Oregon

Fall surf season has arrived with the Alaskan storms

It has been little more than a year now since I began surfing in Oregon, mostly at Seaside. It is about 85 miles from Portland, which means I can only get there once a weekend, if I am lucky, given my commitments.

My regular weekend trips that have been taking place since May are now drawing to a close with the arrival of storms that howl out off the North Pacific, from Alaska all the way down to northern California. Waves can kick up to larger than 10-12 feet when they hit the Oregon Coast. It can be a nasty brew of churlish waves, dangerous rips, and strong winds that stop even the hardiest surfer. I have been thoroughly pounded in these conditions.

I went out last weekend, and I paid dearly. The waves ranged from five to seven feet, and many pummeled me. Two weeks earlier, it was almost the same.

From here on out through the spring, surfing will be sporadic. I will monitor the weather forecasts and see if those red blobs on the radar translate to large winter swells offshore. We occasionally get breaks in the weather, and everyone comes rushing to the coast.

It is amazing to see how tough and talented many of the local surf crew are. The best and also the more protective “locals” were ripping it at Seaside Point, which is infamous for its localism and attitude. I spotted overheads at least 10 feet high that the very best short board surfers were carving gracefully with their lines. The point is just to the far left of the moonrise shot, where the rocks touch the water by the trees.

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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.

 

The Murals of Cottage Grove

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In 1994 and 1995, I worked as a reporter in the small Willamette Valley community of Cottage Grove (pop. 10,000 as of 2017). The city is 20 miles south of Eugene, along the Interstate 5 corridor. When I was working there, the old economy based on timber production and milling was shutting down, and one in five residents was living near the poverty level. In terms of that grim statistic, not much has changed. Today, more than one in five live in poverty, according to the last Census count.

I reported on just about everything in Cottage Grove as a local reporter: crimes, sports, civic life, local government, police, fires, successes, tragedies, inspiring people, pets, redevelopment, land use battles, racism, anti-racism, and more. I loved how I was exposed to all of humanity by simply writing stories about people’s lives.

I paid a visit to Cottage Grove on my way through in early August 2017. I stopped at my old employer, the Cottage Grove Sentinel, and walked through the historic downtown. It is still a beautiful place, with old brick buildings and merchants working to keep civic life and that social place alive.

Some big murals caught my eye. One of the iconic Coca-Cola brand liights up an otherwise dull brick wall. The other celebrates the many covered bridges near Cottage Grove and the celebrated writer and local resident Opal Whitely, painted in 2001 by artists Connie Huston and Howard Tharpe. There are just some of the city’s mural art.

Whitely was born in 1897 and died in 1992. She was a child prodigy, and also schizophrenic. According to a Cottage Grove historian and writer, Stephen Williamson, at the age of 21, she traveled to Boston with her book, The Fairyland Around Us, considered one of the most remarkable blends of science and faith ever written. He writes, “The Atlantic Monthly turned that book down, but did publish her childhood diary. It quickly became a worldwide best seller. Presidents and kings read it. Mothers named their babies after her. Opal was an international star–at least outside Oregon. Opal’s diary describes the life of a lonely child from logging camps in the Cascade Mountains.”

Whitely eventually moved to Europe, where she spoke of abuse growing up and not being related to her family. Eventually her mental illness worsened and she was “committed” to England’s psychiatric system, where she was poorly treated. Says Williamson, “The gifted child genius from Oregon’s wilderness spent nearly fifty years buried in a tiny cell on a crowded asylum ward. In the 1950’s she was given a lobotomy.” She died in the place that imprisoned her for decades.

Today, however, Whitely lives on as one of the main tourist attractions for the community. If you are travelling down I-5, pull off. Travel to the city center. Take a walk. Shop. Eat at a local restaurant and see all of the murals. You can then pause and reflect upon one of Oregon’s most famous daughters who died in a virtual prison, whose only crime was being hyper-creative and afflicted with a mental illness.

 

Seaside, Oregon surfing on a windy summer day

Seaside, Oregon is my favorite surfing beach in the state. It is less than 90 miles from my home in Portland. It has a consistent break, usually better than most other beaches that are driving distance from Portland. Mostly the vibe at Seaside is relaxed, and the community of surfers who share the beach are welcoming to most levels. There is space for advanced surfers and novices, so long as the novices stay out of the lineup. Some locals may not want beginners here. You have been warned.

I mastered the craft of Oregon surfing at this beach, logging many winter hours in the pounding surf. Only recently have I felt I belong in the lineup.

Most of the surfing websites that describe Seaside Cove accurately note the hazards are rips, rocks, locals, and sharks. And the order of danger is probably in that order. In the winter, the waves can hit well over 10 to 15 feet. In the summer, because of the northwest exposure, sets can easily top five to seven feet.

These scenes capture a choppy, mushy day that I mostly associate with winter and shoulder seasons, but it was mid-August. There is often little break time between the sets, and if you do not ride the rip out to the lineup, you will be pounded pretty hard.

The footage, admittedly shaky, captures how rough the surf can be, with nonstop sets and overheads, even on a summer day. If you are a surfer and want to visit Oregon, put this beach on your list. Support the local economy while you are there. Share the aloha and the Oregon surfer stoke. You will find many good rides.

Just be sure to bring a 5/4/3 suit. The water has very little temperature variation between summer and winter.

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 the  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.

Sunshine and surf on the Oregon Coast

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With temperatures hitting nearly 100 fahrenheit in Portland on Saturday, June 24, 2017, you can bet everyone packed their bags and sunscreen and headed to the Oregon Coast. I joined them, but before most people were awake.

