John Anderson has a standard answer to the most common question he gets from visitors to John’s Beachcombing Museum in Forks: Q: Where’d you get this? A: The beach.
For the past forty years, John Anderson has been combing the beaches of the Olympic Peninsula’s outer coast, looking for stuff. The result of his hobby – or obsession – is a well-organized and thoroughly-researched collection of marine debris, flotsam, jetsam, and all kinds of ocean oddities. It’s stuff that spins good yarns, all of which took place in the waters of the Pacific Northwest.
Today a retired plumber in Forks, Anderson converted his large plumbing shop and officially opened his museum last July. The exhibit isn’t confined to the building – the surrounding landscape is dotted with sculptures constructed of buoys, markers, pillow rock and anchor chains.
The museum is far more than a collection of marine debris. It’s a visit to the history of the Pacific Ocean and the coastal areas from Neah Bay to Oregon. And Anderson seems to know a lot about that history. Just about everything in the museum has a story, and Anderson is happy to tell it.
Some of the most fascinating displays are the collections of manufactured goods that came from containers that slipped off of freighters from Asia—usually during a storm. There’s the eerie array of Raggedy Ann doll heads that came from a container spill in the 1970s. There are salt-encrusted Pentax camera bags from a 1983 spill, neat rows of Nike and Avia shoes from multiple spills in 1990, 1994, 2000, and 2006. A collection of hockey gloves and other hockey equipment was dumped into the ocean in 1994. The most recent spill produced a pile of plastic castles. Until the recent sinking of the El Faro in the Bahamas, which killed 33 and dumped a full load of containers, trailers and cars into the ocean, one of the worst cargo disasters on record was the APL China, which arrived in Seattle in 1998 with a tangle of surviving containers barely clinging to the deck. The APL China lost 406 containers on that voyage and some of the debris is now on display in John’s Beachcombing Museum.
Tsunami debris and a visit to Japan
Not surprisingly, Anderson has collected a lot of debris from the 2011 tsunami in Japan. He’s got lumber from Japanese homes that were built without nails, screws or bolts. He’s got buoys, bottles, baskets, helmets, flip-flops, tires, boat parts, soccer balls. He’s got a giant teddy bear and a charming sculpture of two chubby fishermen holding up their catch. In 2013, Anderson travelled to Japan on a mission to return a soccer ball to a devastated community who had lost ten percent of their population to the tsunami. A group of Washington State kayakers had found the ball and handed it over to Anderson. In Japan, Anderson was able to find that community and return the ball, which had been stored in the car of a coach who had lost his life. It was a difficult and emotional moment, Anderson said.
A rocket crashes
Among the many intriguing items in Anderson’s museum are pieces of military hardware apparently lost during naval testing and training exercises in the waters off the coast of the Olympic Peninsula. There’s an undersea mine, a sonar buoy, and a bomb drag found on Kalaloch Beach.
During one beachcombing trip, Anderson found a small piece of a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter that crashed off La Push in July of 2010, a tragic incident that killed three Coast Guard crew members.
Another item that holds special meaning for Anderson is a chunk of the Rubicon 1, a space rocket launched from Anderson’s property back in 2004. The rocket was built by two private citizens attempting to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize, a competition for non-government groups to launch a reusable manned spacecraft. During a preliminary test from Anderson’s property, the rocket, holding a dummy and two engines, launched but one engine blew up right away. The second engine lifted the rocked 200 feet before the whole assembly broke into pieces and splashed into the waters of the Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary (which annoyed sanctuary and tribal officials). The 23-foot-long rocket was built on a shoestring budget by two 26-year-old engineers, Eric Meier and Philip Storm. As a nod to Anderson for letting them use his land, they gave him a piece of the broken rocket. (The competition was won by a project funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.)
John’s Beachcombing Museum is located at 143 Andersonville Avenue in Forks. The museum is open for visitors June through August during the summer and by appointment the rest of the year. You can arrange for a visit by calling 360-640-0320. It’s time well-spent and a chance to learn some fascinating lessons about our coastal environment and its history.
“Gill net floats used to be the most common thing on the beach,” Anderson says. “Today’s it’s plastic water bottles.”