The Raw Way Home

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
even rain.

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.

  1. The team stood on the edge of the raw Pacific, where water temps hover in the low fifties, the wind often blows over 30 knots and the waves get over 30 feet in the winter. The wind brushed past our backs, over our shoulders and straight out over the blue-green water in dancing ripples. We’d soon capture that wind and use it to propel us down the coast.
  2. It looked good. Right then, it looked really good.
  3. We didn’t know exactly what lay ahead. No one ever does. All we knew is we were going to travel nearly 60 miles down the coast, camping on the beach, dealing with whatever the ocean
    gave us.
  4. Our muscles twitched in anticipation. Adventure lay right there, certainly close enough to touch. But everyone waited, patiently in tongue but impatiently in body, as drybags were nervously rolled, lashings were tightened and all arrangements double-checked.
  5. Port Orford harbor nestled us in its lee, making for an easy start to a downwinder—and our trip. Helpful, seeing as we were loaded: sleeping bags, stoves, pots, wetsuits, hydration systems. The wind lined up behind us and bumps formed a quarter mile from shore. That sprout in my head had grown into reality. The wind swell increased. Clean lines ran through the water, picking us up and tossing us down the coast.
  1. Luke, who’d never paddled downwind before but is an exceptional surfer and kiter, caught his first bumps within the hour, watching and learning from everyone else’s technique. Dave, another talented surfer and sailor, flew a sail and sped downwind with us even though it was his first time sailing his kayak. Matt, a 19-year-old phenom from Santa Barbara, Mavericks charger, top-tier standup racer and all-around ripper, looked like the world-class paddler he is, his broad shoulders getting him into bump after bump. Morgan smiled a big smile that would become familiar as the trip wore on. Aaron snuck ahead of us and took shots of us gliding by him, hooting the whole way.
  2. The euphoria lasted until we approached our landing spot, Sisters Rocks, a series of three monoliths standing against the open-ocean swells and battering wind. We’d traveled 12 miles. The wind had reached its zenith for the day, blowing 25-knots, and an off-season, eight-foot swell made its presence known as it slammed the rocks and sent backwash at us from a half-mile out.
  3. One of the Sisters sits southwest of the other two rocks, creating a channel into the lee, where we hoped for a wind- and swell-protected landing to our camp for the night.
  4. But as we approached it looked like complete chaos, the backwash and swell coming from every direction and the wind whipping the spray in spinning vortexes off their crests.
  1. “We’re going through,” Dave said to me over our waterproof radios. “It looks makable.”
  2. From where I paddled, it looked like a blender of white, cold water. But if they could make it, then so could I.
  3. I entered the fray, my heavy drybags sliding around on my deck and my board see-sawing like a sailor after an evening in port. It was hell on water, trying to avoid a watery wreck that would send me and my gear into the drink.
  4. Thankfully we navigated the rowdy conditions and found a keyhole through the offshore rocks, landing in the shoulder high-shorebreak, losing only a bit of dignity and a GoPro in the process. The Oregon coast delivered that day: gorgeous bumps but also the rugged and dangerous conditions it’s known for. A fitting intro.
  5. In southern Oregon things are different. The crowds are of trees, of dangling vines, spreading ferns, wily deer, lifted trucks, glistening salmon, juicy blackberries—not of people.
  6. I’d wanted to paddle this stretch of coast—a place where the trees grow weighted opposite the prevailing northwest wind—on standups since I first started downwinding. Cape Blanco, just north of the small town of Port Orford, is the westernmost point in Oregon and creates a long stretch of coast with prevailing side-shore winds perfect for downwind paddling.
It looked like complete chaos, the backwash and swell coming from every direction and the wind whipping the spray in spinning vortexes off their crests. "We're going through!" Dave yelled.

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."

