Swimming and sunbathing are beside the point on Oregon's trail of beaches

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 11, 2010; F01

The tip came from a man with no hair on his head and plenty of insulation on his body. He was standing at a viewpoint in Cape Meares, a panoramic detour along the Oregon coast whose natural beauty typically lulls visitors into hushed reverence. But not this guy, who was pointing out a pocket beach tucked between colossal rock formations to a friend. He blurted out its whereabouts for all within decibel range to hear.

"That's Hidden Beach," he said, making its name now obsolete. "You have to hike down a trail that zigzags about a mile, a mile and a quarter. Most people won't make the trek, so you pretty much have it to yourself."

In so many other summery destinations, this man would be muffled for giving away such a secret. But not here, where the beaches -- including the ones requiring hardy constitutions to reach -- are for and of the people.

"Oregon's coast is 100 percent public. There are no fiefdoms," said Kevin Max, publisher and editor of the quarterly 1859 Oregon's Magazine. "It's called the People's Coast for a reason."

The populist notion sprang from a 1913 law that decreed the state's tidelands to be public highways, guaranteeing unencumbered access to the 363-mile coastline. A second bill passed in 1967 further quashed attempts to privatize the coast, declaring "free and uninterrupted use of the beaches" between the low-water mark and the vegetation line. The state has also draped much of the coast in a protective shield, placing many of the seaside areas under the purview of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. Additionally, hundreds of islands, rocks, reefs, bays and estuaries are safeguarded by the Oregon Coast National Wildlife Refuge Complex -- so don't even think about scaling Cannon Beach's Haystack Rock.

"It's a wild coast, that's for sure," said Stephen "Dr. Beach" Leatherman, who releases a top-10 list of America's best swimming beaches each year. "It's a lot of nature."

The Oregon coast is not your typical Bain de Soleil holiday, however. Raindrops occasionally drip on beachgoers' heads -- this is Oregon, after all, with only three months of sunshine a year -- and cold water temperatures benumb swimmers' fingers and toes. In fact, many folks treat the beach not as a giant soft towel but as a staging ground for their active pursuits.

"People don't really lie around the beach much," said Leatherman. "They dig for clams, fly kites, build bonfires and sand castles, go camping, splash around and explore tidal pools."

So for my 117-mile excursion from Seaside southward to Newport, I stuffed my canvas bag with flip-flops, hiking boots, a maillot and a raincoat -- Oregon's beach essentials.

* * *

Before landing in Seaside, a town of about 6,500 less than 80 miles drive west of Portland, I harbored an ill-conceived impression of the coast. I imagined Oregon's beaches as being riddled with rocks, strewn with logs and frothy with waves, as if sea nymphs were releasing shaken soda bottles underwater.

The reality was quite the opposite. The beaches I visited were covered in soft sand the color of toasted almonds, with no trash (made by Earth or man) marring the broad stretches. A few areas were pebbly -- I stubbed my toe on a cluster of rocks on the southern end of Seaside -- but most of the dramatic formations stayed offshore, granite sculptures best appreciated from afar.

The Pacific Northwest coast, however, is not for the timid. A sign at Oceanside Beach, for instance, warned of unusually high sneaker (as in they sneak up on you) waves, stray rocks, strong currents and incoming tides, steep cliffs, drifting logs and waves crashing over jetties. The water temperature also hovers in the 50s, which -- not to shock you -- can lead to fatal hypothermia in an hour.

Standard advice: Know the tides or find a swimming pool or (my own suggestion) enjoy the beach from 1,500 feet aboveground.

A few miles south of Seaside, Capt. Gary Turel pilots a five-person helicopter on aerial tours that last from five to 15 minutes. It's a quick trip, so wait till after the ride to blink. Our excursion started with a beam-me-up ascent, then a left hook over dense spruce forests to the flat sands of Seaside. From this vantage point, I could clearly see the jigsaw puzzle of nature and civilization, all components fitting snugly together.

"The helicopter gives you a larger perspective of how the topography works with the beach line," said Turel, who opened his company, Seaside Helicopters, nearly 10 years ago.

