Copalis River Spit, Copalis Beach

Copalis River Spit, Copalis Beach

by | Jun 27, 2022

Copalis River drains a watershed on the southwestern flank of the Olympic Mountains and flows generally southwest for 22 miles (35 km) to the community of Copalis Beach, and then another 2 miles (3.2 km) to the Pacific Ocean at Griffith-Priday State Park, about 21 miles (34 km) northwest of Hoquiam and 5 miles (8 km) south of Pacific Beach, Washington. The name for the river and community is derived from the historical tribe of Chepalis or Copalis people that inhabited the area and who were called ‘Pailsk’ by Captain Meriwether Lewis and Second Lieutenant William Clark and the Corps of Discovery Expedition from 1803 to 1806. The river is tidal for about 4.5 miles (7 km) upstream from the mouth and the lower 2 miles (3.2 km) is protected by a natural sand spit with low dunes. The spit is part of Griffiths-Priday State Park that has 533 acres (215 ha) with over 8,000 feet (2,500 m) of ocean shoreline and 10,000 feet (3,000 m) of freshwater shoreline on the Copalis River. The geology of the lower Copalis River is mostly Pleistocene alpine outwash of sand, gravel, and cobbles of sandstone and basalt derived from the core of the Olympic Mountains. The beaches of southwestern Washington are composed of a single contin­uous sand body that stretches northward from the mouth of the Columbia River for a distance of about 60 miles (100 km). Although the landward edge of this sand sheet is interrupted by Grays Harbor and Willapa Bay, its continuity is maintained offshore. The Columbia River is the dominant source of sand which is moved northward by seasonally reversing long­shore currents. These currents are wind and wave generated and move the sand northerly in the winter and southerly in the summer. Because the northerly current of this system is driven by the high-energy winter winds, as compared to the lower energy southerly waves, the predominant drift direction is northerly. The seasonality of the longshore drift is matched by the seasonality on the beaches themselves. The winter waves draw the sand from the exposed portions of the beaches making them steep and narrow. The summer waves push the sand back onto the beaches and they become wider and flatter.

The mouth of the Copalis River, and the coast between the mouth of Joe Creek to the north and Grays Harbor to the south, was once the territory of the Copalis tribe. The name comes from the Quinault language and the tribe is claimed as a subdivision by both the Chehalis and Quinault Indian Nation. The Copalis River historically supported abundant Pacific salmon and the ocean beaches produced seemingly endless numbers of clams. In 1805, Lewis and Clark estimated a population of 200 Copalis living in 10 houses at the river mouth. Euro-American contact with the Copalis tribe was evident by 1850 when potatoes were being grown. At that time, the Copalis tribe had no special designation as a federally recognized tribe in most official tabulations. As a nontreaty people, their few remaining members depended on the Quinault Indian Agency for medicines and vaccinations against smallpox. In 1888, there were only 5 individuals assigned to the Copalis tribe. The first non-native settlers in Copalis Beach arrived in the 1890s, and soon Copalis became famous for digging razor clams. The Pacific razor clam is one of the most sought after shellfish and can be found on ocean beaches from California to Alaska. The most productive beds are those along the coast of Washington from the Columbia River to Copalis Rocks where over 38 miles (61 km) of beaches were historically worked by commercial diggers. The razor clam is an exceptionally meaty shellfish, with a narrow, oblong shell. Washington beaches have a high abundance of these clams that can grow to a length of 3-6 inches (8-15 cm). The life expectancy for Washington clams is five years. In contrast, razor clams found in Alaska may grow to 11 inches (28 cm) in length and live to be 15 years old, possibly due to colder water temperatures and slower growth rates. Popular razor clam beaches in Washington include Long Beach, Twin Harbors, Copalis Beach, Mocrocks, and Kalaloch. It is not unusual to have as many as 1,000 people per mile digging for clams at the peak of the season.

The width of the razor clam habitat is about 450 feet (140 m) on the relatively flat beaches of southwest Washington and the total habitat area is estimated to be 2,080 acres (842 ha). In the early 1900s, these clam beds produced an average of 86,000 cases of canned clams annually. Fishery statistics by the State of Washington show that 481,480 cases were canned during the period 1916 to 1927. This gives an average annual yield to the commercial fishery of 37,037 cases per year or 17.8 cases per acre. Since 30 pounds (14 kg) of raw clam meat are required to fill a case, the annual yield from Washington beaches was 534 pounds (242 kg) of cleaned meat per acre per year. Illegal canning exacted a significant toll on the beaches, and in 1922, at least 35 clam canneries of various capacities were packing during the closed season. The unreported pack of these operators probably formed about half of the total annual output. In the win­ter of 1922-1923, a determined effort on the part of the state fish­eries managers materially reduced illegal operations but did not entirely suppress them. The commercial fishery remained unchanged until 1942 when annual quotas were established. From 1946 through 1967, quotas became steadily smaller or people were allowed to dig in smaller areas. The commercial harvest decreased steadily from 7.6 million clams in 1946 to 600,000 in 1967. Meanwhile, the recreational clam fishery became so huge that more clams were landed by sport diggers than by commercial operations. In 1983, the razor clam population was severely damaged by a disease now known as Nuclear Inclusion Unknown or NIX. After a 5 month closure of the digging season, state managers found the clam population substantially scarcer than ever before and closed the entire fishery for 2 years to allow for recovery. In 1991, a new problem surfaced when a rare but naturally occurring marine toxin called domoic acid infected the razor clam populations in Washington and Oregon and the fishery was closed. In 1992, concentrations of paralytic shellfish poisoning in razor clams were found to be higher than at any previous time. The future of Washington’s razor clam fishery remains in doubt because clam abundances are still low and digging effort can be high when a large human population engages in the fishery. Read more here and here. Explore more of Copalis River and Copalis Beach here:

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This ‘warming stripe’ graphic is a visual representation of the change in global temperature from 1850 (top) to 2021 (bottom). Each stripe represents the average global temperature for one year. The average temperature from 1971-2000 is set as the boundary between blue and red. The color scale goes from -0.7°C to +0.7°C. The data are from the UK Met Office HadCRUT4.6 dataset. 

Credit: Professor Ed Hawkins (University of Reading). Click here for more information about the #warmingstripes.

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