A Winter on the Oregon Coast

Walking the Camino de Santiago in Spain was one of the most profound experiences of my life. But it was also much more physically and psychologically challenging than I’d anticipated. When I got back, I needed somewhere to recuperate and sort through my experience. Somewhere that River Dog, Moe the Cat and I could snuggle in and also explore, and where I could have the three magic things I desperately needed: silence, solitude and stillness.

The north coast of Oregon is where we found those things. During the winter and early spring, it’s nearly deserted, with miles of coastline and endless forest trails to walk, often without another soul in sight. We nested in a little cabin in a quiet little seaside town for three and a half months, gathering strength and wisdom, finding peace and exploring one of the world’s most beautiful, rugged and diverse coastlines.

Off on our journey — the cast of characters: River Dog, Moe the Cat, and me. We’re a family, so unless it’s overseas, we go on all our journeys together. Moe actually travels better in the car than River does, generally finding a perch at the back window of the RAV and observing passing traffic.

Our little house.  Though we were near the center of our little village, we had the neighborhood more or less to ourselves for most of our stay, because almost everyone else was gone for the winter (except for the deer and other wildlife, who frequently came by to say hello).

The inside of our little house.

Our first day. Snow on the beach and River tasting her freedom. She was literally vibrating with excitement and burst into an exuberant ran seconds after this photo was taken.

This was our “home beach,” about five minutes’ walk from our front door. A rare seven-mile stretch of walkable beach on the northern coast, which is mostly too wild and rocky for extended beach walks. River and I walked here in sun and rain (and snow!), day and night, often for hours at a time, with no phone, email, time limits or agendas other than to be in the moment.

Back home and a fire in the woodstove…

Foghorn warning ships away from the rocky coast. Recorded from the front of the house. A world away from the helicopters in LA.

Shipwrecks on the Oregon coast have a long history. This is the 1908 wreck of the Emily Reed. It comes in and out with the winter storms, appearing in different places along the northern coast. It washed up on our home beach while we were there — its first appearance in 40 years. It disappeared again shortly before we left.

The pair of bonded mallards that we saw on our walks through town during our entire whole stay. Devoted to each other, they could reliably be found in any of the numerous creeks and ponds that dotted the town. The female injured a wing later in the season, but the male stayed with her to protect her and she eventually recovered.

River quickly discovered the squirrels living in rocks of the jetty and it became her favorite spot.  She never caught any (nor would I let her, if she got close) — the squirrels were dog-savvy and always a step ahead of her, but the whole thing was a workout for her body and her mind, too. I had never seen her happier than she was during those months, and when we left, I made a promise to her that we’d settle somewhere where she could have this kind of freedom always.

Moe the Cat was the only one not happy with our stay. He was used to having access to the outdoors in his cat-proof yard, and here, there was no safe way to do that at this little house.

One of the most remarkable things about the Oregon coast is the way the forest grows right down into the sea — we could walk the beach and hike into the deep woods all on the same trail.  This was a portion of the Oregon Coast Trail, along-distance trail that winds through woods and along beaches up the coast.

It got progressively muddier as we got closer to the top… we tried to avoid the mud at first, but after awhile, it was easier just to walk through it and clean our feet at the many streams along the way.

The view from the top. Our little town is right down below.

Moments before River and I almost fell into the sea below. Wanting to get all the way to the point of the cape, I put River on the leash and proceeded down the increasingly narrow trail. But I slipped in the mud climbing over a branch and couldn’t find my footing, sliding closer to the edge with every try, the edge being only about three feet away.

So there I was, trying first to coax River, whose leash I’d lost hold of when I slipped, close enough to where I can grab her leash and coax her over the branch and over me to higher ground, which finally I did. Then pulled myself slowly hand over hand up the branch and crawling on hands and knees through the mud till the trail widened.

It was a reminder that no matter how careful we are (and hiking alone, we are always very careful), the situation can change from peaceful to perilous in an instant, especially during the winter.

Back at the car, drying off and getting warm.

River at sunset.

I sent this photo in to the local paper and it was “Photo of the Week.” 🙂

Part of our morning routine was to stop at the post office, where River said hello to the resident dog and got a treat from the post office ladies.

An abandoned state park was like something out of a fairy tale…

A spooky grove in the abandoned state park… the setting for Little Red Riding Hood…

An old bridge at the abandoned state park that we elected not to try to cross… there’s adventure and then there’s foolishness, and crossing this bridge was solidly more one than the other.

