Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Whalen Island and Sand Lake (or Not)

This lake is not a lake. There is not really much sand here, either. Tourists passing by on the north coast's Three Capes Scenic Route pull into the parking lot at low tide, glance at the expansive mudflats, and immediately turn around and leave. They never know what they've missed.

Sand Lake is actually a tidal estuary with a floor of sandy mud (perhaps "Mud Inlet" just didn't have the same ring to it). This area is comprised of 900 acres of water, beaches, dunes, wetlands, mudflats, fields, and trees. The "lake" itself wraps around the southern end of Whalen Island, which is, predictably, not really an island unless the tide is especially high. Nourished by the ocean, the water and mud teem with life. Seals, jellyfish, perch, salmon, and many other species swim here; we have even found a lone salp floating in the brine at high tide. The mud is home to numerous sand shrimp and clams. Crabs scuttle past lazy flounders on the bottom. Birds gather here in great variety, from tiny, pugnacious rufous hummingbirds to soaring bald eagles. Elegant white egrets gather here in the fall and roost in the trees at night. They and their blue heron cousins spend the day wading in the shallow water, feasting on the estuary's bounty. The woods and grasslands are home to a mixture of songbirds. Raccoons, bears, coyotes, and even cougar roam the woods and grasslands. This is not a place to glance at through your car windows and then drive away; this is a place to experience over time.

Spend a day, or, better yet, a few days. The Sand Lake Recreation Area lies on the north side of the "lake." This is a nice campground adjacent to a popular OHV area, which makes it a good option for groups with differing interests; those who don't enjoy ATVs in the dunes can experience the rest of the estuary. For the real Sand Lake, though, the campground of choice is Whalen Island County Campground. This peaceful spot on the southeast corner of the "island" offers simple accommodations, with sites on an open lawn as well as in the trees. Many of the sites are adjacent to the water, and all have easy water access. Facilities are minimal; there is a small, elderly restroom and an RV waste dump. People don't come here for the facilities, though; they come here for Sand Lake.

Perhaps the tide will be out when you arrive. Pitch your tent, or park your RV. Then set up a chair and watch the mudflats.

It begins slowly. Almost imperceptibly, the channel of water that runs through the mud seems a little fuller. Yes, it is growing larger. Then it gradually begins to spread across the ground; fingers of water feel their way along, meet, and grow larger. A gentle breeze drifts across the rising inlet, bringing the smells of water and salt and life. Still the water grows; sandbars shrink, then submerge. Small holes fill with water, then disappear. At last, the basin is full, mirroring the sky and dotted with bobbing gulls. The current rushes headlong under the little bridge, filling the many small channels that make up the northeastern part of the waterway. As evening comes in, lights from neighboring homes make shining paths on the surface of the water. After high tide, the whole process reverses itself; the fish retreat into the deeper channels, sand bars reappear and become mudflats again, and gulls find pickings along the newly-revealed beach.

If watching the tide go in and out is not your idea of excitement, there are other activities here, as well. Clamming and crabbing are popular, and fisherman often pump sand shrimp in the mudflats for use as bait. Fishing for salmon, perch, and flounder can be quite productive; the latter are pulled from pools left behind when the tide ebbs. Kayaking and canoeing are also popular, with tidal current and small waves to keep it interesting (do not go anywhere near the mouth, as paddlers have been grabbed and rolled out by sudden incoming breakers). During rare high tides, it is actually possible to circumnavigate Whalen Island, but it is advisable to take a GPS and go with someone who has circled it before. There are many false channels and the tidal window is about two hours before the water drops below the navigable level. This whole area is strongly tide-affected, so it is essential to know what the ocean is doing. Check the tides for the Nestucca Bay mouth; add about one hour and plan to be off of the water by then. Experienced paddlers will sense the change when the tide turns. Pay attention to how your boat feels to avoid being stranded in the mud or pulled toward the mouth. It is still possible to paddle for a while after the tide turns in the area near the county boat ramp, looking into the water for crabs and jellyfish.

Clay Myers State Natural Area lies to the north of Whalen Island Campground, sharing the same entrance road. This is a day use park with a restroom and picnic tables. Here you will find access to a hiking trail that wanders through the Whalen Island area, passing grasslands, meandering through trees, and tracing the edge of the inlet's beach. Bring your binoculars, as this part of the park is home to a wide variety of bird life. The loop trail is about a mile and a half and never very steep or rough. There are also accessible viewpoints in this area; in fact, the boat ramp parking lot is perfect for viewing Sand Lake, just be aware that there is a fee for parking here. Also be aware that high tides flood the entire parking lot, so park accordingly if tides are running high. On a related subject, when high tides are running particularly low it can be a challenge to find enough water to float a boat on, and mudflats predominate. Again, check tide predictions for the Nestucca Bay mouth.

To find Sand Lake, head north from Pacific City toward Tierra del Mar. Follow the road along the beach, through Tierra de Mar, and through a rural area. You will see the estuary on your left just before you turn into the park. From the north, head south on the Three Capes Route, or from Highway 101 turn westward on Sand Lake Road just north of the tiny town of Hemlock. Wind through woods and dunes to a left turn toward Sand Lake. The road to the Sand Lake Recreation Area comes first, with the Whalen Island turnoff further down the road.

This is not a place for a quick, efficient snapshot pause. Don't just pull in and turn around. Stop and explore Sand Lake. Discover the quiet beauty of this peaceful place.

2017 Update: We have been informed that the campground will not be open this year due to problems with the bridge. It is still possible to access this area; adjacent Clay Meyers Natural Area is open for day use.


And to conclude... the salp.







1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful camping trip! I can’t wait to bring this recipe next time I go camping, thanks for sharing! Beautiful blog too…love the name. She looks like having so much fun!

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