Thursday, December 18, 2014

Christmas Hikes: Shore Acres State Park

On an ocean cliff high above a tiny bay you can find one of Oregon's finest Christmas light displays. When lumber baron Louis Simpson built his lavish estate here in the early 1900s, he could never have envisioned the holiday spectacle we enjoy today. Hundreds of thousands of Christmas lights illuminate the grounds, which include a Japanese pond garden, formal plantings, and venerable specimen trees. The high point where the mansion once stood now features an enclosed viewing kiosk, perfect for wave watching.

This place is truly a destination worthy of at least one whole day, not only because it is just outside of Coos Bay (which is, truthfully, not very near anything else), but because it should be visited in the daylight, as well. Sunset Bay is a small and beautiful basin with its own campground nearby. This is one of our favored retreats, especially if we can score a night in one of the highly popular yurts. We love the sheltered little beach, which has a parking area with unobstructed views of the water. A trail originates near the restrooms and leads over dramatic bluffs, along the gardens, and down to a secluded beach. Small, informal trails wind through the brush; we like to explore the cliff top, trying to guess where the tennis court and barns once were.

In nearby Charleston (which is pretty much a part of Coos Bay), the yearly Miniature Train Village is usually up and running. This is no ordinary model train exhibit, but railroad upon railroad stacked in a fully-lighted display. The exhibit has become so popular they have had to move it to the old Charleston Schoolhouse . This is good news for those who have previously stood in line in the rain, waiting to get in. (Note: for 2017, the schoolhouse is unavailable, so the trains will not be on display.)

Visiting the Area
The light display is open from 4:00 to 9:30 Thanksgiving through New Year's Eve. There is a $5.00 parking fee which works in all of the day use areas if you do not have a State Parks parking pass. Parking is free if you are camping. Please note that pets are not allowed in the gardens.

Come during daylight hours for great photos of waves and sandstone cliffs, then return in the evening for the light display. There is an excellent gift shop where you can buy flower-shaped LED lights and
take a little piece of Shore Acres home with you. Free cookies are served in the garden cottage.

Best of all, most of the gardens are fully wheelchair

Sunset Bay State Park features year-round camping beside a calm little bay. More camping is available to the north at Umpqua Lighthouse State Park, which offers cozy cabins as well as regular and deluxe yurts.

 Click here for an excellent hiking trail guide. Be especially careful on rocks and beaches during times of high surf, such as just after a winter storm. Large, powerful
waves can form quickly and suddenly.

Charleston's miniature train display has long been an area tradition; sadly, this year (2017), the display is temporarily on hold. Watch for it in future years.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Christmas Hikes: Heceta Head

When hiking in the dark, it is wise to bring a light source.

This bit of outdoor wisdom had somehow escaped us the first time we went to Heceta Head for the Christmas Open House. We had warm clothes, rain gear, and a picnic dinner, but after combing through the car the only light we could find was a tiny keyring pen light. This feeble beam was meant to help find a keyhole, not light a forest pathway.

Of course, there was the shuttle from the parking lot. Wisdom would have suggested that a shuttle ride might be safer than wandering the woods in the dark. It might have even been fun. Our family was planning on a Christmas hike, though, and hike we would. Very slowly. Not always on the trail. Then we emerged from the woods into the yard of the lightkeeper's house, lit all around by white Christmas lights, and we promptly forgot our perilous journey.

The door opened to bright warmth and holiday cheer. A fire flickered in the hearth. Every possible surface was decorated for Christmas. Someone was at the piano; someone is always at the piano. Cookies and hot cider awaited us in the next room. Santa handed us candy canes. We knew then that we had found a new family tradition. But there was more.

Braving the damp cold once again, we started up yet another dark pathway, this one leading to the lighthouse itself. The lights of crab boats lined the horizon like another string of Christmas lights. At last we stood beneath the lighthouse. Its beams circled silently above us, reaching into the darkness to touch cliffs and trees as the sea sighed far below.

For a moment, we almost forgot about trying to find our car in the dark.

