Oregon's raw Coast.
BROOKINGS - You wouldn't know it when the gusts of autumn bring their chilling rain to the southwestern Oregon Coast, but this bustling little town of 6,500 is known to many as the Easter Lily Capital of the World.
Generally mild temperatures, ample precipitation and rich soil have made Brookings an ideal location for growing things, whether grasses for livestock, forests for the timber industry or bulbs for the wholesale nursery market.
More than 75 percent of all commercial Easter lily bulbs are produced on the coastal lowland between the Chetco River and California's nearby Smith River. As early as mid-March, lilies are in bloom at Azalea State Park in the heart of Brookings. A single yellow pistil rises from deep within the heart of each trumpet- like blossom, whiter even than snow.
Native azaleas embellish Azalea Park with thousands of blossoms from April to June. Estimated to be more than two centuries old, they were rescued from an invasion of Himalayan blackberry vines by proud area residents, who also gave the park its picnic area, children's playground and summer band shell. Brookings' social calendar is built around the annual Azalea Festival, held each year over Memorial Day weekend.
The park also is home to the lovely Capella by the Sea, a chapel built in 2009 by Oscar-winning film editor Elmo Williams, a longtime Brookings resident, in memory of his wife, Lorraine. Three stories tall, built mainly of Douglas fir and topped by seven copper spires, the A-frame-style sanctuary has more than 1,000 square feet of glass across its frame.
Quiet town, wild coast
Mostly, Brookings is a quiet town, the first stop in Oregon for northbound travelers on U.S. 101 from Crescent City, Calif. It's just 5 miles north of the border, the first of several small towns, including Gold Beach and Port Orford, that support most of the sparse population of Curry County.
Area residents know this stretch as the "Wild Rivers Coast." Embracing the estuaries of the Klamath, Smith, Winchuck, Chetco, Pistol, Rogue, Elk, Sixes and Coquille rivers in two states, this region is cloaked in dense forest and designated wilderness (including the 180,000-acre Kalmiopsis Wilderness) east of its coastal fringe.
The best reasons to visit are counted in spectacular beachscapes and dense, old-growth forests. Brookings represents the northern edge of the range of the coast redwood - the only place in the Pacific Northwest where the great trees grow within a few miles of the Pacific Ocean.
A couple of groves are accessible by gravel road and forest trail, including one just above the Chetco River, three-quarters mile past Alfred A. Loeb State Park (best known for its Oregon myrtle woodlands). Coast redwoods are among the oldest and tallest living things on the planet. Fewer than 50 miles south of here are a handful of 2,000-year-old trees. Those in this glen are no slouches - at more than 300 feet tall and 15 feet in diameter, they have been estimated at 300 to 800 years old.
On the grounds of the Chetco Valley Historical Museum, 2 1/2 miles south of Brookings on U.S. 101, stands what may be the largest Monterey cypress in the United States. Eighteen feet in diameter and 130 feet tall, it was planted in 1857 by pioneer settler Harrison Blake. Blake's wood-frame house, the same age as the tree, holds an excellent collection of artifacts.
The harbor and town
The place to go in Harbor is, indeed, the harbor - the Port of Brookings-Harbor, to be precise. The chamber of commerce has its visitor center here, near a row of waterfront shops that include a fish-and-chips caf, a coffee shop and a nautical knickknack dispensary, as well as a sport-fishing charter operator and the requisite seaside bars.
Nearby, off Boat Basin Road, the Best Western Plus Beachfront Inn overlooks the fishing-boat marina on one side, the crashing surf on the other.
Downtown Brookings is just north of the bridge that crosses high above the Chetco River. Here, U.S. 101 is known as Chetco Avenue. Several blocks of businesses, including restaurants, motels and an old-time movie theater, are wedged between a couple of modern pubs. I found comfortable lodging at the Wild Rivers Motorlodge.
The town's best restaurants are within a few blocks of one another. I'm partial to the Art Alley Grille, a gourmet spot in the basement of a Chetco Avenue art gallery, but reached off an alley around the back side.