Aware of the fleeting time, I kept my eyes in dilated-pupil mode. After coasting over Seaside, our captain inched north to Gearhart, where flea-size cars drove onto the beach and parked in the waves' spray. (Beach driving is allowed in certain locations.) Swooping back south, the copter glided over a forested mountain that divides Seaside and Cannon Beach. Turel informed us that in the early 19th century, William Clark (half of the Lewis-and team) and a small corps trekked over this hilly terrain, now part of Ecola State Park, to claim a beached whale on the other side.

We searched below for hikers and elk -- "I really need to put a guy down there in an elk costume," Turel joked -- but had better luck sighting Hollywood film locales: the picnic spot from "Kindergarten Cop," the (stand-in Australian) surf spot from "Point Break," the immortalized sea stack in "The Goonies." Gen Xers, you know the scene.

Back on the ground, I returned to the places in Seaside, Oregon's first ocean resort, that had resembled imperceptible smudges from the helicopter. I walked the Prom, the 1.8-mile promenade that parallels the more than 250-foot-wide beach, and hopped off at the statue of Lewis and Clark, the entry point to the compact commercial area. The "downtown," touched with art deco flourishes and popsicle colors, is dominated by stores hawking summer staples, including local Tillamook ice cream, taffy in such Oregonian flavors as marionberry and huckleberry, and plastic buckets and shovels for sand-castle construction projects.

At Funland Arcade, open since 1931, a grizzled man named Tim was playing the skeeball-style game of Fascination with the intense concentration of a gambler. Twice a day, Tim explained, the establishment holds Blackout, which challenges players to roll a ball into each of 25 holes. The winner receives 10 coupons, which can be cashed in for a host of prizes, some junky, others nice enough to give as wedding gifts.

As we chatted, Tim, a frequent player, won a Blackout game, the only incitement I needed to grab a seat. I threw down my 75 cents and was two holes from a win when the clean-cut guy to my right, who paid for his game with a $100 bill, scored a win. He won again and again, which meant that Tim and I lost and lost. I didn't feel too bad for Tim, though: He has already scored DVD players, a telescope, a TV set, a Leatherman knife for his son's birthday, a scale and more.

Because of Oregon's volatile weather, you should plot out the nearest shelter before heading to the beach, and in case the rain persists, a Plan B of indoor activities. A Fascination marathon, for example.

During my four-day stay, I had an even split of sun and rain. In Seaside and Cannon Beach, I stayed outdoors through twilight, watching the sky pale as the red flames of bonfires glowed brighter on the beach.

As I traveled south to Lincoln City, the weather was still on my side. At Cape Lookout State Park, I hiked down the steep South Trail, arriving warm and dry on a beach so empty that I saw only my own tracks stalking me. I considered backtracking to Hidden Beach, but with my legs wobbly from the three-mile trek, I opted for a drive on the beach in Pacific City. Parked on the waterline, I watched the surfers power through the waves from the comfort of the driver's seat.

When the precipitation hit hard, I let the available parking spots dictate my itinerary. In Newport, I found a vacancy near the front door of the Hatfield Marine Science Center, which contained a Neptunian world inhabited by Deriq the giant Pacific octopus, candy-colored sea anemone and sea stars, and a wolf eel that refused its lunch during the public feeding. At the Newport Visual Arts Center, I dashed from my car to an exhibit of ethereal glass sculptures. When the rain briefly subsided, my spot was close enough to Nye Beach that I bounded out for a quick run on the sand, staying outside until the drops forced me back in.

"Rain or shine, there's always something you can do," said Helen Wellman, a volunteer at the arts center. "Newport has everyday things to do, and the library doesn't charge overdue fines."

* * *

Lee Gray, a forager and chef, studies tidal charts, not climate reports. Mussels and barnacles appear on the beach rain or shine, but they disappear with the rising tides.