About the Heceta Head Victorian Christmas
This event only happens four days each year. This year (20167 it is December 9th, 10th, 16th, and 17th from 4-7:00. The lightkeeper's house, now a bed-and-breakfast, opens its lower floor to the public, and it is often possible to tour the lighthouse. There is a $5 day-use fee at the parking area. The open house is free, but donations are accepted.

Dress for cold, wet weather. The hike is beautiful and only about a half mile each way, but the shuttle is tempting when the rain is pounding down. Bring a camera. Bring a light source.

More Activities in the Area
Come early in the day to enjoy the cozy little beach just in front of the parking lot. This area is somewhat protected from coastal winds and we usually bring a picnic, whatever the time of year.

Carl Washburne State Park is just north of Heceta head. This beautiful park offers year-round camping, including two yurts. The China Creek Trail can be accessed here, or from a pullout on the east side of highway 101 just south of the park entrance. Cross the highway from the same pullout to find the Hobbit Trail, a winding tunnel-like path through dense trees and brush to a lovely beach. There is also a trail here that climbs over the north side of Heceta Head.

If you are a fair-weather camper, the town of Florence is about eleven miles to the south. Here you will find a number of beachy motels, plus a harborside Old Town filled with small shops. This coastal community is a good plan B if the weather turns just plain mean. If you can't hike, you can always go Christmas shopping.
The cozy little beach near Heceta Head Lighthouse

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Tillamook County's Quiet Waters

I have long maintained the opinion that free boats are never worth what you paid for them. This conviction was nagging at my mind when we stopped beside the free canoe that was lying in the ditch, nearly invisible in its camouflage of mildew, moss, and the green slime that tends to take hold of inanimate objects in western Oregon. This was not a watercraft, it was an ecosystem. was free. We loaded it up and took it home.

After a moss-removal session and a quick bath, we reexamined our bargain. It was not pretty. It was missing some parts. It was obviously going to leak. We loaded it up along with cushions, paddles, life jackets, a homemade bailer, and a redneck anchor. We headed to Tillamook County.

For those who are not familiar with this part of the coast, much of Tillamook County consists of land that is not always above the waterline. Having driven through more than my share of floodwater here, I personally question the belief that the county lies above sea level. While this can cause unpleasantness during flood events, the rest of the time it results in a variety of paddling opportunities for all skill levels. In addition, many of the area's lakes are regularly stocked with trout and are easy to access. They tend to be small and friendly, too, which is good if you have a boat that may not float.

Beaver lodge at Cape Mears Lake. Photo by the author.
One of our favorite places for dubious floating is Cape Meares Lake. After Bayocean Spit was breached in 1952, a breakwater was built and and the incidental hollow behind it filled with fresh water. In theory, this shallow body of water will eventually be replaced with incoming silt. In the meantime, however, it is a beautiful place for boating (maximum speed for powerboats is 5 MPH) and fishing. Many species of waterfowl enjoy the protected water, and beavers inhabit the reedy edges of the lake. While it tends to be warm and weedy in the summer, this lake is more peaceful and often less windy in the "off season" anyway.

Closer to Pacific City, Town Lake is smaller and not as easy to access, but it is a productive little lake and ODFW has been known to stock it with trophy-sized fish.
The free canoe at Town Lake

Rockaway Beach boasts several small lakes, but Lake Lytle wins our endorsement because of its easy access and its bonus lake. Ignoring the traffic on Highway 101, explore the wide, shallow lake. Then, on your way back, bypass the boat ramp and slip under the bridge into a narrow channel. With any luck, the resident beavers have not blocked your way and you can continue into small Crescent Lake. Though surrounded by homes and roads, this area is a haven for wildlife and makes a fun family paddle.

The author on Sand Lake
These lakes are perfect for low-stress family boating because of the lack of current, even in winter. One other "lake" in the area must be mentioned, even though it is a tidal basin and is subject to strong currents along with coastal winds. This is our beloved Sand Lake, just north of Pacific City. Fall is the very best time here; dozens of egrets roost in the trees at night, jellyfish flow in with the tide, and coyotes serenade the stars. Whalen Island is our favorite campground on this entire stretch of coastline, and nearby trails access the Clay Meyers Natural Area. This peaceful place should not be missed, regardless of the time of year.

