The first coastal storm of the Oregon winter marches down the coast from Alaska destroying sandbars, tipping trees, opening dormant river mouths and reminding everyone that there are months upon months of rain ahead. During that first storm I always feel the need to get outside and experience the power of nature that’s been missing for the past four or five months.
The waves are in the 20-foot range, the wind is gusting to 30 knots and a net of gray casts over the green landscape. The coves, jetties, and sandbars of southern Oregon are overwhelmed. To outsiders it’s Armageddon. To Oregonians it’s fall. The call of the storm is strong.
I tuck in under the hatchback door of my Outback as I change, but it doesn’t do much good. The rain blows sideways and I’m sopping and cold by the time my wetsuit is on. I’m happy to get stroking, if only to warm me. The mouth of the Rogue River welcomes me, the rain hissing off the surface of the water. Harbor seals look warily at me and flip their tails in defiance as I cruise by upstream.
During the summer this stretch of river is bristling with fishermen trolling for ocean-fattened salmon. Today, I’m the only person on the water. As I warm up, I stroke harder, concentrating on technique and catching little glides from four-inch waves, the only trace of the thundering ocean swell behind me after it bypasses the bar in the river mouth.
Cormorants fan out in front of me, not flying yet, their upper bodies still but their little legs, kick-kicking¬ away from the strange man with the stick in his hand. Blue herons take off from a dead snag and flap prehistorically across the river, their long bodies epitomizing natural grace. Underneath me is a submerged forest. Plants I recognize from summer gravel bars are frozen like plastic plants in a fish tank in the rising green-gray water.
The clouds yawn and offer a shocking patch of blue sky. The wind lays down and I’m paddling on sheet glass. Across the river, I spot a herd of elk. There are two bucks on predator watch and about fifteen cows grazing or resting on the ground. I slowly point my board at them and dip my paddle gently so as not to alarm them. It doesn’t work. The herd is rising and shaking the rain off their two-toned brown coats in explosions of mist. I get pretty close, maybe 100 yards and they take off, their hooves thundering across the grassy pasture. A riverbank blocks my view as I try to follow them further upstream. I get to a dip in the bank and there, on a grassy knoll stands one of the bulls looking right at me. He’s still a long way off, but he’s got a lock on my eyes. This is as close as I’ll get, I know. I turn and catch the current downstream.
As I near the river mouth, the constant rumble of the waves grows louder. I know I shouldn’t cross the gravel bar that acts as a barrier between the sea and the river but the urge to ride a wave is upon me. The water moves swiftly between the bar and the north jetty, probably a distance of fifty feet. A spitting waist-high waves breaks on dry sand on the corner of the bank but I point further out. The south and the north jetties both act like bumpers bouncing the already-disorganized swell around like liquid pinballs. I take my first dump in the cold runoff.
Finally, I think I’m in the lineup. I start to paddle for a bump and hear a clunk. A piece of driftwood the size of Chuck Patterson’s arm drifts out behind my board. I look at the water in front of me: there is driftwood everywhere. Time to go.
Somehow, I think it’s a good idea to try and get back up the channel under paddle power, going up the 50-foot wide stretch of water where the entire river, swollen with rain, is rushing. I paddle hard but it’s like riding a bucking treadmill set on high. Swell runs through in every direction and knocks me off my board. Every time I fall I look to the jetty and see myself rushing out to sea.
I change tactics. I paddle in front of the sandbar, snag a bump, set up down the line and watch dry sand emerge beneath me. I jump out the back and hope my board comes up in one piece. It does. I walk the bar and enter the smooth water on the other side.
The gap in the sky closes and I can see the rain coming from out over the ocean. Rays from the disappearing sun shoot out from behind the approaching black clouds and the surf crashes on. I smile. Winter is here.