disintegrating with age, provide much of what is valued here. Not only do humans have seats and wind breaks, the logs temper wave erosion. As the logs become embedded in the sand, they provide internal structure for the dune field. The logs also act as catchments so sand stays, dune flora takes root, and, in turn, birds have habitat. In addition to the ever-present killdeer, rare migrants stop here, such as Say’s phoebe, western kingbird, western meadowlark and American pipit.

The point’s nose is a steep cobble beach. South, the swimming beach and stream mouth may be quiet at night, but is much used by children during the summer.

In 1888, Northwest Chautauqua Conference moved to Point Heyer. Hundreds came to attend lectures and stay at Ellisport. In New York state, the Chautauqua movement initially trained Sunday School teachers. As the movement developed into a lecture series, as explained in Roland Carey’s “Island of the Sea Breezes,” it was guided by the principle of “the essential harmony between scientific and Christian views.”

At low tide, the spit appears, a local stairway to heaven. Its hard surface and bright aspect invite walkers out. The long spit narrows to a point. Its south edge curves tightly back to the cobble beach. In the recurved area, a deep pool holds quiet water. On the point’s east edge, waves crinkle in.

The spit results from a 10,000-year-old process begun when glacier ice melted sufficiently to allow marine water to begin its tidal flow through the Puget Sound’s glacially ground trough. Point Heyer and its spit are the terminus of a local drift cell or near shore current that starts 2.5 miles north at Vashon Landing. Flowing south, the current picks up sand eroded from the beach bluffs. The current transports the sediments until it loses energy and deposits its sandy load at Heyer Point. The ecological report card for this system is encouraging. Only 10 percent of this drift cell is bulkheaded, an encouraging statistic which promises the continuing existence of Point Heyer and KVI Beach.

— Ann Spiers is an Island poet and naturalist.

How to get there

To get to Ellisport from the west, take Ridge Road S.W., which becomes S.W. 204th. Or from the south, take Chautauqua Beach Road S.W., which intersects with S.W. 204th. On S.W. 204th, proceed east to the entry where S.W. 204th meets 78th Place S.W.

Parking is limited. Do not block beach entry or driveways, access to fire hydrant or space needed for fire trucks to maneuver the road turn. Your car will be towed.

Read the sign at entry. Consider toting in beach firewood to preserve beach logs.

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