As for the free canoe, the small amount of incoming water did not dampen our hopes for its future. More than $200 in parts and a lot of elbow grease have given us a fun little family craft that is now "vintage" instead of "junk." Relaxing in the middle of a serene coastal lake, I am happy to admit that I was wrong about this free boat.

About the Lakes

Cape Meares Lake
See our post on Bayocean for directions to Cape Meares Lake. There is a small boat ramp just past the dike road, and one can usually find parking along Bayocean Road. Bank fishing is easy here, as well. It is still possible to access the small community of Cape Meares (the unique "Pagoda House" was moved there from the doomed town of Bayocean) as well as the lighthouse and Cape Meares Wildlife Refuge. Unfortunately, due to landslides, this now requires a detour.

Deceptively smooth Tillamook Bay. Photo by the author.
While at Cape Meares Lake, you will doubtless peer over the dike at Tillamook Bay. It is shallow and protected here and looks very inviting. Please be aware that this is a notorious body of water, emptying no less than five rivers into the ocean through a relatively narrow channel. It is known for its tricky currents and quickly changing conditions, as well as a boat-eating bar. This bay should only be enjoyed by experienced paddlers with deep-water rescue skills and immersion gear.

Town Lake
To find Town Lake, proceed north out of Pacific City, swinging right to follow the Nestucca River. Turn left over a bridge into the tiny community of Woods. Continuing toward the ocean, watch for a parking spot on the right shoulder. There is a narrow, steep boat ramp which gives some access, and a steep path leads to the dock. The landowner at the other end of the lake allows access from the bank; please be respectful.

Lake Lytle
This lake is simple to find, lying right next to Highway 101 on the northern end of Rockaway. Turn and drive along the northern end of the lake to reach the boat launch and parking ($5 fee). There is also a public fishing dock here.

Sand Lake
This is not a lake, but a tidal basin. It is located north of Pacific City on the Three Capes Route/Sand Lake Road. Pass through Tierra Del Mar and turn left on a tiny road to access Whalen Island. There is a $5 day use fee; even better, consider camping beside the water. Crabbing and fishing are popular here, and it is easy to pump sand shrimp for bait. Be aware that the water level changes dramatically with the tides; low tide leaves mostly mud flats. Check the tides for the mouth of the Nestucca River to get an idea of what the water is doing. WARNING: use caution paddling under the bridge, and do not go near the mouth under any circumstances. Large breakers have been known to sweep in and roll boats, and the current has pulled paddlers out into the sea.

So What is a Redneck Anchor, Anyway?
Bring an onion sack (take out the onions) and a piece of rope. When you are putting the boat in, pick up rocks along the bank and put them in the sack. Tie it off with the rope. When you want to stay in an area while fishing, drop the sack in the water. Tie the other end of the rope to some part of the boat. You may drift a little, and you won't look terribly sophisticated, but if you don't tie it off well and lose the whole mess, you aren't out much. If you subscribe to the "leave no trace" school of thought, replace the rocks where you found them when you're done with them and take your onion sack home with you.
The photographer on Sand Lake. Photo by the author.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Bayocean: The Dream the Sea Swallowed

It was the place to be.

First conceived in 1906, Bayocean was planned as the West's version of Atlantic City. It was built on a slender finger of land pointing across Tillamook Bay toward the growing town of Garibaldi. Forested Bayocean Spit seemed like solid enough ground, and the views from this real estate, lying between ocean and bay, were unparalleled.

Homes and a town were built. A hotel, a bowling alley, a general store, and a bakery served residents and visitors. In addition to telephone service and city lights, Bayocean boasted its own post office and even its own railroad.

The devastation began subtly, as such things often do. An inkling of erosion. Then a little more. The reality was that, in spite of its apparent solidity, Bayocean Spit was nothing but sand. The hotel's natatorium was lost by 1932. By 1949, more than 20 homes had been lost to the sea. Then, in the winter of 1952, the ocean tore a half-mile-long breach out of the spit, leaving the remnant as a small island.

