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Exploring the Oregon Coast:

Brookings & Gold Beach

by Margaret Cullison

Oregon offers a variety of scenic areas to visit and, as retirees, we can avoid the tourist crowds and peak season prices by planning our trips when others are working and their children going to school. We like the ocean and fresh seafood, so a trip to the southern Oregon coast was one of the first places we set out to visit.

The road from our house cuts through coastal mountains in a southwestern direction towards the giant redwoods of northern California. As we drove deeper into the mountains we crossed a rocky creek bed called Hardscrabble Creek, an apt name for such a sparsely populated, dry and barren terrain. Rich felt a bump in the pavement as we entered California, a subtle change he had learned to recognize while working at construction engineering sites. Highway maintenance workers stop working precisely at the state line, leaving further work to their counterparts in the next state.

As the mountains receded behind us, we passed through redwood groves, the giant trees muffling sound and masking light along the winding road. The trees thinned as we approached the coastal highway and turned north again. Flat fields disappeared into fog that defined the coastline where lilies are raised to supply bulbs for the avid gardeners of the northwest. We saw fields of cabbage, neat gray-green rows against the dark soil. Rich noticed another bump in the road as we reentered our adopted state.

Hungry for lunch, we stopped at Brookings, homeport for fishermen who brave the rough waters of the Oregon coast to bring in salmon, albacore tuna, and Dungeness crab. We'd done our tourist homework and headed for a restaurant said to serve the best clam chowder on the coast. The chowder, served in shells of sourdough bread loaves, warmed us after a walk around the marina in the cool fog. Equally delicious were the rounds of bread carved from the loaves, spread with butter and garlic, and broiled to crunchy perfection.

We drove through the business area on our way out of town. The nautical theme prevailed on signs and storefronts, but slightly faded as if tired from the effort of attracting the tourist trade. Continuing north towards our destination at Gold Beach, we caught only glimpses of the rugged coastline through thick fog. But the fog added mystery, making us feel more like the explorers of new territory we were. We crossed the Thomas Creek Bridge, the highest span in Oregon at 345 feet, which was enveloped in fog so thick that my eyes strained to see the road.

Another twenty miles further north and we reached the Gold Beach Resort, our lodging for the next two nights. The resort offers reduced prices for fall and winter guests, and each room has a balcony and ocean view. Rich, the first to enter our room, said he couldn't see the ocean. When we opened the sliding door to our balcony, we could hear the rhythmic sound of surf hitting the shore and then our eyes made out the white foam of breaking waves in the foggy distance. Directly below us lay a stretch of green grass and a path through sand dunes towards the beach and ocean. Sure enough, we had a glorious ocean view, if ever the fog would lift.

Within an hour it did just that, and we headed out for a walk on the beach. As we reached the sand dunes, we noticed a sign warning that we were in a tsunami zone. Curious, but not ominous enough to turn us back. Later we learned that the local government believes the signs, also posted on the highway at both ends of town, might frighten tourists away. But Oregon emergency preparedness experts say the threat of giant waves caused by offshore earthquakes is real, and people in coastal towns must be warned that they should move to higher ground within fifteen minutes after an earthquake strikes.

Only a few people and dogs were on the beach as we headed south towards some monoliths, the huge rocks along the shore that are characteristic of the Oregon coastline. A flock of sea gulls rested on the sand, looking weathered and weary. Each time we drew near, the flock lifted into the air, only to land further down the beach to resume their rest. We searched for agates among the rocks and pebbles. Agate particles break off shoreline cliffs, falling into the sea, and some come back to the sand at high tide. Fifteen varieties have been found along the Oregon coast, but we weren't among those lucky agate hunters.

After our walk we sat on our balcony, enjoying the last sunlight as the fog moved in again. Black-tailed deer came out of the bushes to graze in the expanse of grass below us. The fog progressed faster than the sun could set, and we saw only a rosy glow on the horizon at sunset. By that time we were eating dinner at a restaurant overlooking the ocean that offered a discount for guests at Gold Beach Resort. We dined on succulent scallops and shrimp as the sky and ocean darkened outside.

The southern Oregon coast is known as the Banana Belt, meaning that sun shines more often and the weather is more temperate than further north. Gold Beach boasts "more sun hours" than any other town on the Oregon and Washington coasts. The next morning we realized that we would experience a full day of those sun hours, although the wind off the ocean felt cool enough to wear a light jacket.

At the north end of Gold Beach the Rogue River empties into the Pacific Ocean. Because our home is situated only a few hundred yards from the Rogue, but several hundred miles upstream, we wanted to see the river's mouth. The Isaac Lee Patterson Memorial Bridge spans 1932 feet across the river just before it empties into the sea. This classic bridge was dedicated in 1932 and provides dramatic views of both the ocean and the wild river as it meanders inland. A major rehabilitation project to restore and preserve the bridge will be finished by 2005.

At the south end of the bridge lies the Port of Gold Beach where restaurants, jet boat tours, ocean fishing charters, and gift shops mix with commercial fishing enterprises. Connected to one of the gift shops, a small museum gave us a good overview of the river's history and lore. Feeling only slightly hungry, we gave in to the temptation to sample another restaurant's version of clam chowder and huge slices of homemade pie.

That afternoon we toured the local historical society's museum and learned about gold prospecting in the Rogue and its tributaries, the local logging baron's rule, the struggles of early settlers, and the tragic persecution of Native Americans. In the evening we tried another restaurant that offered a discount for hotel guests, this one situated about a mile inland with a sweeping view of the Rogue River.

While enjoying fresh red snapper in white wine sauce, we watched a sea lion catch and eat a salmon in the shallow waters below. I've seen many sea lions lying motionless for hours, sunning their lumbering bodies on the rocks of the Pacific coast, but this one moved through the water with a speed and grace I could hardly believe possible. After he finished darting around looking for more prey, sea otters paddled in to take the remains of the fish.

Our journey south along the coast the next morning was again shrouded in fog. We were eager to get back to the warm inland sun of early October, but we stopped in Brookings long enough to buy canned albacore tuna, a far superior product to any found on supermarket shelves. We also brought home freshly caught salmon filets, and that night for dinner we savored one last taste of the sea. At least until our next visit to the Oregon coast, which we've already decided will coincide with whale and storm watching season, the two great attractions of winter.

Websites:

Brookings, Oregon

Southern Oregon Visitor's Association

Gold Beach, Oregon

Gold Beach Resort

Highway to History

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