An Outdoor View: Campfires

While talking with one of my grandsons recently, he mentioned having a bonfire on a Puget Sound beach. He said that the beach had fire pits, but that you have to bring your own firewood.

The mention of a fire on a beach brought back a swarm of good memories. My parents introduced me and my two brothers to Puget Sound when we were toddlers. By the early 1950s, we had cruised the sound in small boats many times, and had camped on and explored many of its islands.

We’d usually head for the sound on a Friday night, after Dad came home from work. The boat launch we used for access was less than an hour’s drive from our home in Sedro-Woolley. On one memorable trip, we made the 5-mile run from Anacortes to a camping spot on Cypress Island in the dark. Some combination of tide, plankton and good luck combined to cause the water around the boat to glow with phosphorescence. It was like being in the beam of a spotlight.

Fire pits were nonexistent on the beaches of my youth, and there were no keep-out signs, park rangers or rules of any kind. We avoided the few places that people lived, and didn’t envy them, tied down to one place as they were. With rare exception, we had an entire beach to ourselves. A few times, we had a whole island. My feelings about that place during that period were akin to those of the sound’s early explorers.

When our boat’s bow would crunch into the gravel of a beach, my brothers and I would pop out like we’d been shot from guns. Within a short time we had searched the beach for useful driftwood, so Dad could build us a table and bench with a hammer and nails he’d bring along. Then, while we’d help Dad put up the tent, Mom would get something cooking on the Coleman camp stove.

One of the “kid chores” was to build a camp fire, and keep it going until bedtime. This was more fun than work. Driftwood comes to those beaches from exotic places around the Pacific, maybe spending years at sea before time, wind and tide conspire to suck it into San Juan Strait and onto a Puget Sound beach. Everything on the beach that was small enough to carry and dry enough to burn was firewood.

We never knew what we might find. Some of it was jetsam and flotsam — either thrown overboard to lighten a sinking ship or things that had floated away after a ship had sunk. There was madrone, bamboo and ironwood. There was wood that had been riddled by shipworms, the destructive bi-valves that attack wooden ship’s hulls and other wood submerged in saltwater. There was new lumber, and there was old, weathered planking with rusted fasteners that might have been part of a ship. There were logs that had broken loose from log booms, either in the sound or some distant river, and had ended up on the beach instead of a sawmill. There was trash, but not much of the plastic stuff you find on beaches nowadays, as little plastic was then in use.

After we had a good, crackling campfire blazing, we’d thoroughly comb the beach. At one time, our collection of sand dollars and net floats could’ve set some kind of record. The floats we foundwere mainly wood or cork, with an occasional glass ball, all of which are now extinct in Puget Sound. We must’ve passed up tons of sea glass, now prized by beachcombers.

I have fond memories of sitting around the campfire with my parents and brothers, singing, telling stories and toasting marshmallows while the fire died away to glowing coals, and gentle waves lapped at the beach nearby.

We had a tremendous amount of freedom, back then. I haven’t had that much since. The population of Washington now is three times what it was in 1950, and it’s still growing. Rules and regulations are necessary to prevent abuse, overuse and conflicts. If you did now what we did then, you’d soon be in trouble.

I feel very lucky and thankful to have been born and raised where and when I was, but I sometimes wonder if my children and theirs will experience any of the joys that I did. That’s why I was glad to hear my grandson say that people can still enjoy a fire on a beach. Even if they have to build it in a steel-ringed pit and bring their own wood.

Les Palmer can be reached at

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