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A coastal Winter Wonderland

The weather conditions can be questionable, but the trip is always worth it

by: SCOTT STAATS/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Low tite on the Oregon coast near Cape Perpetua.

We don warm clothes and raingear and head out for a stroll on the beach. However, this isn't our usual shorts-and-T-shirt kind of stroll we often partake in each spring or summer. Temperature and wind speed both register in the 40s and rain comes at us from the west - literally and horizontally.
   I always wanted to experience the Oregon coast at a different time of year and I must admit that this 5-day trip provided some invigorating fun.
   For those wanting to escape the oftentimes monotonous, predictable juniper-covered high desert winter - with its associated and dreaded one-inch overnight snow "storm" that leaves in its wake a sheet of black ice and accidents that don't need a place or time to happen - then perhaps a trip to the coast is in order.
   The Oregon coast in winter can be a roll of the dice - a brilliant sunny day sandwiched between those of dark clouds, or wind and rain that look to be the harbinger of Armageddon. Speaking of which, there's something strangely exciting and frightening at the same time about sleeping and dreaming within a tsunami zone.
   On our last visit, an earthquake registering a 5-point something on the Richter scale hit off the coast over 100 miles away and a few miles deep. No one, including my wife and me, reported feeling any tremors. At that exact moment, I would have been exploring the starfish-, sea anemone-, sea urchin-studded tide pools around noon, with an occasional glance out where the sea meets the sky and wondering what a 20- or 30-foot tsunami would look like and where I'd run to reach high ground.
   I even had a dream one night while sleeping in the false security of a vacation home situated not more than my height above sea level. In the dream I was driving some sort of vehicle away from the oncoming quake wave and turning to someone and saying, "Hang on, we're not going to make it." I think I watch too much Discovery Channel.
   One highlight of the trip involved hunting for agates at low tide. Starting in December, strong winter storms bring these semiprecious gemstones (made primarily of chalcedony quartz) to the Oregon beaches. I've found several smaller pieces of agate in the spring and summer but on this trip found several approaching golf ball size.
   In one gravelly tide pool, three nice-sized stones lay within inches of each other. To me, they could have been diamonds, I was so excited. They are all treasures, no matter what size. There are also several state park beaches where you can find fossils of shells and coral.
   The coast is more than a place, it's a feeling. The clean, refreshing western breeze in your face, the smell of sea salt, the sound of gulls, the soft sand underfoot and the sunsets that never disappoint.
   Looking westward on a clear day, it's hard to tell where the ocean ends and the sky begins. I follow a ship with my eyes as it passes that precise point where the Earth's curvature swallows it up and drops it off the face of the world. I can almost see why people centuries ago thought the world was flat.
   If you're at sea level, the horizon drops off at only 3 to 5 miles out. However, if you're at the top of Yaquina Head Lighthouse in Newport, the tallest lighthouse on the Oregon coast at 93 feet (162 feet above the ocean), you can see 19 miles out to sea. More importantly, ships can see the lighthouse and know their proximity to this part of Oregon's rocky coast.
   Each lighthouse has its own signature determined by how long its light stays on and off. This also allows ships to pinpoint their location along the coast. Yaquina Head's unique light sequence consists of two seconds on, two seconds off, two seconds on, then 14 seconds off.
   No matter the time of year, one of my favorite things to do at the coast is to go tide pooling. Starfish cling to the barnacle- and mussel-encrusted volcanic rocks, many out of saltwater for several hours until the high tide returns. Sea urchins, sea anemones and seaweed share most of the tide pools with the starfish.
   As I watch a pair of Harlequin ducks feeding at low tide, movement catches my eye. I turn to see a great blue heron stalking its prey. The heron is one of the most patient members of the animal kingdom. I am one of the least and move down the beach after watching the ducks and heron a few minutes.
   I am constantly impressed with the ocean tides. The incessant lunar pulse keeps the tides even more reliable than Yellowstone's Old Faithful. The seals have no need for tide charts, nor do the gulls, cormorants or loons. Sea creatures have an innate ability to understand the ocean more than any human.
   Staring out at the vast expanse of water, I realize there are places out there where the sea can swallow up an inverted Mount Everest. Will man attempt to go even to that depth on a quest to conquer? Maybe he already has, I better watch more Discovery Channel.
   Scott Staats is a freelance outdoors writer. His column can be read every Tuesday in the Central Oregonian. He can be reached at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.