By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 10, 2003
Boogie board in hand, middle-aged body shrink-wrapped into a thick neoprene wet suit, I stood with trepidation at the edge of Oregon's Short Sands beach. I looked every ridiculous inch, up to the little black bonnet, like one of those sperm in a Woody Allen film.
After one step into the water, I didn't care.
The Oregon coast is wild and lovely in summer, with windswept rocks, craggy mountains and thick forests hugging a solitary and largely undeveloped coastline. But in my years growing up there, the raging Pacific Ocean was for looking at. For walking along on the sand. Maybe for wading in up to your ankles. But the water can hover around a hypothermic 50 degrees. After a few minutes, your feet would literally go numb. You'd have to stumble on your purple legs back out of the surf.
But thanks to the wonders of neoprene and the Cleanline Surf Shop in Cannon Beach, a newfound rental market for neophytes like me and my family, we were about to dive in.
This was my husband's doing. Every year, we make an annual two-week pilgrimage to Portland and the northern Oregon coast to visit my family. The trip was getting, well, boring. This year, we'd promised ourselves to do it differently, to search out the hidden places we hadn't made time for on previous visits -- or simply didn't know about. Short Sands was one such place.
I schlomped a few yards into the surf, bracing for the hit of freezing water that can make your teeth ache. The water off the Oregon coast is actually colder in summer than during any other time of year: The continental ledge that rims the Pacific in the Northwest is fairly narrow, and after a few miles, the ocean floor drops off steeply. In summer, the prevailing north winds bring what's called an upswelling, which churns the deep icy water up from the bottom of the ocean. Sometimes the water temperature dips into the mid-40s.
Now, however, I was in up to my waist. I hurled myself onto the board and, for the first time in 40 years, went swimming off the Oregon coast. It was exhilarating. The surf was powerful, hurling us in one wild ride all the way to the tide line if we caught the right wave. But because Short Sands is nestled in a crescent-shaped cove, just south of rugged Cape Falcon, the surf is not too rough, as it is in other spots along the coast, nor are there dangerous rip currents p. Or sharks.
The place is a local surfer hangout, and boards and neoprene suits hung out to dry along the driftwood logs that line the edge of the beach. Surfline magazine has rated the surf as either "peaky and hollow or soft and mushy." Which may mean that it's just right for beginners like us, including my 4-year-old, also decked out in neoprene, who rode the surf on his blow-up "Star Wars" spaceship.
Unless you know it's there, most people roar right past Short Sands on Highway 101 as they race north from Neahkahnie Mountain toward popular Cannon Beach
We started our search for hidden spots in Portland, which has always had its granola-Birkenstock side, but in recent years has become increasingly groovy, with hip boutiques, galleries and trendy restaurants. When the clouds don't hang too low, the city commands a stunning view of Mount Hood, the remnants of the exploded volcano Mount St. Helens and a few other peaks of the Cascade Range.
While my husband took the kids to the newly refurbished zoo and well-regarded Children's Museum, my mother and I checked out something new -- the hushed teahouse in the Garden of Awakening Orchids, the city's new tranquil Chinese garden. It's done in the style of Suzhou, a Chinese city where gardens of water, stones and plants connected with a series of pavilions are tucked away, like their own private universes, behind high garden walls.
The garden sits in the heart of Old Town/Chinatown, a once-rundown industrial waterfront area that has come back to life. Its collection of historic cast-iron buildings, many recently refurbished, is second only to New York's SoHo. Underground, it is riddled with the so-called "Shanghai Tunnels," where unsuspecting sailors and loggers were jumped by unsavory types in Portland's wilder early days as Stump Town.
After jasmine tea and tisanes, we headed for Barefoot Sage, a spa just for feet, tucked away in a nondescript storefront across the Willamette River on Portland's east side. The walls are splashed with the colors of sunset, and overstuffed couches sit high off the ground -- so you can sink back into the cushions while soaking your feet in a huge ceramic bowl of steaming hot water. There are stones to curl your toes around in the bottoms of the bowls and, depending on whether you order a treatment like "Happy Feet," rose petals may be floating about. A massage therapist then makes it his or her business to wrest every kink out of your feet and calves.
My husband had always bemoaned our trips to Oregon as a lot of sitting around the kitchen table with my mother drinking coffee and talking about people he didn't know. So we sent him off to go ski the glacier on nearby Mount Hood and have lunch at the famous stone-and-wood WPA-built Timberline Lodge, 60 miles east of Portland. Timberline is a small but cozy alpine ski area in the winter, with a three-mile trail through the woods to Government Camp down the mountain (which usually means drawing straws to determine which loser has to drive down the mountain for the pickup). In summer, the skiing, in T-shirt and jeans usually, is best in the morning, before the high-altitude sun turns the glacial snow to mush.
I, meanwhile, took the kids for a walk in the woods near the Audubon Nature Center, where more than 3,000 injured wild animals are cared for or rehabilitated each year. It sits in the heart of Macleay Park and Forest Park, just minutes from downtown, which, with its more than 70 miles of trails, is the largest urban forest park in the United States. After happily stomping through mud puddles and wading through a sea of ferns, we sat in the nature center just inside a huge window and watched with amazement as hundreds of wild birds -- cardinals, robins, blue jays -- came to peck at the feeders hanging in the trees.
