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The wild worlds of the Oregon coast.

Start at the edge of the ocean at low tide, where sea stars and purple sea urchins cling to wave-splashed rocks. Then walk east: past the tidepools, across the swath of hard sand. over the lines of flotsam left from the last high tide. and onto the soft sand, all the way up to where salal or beach grass or shore pines begin their toehold on the continent.

If you're in Oregon, all that you just walked upon is open to the public, unavailable to developers, unfenceable by landowners; in short, ours. What keeps the state's 262 miles of ocean beach public clear up to the vegetation line is what former governor Tom McCall characterized as "one of the most far-reaching measures of its kind enacted by any legislative body in the nation": the 1967 Beach Bill.

But there's more to the Oregon coast than beaches. In the 25 years since enactment of the Beach Bill, both state and federal agencies have taken major steps to preserve tidepools and offshore rocks, as well as dunes, estuaries, and coastal forests. In some cases, those efforts have helped to preserve well-known landmarks; elsewhere, they've saved obscure but ecologically significant niches.

To a 55-mph traveler on US. 101, these undeveloped natural areas may not be as conspicuous as the string of beach towns, resorts, and roadside attractions. But they're there, and well worth the short detour and hike it might take to get to the dark heart of a spruce-shrouded headland or the still backwaters of a rush-ringed estuary.

Stalking the denizens of the shallows

STEP, DOWN THE WOODEN STAIRCASe AT THE END OF Yaquina Head about an hour before low tide. Walk across the steep, narrow beach of round rocks and onto the bedrock, watching your step where slick sea lettuce and rockweed languish. On the big rocks at the water's edge, harbor seals and cormorants may eye you suspiciously, ready to retreat if you get too close (don't--the rocks are refuges, off-limits to humans). Meanwhile, in seawater-cupping rock basins are hundreds of smaller creatures, unable to retreat so easily, trapped twice a day between ocean and shore. A few, crabs particularly, may scurry at your approach. Most, however--the limpets and whelks, anemones and sponges, sea stars and sea urchins--must wait patiently for high tide's protective cover.

Nearly three-quarters of Oregon's coastline consists of sandy beaches, but within and between those beaches are dozens of spots where bedrock or boulders create pools inhabited by a variety of intertidal plants and animals. Good tidepooling can be found at frequent intervals along much of the coast. Minus tides offer the best viewing of the widest range of habitats; tide tables for July show minus tides for most days.

To help preserve some of the most popular tidepool areas, state wildlife officials began in the late 1960s to designate marine gardens where no collecting of intertidal plants or animals is allowed. Tidepools at Otter Rock and Cape Perpetua were the first to be so protected; Haystack Rock and Yaquina Head were added in 1988 and 1990, respectively.

A new tidepool area is currently being "created" about halfway out Yaquina Head. Earlier this century, rock quarrying carved out deep clefts in the headland. The Bureau of Land Management, which took over management of Yaquina Head in 1980, is in the process of turning the lower quarry into a wheelchair-accessible intertidal area--possibly the first in the world. It's closed while under construction, but it's expected to be ready for visitors by 1994.

Puffins and pinnipeds, on the rocks

OUT PAST BANDON'S SOUTH JETTY BUT STILL WITHIN city limits, an old dirt road leads west, ending on a point of barren ground known as Coquille Point. No one comes out here much since the natatorium burned down years ago. Those who do are wise to bring binoculars. The rocks just offshore are home to thousands of seabirds. including some 50,000 common murres that nest here in summer. Tufted puffins once common along the coast but now seen only in certain undisturbed areas frequent the rocks in summer as %ell. Harbor seals and their pups can be seen in the hundreds. sunning themselves on rock shelves close to the water.

Last year Coquille Point became the first mainland addition to Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. The first refuge on the Oregon coast was established in 1907 at Three Arch Rocks, near Tillamook, by 1982, virtually all of the coast's other 1,400 islands, offshore rocks, and reefs were protected as part of the Oregon Islands refuge.

