Picture this: The southern Oregon coast, a land of tall trees, rivers and one tempestuous stretch of ocean. We’ll strap our camping gear on our boards in drybags and paddle down a sixty-mile length of rocky, deserted coastline. We’ll do it in the summer, when the prevailing winds will push us downwind on perfectly groomed bumps. We may catch some fish, see some whales and paddle through natural arches.
Yes, the water is cold. There’s a lot of sea life. It could be too windy. It could
But it will be beautiful. It will be an adventure. You in?
This was the basic spiel I gave to each of the people who would eventually join me in Oregon. My home. Or what was once my home.
Matt Becker and Morgan Hoesterey, pro paddlers, were in with one call. My hometown buddies Dave Lacey and Luke Martinez agreed to the trip when it was a sprout in my imagination. Photographer Aaron Schmidt worried about the energy required to paddle and take pictures concurrently but couldn’t resist.
No one passed. Once we were in it, though, maybe they’d wished they had.
Southern Oregon, Gold Beach to be specific, is also where I grew up. Besides the usual tribulations of youth (first girlfriends, football games, family, fights) "America's Wild Rivers Coast" is where I learned to be outdoors, to revel in the ocean, swim in the rivers and hang from the trees. It's one of the most stunningly beautiful places I've ever been, even after traveling around the world.
I'd love to live where I was raised, but Curry County is a place the economy has left behind. It's nearly three hours from the nearest freeway and the closest big cities are Portland and San Francisco. It's a good community with lots of good people. But good jobs are sparse. Since the logging and fishing industries dwindled, the small towns there have struggled. Tourism is the main source of income but the long, gray months of winter don't help that business. And Gold Beach and its people suffer for it.
But folks are resilient here. Guys like Luke and Dave make it work, raise families and live simply, insulated from the craziness on the I-5. Luke is a screen printer, DJ and builder. Dave is a woodworker, kayak tour operator and conservationist.
It's a community and world unto itself, a community I love, and one I'd like to see grow and prosper.
But I reside in Southern California now, amongst the hubbub and rush of Orange County, where personal image and a clean car are paramount. I feel like an outsider, my values clashing with my surroundings like my dirty Subaru hatchback with Oregon plates clashes with immaculate BMW's on the Pacific Coast Highway.
Coming back to Oregon washes all that away. I spend evenings sitting on my parent's deck watching the sunset over the Pacific without any roofs blocking my view. I work in the yard. I surf with my friends. I play with their children. I run whitewater on the Rogue River. I hike in the woods. I camp near lonely waterfalls.
Southern Oregon is cleansing. "This," I'm always reminded while I'm here, "is where I belong."
That's what I wanted to show off with this trip. I wanted Luke and Dave to meet some paddlers who would appreciate where we were raised. I also wanted them to join me in rediscovering our home. I wanted Matt and Morgan to see the real Oregon, battered by weather, rich with scenery, ripe with outdoor activities, blessed with unique people. I wanted to bring a true SUP adventure to this slice of coast. I didn't know if it would all go according to plan, but we would certainly try.
There's a feeling of anticipation that every human being knows. It's that rush of emotion before seeing a loved one after a long absence or a waiter carrying a burger to your table when you're absolutely famished.
We almost let ourselves get lulled into that state at the end of our second day as we flew past the dense green landscapes and windswept beaches south of Gold Beach. We'd logged 22 miles that day in almost every ocean condition possible. Six-foot west swell refracting off shallow reefs, kelp and rock beds; bumps in the well-overhead range ("The biggest bumps I've ever seen," said Morgan, a Hawaiian resident, distance specialist and no stranger to big winds). Thirty knot gusts created cresting waves in the open ocean that rolled us and our gear into the water. Everyone was tired. Wet. Feeling the mileage and the cold. Ready to be on the beach.
"I'm done, man," Luke said. "Done. But I love it." He flashed the reliable smile I grew up with as he paddled steadily along. I'd never seen him that tired.
"This is good training for Molakai (2 Oahu)," Matt had told me minutes before. He was already a veteran of the race and was planning on doing it again. "Just spending this much time on a board in this many conditions is the perfect mental and physical combo."
The miles fell away easily that morning, the sea glassy and the swell small. We slowly warmed up under the sun but no one was in a hurry, content to enjoy the sea stacks and wooded coast in the distance.
As we approached Crook Point, a protected stretch of land that falls under the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, the fog slowly rolled in again, spinning out of thin air like wispy cotton candy before it's spun onto the stick. A slight south wind started to pick up. I looked around to see if anyone noticed, but everyone was paddling along in silence. I asked Morgan about it later: "I was asking the wind not to ruin the day for us in my head," she said. "I couldn't have taken it if we had to paddle into a headwind."
No one mentioned it out loud, weary of the jinx. We just paddled and hoped.
The fog shrouded us as we stroked into Mack Reef, a series of sea stacks and underwater reef that house immense sea caves, good fishing and Mack Arch, a 130-foot wide sea arch and home to tens of thousands of nesting sea birds. The fog ushered us through the foreboding rocks and made it eerily quiet, except the slap of water against our boards and the rocks.
Matt and I sat for a bit, eating beef jerky as everyone else did their own thing when the silence was interrupted by a blast of air.
"I think that was a whale," Matt said.
"Probably a sea lion," I said. "There are some big Stellars out here."
But then another blast and I spotted a gray whale's back, covered in barnacles and scratch marks, slide to the surface and disappear underneath the pewter water. We paddled the fifty feet to where I'd seen it but it was gone, leaving behind the smell of rotten fish and whale digestion.
Two-hundred yards from us Dave, Morgan and Luke were having some commotion of their own. Luke had just pulled a good-sized green lingcod from the rocky bottom and landed it on his board.
"These are the best eating," Luke said as he hoisted the prehistoric-looking beast in the air. The meat of these fish are almost-scary nuclear blue-green due to the algae they eat, but the flesh turns a succulent white when cooked.
Dave had made a hand-line fishing rig to save space just for this trip and wasn't ready to give up with just one fish. "Give me five more minutes with this thing," he said.
"For sure, man," I said. "I'd love to drop a line while you're working at it."
He passed me the pole Luke had used and I let the line spool out to the bottom. I reeled in and bounced, once, twice, three times off the bottom and then, while I was deciding if I'd snagged or actually had a fish on, WHAM! My rod tip nosedived into the water. Luke whooped beside me as I set the hook, let the fish pull, reeled in the slack and brought the aquatic creature in.
The lingcod that hit the surface scared me. It had bony spikes running down its backbone with daunting fins and teeth made to chomp anything that hangs out on the bottom of the ocean. I flipped the red-colored, twenty-or-so-pounder over my board and onto Dave's kayak. Easiest fish I'd ever caught.