The walk prepared us for the next family outing -- grandmother sans kitchen table, cousins and all -- to Bagby Hot Springs, a two-hour drive east of Portland. The springs were "discovered" by a local prospector in 1881 and became a popular soaking site in the early 20th century. But in recent years it's had a questionable reputation as, as one guest put it, a "magnet for undesirable visitors," with reports of vandalism in the parking lot and general rowdiness in the tubs, especially at night. We'd avoided the place in the past, but the nonprofit Friends of Bagby, which runs the springs jointly with the U.S. Forest Service, is now trying to attract families. So we took them up on it.
After a gentle 11/2-mile hike through a towering old-growth forest of hemlock, spruce and cedar and across the Collawash River, we reached the rustic Lower Bathhouse. Three hollowed-out cedar logs for solo bathing look more like canoes than anything, and one larger round tub that can fit six to eight sits on a covered deck nestled in evergreens.
The enclosed private cedar log tubs were full when we arrived, as was the upper bathhouse that sits directly on the river. So we joined with about five other people, some in bathing suits, like us, and others letting it all hang out, at the lower bathhouse. Clothing is optional, and that did bring some wide-eyed stares from the kids. Some visitors did break into spontaneous drumming and chanting to become at one with the woods. The kids found that entertaining, and they loved the log flumes that bring the 136-degree steaming water from the springs and into the tubs, the oversize wooden stoppers that regulate the flow of water into the tub and the five-gallon buckets for fetching cold water to mix in so you don't stew.
After a soak, we wandered up the trail a few hundred yards -- barefoot on the soft forest floor -- to Shower Creek Falls, where we took turns standing on a wooden plank under an icy but refreshing waterfall.
Oregon's coast is about a 11/2-hour drive from Portland, and most folks swarm to places like Cannon Beach, with its artisan shops, galleries and famous basalt Haystack Rock, or to Lincoln City, with its steep cliffs, great winds for kite-flying and, perhaps more important, outlet malls farther south. We, however, stayed in a house in Gearhart, a quiet community a few miles north of Cannon Beach, where the beach is less crowded and the pace is a little slower.
The beach here is a wide stretch of rolling dunes, with craggy Tillamook Head jutting out into the ocean to the south. On any given day at the height of summer, there were only a handful of souls on the beach. Days, we braved the waters in neoprene, built sand castles and forts with the kids, flew kites, took long walks and dug for hermit crabs. Sunset was cocktail hour. And the cool evenings were perfect for bundling up in sweaters, lighting a bonfire and toasting marshmallows on driftwood sticks as the stars came out.
Since this was Oregon, we were prepared for rain and days of thick fog. When the bad weather came, as it always does, we drove into the town of Seaside, a few miles south. Not only is Seaside a national historic landmark -- it was, literally, the end of the line for Lewis and Clark's westward exploration -- it also has a great beachy boardwalk and an indoor carousel and arcade.
A good two hours south -- more if there's traffic on the winding, two-lane Highway 101 -- is the town of Newport and the Oregon Coast Aquarium. The kids loved the outdoor seabird aviary, though it took a bit of restraining to keep them from pouncing lovingly on the terrified tufted puffins, rhinoceros auklets and black oyster catchers. My 4-year-old was fascinated by the caves under the 30-foot cliff, and my 2-year-old loved to watch the birds dive and swim underwater at a big viewing window underground.
Inside, past the tanks of balletic and surreal-looking jellyfish, 200 feet of acrylic tunnels take visitors through a 1.32-million-gallon tank filled with all manner of swirling fish -- soupfin, sevengill and leopard sharks; skates and rays; enormous mackerel. (The tank was once home to Keiko, of the movie "Free Willy" fame.)
Later, we stopped for lunch at what looked like a dive from the outside, the Whale Cove Inn. But inside, the view was amazing, and its history even more so. We sat at a table perched on the cliffs just above the "secret" picturesque cove, tucked away and forgotten for years. Some historians are pushing the theory that this, not a cove off San Francisco, was the famed New Albion "discovered" by buccaneer Sir Francis Drake in the 16th century when he tired of raiding Spanish ships and settlements and needed to make repairs to his ship before sailing the rest of the way around the world.
Keeping to our promise to look a little differently at a place we thought we knew so well, we also stopped in Wheeler, a little town we usually blow right through. Wheeler sits on Nehalem Bay, which is the place to go crabbing on the coast. We rented kayaks at the city dock and took turns paddling around the wild marshes, searching for the lone moose that is said to appear from time to time. On the deck of the Heron Rock Waterfront Grill, which had never looked worth a stop as we'd zoomed by on previous trips, we ate burgers and watched the sun set. Herons patrolled the docks, searching for fish to gulp, while we watched the bay waters slowly drain out to sea.
With our wet suit rental just about at an end, we brought our neoprene and boogie boards to Manzanita, a sleepy stretch of white-sand beach about a half-hour south of Gearhart and Cannon Beach, for a final day in the cold, cold Pacific. The surf here is very strong, and the rides lent themselves to open-mouthed whooping.
I inhaled sharply when trickles of icy water made it into my surf shoes or past the thick zipper of my wet suit and down my back. But I couldn't bring myself to come in. The silly suit was finally enabling me do what I'd only imagined wistfully as a shorebound child. Fly.
Brigid Schulte last wrote for Travel about an Arizona spa getaway.
On the coast, the elegant oceanfront
In the Cannon Beach and quieter Arch Cape areas,
For information on camping -- from primitive spots in the woods to circular Mongolian yurts with space heaters, beds and electricity -- contact Oregon Parks and Recreation Reservations (800-452-5687, www.prd.state.or.us) or the U.S. Forest Service (877-444-6777, www.reserveusa.com).
On the coast, in Gearhart, mornings should begin with a quick bike ride to the
There are great hikes along the coast.