I joined Gray at 9:30 a.m., low tide in Lincoln City. He was dressed in waterproof boots, a striped hoodie and a blue beret jauntily tipped to the side. He carried a bucket and some tools commonly found in a garage. A former chef in Los Angeles, Gray moved to Oregon in the 1980s to escape what he considered to be the culinary wasteland of SoCal. He divested himself of his belongings and spent 3 1/2 months inhabiting a sea cave.

Though he now lives on dry land, he has not abandoned his primitive shopping skills. He forages for a living, selling his finds to local restaurants, and leads classes in the tidal pools and in surrounding forests rife with mushrooms.

Our movable feast started in the sparse vegetation at the sand's edges. "Bet you'd never expect to find edible greens at the beach," Gray said, plucking a purple-flowered beach pea for an appetizer. He picked a few more greens that I obediently chewed. Then he said, "Now we are going to eat off the rocks."

As we clambered through the rocky tidal pools, he handed me ropes of seaweed, including sea lettuce that opened into sheets all ready for sushi fixings. We moisturized our skin with the carrageenan released from a brown algae with pillowy pouches and nibbled rubbery elkhorn kelp. However, I clamped my mouth shut when he dipped into a shallow and plucked out a sea louse. Yes, sea lice, squiggling around in his hand and now coursing down his throat. "They're fun to chew on," he said. "They're sweet, and a good source of protein." I'll stick with lentils, thanks.

In the open-air touch tank, I placed my finger inside a sea anemone, feeling the creature grip my finger like a child's pudgy hand. Lee described the time he steamed sea anemone for dinner, which landed him in the hospital. "I burned a hole in my stomach." In case I had a desire to duplicate his meal, he reminded me to always cut off the toxic tentacles.

By this time in our outing, I was stuffed and Gray needed to complete his foraging for an upcoming dinner party. To reap the ocean's bounty, Oregon requires licenses and sets per-person quotas. For mussels, the max is 72 a day; marine invertebrates, 10 total per day. Armed with a forked weed puller, Gray filled his bucket with the legal limit of shellfish.

With his entree complete, he needed a few ghost shrimp, which burrow in the muck of Siletz Bay; he'd serve them pan-fried with a Tillamook cheese sauce. "You can come out here and get a garden salad and a seaweed salad, and all the meat you want," he said. But for the cheese sauce, he had to go to the market.

* * *

Most of the people you see in the ocean here are surfers mummified in neoprene and kids who don't know any better. But summertime doesn't feel right without some kind of splash in the water.

Stand-up paddling, the fastest-growing watersport in the world, is a creative alternative: As long as you stay vertical, you can be "on" the water, not "in" it.

"Most of our watersports take place in the ocean, and you are either submerged or saturated," said Ken Wilson, who teaches paddling in Lincoln City. "With stand-up paddling, you are only in the water momentarily. Just the comfort factor goes a long way."

A cheerful surfer whose knuckle tattoo spells out his favorite surf spot, Wilson never puts beginners in the ocean, basically to avoid serious frustrations and injuries. Instead, he picks calmer puddles, such as Devil's Lake, a three-mile-long body of water with gentle ripples and vibrant wildlife.

Dressed in a thick wet suit with booties, gloves and a hood, I followed Wilson's motions as he mounted his board as it lay on the ground and began paddling the grass. "The beauty of this sport is that you can learn on your knees or your butt," he said. "It's advanced from kayaking, with better views because you are standing up."

We pushed off from the shore and, as instructed, I paddled in a praying position, getting a feel for the rhythm and balance. After about five minutes, I pulled myself up, straightened my knees and, like a baby taking its first step, stood, fumbled, resumed stance. I mastered smooth strokes and carefully looked up when Wilson pointed out an osprey in a tree eating a fish and a bald eagle soaring overhead.

The foil to my perfect ride was not the deer swimming across the lake but overconfidence. Wilson was chattering on about how easy the sport is and I stupidly nodded in agreement. Plop I went.

I quickly hopped back on, unfazed. I was determined to paddle to the end of the lake, where, standing atop my board, I would look through a clearing and see a sliver of ocean, the waves pounding the Oregon shores with wild abandon.

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