The first thing we noticed as we approached Neah Bay was the boats, then moments later, the smell.
There were few, if any, other cruising boats moored at the Makah Marina when we arrived in a downpour a week ago on our way to Barkley Sound. The docks were filled with commercial and recreational fishing boats. Several men in rain gear stood at a communal station, cleaning their fresh catch. Plump seagulls squawked overhead and touched down, seizing any scraps they could find. The odor of saltwater and fish hung in the air.
It was our first time in Neah Bay, which I’d long wanted to visit. Located on the Makah Indian Reservation in the northwest corner of Washington state, it’s not a destination popular with cruising boaters, serving mainly as a last stopping-off point for those awaiting a weather window before heading south.
The town is situated in a spectacular setting, flanked by lushly forested hillsides that were partially obscured by fog when we arrived. With the rain pounding down and fishing boats lining the docks, the scene seemed quintessentially Northwest.
With our boat secured at the dock, Marty and I headed for the Makah Cultural and Research Center, about a 15-minute walk down the main road running through town. The center’s museum features some of the 55,000 artifacts that were collected when the the ancient Makah village of Ozette was uncovered near Neah Bay in the 1970s.
A whaling village on the beach believed to have been occupied from about 400 BC until the early 1900s, Ozette was buried under a massive mudslide some 500 years ago, sealing the village and its inhabitants in what archeologists have referred to as a “North American Pompeii.” The Makah Tribal Council gave Washington State University permission to excavate the village, starting in 1970.
The tools, clothing and other items displayed, along with the Edward Curtis photos throughout the museum, provide a fascinating glimpse into the lives of coastal Indians. An exhibit about the importance of whaling to the Makah people underscores their fortitude, noting that it was the job of one whaling canoe crew member to dive into the water after a whale was killed and sew its mouth shut to prevent the animal from sinking. The museum is superb, a must-see if you’re visiting Neah Bay.
Also worth seeing is the Fort Núñez Gaona – Diah Veterans Park, located on the waterfront on the opposite end of town. The park consists of a stone memorial recognizing Neah Bay veterans who served in the U.S. military and a cedar structure intended to resemble a traditional Makah longhouse.
A wall inside the structure, the site of a Spanish trading fort built in 1792 and the first European settlement in Washington state, provides some detail about the settlement and the rich history of the Makah. The first Northwest people to trade internationally, the Makah have lived in the area for more than 3,800 years. Diah was the ancestral name of Neah Bay.
After leaving the museum we walked back toward town and headed for Raven’s Corner gift shop, located a couple of blocks off the main road in a residential area. Friendly owner and Makah Tribal member Melissa Peterson-Renault sells woven baskets, masks, carvings and other pieces made by local artists in her small gallery and shop.
She also smokes and sells salmon, which looked too good to resist. We bought a package to eat back on the boat and continued on, stopping at Washburn General Store, also on the main road, to pick up a few provisions. The store is fairly large and well-stocked, with a good selection of food and some camping and fishing gear.
One thing you won’t find on its shelves, though, is alcohol – Neah Bay is a dry reservation.
We stopped by the office of Big Salmon Fishing Resort next to the marina, which handles recreational moorage for the Makah Marina. A sign outside the marina office and store advertised fresh kippered salmon plates for $7. Getting hungry, we went to a takeout window off a small kitchen inside and ordered a plate to share, which turned out to be a good idea – the piece of salmon, served with fruit and a “buck bread” biscuit, was easily enough for two.
We took a seat on tree trunk stools at a long table under a covered area behind the store and dug in to what was probably the best piece of salmon either of us have ever had. Topped with a pinch of garlic salt and red pepper flakes, it was cooked on a metal barrel-turned-smoker out back. Buttery tender and freshly caught, it could have been proudly served at any of Seattle’s best restaurants for about four times the price.
Sadly, we had no room left to try the pizza at Linda’s Home-Fired Kitchen, a few blocks away, which came highly recommended from a friend who lived in Neah Bay. Linda’s is one of only a few restaurants in town; there’s also the Warmhouse Restaurant overlooking the bay, which opens for breakfast at 4 a.m.
Leaving our salmon skin scraps for a couple of hopeful dogs hanging around outside, we walked past the marina office down Front Street to see the remaining few blocks of the town. By that time the rain had slowed and the fog was lifting, providing a better view of the breathtaking landscape.
Walking down side streets, we passed decrepit mobile homes and rundown houses with rusty cars in the yards. The few motels in town looked forlorn and dingy. Struggles with poverty and substance abuse were evident: a mural on the outside of the Makah Tribal Youth Center depicts three Makah youth with the words “Rest in Paradise” and the message “Stay Drug and Alcohol Free.” Nearby is a center offering substance abuse treatment programs.
Neah Bay’s economy is sustained mostly by fishing and tourism, and almost 30 percent of its 800-plus residents live below the poverty line.
Still, the town was enchanting. Its mix of native Indian culture and hardscrabble fishing boats, its friendly people and the ability of this community situated at the far corner of the continent to honor its traditions while carving out a life in modern society, fascinated us. I’m hoping we can go back soon.