The refuge's rocks and promontories are generally off-limits to people in order to maintain an undisturbed nesting habitat for seabirds (Coquille Point, which will be developed as a vantage point for offshore rocks, is an exception). However, many of the rocks are close enough to shore to allow great summer watching of nesting seabirds and harbor seals. Among the best spots are the lighthouses at Cape Meares, Heceta Head, and Yaquina Head, the latter purportedly offering the closest mainland viewing of nesting and breeding seabirds in the country.

With offshore rocks well protected, attention is turning to another important coastal bird habitat: wetlands. Last year, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service acquired portions of wetlands on the margins of coastal bays for two new refuges.

At play in nature's 50-mile sandbox

IT'S HARD TO IMAGINE A FOREST DENSER, MORE impenetrable, than the tangled mat of salal, huckleberry, rhododendron, and spruce between US. 101 and the dunes west of Carter Lake, 8 miles south of Florence. The trail that's carved through it, leading west, is a narrow, twisting tunnel, with branches and boughs closing in darkly overhead.

At the crest of a hill, the forest abruptly ends and the dunes begin: miles of soft sand, in undulating waves, smooth as sheets, broken only by islands of huddled trees in a gray-white sea. In places, the trail toward the beach is nothing but a series of weathered wooden posts, marking the way for those who like the way marked. For others--particularly children--the dunes aren't so much to be crossed as to be crisscrossed, ascended, and slid down. The beach can wait.

These dunes, which stretch nearly 50 miles from Heceta Head to Coos Bay, make up this country's largest expanse of coastal sand dunes. In 1972, most of the land west of U.S. 101 between Florence and Coos Bay was designated Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, setting aside 32,000 acres for recreational use by the public and ensuring its conservation.

"Recreational use" includes hiking--on-trail and off--as well as bird-watching. However, it also includes riding off-road vehicles in roughly half the NRA. "Conservation" means protecting the sandy nesting areas used by the snowy plover, as well as the wetlands that attract a variety of waterfowl, from cinnamon teal and great blue herons to a large population of ospreys. At least three bald eagle pairs nest in the dunes as well.

With an updated management plan in the works, questions are being raised about how best to balance recreational interests in the dunes. Should new facilities be built catering to ORV users, for example, or should the vehicles be banned outright? It's likely that a middle course will be taken, but a new plan won't be adopted until March 1993.

Listening to a voice in the wilderness

A STORM IS BLOWING OUT OF THE SOUTHWEST, AND A thousand feet high on Cummins Ridge, the whole world seems to be in motion: sword ferns rustling and alder branches flailing and cotton-soft green moss fluttering on tree trunks. Even the massive Sitka spruces are leaning slightly with the force of the gale. But what keeps grabbing your attention isn't so much the face of the storm as its voice: the sound of air moving over mountain and through forest, its mood rising and falling, from long sigh to deep groan, backed unceasingly by the low roar of ocean meeting rocky shore 3 miles to the west.

The ridge is the backbone of Cummins Creek Wilderness, one of two small areas designated as wilderness in 1984 that begin within sight of the shore in Siuslaw National Forest. Some of the land has been logged and reforested, but the wilderness also protects the last major intact stand of old-growth Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, and Western hemlock on the Coast Range's western slope.

Creeks rush down the forest's steep canyons, providing habitat for cutthroat trout, steelhead, and salmon. Herds of elk move slowly through the dark woods, undisturbed by the few humans who also find solitude in the paired wilderness areas' 16,700 acres.

Cummins Creek Wilderness has just one trail, a 6-mile path following the ridge line. Rock Creek Wilderness, a few miles south, has no maintained trails, but an abandoned road from Rock Creek Campground leads hikers a mile or so east into the wilderness to the site of an old homestead. More accessible is nearby Cape Perpetua Scenic Area, also in the national forest; it has nearly 15 miles of forest trails.

Farther north, another significant coastal forest received federal protection in 1974. Cascade Head Scenic-Research Area includes stands of 250-year-old Sitka spruce as well as "young" forests of 50- to 60-year-old trees. Trails lead onto the open headland, owned by The Nature Conservancy.