The connecting dike we see today was built in 1956, but Bayocean, or what was left of it, was a ghost town. In the winter of 1960, the last house slipped into its watery grave. Only five homes were moved onto the mainland; the rest were lost.

The Bayocean we know now is an outstanding natural area. I stop by on a warm autumn morning for a short walk. Coots bumble about in the water and ospreys wheel overhead as I follow the edge of the bay. I have seen this water as flat as a mirror, and I have seen it pound the dike with foamy fists. Today it is gently rolling, feeling a hint of a breeze. My short walk is growing longer.

After a time, I come to a metal gate. This is where things start to get a little grey. Beyond the gate, parts of Bayocean are still private property. We walk respectfully here; we are walking on someone's lost dream.

I continue through the woods, my footprints joining those of dogs, deer, elk, and other hikers, as well as mountain bike tracks. I rejoin the bay further on, where it kisses the shore with a soft shush. The sun is smiling on this November day. I take off my coat and breathe the salty air. Looking back at the wooded hill, I suspect that someone could talk me into building a house here.

Exploring Bayocean
To find the spit, turn towards Netarts on Highway 131 in downtown Tillamook. Yes, it is just a city street which becomes residential after a few blocks, but it quickly heads out of town. Watch for a right turn onto Bayocean Road. Follow the narrow road along the bay. You will see the spit well ahead of time. Turn right onto the dike just before a sign explaining the history of this area. One side note: when this dike was built, it created a freshwater lake between the ocean and the bay. Known as Cape Meares Lake, it supports a wide variety of wildlife and will be the subject of a future post.

Follow the dike road to a parking area. Pick up the road beyond the barricade and walk along the bay. This road may be accessible for the intrepid wheelchair user as far as the gate; it is gravel over packed sand, generously sprinkled with large potholes, but they can be avoided. All along the road hikers will find trails to the left that lead over the spit to the ocean beach. This makes it possible to hike in a loop of any desired distance, following the bay and then coming back on the beach. Past the gate, these side trails are marked with signs. Energetic hikers can walk all the way to the tip and then back on the beach for a hike of about nine miles. Please use caution near the jetty.

.This is also an excellent route for biking, with very little elevation gain. Of course, bicyclists who like their bikes will want to return on the road to avoid the loose beach sand. Even then, it is always a good idea to thoroughly wash and lube any bicycle that has had contact with salty sand.

Camping at Bayocean?
Now this is where things get very grey. If you go to the end of the spit, you will see several primitive but lovely camp sites. Unfortunately, there is no safe, legal place to park overnight near the spit. In fact, there is a "no camping" sign at the parking lot. So what's the story?

It goes back to Bayocean's history. Part of the spit is still private property. Yes, there are campsites. Yes, they are perfect (assuming you aren't expecting showers, or even fresh water). Yes, if you can figure out how, you can camp there. Most campers boat in from Garibaldi (use caution on this bay; more on that in a future post). It is also possible to bike out from Tillamook, but use extreme caution on Bayocean Road. It is narrow and winding, and in places the shoulders drop abruptly into the bay.

If that all seems like too much trouble, Tillamook County Parks operates a large, year-round campground at Barview Jetty, just north of Garibaldi. Not only is this campground near a peaceful beach, it is set against the northern jetty of Tillamook bay, offering fishing and spectacular wave watching.

Another excellent option is Cape Lookout. This beautiful beachside campground offers a variety of sites year-round, as well as cabins and yurts. A spit at the north end of the campground makes a pleasant walk along Netarts Bay, and a trail at the south end climbs Cape Lookout. To reach the park, return on Bayocean Road to Highway 131 and turn right. You will drive through forested hills to Netarts and the Three Capes Scenic Route, which runs right by the park. This detour is necessary because of slide activity on one section of the Scenic Route, but the remainder is a worthwhile drive. You can learn more about the road closure here.

For more information, the book, Bayocean: The Oregon Town that Fell Into the Sea by Bert Webber is an excellent history of the area and an entertaining read.

