By Betty Bezzerides
Special to the Pilot
Combine wild weather, thundering waves and elephant seals. Add off-season rates and no crowds and it's a recipe for winter adventure.
Day 1: Face Rock
It's sunny and 35 degrees as my husband Ted and I hit the road for Bandon and Coos Bay. Twenty minutes later it's snowing. This is our first trip north on Highway 101 since Thanksgiving and though we've read of the damage, we're stunned to see how many trees snapped like matchsticks in the December storms.
Between Port Orford and Langlois we mourn the demise of the barn advertising "Dr. Kilmer's Swamp Root." A few weathered red boards stick out from a large pile of rubble. Later, Terry Wahl, Langlois area resident, explains the barn fell victim to old age and had to be torn down.
We arrive at our Bandon motel on the heels of the "winter mix" weathermen predicted. How does it precipitate? Let me count the ways: rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog, drizzle, mist and mizzle. The profile of legendary Face Rock emerges from the clouds.
According to Indian legend, Chief Siskiyou and his daughter Princess Ewauna traveled from the far mountains long ago to trade and feast with coastal tribes. She was spellbound at the sight of the ocean. Local people warned her about Seatka, an evil spirit that lived in the sea, but she wasn't afraid.
After the potlatch, Ewauna waded into the water with her dog Komax, a cat and a basket of kittens, venturing farther and farther from shore. Komax sensed danger and howled a warning but couldn't prevent Seatka from capturing the princess and her pets. Furious when she refused to look into his eyes, the enraged spirit turned them all to stone, which is why the haunting face gazes skyward instead of out to sea.
It's true the endlessly changing waves are exciting and hypnotic all at once. Lest I turn to stone in my chair, Ted suggests we walk on the beach before the next storm cell comes ashore.
It's tempting to walk south toward Face Rock for a closer look but the tide is ominously high. Instead we head north to Coquille Point, part of Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. We've seen thousands of Common Murres there in the spring but today the only birds in sight are sturdy Western Gulls. We peek through the rocks and realize that at low tide we could follow the beach all the way to Bandon.
That night the wind howls louder than Ewauna's dog and one squall after another batters the windows. I pull the covers over my head and wonder where on earth those gulls sleep.
Day 2: Simpson Reef
and Shore Acres
We seize a momentary break in the clouds and drive to Simpson Reef overlook in hopes of seeing elephant seals. The viewing site is located along the Cape Arago Highway just south of Shore Acres State Park and looks directly onto Shell Island and its tiny beach. A U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service brochure describes it as "the northernmost pupping site in the world for Northern Elephant Seals and the largest marine mammal haulout site on the Oregon Coast." A photo shows hundreds of critters encircling the island like fat beads on a necklace.
I scan the reef with binoculars and don't see anything special, just a few big driftwood logs. A longer look reveals the "logs" are moving. "There are seals and sea lions and elephant seals!," I squeal to Ted, who hurries to the car to get the spotting scope.
Beaches south of San Francisco are primary breeding grounds for the Northern Elephant Seal, the enormous seal with a big nose. It's possible to see thousands of them at Ano Nuevo State Reserve. To minimize disturbance, in winter Ano Nuevo is open for ranger-led hikes only. Call (800) 444-4445 for reservations.
The average male elephant seal weighs about 5000 pounds. That's five times the size of the California Sea Lions that bark and beg at the Brookings boat basin. Like Gray Whales, another West Coast migrant, the seals spend most of their time in the food-rich waters of the Aleutian Islands. The population is gradually rebounding from near extinction.
Pinnipeds, literally animals with "winged feet," each appear to hang out with their own Harbor Seals at the south end of the reef, Northern Elephant Seals in the middle and California Sea Lions at the north end. Two Steller Sea Lions approach an elephant seal, who flips sand their way as if to say, "Buzz off."
We learn from information posted at the overlook that it's a tough go for elephant seals here. Pups are born at the coast's most unfriendly time of year and need to stay with their mothers for two months. Most get washed into the ocean by storm waves sweeping over Shell Island.
I could watch all day but it's cold and so windy we have to hold the scope down to keep it from blowing over. In six layers I'm nearly as round as a seal myself. We vow to return when the park's botanical gardens are lush. Today we'll look for waves to fit that description.
Oregon's most photographed wave pounds the rocks at Shore Acres State Park. A docent at the park visitor center points us to the enclosed blufftop observation booth. "You can see from inside or out," he says, adding his nearby house shakes in the big storms.
