The Oregon coast runs 360+ miles from Brookings to the Columbia River watershed. And fortunately for the people, the 1967 Oregon Beach Bill granted easement to all of it. That doesn’t mean it’s all readily accessible, though. Oregon’s long stretches of sandy beaches are interrupted by rivers, bays, and rocky capes that cliff out into the foamy surf. And the further from Portland one gets, the more remote the coast becomes. The section between Port Orford and Florence exemplifies this, passing through only three communities in its 100-mile stretch. But what it lacks in population, it makes up for in beach. And we were hungry for sand.
The maps showed that the coastline ran almost uninterrupted to Florence. Sure, there were few water obstacles (the Coquille, Coos, and Umpqua Rivers), and we spied routes around capes Blanco and Argo. Well versed in this type of “fun,” I anticipated there would be others. But I seemed to overlook the continually yielding joys of sand.
If the Inuit have 100 words for snow, after logging eight hours over soft, tire-sucking beach, we were quickly racking up a competing word count for sand. Dave—a Clydesdale who could lounge all-day in the pain cave on a steady drip of REESE’S Pieces and maple-glazed bacon jerky—finally hit a patch that supported his weight, buried his nose to the stem and pedaled blindly to Bandon … recklessly blocking out the deflated grey whale tanning under the salty sun.
“Check this out!” I called Dave back. I dropped the fatty and walked the whale’s perimeter in amazement, snapping off a series of shots. With a ghost line wrapped above its tail, it was clear that the 30-foot yearling had drowned. Turkey vultures impatiently perched in the beach grass, waiting for a cue to resume their meal. Clearly unwelcomed, we righted our bikes and resumed the pace line into Bandon.
During the summer months, an average of 5,000 cyclists ride with the steady northerly breeze down Highway 101. But with the change of season comes a shift in the coastal winds. This partially influenced our choice to start out of the South. This decision paid dividends as we sat up in the saddle with arms stretched to catch the aft winds, effortlessly carving wide arching lines through Bandon’s sentinel sea stacks.
The Coquille River cuts through Bandon. Twice daily, it fluxes nearly seven feet twice daily—was midway through its ebb tide. Instead of hurrying the pace, we waited out the evening storm over fish tacos and took a leisurely road detour upstream and across the bridge to Bullards Beach.
The coast north of Bandon continued to offer some of the best beach riding of the trip: wide, hard-packed tidal flats, punctuated by sea stacks. Just before the sand pinched under Cape Argo’s rocky face, we stole a surfer’s trail to the plateau. At the trail’s junction with the road, three bow hunters on bikes rolled out of an adjacent logging road. We sized up each other’s tires and they greeted us with—true story—‘you boys aren’t from around here.’ Dave flashed a smile and leaned comfortably onto his backcountry roots, weaving yarns about hunting and monster truck bikes. We hunkered over the dirt with an arrow in hand, scratching out the next leg of the trip in the till: the South Slough Estuary.
The South Slough drains the boggy headwaters of Winchester Creek and into the Coos River through a network of channels, tidal flats and wetlands. Under the federal Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972, the watershed was the first of 28 such reserves dedicated to the research and stewardship of regions where rivers meet the sea. Six miles long, it was also a committing introduction into bikerafting.
We pulled our bloated boats over the muddy flats until the incoming tide lifted them off the riverbed, then proceeded to muscle the rafts under bows of western hemlock strung with sea grass streamers and past a series of rotting posts, marking the remains of an inland dock once used to transfer lumber and grain from the fertile valley to the port. Eventually the narrow channel yawned into open water where we spied the bridge, marking the slough’s mouth as it dumped into bay.
Coos Bay is a working port, notable as the largest bay between Seattle and San Francisco. Hesitant to negotiate water with the likes of barges and tugs, and once again missing the tide, we eddied the boats into the Charleston docks, strapped the boats to the bars, and pedaled over the South Slough bridge and 15 miles upstream to where we eventually regain the beach, satisfied that we had the route zipped.
The following morning Dave and I stood silently before the mouth of the Umpqua River as we watched frothy waves rip across the rim of the 20-foot tall south jetty. A sign warned us of “Sharks, Rips and Undertows,” but neither of these were our immediate concern. One of four Oregon maritime rivers that drain sources from the east side of the Cascades and the host one of the hottest summer steelhead runs in the west, our primary concern was being run down by anglers hopped up on steelhead fever, racing to find their place in the hog line. We strapped our pads around our torsos and launched the rafts between the crabbing pier and the second jetty, aiming the bows squarely into the oncoming wakes. Once we rounded the jetty, the incoming tide swiftly pulled our rafts into the channel slung us across the bay. We merely paddled to course correct and flag our presence to oncoming boats.
Surviving the Umpqua, we carried our momentum from the water back to the bikes, assured by many that it would be a perfectly rideable conclusion to our adventure. But if we learned anything, nothing comes easy on the Oregon coast. As we pushed loads out from behind the north jetty wall, the notorious southerly stole the wind from our sails. Kicking salt in the drivetrain, the incoming tide shoved us above the wrack line and up onto the lose berm. We found occasional relief riding sporadic beach cement composed of flotsam bound to gaper clams and crab shells, but for the most part it was a double-feature horror show: too soft to pedal followed by ORV’s pouring out of the dunes like cockroaches. As the tide began to withdraw, we swung our legs over the top tubes for one last push to the trailhead, where we met our ride back to Port Orford.
Some of my best childhood memories were formed vacationing at the Oregon Coast, beachcombing the stacks around Cannon Beach while gumming salt-water taffy. Thirty years later and 600 miles away, this wasn’t the coast of my youth. In three days time we covered 100 miles by foot, bike, and by packraft, weaving the mind numbing with the mind-blowing, juxtaposing some of my best riding ever with some of the worst. But the energy we expended was returned 10-fold through the assurance that even with a hectic life and limited schedule, the otherwise mundane can present an eye-opening adventure. The Oregon Coast will haunt our inspiration for years to come.