                                                 Photos in this post by Sally Gosen Case.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

The Yachats 804 Trail: A Surfside Hike for Everyone

Ancient feet walked these bluffs, followed by horses and cars on an early highway. I have pushed a wheelchair on this path, walking over shell middens alongside the stormy Pacific . It may not be a wilderness experience, but anyone can come here and look into the hearts of the waves at any time of the year. It is one of our favorite places.

A great advantage of this trail is that it is conveniently divided into three sections, so it's easy at any point to ditch the hike idea and head for the car. Readers who are familiar with Oregon's coastal weather will appreciate this feature; anything can happen at any time!

The northern section leads from the Smelt Sands parking area along low cliffs and beside a quiet neighborhood of motels and residences. While it is less than a mile one way, it ends at a long, sandy beach, so it is easily combined with a beach walk. This whole segment is close to the ocean and one could spend hours here with a camera, waiting for the perfect shot of the perfect wave (hint: it will arrive while you are changing your camera batteries).

View from the parking lot
with Cape Perpetua in the distance.

The middle section also starts at Smelt Sands. Heading south along bluffs and through neighborhoods, it is not as scenic, but it provides a link between the segments, ending at a State Parks parking lot. Believe it or not, this parking area is not to be missed. We have enjoyed many a rained-out picnic in our car, watching waves run up the pretty little Yachats River.

The southern section follows the highway for a while, then heads into another cliffside neighborhood. You will be walking on a road all the way, but the views and wave watching are worth it; look for a modest spouting horn near one of the pullouts. This is another favorite retreat when we end up confined to our car.

Of course, if a storm comes in and hiking becomes miserable, there is always the town of Yachats. Small shops and restaurants offer shelter and warmth. Don't be embarrassed if you look like a drowned rat; they see this all of the time. After all, they live here.

Walking the 804 Trail
Smelt Sands Recreation Site is on the north end of Yachats. Watch for the sign (blink and you'll miss it) and turn west on Lemwick Lane, a modest gravel street. Follow it to a parking area with restrooms and several signs warning of the dangers you may encounter here. In a nutshell: the ocean is big. Very big. It's not watching for you, so you have to keep watch on it.

Park and turn right onto the pathway to walk the northern section of the trail. This part of the path is wide and made of sandy dirt topped with fine gravel. It makes a nice walking surface, but expect puddles and some erosion in places. There are benches in particularly scenic spots. This section is accessible for wheelchairs up to a point; then, the path deteriorates a little and becomes more difficult. I have made it all the way to the beach access, but I can't recommend it for the average wheelchair user. I am more stubborn than most, and my passenger was of a particularly plucky nature. The beach access itself can be extremely slippery at any time of the year; please use caution.

The middle section is to the left from the Smelt Sands parking lot, although it may not appear to be. Yes, the motel lawn is part of the trail. Follow the top of the bluffs to pick up the trail again. At one point, the path squeezes between two split-rail fences, which always makes me feel like a fattened calf heading to the slaughter. Continue to a residential street, then more path. Eventually the path follows a paved road to the state park, where there are picnic tables and restrooms. This section of the trail is a little odd, passing as it does through a series of neighborhoods and sometimes leaving the ocean altogether. It is probably the least suited for wheelchair travel, and in fact it can be omitted completely by driving to the State Park.

To find the park, drive into Yachats and turn west on W 2nd street. Follow 2nd through a charming, beachy neighborhood until you reach the parking lot. Groups of disgruntled seagulls loiter here during inclement weather, cracking mussels and complaining. Don't leave your picnic unattended.

From here, it is a pleasant walk above the river toward the highway. Walk the highway shoulder over the bridge, then turn onto Yachats Ocean Road to walk the south section. To avoid walking on the highway, drive over and park anywhere alongside the road. This whole section is paved but runs along the bluffs the whole way, making it perfect for visitors who have difficulty walking.

While You Are In the Area
There is a short, steep path accessing a lovely little beach from Yachats Ocean Road. The Yachats River, known for its steelhead fishing, empties into the ocean here (check current regulations). The small, scenic river can be paddled, but tends to be a maze of snags.

