Landscapes

A year of exploration and surfing on the Oregon coast

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Rudy Owens on the southern Oregon Coast, August 2017

A year ago this weekend, I became an Oregon surfer. I now feel confident enough to be in the lineup with every other surfer who shares my passion.

In September 2016, I bought a beginner board, the right wet suit, and other gear, and I began the long journey of mastering the art and sport of surfing by travelling from Portland to nearly all surfing spots on the Oregon Coast and even California and Washington.

The journey far exceeded all of my expectations.

I learned how to understand surf forecasting and paid close attention to the storm systems in the Pacific Ocean that control the weather from Alaska all the way down to the tip of Tierra del Fuego. I met people who shared my passion for the ocean and this highly alluring sport. Many of them have lived and surfed all over the world and country, and we all speak the language of surfing. Some are visitors, and others are residents who now call Oregon home. We all come together in the water, waiting for the wave, patiently sitting on our boards and scanning out for the next set rolling in.

I have learned how to read waves and practice the craft of positioning myself at the right place at the right time. In Oregon’s tough, stormy waters, this involves punching through feisty breaks that pound you as you try to reach to lineup in the water, where the waves give you that window of opportunity to tap their energy and capture moments of transcendence.

I have surfed during snowfalls and blinding rainstorms.

I have seen sea otters, harbor seals, humpback whales, and signs warning me of great white sharks that are common in these waters.

I have made new friends who love to wake up at crazy morning hours and meet at the ocean, just to capture the magic of the ocean in the morning, as the smell of saltwater fills your nostrils and the sound of the wares creates a feeling of calm in morning’s first light.

I have also learned how to ride waves during this time. When I started, I could barely get any. Now, when I go out, I can catch sometimes 20 or 30 rides, if the conditions are perfect or near perfect. Even on bad days, I am mastering the art of riding our very common cheeky waves. These can be fun.

Yesterday, on Sept. 16, 2017, I rode perhaps one of the best waves of my life. I started in the lineup at Seaside, near the rocky shore, and grabbed an overhead that took me almost 100 yards to the beach, riding its face and seeing the translucent water carry me on a pulse of energy. My grin grew wider with every second I was steering my 9-foot Stewart longboard.

Now, a year into this journey, I capture each outing with a surf diary, describing the ocean color and smells, currents, sets, wave patterns, colorful characters, my memorable experiences with wildlife and aquatic life, and my memories of the day. As a lifelong writer and journal writer, I can say this is perhaps the funnest journal I have ever kept.

 

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The new normal: fire everywhere in the Northwest

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This week, the majestic Columbia River Gorge experienced an unprecedented fire that spread to more than 40,000 acres in less than five days. Residents and experts in this region were stunned by the still-unfolding disaster in what should be a fire resistant and lush region.

The blaze was reportedly intentionally ignited by some teens on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017, when temperatures were in the upper 90s. The group reportedly threw fireworks into the Eagle River Trail area, setting off a blaze that literally exploded in 48 hours, moving more than 13 miles and shutting down Interstate 84, a major transportation corridor, and threatening the primary drinking water source (Bull Run Reservoir) for more than 1 million people in the Portland area.

The blaze is one of many in the region. Nearly 170,000 acres are ablaze at the Chetco Bar Fire, near Brookings, Oregon. Fires have scorched more than a million acres in Montana. Many experts are pointing to climate change and drying conditions as the main driver for the now frightening new normal.

I have not had a chance to observe the wrath of the fire near my Portland home, because it is still an active conflagration, and the firefighters need to keep gawkers out. I will go in once it is safe.

In light of what has happened this summer, I decide to dig up some pictures I took of the devastating Carlton Complex Firs in the Methow Valley area, in Washington state, in 2014. Seeing what fire can do to communities and landscapes is a sobering experience. I expect the worse is still yet to come, if that is even possible.

 

The arch druids of North America: California’s redwoods

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In early August, I briefly visited northern California, coming south from Oregon on Highway 101. Though the goal of my trip was to explore surfing spots on the southern Oregon coast, I tacked onto my road trip a stop in Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, outside of Crescent City, California.

The park is home to some of the remaining groves of redwoods left in the world. According to the state park’s website, the park “contains seven percent of all the old-growth redwoods left in the world.” The website also describes the reserve as “pure, primeval majesty.” I could not agree more.

The redwood species in the park (Sequoia sempervirens) can only be found in coastal ecological zones from southern Oregon to Monterey, California. These are the tallest standing trees on the planet.

Of course California transportation planners in their unbridled vanity plowed a road through the majestic forest, Highway 199, from Crescent City to Hiouchi. I drove that and parked my car to marvel at the ancient organisms that towered above me. There are natural trails found at a stop on this road, and they take a visitor on some lovely walking trails that capture the magic of a redwood forest ecosystem.

I had not felt so humbled by nature in a long time. I could almost feel the forest alive with some spirit force, even if that is not a sensory event grounded in empirical science.

If you visit, there are some camping sites off of Highway 101 and in the park itself, and in Hiouchi and the nearby national forest. Take some time here, unlike me. I only spent a few hours, but those were some of the best hours I spent in a long time. For those who want to try photography, a sturdy tripod is a necessity. All of these shots were at least one-second exposures.