Getting to the bottom of the food chain

AT THE TRAILHEAD, A COMMITTEE OF WOODPECKERS greets you noisily from high up a tall snag. Heading down the trail, you overhear the waters of a creek conversing quietly with rocks and leaves. Crossing a bog, the boardwalk reverberates with your footfalls; and as you stand at the edge of the estuary, a chorus of ravens cries out, water drips somewhere nearby, and a distant beep beep speaks of a logging operation on a nearby forest slope. By the time you reach the pilings at the end of the trail, the loudest voices are those out of history: of the settlers whose dikes are slowly being reclaimed by the tides, of the loggers whose springboard notches remain in huge stumps along the trail, and of the railroad men upon whose crumbling trestle you stand, surveying South Slough.

In 1974, the first national estuarine sanctuary was established on this relatively undisturbed finger of Coos Bay. Here, as in any of Oregon's relatively small but numerous estuaries, the mingling of fresh- and saltwater supports an abundance of plant and animal life, including microscopic phytoplankton, the bottom of a food chain that supports much of the life on Earth. The estuary's tidal flats harbor shellfish and other small animals that feed larger fish.

South Slough was preserved primarily for educational and research purposes, but development of hiking and canoeing trails and opening of a visitor center have made it one of the south coast's most intriguing attractions.

Coast microcosm: a grand new aquarium

Describe the Oregon coast, and the adjectives can seem contradictory: wild, powerful, vigorous ... intricate, delicate, fragile. To help visitors understand the careful balance of the coast's ecology, an impressive new aquarium with realistic exhibits was opened just south of downtown Newport on Yaquina Bay.

The $24-million Oregon Coast Aquarium covers 29 acres adjacent to Oregon State University's Mark O. Hatfield Marine Science Center, a research facility and lab that works closely with the aquarium. Exhibits of coastal creatures and habitats fill a 40,000-squarefoot board-and-batten building, as well as grounds planted in lush native flora.

"We started with a simple idea: to take visitors on a trip to the Oregon coast with a naturalist," explains James Peterson of BIOS Exhibit Planning and Design, whose credits also include exhibits at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. "We've done that, I think." Inside the building, each of four galleries with live exhibits in tanks represents a different coastal habitat: rocky shores, sandy shores, coastal waters, and wetlands. Outside, rocks, pools, and sand have been artfully assembled into a microcosm of the coast.

Amazing stagecraft has gone into the making of the aquarium. Just inside the building, a school of 150 salmon, cast in fiberglass from real cohos, "swims" overhead. Rocks in displays are in fact concrete, formed in latex molds that were peeled off of actual coastal rocks. In a 14-foot-tall tank standing in the middle of one of the galleries, surf perch and leopard sharks seem at home as they swim around an eye tricking fiberglass set--six pier pilings covered with realistic mussels and barnacles.

Outside, water in tidepools washes over urchins, anemones, and sea stars just as it does in the ocean, thanks to two wave machines. At about 1-minute intervals, the machines take turns hurling enough seawater to fill a Volkswagen Beetle (about 1,500 gallons per slosh). Once an hour, the waves crash simultaneously; the resulting impact shakes the surrounding ground.

The outdoors-dwelling animals behave much as they would in their natural habitats. Rhinoceros auklets and pigeon guillemots quietly bathe and fluff their feathers in a walk-in aviary; seals, sea otters, and sea lions splash and bark in generous and naturalistic pools.

The cost of feeding each sea otter is between $10,000 and $15,000 a year. "Sea otters are finicky eaters with expensive tastes," says Allen Monroe, the aquarium's director of animal husbandry. "Their standards of quality and freshness in clams, squid, fish, and crab match those of any gourmet chef."

The painstaking care taken in the design of the aquarium shows up in innumerable details that benefit both animals and visitors. For example, in the tank created for the aquarium's giant Pacific octopus (a 45-pounder with an arm span of 10 feet), a large glass window affords a view into a dimly lit grotto, where the naturally secretive and lethargic octopus snoozes away, blissfully unaware that he is on display.