Most of the campgrounds in the area are seasonal, but Tillicum Beach Campground, a few miles north of town, offers year-round camping. Amenities are simple, but the views and immediate beach access more than make up for the lack of showers. The best part of going in the off-season is that beautiful oceanside sites are actually available! There are pull-in, pull-through, and tent sites, some of which are surprisingly sheltered from beach winds.

Cape Perpetua, with its miles of trails, is just to the south. This area will be covered separately in a future post. Be aware that downed trees and slick trails are common during late fall through early spring and prepare accordingly if you wish to explore the Cape.

Photos in this posting by Sally Gosen Case

Monday, October 20, 2014

Portland's Washington Park: The Hoyt Arboretum

I want to be a squirrel.

They spend the early part of fall stocking up on snacks. Then, when the weather turns ugly, they go to bed. They snooze until things improve; then they get up, look around, have a snack, and go back to bed. That, in my opinion, is the way to spend the winter.

Sadly, due to some fault in my DNA, I am a human and must stay awake during the winter. This involves such miseries as running errands in torrential downpours and scrubbing mildew off of the walls. When the weather turns ugly, we still have to go to work. Squirrels don't have these problems.

Ugly weather, at least in the western part of Oregon, often involves our infamous silverthaws, where a thick layer of ice forms on every possible surface. In the city, I have done the hokey pokey around swirls of downed power lines. In the country, I have had my truck stuck inside for days, unable to slide up our slanted driveway. Then comes the thaw. In the city, that means breaker-like waves of muddy slush thrown up by passing cars to drench pedestrians. In the country, it means mud. Lots of mud. Once things have warmed up and dried out, the squirrels wake and have a snack.

The real issue, though, is getting out and hitting a trail or two. In the Cascades, trails disappear under snow and downed trees. In the Valley, they turn to slippery mud. At the coast, some trails are actually under water during the winter. Experts tell us, though, that it is important for our health to spend time exercising outdoors. There is no substitute for natural light, which is said to ease seasonal depression and help keep our circadian rhythms on track. Mostly, though, we don't want to spend the winter turning to jello. With this in mind, as fall grinds its way into winter, we will be sharing some of our favorite year-round hikes.
Staghorn Sumac

One of our fall traditions in the Portland area is a visit to the Hoyt Arboretum. This is, in fact, just a lot of trees on a hillside, some of them sporting I.D. tags. In the fall, though, the Arboretum comes to life in a bounty of colors. The Visitor Center has a map of the different areas of the Arboretum, which is divided into species groups. Since different trees turn color and drop their leaves at different times, this hike could be done several times during the fall. Be sure to bring a camera.

There are twelve miles' worth of trails in the Arboretum alone, so it can be difficult to know where to start. The Overlook Trail runs from the Visitor Center, over the hill, and down toward the zoo. This trail leads to the maple and ash areas, which would be a good place to look for fall color. If it isn't raining, you will probably see people enjoying picnics. If the sun is out, families will be lying in the grass. The southern-facing hillside welcomes those of us who can't say goodbye to summer.

Another beautiful walk is the Redwood Trail, which leads to the larch and redwood trees. Now, on most days, larches do not cause me much excitement. If someone told me that I must go and look at a wonderful bunch of larches, I would avoid eye contact and back away slowly. This rule does not apply, however, in the autumn. These trees are deciduous conifers, meaning that they shed their needles in the fall. When the nights grow chilly, the larch grove turns every shade of gold. Also watch for the dawn redwoods, massive trees with bronze needles in the fall; the low-angled sun lights them up like a torch.

The Wildwood Trail passes by the north end of the Arboretum and heads toward the Japanese and Rose Gardens. I am always amazed at the roses that keep stubbornly blooming despite the weather. We have gotten some beautiful shots of rose blossoms and fall leaves. This area still smells like summer when summer is long gone.
Basin outside the Japanese Garden

From here, you can either return to your car the way you came or catch the bus back into town. Bring a snack. If you meet a squirrel, be sure to say goodnight.