I’ve hiked literally hundreds of miles with dogs without incident, but River’s just one of those dogs things seem to happen to…

There we were, hiking peacefully, and there she went, bounding into the brush. She found a little black creature under a bush and and tried to make friends. I pulled her back, but not quite in time — she got a snootful of quills.

Fortunately, the quills were small and not in very deep, so no vet visit required. I wrapped my jacket around her head to act as blindfold/muzzle and pulled the quills out. River didn’t seem the least bit fazed by it all — even before the quills were removed, she wanted to go right back to say hi to the porcupine again. Obviously, I said no — it was a young ‘un, and very frightened, definitely not as interested in making friends as River was.

The dark side of Oregon. Clearcutting is still ubiqituous and a Google Earth view shows the coastal mountains checkerboarded by bare patches. Logging companies defoliate huge swatches of forest and then cut everything, leaving what they can’t use in huge waste piles, then replanting only a single species of tree. The only bright spot is that logging companies open their lands up to hikers, and River and I spent many hours hiking logging roads. But it was bittersweet, hiking through stunning forests, knowing their days were numbered.

People often think of Oregon as an environmentally progressive state, but most of the more environmentally-minded people live in the “blue” cities (aka “Portlandia”). The rural areas are “red,” with a huge proportion of the economy dependent on logging.

Having seen the devastation of clearcutting, I’ve made a decision to limit as much as possible my purchase of items made of virgin paper and new wood, unless I know it was sustainably harvested, so that I don’t contribute to the destruction of the very forests that we loved hiking through.

The day’s hike interrupted by a landslide that had wiped out the road. We’d clmibed over two landslides to get this far, but this obstacle was more than a bit too risky to cross.

The little homemade miniature golf course in the center of town won my heart with its quirkiness.

I’d always dreamed of finding a perfect sand dollar and finally did — they are exceptionally rare on the Oregon coast because of the rough seas.

My favorite hiking hat, and the only selfie I’m ever likely to do…

Waldo and Hazel found plenty of adventures to share on their page, too. 🙂

Hug Point, one of the most mysterious and magical places on the northern coast. There are many waterfalls spilling directly onto the beach, but this is my favorite.

The wind blowing the dry sand across the wet sand looked like a river. Mesmerizing, and the reason I don’t let bad weather deter me from exploring — we get to see things most people don’t get to see…

“Sneaker waves” in Oregon are like flash floods in New Mexico — fast, unpredictable and deadly. Hiking in bad weather was one thing, but when storm clouds like this brewed, it was time to head for the cabin, a cozy fire and a bowl of Pacific northwest clam chowder.

Our daily morning walk included a stop at The Little Crow, our favorite little curio shop. The proprietress, Anne, became a friend.

Families in Oregon are a little different than most places…

A misty seven-mile hike to the edge of the world on Bayocean Peninsula… we didn’t see another soul the whole time. It was admittedly an eerie experience to be the only ones on the peninsula, especially in the mist and rain.

Hiking in the mist, one of the most magical parts of a winter in Oregon.

River chasing squirrels on Bayocean Peninsula.

My favorite little small-town diner, straight out of a movie set. The food was exactly what you’d expect, but the service was quintessentially small town, the portraits generous and the ambience not to be missed. No wi-fi. 🙂

Crossing the long bridge to Long Beach Peninsula in Washington State. I am helpless to resist peninsulas — I love exploring the edges of things.

Wreck of the Peter Iredale on Long Beach Peninsula.

One-room schoolhouse in Oysterville, a tiny little New England-style village tucked away at the end of Long Beach Peninsula. I fell in love with this tiny village instantly.

Busy Clay “Street” in Oysterville. 🙂

My favorite spot for coffee and writing in my journal. I’d always resisted journaling before… cliched, touchy-feely and SO obvious :-)… but I finally did it this time and realized what an invaluable tool it is for clearing one’s head and uncovering insights. I attribute much of the peace and healing I found in Oregon to consistent journaling, and still refer to those pages now as a resource and a roadmap.

With River and a friend at sunset.

Kilchis Point. My favorite place maybe on earth, so far.

Hiking the Kilchis River Preserve, I stepped on what looked like a solid patch of sand, only to sink knee deep into a literal tar pit. Of course, my feet both came out shoeless, which meant sticking my arm in up to my elbow to find and fish out my shoes. River, wise enough to have avoided the tar pit in the first place, watched from shore.


Ducklings from the bonded pair — they appeared just days before it was time to go, and I only saw them once. A parting gift.

Sunset at the Three Graces. The birds on the tree are herons. Sunsets on the Oregon coast are softer than the dramatic ones in New Mexico, but equally magical.

A last walk on the beach and then it was time to go, our journey over. For now.

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