There's nothing like a treasure hunt to whet the appetite for exploring.
Whales in rocks, art and the deep green ocean are some of the treasures that beckon hikers and sightseers to the Whaleshead area of Samuel Boardman State Park.
I like to look for the guardian whale first. Whether he's riding out a storm or hiding behind a fog curtain or chasing the sunset, the wave-sculpted leviathan is best seen from the "Whaleshead Trail Viewpoint" (on Highway 101, 6.5 miles north of Brookings).
Look hard and you may see Moby Dick (actually two massive offshore rocks) flip his dark tail as he swims shore patrol. A scramble-down-the-bluff trail gives hikers quick access to the sand for a closer look.
Another half mile north, the Whaleshead Beach turnoff leads to more trails as well as echoes from the past.
An Oregon Coast Trail signpost on the right just after the turnoff marks a steep path through Sitka spruce to a grassy headland. Vistas include House Rock to the south, Mack Arch to the north and views of the original Delmer Colegrove ranch holdings.
Bob and Don McNeely, builders of the present day Whaleshead Beach Resort cabins and Delmer's great grandsons, recall the ranch once spread over 5,000 acres "All you can see from the lodge," said Don.
"All these trees weren't here then," Bob added, gesturing to the heavily forested hillsides nearby. "It was all grassland. When they built the highway, they opened the earth. What trees there were went rampant and self seeded."
Lois Colegrove McNeely, Delmer's granddaughter, is the current Whaleshead matriarch and Bob and Don's mother. Her childhood memories include a pet bear named Teddy, a forest fire so fierce she had to lie down in the Pistol River to escape the smoke and 5-foot snowfalls at the family ranch on Carpenterville Road.
She knows by heart how her grandfather happened to settle at Whaleshead.
"My grandfather, Delmer Sr., came in here when he was maybe 3 years old on a mule pack train with his father (his father and mother were separated). They came to the old ranch where Nettie and Rollie Scott lived. It was an overnight place."
"The Scotts suggested Grandpa stay with them while his father went to look for a job in a mill in Langlois or Port Orford."
Then history took an unexpected turn.
While he was looking for work up north, Delmer Colegrove's father died.
The Scotts became Delmer's foster parents. When he was a young man, he bought the ranch from them and later acquired more land in the area.
"He began with cattle and then went to sheep," said Lois. "There are stories about those cows. When they sold the cattle, they didn't get all of them. They went wild. They'd hunt you."
The Colegroves also raised goats. "When I was two weeks old, my father and grandpa brought in several hundred angora goats on foot," said Lois, who saved a letter her father wrote about the event. "They drove them from the Riddle area near Roseburg. They raised them for angora wool."
She explained the wild goats that hikers see on nearby coastal crags are descendants of the Colegrove angoras as well as milk goats raised by other settlers.
One day last summer I watched several from Thunder Rock, a few miles north of Whaleshead. The obvious king of the mountain was a regular Billy Goat Gruff complete with long hair, curling horns and fancy chin whiskers that defined "goatee" better than any dictionary.
Lois also remembers how Whaleshead got its name.
Her Great Aunt Vera used to travel from the Willamette Valley to visit the family. "She always wanted to see the whale rock," Lois said, referring to the pointy haystack with a blowhole at the north end of Whaleshead Beach. "She put the name on it."
"To her it seemed like a real whale coming out of the water," added Bob McNeely.
It's a treat any time the whale is spouting, but sunset with red or gold light on the dancing waves is especially fine. So far, I've discovered best viewing times to be midway between low and high tide.
The parking and picnic areas at Whaleshead Beach offer good vantage points. A short walk onto the beach will get you as close as most of us are going to get to a spouting whale, real or imaginary.
If the water is low enough, hikers can rockhop across Whaleshead Creek to the long, sandy beach. There's also easy access via a path that crosses the creek at the highway end of the parking lot. Deceptively benign in dry months, during stormy weather the creek can turn voracious, gobbling huge drift logs one day and spitting them out the next.
Every season brings something different to the beach. In the spring, purple foxgloves spill down a ravine. Fat seals bask on the whale rocks in the summer sun. Shorebirds wade the creek during fall migration.
Winter storms may still toss a green glass fishing float ashore or uncover a rusty piece of equipment from Whaleshead's gold mining days. Lois McNeely recalls the mining operation. "It was when I was a kid, so it must've been in the late '20s, early '30s. They mined gold from the black sand. They ran the sand through sluice boxes."
It's a tossup as to which route I like best walking south on Whaleshead Beach, then up the trail that climbs the headland through the forest to the House Rock parking lot or retracing my footprints in the sand back to Whaleshead Creek and the tunnel.
Actually a large culvert that runs under Highway 101, the tunnel serves as beach access for Whaleshead Resort residents and guests. It's also open to the public.
Negotiating the tunnel is easiest in dry weather and a flashlight is helpful. I can't disappear into the dark without whispering "the plot thickens" for my mother. She loved mysterious places and gleefully hissed the words from an old radio show whenever she encountered them.
The tunnel is about an eighth of a mile long and emerges in a mossy glade within the Whaleshead Resort area. Treasure seekers who follow the hill to the restaurant/lodge built by Lois McNeely's father in 1964 will find more whales inside and out.
An entire pod dives past a red cedar lighthouse sculpted by Steve and Marie Bahr. Artist Ben Olsen's glittering whale on wheels has a place of honor in the dining room.
A pair of binoculars sits on the windowsill waiting for someone to scan the ocean midway between shore and horizon for migrating gray whales. Now that just might be the best treasure of all.