About Hoyt Arboretum and Washington Park
The Arboretum is spread out on the hill between the Oregon Zoo and the Rose Garden. It is a short, pleasant drive with occasional parking areas.
The Visitor Center is centrally located, but be prepared for a maze of roads and trails. A map is very helpful. There is also a month-by-month guide supplied by the Hoyt Aboretum Friends which outlines seasonal highlights for the area.

With the many trails and small roads in this part of the park, it's easy to customize the length of your hike. Please note that, as tempting as it is, the Wildwood Trail is closed to bicycles.
Fall leaves in the Japanese Garden

The Rose Garden and Arboretum are free, but there is a fee to visit the Japanese Garden. It is well worth it, though, if you have about two hours to tour the garden.

Tri-Met Bus #63 takes a leisurely ramble up to the Rose Garden area from downtown Portland. Passing through the beautiful West Hills, it's a pleasant mini-tour in itself. If you can't take public transportation to the park, you will have to find a place for your car. Some weekends, this can be a challenge. There is now a parking fee in Washington Park, so be sure to note your parking spot number so you can pay at the booth. If you try to guess, you might mess up the machine. But that's another story...

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Champoeg State Park: Finding Oregon's Roots

One might ask why I am bothering to write about this park. Many Oregonians have been here already, as well as countless visitors from other states. Families from the Willamette Valley and beyond gather here in the summertime to picnic, ride their bikes, and play frisbee golf. They tie their boats to the dock and fish for hours.

But they are missing the best season at Champoeg. The time to visit Champoeg is during the fall, when the sunlight has the mellow softness of old wine and the leaves glow golden overhead and underfoot. The crowds have gone. Not only are wonderful campsites now freely available (unlike summertime, when they are booked far ahead), the fees drop on October first. Better yet, there may even be an unreserved yurt where campers can snuggle in and listen to autumn raindrops on the tent roof.

In 1843, pioneers met here to establish Oregon's first provisional government. In the following years, this wide, empty plain was settled by farm families. A riverside town grew up, but later washed away in a flood.

Today, the area retains its farm flavor. On the fringes of the campground and day use area, fields of grain are harvested. Sheep still graze. The warm smell of harvest time, so familiar to those settlers, still drifts over the plain. This is where I go to reconnect with my roots. I am a farmer's daughter, a lifelong Oregonian who grew up alongside a river. This feels like home.

The author on the public dock at Champoeg
We always bring our bikes. Paved paths wind throughout the park and continue on to Butteville Store. It's closed in the fall, but the ride is easy and family-friendly. Not much is left of Butteville, either, but it is something of a time capsule, with boys in bare feet fishing on the river bank and a sleepy Sunday-afternoon feel any day of the week.

Log Cabin Museum during relocation
The history continues at a compound of historic buildings. The Manson Barn is believed to predate the flood's destruction. It is an excellent example of skilled pioneer woodworking and is used during living history events. The adjacent  kitchen garden is planted with heirloom vegetables and herbs. A nearby compound of historic buildings has recently been joined by the old Log Cabin Museum, moved log-by-log from its former site on the eroding river bank.

If rain moves in, we head to nearby Aurora, originally settled as a Christian commune. Now it is a tidy little town, offering a wonderful history museum and a seemingly endless collection of antique shops. We could spend days there, exploring the museum and getting lost in Aurora Mills, an architectural salvage shop inside a building that appears to have been built long ago by a deranged grain dealer.

It has been many years since I moved away from our farm in the Valley. Perhaps that's why I don't feel like autumn has arrived until I have seen the Champoeg oak leaves fading to brown and walked alongside the harvested fields. I need to see the squirrels hoarding acorns. I need to see that the sheeps' wool is growing out for the winter. I need to come home, if only for a little while, before it is winter.

More About the Champoeg State Heritage Area

Historic Structures 
The museum and historic buildings at Champoeg are used for living history events and school field trips. They are sometimes open to the public, but hours vary. The kitchen garden, apple orchard, and grounds are usually open for exploration. 

