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.

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