Above all, enjoy your stay and respect the special place when you come.

South Oregon coast in black and white

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During the first week of August 2017 I took a road trip to a part of the state I had not seen since 1987. My original plan was to visit multiple surfing beaches south of Coos Bay and try them out with my nine-foot Stewart surfboard. Well, that was the plan. My plans changed, and everything worked out well. I decided to tell my story in black and white images that capture the feel of the place.

Port Orford and Humbug Mountain

I first stopped at Coos Bay, a city still gripped by economic woes. It has a nice surfing location on the south jetty and some beautiful beaches and state parks on the west and southwest corner of the community. But the surf was rough when I arrived, and I decided to push further south to Port Orford. The small community of little more than 1,000 is about 60 miles south of Coos Bay and has a beautiful cove and southwest facing ocean view. Sadly, I found no real waves the day I arrived. I picked another surfing spot one mile south of Port Orford, called Hubbard Creek. There, the breaks hit close to shore and I was skunked. With temperatures in inland Oregon hitting 105F, it was still a great day to be in the water on the coast, and I found the water temperatures about five degrees warmer than in northern Oregon.

I then spent two glorious nights at Humbug Mountain State Park, about six miles south of Port Orford. It has a beautiful and large campground, well-maintained by volunteers and the camp host. There must have been well over 400 people there both nights.

The park’s only downside was the truck and road traffic next to the campground. On the upside, there is walkable beach access and a clean creek next to the campground. I climbed the 1,700+ foot mountain, played photographer, and watched one of the nicest sunsets of my life here. I tried to surf my first morning, but the waves also pounded close to shore. So I was skunked again for the second day.

The highlight of my trip was being befriended by families from California camping on both sides of me. Who says Californians aren’t nice? The experience reminded me how fun travel can be and how nice people can be when you are ready to welcome positive energy. Two young girls of one family I spent a day with from San Jose dubbed me “Shmoosh Broccoli” because of my green tent. The name will stick.

South to Brookings

The following day I headed south. The area has phenomenal beaches. I stopped briefly in port city of Gold Beach and caught the spectacle of a salmon derby and the steelhead and Chinook run at the mouth of the Rogue River. Scores of boats were circling the river mouth, casting for fish. Everything was shrouded in mist. It was a beautiful moment.

Loaded with warm coffee, I then drive about five miles south of Gold Beach to Cape Sebastian State Scenic Corridor, which has a lovely protected surf spot called Hunter’s Cove, as well as some of the most amazing beach scenery in the state, with basalt seastacks jutting out of the beach and ocean. It is easy to put in here at the Highway 101 turnoff and viewpoint.

Finally, I finally caught many lovely rides. It was the first time I surfed without booties or gloves in Oregon, and I loved the feeling of the board on my toes. I also spotted a juvenile sea otter. The little critter did not see me at first and practically flipped when it realized a guy in a wetsuit was next to him in the water. The species is now making a comeback in the state.

After my surf, I drove another 20 miles to Brookings, a coastal community with a large fishing port and lots of nice camping spots upriver on the Chetco River. My dream of surfing here was dashed. The forecast predicted one- to two-foot waves. I decided not to spend the night and head home early. In the winter, the south jetty of the city is famous for its protected breaks. Maybe I will come back again.

Just another roadside attraction in Oregon

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I have seen my share of roadside attractions and airports in my life. But every time I drive Oregon State Highway 18 to the coast, to surf, I marvel at the audacity of theĀ  Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum, created by Evergreen Aviation Airlines, an air cargo operation out of McMinnville Oregon. It has two 747s, including one mounted on the top of an air hangar (see it in the distance to the left of the photo).

The company was ubiquitous in Alaska during the six years I lived there, 2004 to 2010, so I feel a connection to Evergreen in my own personal way. Anchorage is one of the busiest air cargo hubs in the world, and I would see Evergreen air cargo planes parked with all of the other air cargo aircraft at Ted Stevens International Airport.

The museum is literally next to the highway, just before you turn off for McMinnville. I have never had time to visit, and I do not plan to stop. I usually come by here in off hours. Also, I have seen my share of aviation museums, including one of the best, the Museum of Flight in Seattle, next to Boeing’s south Seattle facilities.

Pacific City, this week in color

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Pacific City, a quiet and beautiful coastal town located off Highway 101 and north of Lincoln City, is becoming one of my new favorite places. This week, I’ll publish a photograph of its iconic haystack rock in color. Last week, I shared my story and pictures in black and white.

With the arrival of hot weather in Oregon, tourist season at towns like Pacific City is full-on. Memorial Day weekend marks the start.

In addition to being a place where the wealthy have gaudy hilltop houses and second homes and condos, the community is also home to locals. They rely on those tourists and the wealthy.

When I arrived to Pacific City around 6 a.m. yesterday, I stopped at the gas station and met the colorful local scene of charterboart fishermen and their crew. These are the folks who take out fishing charter excursions. They were tough men, who used their bodies everyday of their working lives. Many smoked and most were friendly. It was an entirely different culture than my own, which leans to the visiting surfer outsider.