Champoeg State Park
The state operates a day-use area and a very popular campground. Champoeg's history is explained in an interpretive center, which is open almost every day. Information is available on their website, OSP Champoeg Heritage Area . There is a day-use fee for non-campers.
Biking Near Champoeg 
The area here is known as French Prairie, which gives a hint as to its terrain. The flat-to-gently-rolling landscape makes for fun peddling. The ride from Newberg is less than nine pastoral miles. Bike enthusiasts who live in the Salem area can take advantage of the Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway and make a longer trip. It's also possible to travel up the west side of the river, which would include a ride on the Wheatland Ferry. Champoeg State Park has a nice hiker/biker camp tucked under the oaks near a grassy meadow (see photo, above). Please be aware that many roads in the valley were not designed with bicyclists in mind. Shoulders can be narrow in some places, and motorists do not always expect to round a corner and find bicycles. Enjoy the ride, but stay aware and alert!

Update: Spring 2015

New facilities at Champoeg make it an even more attractive destination for bicyclists. The hiker/biker camp now features two wooden shelters, plus a stack of small, critter-proof lockers, each containing an electrical outlet for charging electronics. Cyclists will also find a repair area with a stand and a selection of tools connected by cables. The shelters and chargers are for campers, but the repair stand is available to anyone biking in the park. We hope to see more of these bike-friendly upgrades in Oregon parks!

New covered bike repair stand (seat on one side, workbench on the other, rack and tools on near end, pump at far end)

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Paddling Beaver Creek: Peaceful Water

Our photographer, paddling under the South Beaver Creek Road bridge. Photo by Sally.

On the Water

The wind drops abruptly and the sky opens. My kayak slips silently among thousands of raindrops. The distant grumble of the ocean is drowned by the music of rain on the still creek. A marsh wren dangles from a sedge stem, quizzically eyeing this soggy middle-aged mom in a skinny plastic boat. I can't stop smiling.

This is just one of countless Beaver Creeks. It is where we learned to canoe, our small son ineffectually wielding his little paddle; he now takes the stern with his powerful J-stroke. Whether in canoes or kayaks, we always paddle quietly and alertly, as this beautiful area is a refuge for a wide variety of wildlife.

The resident otters often appear, as well as muskrats, nutria, deer, mink, and sometimes even beavers. I watch the skies for ospreys, kingfishers, great blue herons, egrets, and marsh hawks. Sometimes I catch a quick glimpse of a pied-billed grebe just before it submerges. 

Part of this marsh was once home to a herd of cattle. They would watch us in mild bovine surprise as we paddled through their field. Now the cows have moved on to drier pastures and the area is owned by Oregon State Parks, officially designated as the Beaver Creek State Natural Area. The creek is friendly water, easy to access and easy to paddle.

I head back downstream and notice a smooth path down the center of the creek. It appears as though I have left a trail, but I know that it is just a trick of the breeze. The water is always moving, making its leisurely way to the sea. This is different water now; it doesn't remember. I will remember. At the boat ramp I meet Vinny, a visitor from New York. He helps me load my boat. I turn onto Highway 101 in the pouring rain. I am still smiling.

More About Beaver Creek

The Beaver Creek State Natural Area consists of approximately 375 acres of marshland and fields. It is located south of Newport, Oregon, near Ona Beach and Brian Booth State Parks. Instead of turning west into the Ona Beach parking lot , turn east onto Beaver Creek Road. The boat ramp is immediately on your right. There is a vault toilet and parking here.

It is a short, pleasant paddle to the beach, but the real joy is the journey upstream. The area is only mildly affected by tides, so the creek can be paddled any time. Wind is a factor during the summer months; save a little extra energy for the paddle back. Morning paddles usually have less wind and will reward early risers with more wildlife sightings. The current is usually not a factor except during the late winter and early spring.

The State Parks Department offers guided tours during the summer months, meeting at South Beach Campground. It is easy enough to go by yourself, though. Bring your own boat (or rent one) and put in at the boat ramp. There is currently no fee. Be aware that jet skis are prohibited, but not other motorized craft. These rarely appear, though, due to the many snags in this wandering creek.

You may want to visit the official Visitor's Center, which is located just up the road. Continue on Beaver Creek Road to a Y, where you will turn left onto North Beaver Creek Road. The Center is just ahead on your right.
The author watches for grebes. Photo by Austen.