Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Oregon Coast #1

          The Oregon coast is one of America’s iconic landscapes.  Running the entire Western length of the state, its beaches are open to all, thanks to legislation championed by Republican Governor Tom McCall in l967 which granted the state zoning rights to the seashore.  In this it is unique among all coastal states.

          The northern one-third is the most dramatic, with tall prows of rock thrusting into the sea, creating explosions of waves and scores of intimate coves.  In places these thrusts of rock have been cut through by wave action over millions of years, leaving citadels and castles guarding the land to which it once belonged.   


          These headlands were created 15 million years ago by lava flowing out of what is now the intersection of Washington, Oregon and Idaho 400 miles to the east.  Lava flowed down the channel of the Columbia River, created the spectacular Columbia River Gorge, and then spread out south into rivers of lava which plunged into the ocean.  It must have looked like the lava-meets-the-sea sizzle we can see today on the big island of Hawaii.  The ocean shore was some distance to the west, tides and storms eating away until we have today’s shoreline.

          I knew none of this geologic history coming here and found that fascinating.  But there is more:  these headlands come from the same super-source of heat which created Yellowstone, according to recent geological theory. 

Those of us living in eastern Idaho know that the mammoth system of explosions, vents and geysers that made today’s Yellowstone had previously burned through the Snake River Plain from Oregon.  We knew that it was tectonic plates which slid over a giant hot spot, not the other way around, i.e. the plates moved westward over millions of years while the heat source remained stationary. 

          Now we learn that the earth also moved south to north over this same hot spot along what is now the Idaho-Oregon border.  Think of it like moving wood through a jig saw:  the blade stays in the same place but the wood is moved so as to cut north to south and then west to east.  The hot spot thus burned through 800 miles of the earth’s mantle in a pattern somewhat like the letter “Z.”  Is that clear?  It seems amazing that plates which slid steadily from east to west would previously slide north to south but I’m told this today’s best scientific estimate.

          I once had a legal client named John Masters who was credited with discovering the largest new natural gas basin in the Western Hemisphere in l977.  He had stood on a rock outcropping in Alberta and knew for a certainty that this was where a prehistoric sea tipped into the sky, trapping natural gas below.  “I could hear the seagulls singing,” he said.

          Standing on an Oregon headland knowing its heat source was now in Yellowstone might have been known to John Masters.  It was news to me.

          This revelation came from a charming guy dressed as a Coast Guard lighthouse keeper, a volunteer interpreter at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.  He gave me a written summation of the theory with sources and we discussed the progressive Republican governor and senator for whom the center was named, Mark Hatfield.

          This is my first full day on the Oregon coast and the late October weather could not be better.  I’ll be staying in tiny Depot Bay where the coastal lava wall opens just far enough to admit small boats into a completely protected harbor.  I brought with me both a bike and golf clubs but walking the beach is the better idea.

 I first explore Yaquina Lighthouse which is 95 feet tall and sits at the top of 500 feet of basalt called Cape Foulweather, so named by the first European explorer, James Cook in 1778.  The lighthouse is still in use and full of souvenirs.

The locals are distinguished from people like myself because they are wearing shorts and picnicking, incongruously, under grass umbrellas.  This couple took turns surfing in wet suits while the children make like its summer in coastal Delaware. 

Like primitive people, beachgoers continue to construct wikiups, burial vaults and dolmans or stallas wherever they go.

While Cape Foulweather is not well named on this day, these trees above the beach give you an idea of how strongly and constantly the wind blows.  La Jolla this is not but instead something more dramatic.
Besides beaches, volcanoes, wine and rain, Oregon is a great state for bridges, including the largest number of covered bridges in the West, which at one time numbered 400.  Great bridges, like public beaches, can be traced to a single individual, Conde McCullough, who headed the Oregon bridge department from l920 to 1935.  Highway One, which runs along the ocean from the mouth of the Columbia River to California, was completed in this era, requiring scores of major cuts and bridges.  This one over the Yaquina River is an example of the beauty McCullough demanded in his engineering. 

The phrase “Oregon Coast” has a magical quality for many Idahoans and Oregonians who live inland, for whom it is the closest thing to a beach.  Many come to enjoy winter storms, drink in hand behind sturdy glass, well above the breaking surf.  It is usually windy, the beaches offer more rock than sand and a day in the 80’s is rare.  Many of its towns are charming and heavily-timbered slopes hand over the shore.  For desert people like Idahoans, hiking along the Oregon Coast is fairy tale stuff: huge trees, abundant moss and fern and the chance of running into a herd of Roosevelt elk.  Catch a cloudless day, as I did, and it’s pretty special.    


In the last light of day, the lighthouse at Newport stands above the rocky beach.

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