When was the last time you built a driftwood fort on an ocean beach? On your next visit, why not build one with friends and family? It just might change your life.
The phenomenon of driftwood fort building represents a magically tactile collaboration between people and nature that provides recreation, community, shelter, and something wonderfully metaphorical. I find observing the unique Pacific Northwest coastal tradition of building driftwood forts a wonder to behold. But participating in erecting them is an even richer experience — and I would know because I build forts all the time by myself, with friends, and my students.
The cycle begins every spring, when a few forts emerge as outposts on the more popular beaches. All winter long, beaverwood, logging slash, wrecked docks, and eroded trees travel downstream from coastal watersheds and mix in the local ocean with ancient wood that may have floated for decades or centuries. Whatever their origin, all manner of logs, poles, branches, sticks, stumps, planks, boards, beams, and root wads amass precariously above the wrack line, waiting for the fort builders to come along and get cracking. They always do.
These initial spring forts are constructed mainly by vacationers and typically seem small, unimaginative. Later, as spring turns to summer, the master fort building season commences, and the scale and diversity of structures staggers the mind. There are tepees, A-frames, dugouts, pillboxes, burners, circulars, lean-tos, and wind breaks on virtually every stretch of ocean beach in Oregon and Washington. Many builders also construct elaborate benches and fire pits and decorate their forts with shells, strands of kelp, rope, buoys, and other weird flotsam and jetsam.
By late fall, decline sets in. Most forts have collapsed, fallen into disrepair, been burned up in bonfires, or crippled by surging high tides. Then, the inevitable late October or early November super storm blows through, and forts crumble and scatter.
I relish this fact because their disappearance reveals the essence and beauty of driftwood fort building: They never last; they always return. Waves recollect the scattered wood and deposit it here and there for the next four or five months until spring arrives and the season of driftwood fort building recommences. That’s called a cycle, and I love recognizing I belong to it because it’s quite possibly the healthiest awareness a person can acquire.
Although there really are no rules for building driftwood forts, I have devised a few cosmic guidelines that I believe (through much practice and meditation) enhance the actual metaphorical value of the experience.
• Use only the materials found on the beach. No tools except the ones you fashion.
• It’s always a good idea to begin a fort with one or two large pieces of driftwood as a foundation.
• Don’t tear a fort down to build your own. Forts are never abandoned; they are left for others to enjoy. You can add to, adorn, repurpose, collaborate, take something small you might need, but you can’t destroy another fort for your own well being, your children’s, your spouse’s, or your portfolio’s.
You never get to own one because driftwood forts belong temporarily to everyone and permanently to the ocean. That’s their reality and metaphor.