Superlatives simply aren't adequate to describe these waves. They are ocean fireworks, often crashing more than 50 feet into the air. Swells roll in and explode with such energy I take several steps back to make sure the earth isn't breaking open.
Ted, a geologist, explains that water depth and sea floor slope create the perfect formula for gigantic waves. Add the rocks of the Coaledo Formation, which dip at a striking 45 degree angle, and the picture is complete. Dr. Ewart Baldwin, University of Oregon professor emeritus of geology and one of Ted's mentors, says "Boys and girls, this is geology with a capital G."
Day 3: Bandon Marsh
and Bullards Beach
Once again, the morning brings a lull in the "winter mix." It's a good opportunity to visit the viewing platform at Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge, located on the north end of Bandon along Riverside Drive. We've watched the mudflats for shorebirds several times but never in winter and are curious to see who's around.
While Ted sets up the spotting scope I scan the mudflats with binoculars. Although not the numbers we might see during spring or fall migration, there are definitely birds out there.
We recognize several ducks Mallards, Surf Scoters, Buffleheads and Common Mergansers as well as a Great Blue Heron. There are dozens of nervous "peeps" skittering across the mud, small shorebirds we're pretty sure are Western Sandpipers or Least Sandpipers or both. Brookings birder Don Munson later points out a key way to tell the difference: Leasts have yellow legs, Westerns black.
Then, there's a eureka moment. I scan the far shore to see if anything's perched on the driftwood and discover a White-tailed Kite, a beautiful small hawk, perched atop a snag. The Bird of the Day often turns out to be one we don't expect to see.
It's a good omen. Soon a bright sun appears with real warmth to it and I want to lounge like a lizard. I'll bask while we look for storm tossed fossil clams at Bullards Beach, near the north jetty of the Coquille River.
We've heard people talk about the ridged Patinopectin, a scallop that likely comes from an underwater outcrop just offshore. Guy DiTorrice, Oregon's "Fossil Guy," brought samples when he spoke at the Chetco Community Public Library in 2005.
The Coquille River Lighthouse provides a picturesque backdrop as we beachcomb. I spot the first fossil (more squealing), but Ted finds the best atop small cobbles colorful as wildflowers.
Day 4: Scouting the coast
Travel begets travel. Visit one place and you find several more to explore. With steady rain in the forecast a scouting mission is in order.
We stop in the parking lot at Bandon's Heritage Place, an oceanfront assisted living facility, for a look at what remains of the sacred Grandmother Rock. Engineers dynamited the durable blue shist monolith, once 100 feet high, to build the Coquille River jetties in the 1890s. Legend says a shaman from the local Na-So-Mah tribe put a firey curse on Bandon in protest. The town burned to the ground in 1936.
Next it's to the waterfront in Bandon's Old Town, another good place to see birds. Several bathtub-toy Buffleheads and male Surf Scoters, black sea-going ducks with orange and white bills, paddle around the boat basin.
Along the boardwalk, artwork by students from Ocean Crest Elementary School grabs our attention. The first graders' tidepool collages lead us to WinterRiver Books on Second Street and a copy of Eric Carle's A House for Hermit Crab, the story that inspired the young artists. Up the street we talk cranberries at Radio Hut, which doubles as a seasonal outlet for the tasty local crop.
Then we drive north, turning off Highway 101 on Seven Devils Road in our quest to figure out access for as many Oregon beaches as possible. The roller coaster Seven Devils Road, so named for its seven devilish ravines, leads us to empty beaches at Whiskey Run and Seven Devils Wayside.
Next we change directions, drive south on 101 and turn west on Croft Lake Lane toward New River. The river really is young as rivers go, formed during the great flood of 1890. This natural area, under development by the Bureau of Land Management, contains tempting coastline across the river. Snowy Plover restrictions may limit beach access during the summer. We agree to return in October with a canoe.
We wind up back at the motel in the afternoon and decide to end our wandering where it began. The tide is out and we walk south past Face Rock through a wave-carved tunnel. The wind prompts Ted to say, "If I tied a string to you, you'd go up like a kite." I spread my arms on the off chance flying really is possible, then think better of it. Seatka is out there.
For information, contact visitor centers in Bandon at (541) 347-9616, or http://www.bandon.com, and in Coos Bay contact (541) 269-0215 or http://www.oregonsbayarea chamber.com.
Travel Sunday through Thursday for best off-season rates and prepare for unpredictable weather with extra layers, raingear and a tide book.