  1. Weplanned on camping in the lee of the towering Cape Sebastian, covered in Sitka Spruce, poison oak and crumbling rock cascading down hundreds of feet into the ocean. But we all saw it as we approached: A muddy current moving quickly offshore and the wind picking up in intensity. I tried to warn everyone to hug the point but it was too late.
  2. This particular stretch of coast south of Cape Sebastian, known as Pistol River for its namesake ribbon of water emptying into the ocean, is one of the most consistently windy places on the West Coast. Windsurfers travel from all over the world for the summer season, when the winds consistently blow in the 15- to 35-knot zone, often for weeks at a time. It hosts an annual World Tour windsurfing event. Kite- and windsurfers talk in awe about the wind wrapping over and around the Cape like a current, meeting in a perfect sideshore funnel that seems to accelerate the already-howling breeze. I knew this. My father windsurfed here for 30 years. But I planned for the wind at our backs, not from offshore.
  3. And that's what we faced: fighting against that warm, steady blast of wind at 30 knots trying to blow us down the coast. In hindsight it seemed like a bad idea. It was.
  4. When I saw Matt, no stranger to the open ocean, drop to his knees and then—damn!—his chest to try and prone paddle, I knew we were in trouble.
  1. The prone paddle didn't work so he pointed his bow straight into the wind, stood up, choked down on his paddle and sprinted ahead. He made ground, so I tried to do the same, but each stroke felt like I was sticking my blade into concrete. I stood completely still. So I went to my knees again and tried to get my bow to the wind. But my upwind rail came out of the water and the steady gale flipped me, tossing me, my drybags and my hat into the brown water.
  2. "I had a moment where I was like, 'What if I don't make it?'" Morgan said later. "But I was like, 'Calm down, you got this.'"
  3. As I gathered my stuff and tried to hold onto my sanity, I watched Morgan knee paddle in the seam between the sideshore and offshore wind and sneak into the lee of the Cape. Matt and Dave were already there, resting after their respective sprints and at that moment, I hated them.
  4. I was blowing back toward the giant, sheer rock-faced Hunter Island behind me with no chance of making it into the lee now. Time to change plans. Luke had taken the same line a few minutes before, wise enough not to fight the brutal river of wind. I paddled toward the surf zone, my arms and legs jittery with adrenaline and exhaustion as the wind continued to push me down the coast. I knew I was destined for a landing in what locals call "The Vortex," a series of wedging swells created by Hunter Island.
  1. The Vortex was not kind. I caught a wave only to get sideswiped by a wall of whitewash coming at me at 45 degrees. Thankfully, by that time, I could stand on my wobbly legs, my feet firmly in the sand below. Luke and I dragged my board up onto dry sand, past the windsurfers wondering where the hell we came from, and collapsed in the sun behind some beach grass to get out of the wind. We were a half-mile away from the rest of our crew.
  2. "I just got my manhood checked," Luke said.
  3. "Humbled," I said. "Totally humbled."
  4. Our home stretch of ocean had beaten us down. This is Oregon.
  1. Day three dawned foggy, cool and still. A good sign, considering what we'd been through.
  2. We had a relaxing morning, packing camp slowly and enjoying the sunshine that burnt through the fog, the adrenaline hangover sitting heavily in our bodies. Matt packed up next to me. He was always the last one ready to start paddling. His mother, Martha, had warned me that he lives life at his own pace.
  3. "My life is just… slow," he said. "I don't know, I don't hurry and it's more fun that way."
  4. Until he hits the water. He was easily the fastest paddler of the group, often waiting for our crew to reconvene and then shooting off again especially when the bumps were rolling; he'd just skip off like a stone.

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.

  1. With dinner in tow, we headed to the end of the reef to check out Mack Arch, the biggest arch in Oregon, yet one rarely seen as its east-to-west span makes it hard to spot from land, especially with the protected shoreline. I didn’t see the arch itself until I was 20 and my parent’s house is no more than 15 miles away.
  2. It’s a haunting place, towering and impossible to look away from, especially when one-ton Stellar Sea Lions are barking at you and diving into the water in the foreground. We gave the soaring span a 500-foot berth so as not to bother the birds nesting there. Every person stopped and stared in their turn, awed that nature could create such an impressive structure.
  3. The group paddled through two arches past Mack before our day on the water was done. When we got to our camping beach Morgan was dumbfounded.
  4. “I don’t even know where to turn my head,” she said. “There’s just too much to look at.”
  5. She pointed to the arch that sat just offshore in the corner of our private cove. Matt had paddled through it to land on the beach. A waterfall dropped opposite of it creating a waist-deep pool 10 feet off the beach, perfect to rinse the salt off after three days on the water. Pine trees stood on top of an island a quarter mile offshore. Sitka spruce hung over the edge of the cliff above us, their roots reaching out into space.
  1. Luke and Dave fileted our day’s catch on a piece of redwood that had washed up on the beach, and cleaned the fish in the clear creek. Aaron, ever the photographer, took hundreds of photos of the area.
  2. We were all alone, with no chance of being bothered. There was no trail in. The only way there was by water. The way we came.
  3. The sun set early on our little cove and we started a small fire, more for the ambience then the need to stay warm. We mixed the fresh-caught fish in with our freeze-dried food for the best meal of the trip and sat in the sand around the blaze eating, relaxing and talking. Laughter echoed off the cliffs, mixing with the firelight that danced amongst the shadows. Everyone looked like they were made to be there.
  4. It didn’t feel right to be indoors. It did feel right to be ordering a giant turkey club smothered in avocado with onion rings and pitchers of beer at Vista Pub, an establishment in Brookings that offers fresh grass-fed burgers and an extensive locally-sourced beer list.
  5. “Congratulations,” Morgan said as we leaned back into the plush chairs. “I don’t get worn out very easily but you succeeded.”
  6. She wasn’t the only one. We’d only paddled eight miles to the take out that day, but it was enough. The conversation lagged here and there in between scattered laughter among the group.
  1. I found myself staring into the corner of the room thinking about a glide I got or the view of an island with trees perched on top. I rubbed salt from my ears. It was a lot to process. For four days, we’d been lost in the moment, worrying only about the next bump, the next stroke, the next camp. The ocean demanded our attention. Now we had time to ponder it. And to think about the future.
  2. “I’m kind of bummed we’re done, to be honest,” Matt said. “But I’m really glad to be eating this burger.” He talked about the gear he’d need to complete his next SUP expedition. “This opened up so many possibilities in my mind.”
  3. Morgan checked the surf forecast for El Salvador, where she’d be in less than 48 hours. She doesn’t stop.
  4. Dave talked about offering kayak or standup tours to experienced paddlers along our route.
  5. Luke was thinking of his future fishing exploits from a standup.
  6. It’s a good measure of adventure: everyone came away thinking. Planning, ready for the next trip while still wet. Southern Oregon succeeded: it gave fresh perspectives to the locals and renewed the sense of possibility in the visitors.
  7. I smiled to myself, happy to be home.