It feels like you’re standing at the edge of the world. The sand stretches on forever, north and south, while the Pacific advances and recedes toward the horizon. Approaching requires parking and walking over the dunes, most days into a stiff, cold ocean wind. Cresting the hill, your scope of vision first encompasses the vastness of the sea and the endless beach at Fort Stevens State Park. Then your eyes focus on the structure just below. Sticking out of the shifting sands is the wreck of the Peter Iredale.
All that is left of the ship are a few rusted ribs and the remains of the masts laying half buried next to the hull. The ocean constantly washes in and out, flooding over everything. At low tide, when the water abates, you can weave between the ribs. The interaction is part of the magic. While most shipwrecks are hidden under the ocean, their mysteries concealed, the Peter Iredale lets you in. You can stand among the wreckage, touch it, and start to write your own story.
The stretch of coast from Tillamook Bay to the northern tip of Vancouver Island is known as the Graveyard of the Pacific. The Columbia Bar area alone--with its violent outflow and no mitigating delta--has claimed over 700 lives and 2,000 vessels. The Peter Iredale is one of these victims, running ashore on October 25, 1906. There were reportedly no casualties and little actual damage to the ship. However, while the crew waited for weather to improve, the vessel tipped on its side and became embedded in the sand. Ultimately it was abandoned to the elements. Captain Lawrence's final toast to his ship was: "May God bless you, and may your bones bleach in the sands.”
Viewed from the dunes, the shift in scale between the remains of the ship and vastness of the Pacific Ocean offers cause for contemplation. Nature is in charge out here. In the grand scheme of things, we humans are small and defenseless.
Once you’ve spent some time with the Peter Iredale you can continue north to the South Jetty, which is another humbling experience. Battered by both the Pacific and the Columbia River, the jetty consists of a staggering amount of rock, truly a testament to the ingenuity of man.
You can easily spend a full day at Fort Stevens State Park. In addition to the wreck and the jetty, there are countless bike and hiking trails that wind among the shore pines and dunes. There are also the remnants of Fort Stevens itself to explore. The fort was built in 1863 and used until 1947. It is the only military base in the continental United States to come under enemy fire in WWII, when a Japanese submarine surfaced and fired 17 shells. The fort was not damaged during the attack, but the backstop of the fort’s baseball field was destroyed. Exploring the fort and the old coastal defense structures can be super fun. There are many that you can still walk deep into and get lost in history.