Tuesday, November 7, 2017

The Lakes of Florence, Part One

Sutton Lake
The photographer fishes at Dune Lake
These authors are not known for their intrepid journeys to wintry mountain peaks; in fact, when the weather turns cold, we tend to avoid any place where our vehicle may be lost in a snow drift. Perhaps this is due to growing up Westside, where Thanksgiving means "mud" and Christmas means "colder mud." This is not to say that we hie ourselves inside at the first turning leaf; indeed, we have considerable tolerance for said mud, as well as the rain that causes it. Once the weather changes, one of our favorite destinations is Florence, a quiet town on the central coast. Of course, we bring boats along; this dune-bounded community offers lakes of all sizes as well as a designated water trail.

Florence is located at the end of Highway 126, which heads westward from Eugene. Highway 101 passes right through town on its way from Newport to Reedsport. This article explores the lakes north of town; we will cover the southern portion in a future post.

Lily Lake

Baker Beach Campground
Driving south on 101, travelers know they're getting close to Florence when they round a bend and see, off the the right, a broad meadow with a lake in the middle of it. It would seem that this small, lovely lake would be easy to paddle and fish; after all, it's right there! In reality, though, Lily Lake is a brush-snarled puzzle to reach. Look for well-graveled Baker Beach Road on the right and follow it to Baker Beach Campground. This modest campground offers primitive, out-of-the-way facilities for tent campers and horses, and a half-mile trail leads through the dunes to the ocean (expect a day-use fee if you're not camping). Look on the east side of the parking lot for a one-mile trail to reach the lake and follow its west shore. Views of the water are mainly through lush coastal shrubbery; there are only one or two places where you can access the lake at all. This is a great area for birding, though, and the hike can be extended off through the dunes. Dedicated anglers bring float tubes and pursue cutthroat trout (catch-and-release only). While use of the lake is limited, this is still one of our favorite campgrounds in the area; its lighter usage and rugged landscape make for better wildlife viewing.

Dune lake

About half a mile down 101, watch for Alder Dune Campground. There are two small lakes here; not surprisingly, they are Alder Lake and Dune Lake. The southern year-round camping loop is situated near easily-accessed Dune Lake, and it includes a few RV-friendly sites (no hook-ups). There is also a day-use area at this lake, with the usual fee for non-campers. It is easy (though certainly not necessary) to launch a small boat here and access the entire lake for fishing. This is also the trailhead for Alder Dune Trail, which meets up with the Sutton Trail system. Peaceful Alder Lake has seasonal camping. This lake is not quite as easily accessed; a float tube might be helpful for fishing. Both lakes are stocked with rainbow trout several times a year. This whole area offers good wildlife viewing for those willing to hike its forests and dunes; click here for an excellent trail map. Camping here is usually a bit quieter than at the campgrounds south of town, where broad sand dunes attract ATVs and toy haulers by the dozens.

Between the pools of Sutton Lake
In the second pool
Further along 101, watch for Sutton Lake on the left. This coastal gem is one of our year-round favorites. Pullouts along the highway allow bank access for anglers (the snag-filled pool across the highway is reputed to harbor bass. All I can say is, if they're in there, they possess a lovely collection of bass lures kindly provided by this writer). There is a day-use fee charged for parking at the boat ramp area, which also has a dock and a vault toilet. Launch from the ramp and paddle through the reeds into the first broad pool. Paddling is peaceful here despite the adjacent highway, and there is a second pool which is easily accessed through a reedy channel. This part of the lake is longer and narrower, with a few small arms to explore. Private homes stand on much of the shore, but parts of the bank are quite marshy and wildlife abounds. Overall, the lake covers about 100 acres and offers both native and stocked fish. While motorboats are allowed here, the lake is mainly used by paddlers and fishermen and powerboats are rare. If you'd like a short hike, walk under the bridge and follow a lovely path along Sutton Creek to Sutton Campground, where year-round camping in a lush coastal forest is available.

Munsel lake
There are two more lakes before we reach town. The first is Mercer Lake, reached by turning toward the Darlingtonia Natural Site (worth a stop to see the carnivorous lilies; it's even wheelchair accessible). Pass the Darlingtonia parking lot and continue for three miles on a winding, ever-narrower paved road to a tiny, no-frills boat ramp. There is a fee for the small parking area in the trees. The rest of the shoreline of this 355-acre lake is privately owned. 110-acre Munsel Lake is easier to get to, with a nice boat ramp and plenty of parking (fee charged), but most of its shoreline is also private property. Fishing is reputedly good here and is usually accessed by powerboat. Despite the posted 10-MPH speed limit, this lake has quite a bit of traffic and may be best left to fishermen with motors.

Near the historic marina

Gazebo overlooking the old ferry landing
Continue to Florence and be sure to stop in Old Town beside the bay. The Port operates a busy boat ramp by the marina (if you put in here, be sure you know what  you're getting into; the Siuslaw is a big river and a force to be reckoned with). There is a large, free parking lot nearby, with walking paths and benches that look out over the marina. Old Town offers a variety of shops and cozy restaurants for visitors who have had enough sand, wind, and coastal mist to last them for a while. This historic bayfront retains its connection to the water, with frequent views of the Siuslaw and waterside benches. Look for a verdant little park complete with a charming gazebo; this white-painted structure overlooks the old ferry landing. Used when a ferry transported people, goods, and livestock before construction of the bridge, the decaying landing is now a floating island, sprouting plants and providing a rest stop for wildlife. Further along, look for the photogenic 1936 drawbridge which spans the Siuslaw.

Florence is one of our favorite year-round destinations; if it's too windy to paddle, there's plenty of fishing. If the fishing is lousy, we can go to the beach. If the beach is too windy, there are numerous hiking trails. If it's just too wet and miserable to be outside, we hide out in the shops. There are dunes to climb, horses to rent, and a delightful history museum, all in the friendly coastal town where the Suislaw flows into the sea.

Cold Weather Paddling Safety

We are often asked, "Why would you paddle in the winter? Don't you get cold?" The first question has a whole list of answers: fresh air, exercise, peace and quiet, fewer powerboats, abundant wildlife. As for the second question, winter paddling is just like any other winter sport. Dress properly for conditions and you will not be cold. A quick internet search will provide plenty of information on proper clothing (we aren't the only ones on the water!). To sum up, though, don't dress for the air temperature, dress for possible immersion. In other words, microfiber, fleece, neoprene, and wool instead of cotton. If it's a chilly day, consider a splash top and pants if you don't have a drysuit. Wear a hat. Bring gloves or pogies. Bring your skirt if you're kayaking; you'll be glad of it when (not if) a shower blows in.
Rugged dunes on the north side of Florence
Lily Lake

Baker Beach Campground

Alder Lake

Dune Lake

Sutton Lake

Trail to Sutton Campground

Carnivorous Darlingtonia Lilies at the Darlingtonia Natural Site

Disused ferry landing at Old Town
Under the Siuslaw Bridge. Stay safe out there, and we'll see you soon for Part Two!