For the second day in a row I awoke well before daylight. This day, however, the surf conditions lived up to the forecast. That forecast said glass on the ocean, 1.5-foot waves, and mild wind. A day earlier, the waves were choppy and I did not drive out at 4:30 a.m. as I had planned.

Surfing is about many things. It is about understanding waves and weather. You must figure out prevailing winds, and how they impact waves at specific spots. Is the wind blocked by a point or jetty? Is a storm passing offshore, leading to bigger, rougher waves in greater frequency? What about the tide and the beach? Some beaches are bets at high tide, others at low tide.

My new board is a 9-foot Bill Stewart longboard, made for smaller waves.

Seaside, where I surf the most often, is a high tide beach. Low tide is usually in the morning, which meant I would arrive at low tide. Still, with baby waves, that meant ride-able conditions with my new 9-foot Bill Stewart longboard (an LSP).

My trip this past Saturday was its second outing. It had a trip the previous weekend at Otter Rock, where I was hammered by 6-foot waves that slammed me and the board hard into the sandbar, and I flew over the top of my board all too frequently. Today I could pop up and get longer runs, sometime catching the face of the waves for about 15 excellent rides over a nearly four-and-a-half-hour outing.

I’d say the waves were about two to three feet in height, and bigger in some sets. Despite sore ribs and a sore shoulder, I stayed in as the low tide was turning to high tide. My last three rides were really lovely. I outlasted most of the riders. Three shifts came and went during my trip. I still managed to get sunburned with a thick layer of zinc oxide.

On my last ride in I passed by a Japanese-American paddle boarder, wearing a blue wetsuit and with a blue SUP. She smiled, her hair still dry, and headed out. I would have like to asked her name.

After I got to shore and changed, I pulled out my camera and took some photos of her. She was the best rider out that day. The A-Team one can find at Seaside must have been at a different beach that day or didn’t want to bother themselves with rookie waves. After Seaside I dashed to nearby Cannon Beach to see what the Needles looked like. They looked better. I should have gone there.

I also decided before I rode my last wave of the day to name my new board “Sunshine.” Today, in the sun, it caught its first waves. We need sunshine a little more often on the Oregon Coast. My other board, a 7’6″ funboard is named “Trickster,” in honor of the coyote and raven I saw on its first day out. Both are good and appropriate names.

 

 

Foxgloves finally arrive

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We have had a wetter and cooler spring this year. That means the beautiful foxglove flower arrived late. I passed by this same spot last year, in May, when it was blooming last year. I repeated the shot. It is such an amazing plant. I love seeing them on roadsides and in scrubby, rocky soil. They are tough hombres as flowering plants go. They have toxins, but also pharmaceutical properties that have been harvested by the for-profit pharma sector. Nature is generous with beauty and medicinal plants. So I give thanks to the foxglove and nature.

Sellwood is the place to be, if you can afford it

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I live in the tony neighborhood of Sellwood, in southeast Portland. It is one of the whitest and most upper-middle-class areas I have ever lived in. Overall, I really like it here because of the many amenities I can stroll to by foot.

It is a safe place with an amazing walkability score, if you are into real-estate speculation. I love the local eateries, the nearby public library outlet, the pubs, the winery, the bakery, the New Seasons food store, the Wednesday farmers market, and access to the Springwater bike corridor that connects with north and east Portland.

So why the heck wouldn’t everyone want to live here, if they could afford homes at $750,000 or more? Why wouldn’t developers consider tearing down existing homes and rebuilding massive mega-houses, condos, and new apartments given the logic of real-estate development and the construction industry?

According to the website of the local neighborhood association, the Sellwood Moreland Improvement League, or SMILE, there are more than 30 projects underway in the Sellwood and Moreland neighborhoods.

In the past month it startled me how quickly a house can be torn down, trees cut, and land leveled for some medium and higher density projects. In some cases there are just McMansions that are testaments to the pure gluttony of excessive wealth, and we have those in this area. More are surely coming.

A lot of commercial building activity is taking place, in areas zoned for that. But the demolishing of a home is always jarring. The promotion of higher density development in the inner urban areas of Portland like Sellwood have also spurred a housing and rental crisis that saw Portland’s rent rise at the fastest rate in the country in 2016.

Density not Entirely Welcomed

There is an active, homeowner-driven backlash against higher density, often pitting middle- and upper-middle class homeowners against each other in some areas near me, notably the upscale Eastmoreland neighborhood, while other areas like my neighborhood are seeing the impacts of higher density during the past three years.

I overall support higher density, but I am deeply worried very little affordable rental housing stock is being built, further limiting the ability of lower-income and middle-income renters to enjoy what may soon be off-limits to many.

In the November 2016 election, city voters by a strong margin approved a $258 million bond to build more affordable housing, but it is not clear how those dollars will be spent long-term.

Just this week, Oregonian reported, “Renters, stretched financially and pushed geographically toward Portland’s outskirts and suburbs, loudly demanded solutions—joined in some cases by powerful business interests who saw the issue as a threat to the city’s otherwise growing economy.”

The paper said a typical two-bedroom apartment is now out of reach for most residents. Those are people very similar to me. The paper further noted, “The city’s concentration of struggling renters has only grown. Rents have climbed 30 percent since 2012.”

Meanwhile the bulldozers are clearing a few lots, and I can bet that most of the coming replacement units are not meant for those in my income bracket.

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.