Aquarium hours are 9 to 6 daily. Admission costs $7, $5 for ages 12 through 18 and seniors, $3 for ages 4 through 11.

Hiking the coast, from the Columbia to California

Twenty years ago, a University of Oregon geography professor proposed the creation of a coastal hiking trail that would stretch some 400 miles from the Columbia River to the California border. It seemed a possible dream: three-fourths of the trail, along Oregon's 200-plus miles of beaches, already existed. All that remained was to link beach sections with new trails over the coast's steep, rugged (and, in some cases, privately owned) headlands.

Today, some 65 miles of trail have been built. Planners hope to add another 50 to 60 miles. Much of the recent construction has depended on volunteers, though an infusion of federal funds may speed up trail building.

The trail already offers dozens of scenic day-hikes. Here are six good options, listed north to south. They're best hiked one way, using a shuttle. For a free copy of the recently reissued Oregon Coast Trail Guide map, call Oregon State Parks at (503) 378-6305.

* Arch Cape to Short Sands Beach (6 miles). Cross a creek, a forest, and Cape Falcon.

* Cascade Head (53/4 miles). Recent trail addition passes through the old-growth forest of Cascade Head Scenic-Research Area.

* Cape Perpetua to Cummins Creek (2 3/4 miles). Begin atop a 746-foot headland; end at the edge of Cummins Creek Wilderness.

* Sunset Bay to Cape Arago (3 1/2 miles). The rocky shoreline between these two state parks can be seen only by trail. October through May, listen for barking sea lions offshore.

* Seven Devils Wayside to Bullards Beach (6 1/2 miles). Mostly a beach hike, with the exception of a short jaunt up and over Five Mile Point.

* Thomas Creek Bridge to Whaleshead Beach (2 1/2 miles). Boardman State Park offers several access points to the trail. This stretch traverses the sculptured sandstone of Indian Sands.

Follow your feet to a hidden beach

Most of Oregon's beaches are visible and easily accessible from closely strung waysides along US. 101. All but the most popular of these rarely feel crowded. Side roads lead to more secluded beaches, from Sunset Beach north of Gearhart to Whiskey Run Beach north of Bandon.

To find beaches that offer even more solitude and wild beauty, you'll have to leave your car behind. We list seven hike-in beaches, north to south, with one-way hiking distances ranging from 1/4 mile to 2 miles.

* Short Sands Beach. Ten miles south of Cannon Beach, park at Oswald West State Park's second or third parking lot. Follow signs about 1/2 mile to the beach (popular with surfers in winter).

* Cape Lookout. Walk west from the Cape Lookout trailhead (about 13 miles southwest of Tillamook), then turn sharply south and hike 2 miles down to the beach in the headland's lee.

* Hobbit Beach. Pull out at a small. signed trailhead about 11 miles north of Florence; cross the highway and follow the trail 1/2 mile to the beach, which stretches north from Heceta Head.

* Baker Beach. Seven miles north of Florence, turn west on Baker Beach Road and drive 1/2 mile to end; follow minimally marked trail about 13 mile across dunes to the beach, between the Heceta Head lighthouse and the Siuslaw River's north jetty.

* Oregon Dunes beaches. Several trails lead across the dunes to secluded beaches; among the shortest are 1 1/2-mile mile Waxmyrtle Trail (8 miles south of Florence, turn west toward Siltcoos Beach access, then left into Waxmyrtle Campground) and 1-mile Oregon Dunes Overlook Trail (10 miles north of Reedsport, turn west at Dunes Overlook sign).

* Simpson Beach. From Shore Acres State Park (about 6 miles south of Charleston), follow Oregon Coast Trail south 1/4 mile to this tiny, sandy cove.

* Otter Point. From Otter Point Wayside (3 miles north of Gold Beach), a trail leads 1/2 mile to Bailey Beach, which stretches south to the Rogue River.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:includes related article on coast microcosm
Author:Henderson, Bonnie
Date:Jul 1, 1992
Previous Article:Straight talk about drip.
Next Article:Walls of history.

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