The Black Trumpet Bistro was also excellent, even if my server didn't know the difference between a cabernet sauvignon and a sauvignon blanc.
A little history
Although Spanish galleons had sailed past this coast in the 1700s, it wasn't until 1828 that the native Chetco Indians first met white intruders. The Jedediah Smith party found about 350 Athabaskan-speaking natives in three villages. The tribe supplemented its seafood-dominant diet with acorns, roots and berries foraged from the forests and an occasional deer or elk.
The first land claims were placed in 1853, although the discovery of gold (along with chromite and boron) never played out in large quantities. Settlements were small and scattered until 1891, when the village of Harbor was established on the south bank of the Chetco. That helped to stabilize a small fishing industry.
Brookings itself got its start in 1912 as a company lumber town. John E. Brookings was a Southern California lumberman whose company claimed more than 27,000 acres of woodland along 17 miles between the Chetco and Pistol rivers. He built his namesake town atop a low bluff overlooking the Chetco River mouth, developing a harbor, a railroad and a sawmill. San Francisco architect Bernard Maybeck, a famed proponent of the Arts and Crafts movement, set the street design. A bridge across the river, connecting Brookings with Harbor, was built in 1915.
The company was sold within a few years to the California & Oregon Lumber Company, which in turn closed its mill in 1925. When the bridge collapsed that same year, the town was devastated. But the town rebuilt on fishing - cod, rockfish, sole and other bottom fish and, of course, salmon - and rekindled its lumber business as a plywood producer during the World War II.
The war brought a touch of notoriety. The only Japanese bombing of the U.S. mainland took place on Sept. 9, 1942, when a seaplane dropped two 168-pound fire bombs in the dense forests east of Brookings. They failed to ignite the hoped-for conflagration, however. Twenty years later the pilot of that bomber, Nobuo Fujita, returned to Brookings, where he humbly surrendered his 16th-century samurai sword (it now hangs in the Chetco Community Library) and donated money for the purchase of books about Japan.
Up the coastline
Today the leading attraction in the Brookings area is the Pacific coastline itself. From Harris Beach, at the northern edge of town, through the 12 miles of Samuel H. Boardman State Park, to Cape Sebastian and Gold Beach, giant surf-ravaged sea stacks divide one sandy beach from another. Trails wind down steep bluffs through forests of centuries-old Sitka spruce, lazy hemlocks and aromatic cedars.
Harris Beach State Park rests within the Brookings city limits. Its campground is a fine place to spend a weekend, as it has tent and RV sites plus half a dozen yurts. Campfire programs and a playground entice families. On a sheltered beach, enclosed by lofty rocks, visitors may scour the sands for shells and colorful rocks, and at low tides explore tide pools.
The park also has several trails from which day hikers can get fine views south, toward central Brookings, and northwesterly in the direction of Goat Island. The single largest unit of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, created in 1936, the 21-acre Goat Island is home to more than 100,000 sea birds of 11 species, many of which dig burrows in which to nest. Especially prevalent is the Leach's storm petrel, a small, graceful and largely nocturnal bird.
Boardman Park is a designated "state scenic corridor" that begins just north of Harris Beach and continues nearly to Pistol River State Scenic Viewpoint.
Apart from various scenic turnouts, it includes Lone Ranch Beach, popular among surfers and kite flyers, in the lee of Cape Ferrelo; Whaleshead Beach, beneath a resort community of the same name; Indian Sands, where archeologists have unearthed native artifacts more than 10,000 years old; and the Thomas Creek Bridge, highest in Oregon at 345 feet.
Near the northern end of the corridor is a stretch of particularly interesting offshore formations, including the Natural Bridges and Arch Rock. The latter includes a picnic area in a wildflower-rich meadow. Hidden inlets, including Thunder Rock Cove and Hidden Beach, are sheltered by the sea stacks and headlands, such as Deer Point. INFORMATION Brookings-Harbor Chamber of Commerce: 16330 Lower Harbor Road, Harbor; www.brookingsharborchamber.com, 541-469-3181, 800-535-9469.
John Gottberg Anderson, who lives in Bend, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.