Even in small coastal towns you have at least three different cultures, the rich outsider who buys the real-estate with expensive ocean views, the transplant surfer like the guys who run the Moment Surf Co., and the longtime locals who works in tourism and fishing. I guess all of us have one thing in common, a love of the ocean and its bounty.

Surf’s up at Pacific City

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Pacific City is a beautiful coastal community about 25 miles south of Tilamook. It’s renown for the Cape Kiwanda State Natural Area. Among surfers, it has a very good reputation as an Oregon surfing beach. In front of Haystack Rock, just south of the cape, you’ll find lovely breaks that go left and right. Today’s surfing crowd included paddleboard surfers, short board riders, and long boarders. Everyone was catching nice waves.

After a difficult winter of getting pounded week after week at Seaside, mostly, I finally learned what a calm day and clean breaks can be like. I was able to ride more wave faces than I ever have. I even was able to lean back and ride a few waves through the foam, feeling the stoke and the balance of that classic pose of just going for a ride. Sunny, warm weather made things almost perfect.

My shots includes a few remaining surfers in front of Haystack Rock in the late morning and the early morning paddle surfers before I put in.

I also enjoyed meeting one of the many local fisherman. The beach is a popular put in and take out spot for charter fishing. My fishing friend had caught his quota of ling cod and rock fish.

When you’re done surfing, you can always go for a walk up to the top of Kape Kiwanda or grab a beer at the Pelican Brewing Co. and soak up the scenery.

 

It takes years to learn a beach

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As a novice surfer, I still realize how little I know about the power of the ocean, particularly rip tides. Today, they felt like monsters pulling out from shore as the tide shifted and quickly changed between ebb and flow, and the water was sucked out of the main surfing cove at Seaside with alarming speed and force. I am breaking many rules still. I am not riding the rip out to the line up location. My dives are lousy, which is why I am not surfing near others. Also, I am choosing the wrong spots, because I do not trust my “fun board” in the rip.

Today I decided I will upgrade to larger board and start venturing out the best point at this beach, where most of the surfers sit, looking longingly to the west, waiting for their wave to roll in from the ocean and to the shore. Today’s morning crew understood the tide better than me and put in as I was leaving. My consolation prize, besides getting a few good rides, was seeing the morning light as it danced through the dark clouds and turned the ocean a translucent green. It was magical to be the only soul out there for a while.

Rediscovering the Columbia River Gorge

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The Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area is one of the most beautiful river canyons in the United States, if not the world. It runs along the mighty Columbia River, with steep, forested basalt rock walls, forests, and peaks on either side in Washington and Oregon.

I never tire of visiting the place. I first came here in 1983, when I started college in Portland. I fell in love with the historic Vista House. It was built in 1916 on a rocky perch for that new breed of traveler called a road tourist. It commands has a magnificent, sweeping view up the river.

Nearby you can find multiple waterfalls that spill down canyons, including one of the most photographed waterfalls in the country, Multnomah Falls. Those two falls plunge 620 feet by the historic lodge that was completed in 1925.

Further upriver, you can spot the Bonneville Dam, created during the Great Depression as a works project to control flooding and generate cheap hydro power that supplies the Northwest region. Unfortunately, the dams on the Columbia like Bonneville Dam also decimated the salmon runs. Still the Bonneville Dam, at mile post 42 on the Gorge, is well worth a stop.

When I visited today with an out-of-town cousin, we saw one of the massive turbines on display in front of the visitors center. We also spotted some of the many now-resident sea lions swimming in the water just outside the spillway.

I came away refreshed and feeling blessed I have such an amazing piece of geology and natural beauty in my backyard. Be sure to give yourself half a day if you visit.

Shuttered in St. Louis

Readers of this blog know that I have been documenting the struggles of St. Louis through photo essays. These topics cover a range of issues, from the decline of industry to the racial segregation and widespread abandonment and decay in North St. Louis. My photo stories are fueled in part by nostalgia for the city of my youth, when factories still hummed and the city had hundreds of thousands of more residents–more than 600,000 residents called it home the year I arrived. My memories of the past now collide with the free fall that has long been underway since the 1950s. By being an outsider who visits yearly, I now get time-lapsed snapshots, each time I visit to see my family.

Today, St. Louis’ population is barely 300,000, and many sections of the city are depopulated, filled with empty buildings and homes. Large factories have long moved away, including the iconic Corvette plant in North St. Louis.

During my last trip in March 2017, I visited some new areas, surprised to see signs of hope and also continued signs of despair.

I will be publishing a more detailed essay soon on The Grove Neighborhood, in south central St. Louis. The area, anchored by the business corridor on Manchester Avenue, stretches between Kingshighway and Vandeventer. Here are just a few of the buildings I found in this self-defined revitalizing area. The streets do not look that different from the more distressed North Side, where the majority of African-American residents call home. The brick structures, despite their neglect, still stand proud. I always try to imagine life decades earlier, when optimism abounded and the craftsman built the structures brick by brick, not knowing their destiny. I wonder what they might think if the could foresee the fate of their handiwork decades later.