Oregon meets the Pacific in a ragged line built piece by piece. Tectonics have formed the western edge of the state through a process called “accretion.” Masses of land have slowly drifted towards North America, met the continent’s boundary, and been forcefully amalgamated into the landscape. Terranes have been smashed and smeared into one another, and the resulting geology is what makes the Oregon coast so dramatic for so much of its length. The erosive force of the Pacific, both by water and wind, has shaped these capes, headlands, and shores from Astoria to Brookings. The coast is a marvel, but one section seems inordinately blessed with rugged beauty and grandeur: the Southern Coast.
Archaeologists have found evidence here of human activity 12,000 years ago. For twelve millennia, the waves and wind battered this stretch of coast and failed to wash away the stone tools and charcoal left by those Pleistocene people. That knowledge combined with the footprints that mark the sandy ridge before us today clearly proves that we are not the first humans to visit this edge of Oregon, but we are the only ones here now.
The wildflowers are their own sea of color above the Pacific. Yarrow and paintbrush tremble in the breeze and add warmth to a landscape awash in the glow of late afternoon. We sit among them, soaking up the sun’s energy just as they do. A white crowned sparrow sings over and over from the branches of a sitka spruce upslope. The melody joins with the wind to become a simple score for the scene before us. I am smitten with this place. How have I failed to come here before?
We walk north along the sands and poke through a gap between two forested knobs. Now at the top of a steep, vegetated slope, we survey the coastline. This is the Oregon coast at its best. The ocean flickers between turquoise and sea green before breaking into white as it smashes into the cliffs, their rocky faces adorned in hues of ocher and rust, grays and browns. A mat of green runs over the edge below our feet, dotted with the vibrant blooms of lupine and paintbrush. Atop the cliffs, dense green stands of sitka spruce and shore pine spread eastward to the peaks and ridges above. Seastacks guard the shore, sentinels in a constant struggle against the tides. Far to the north, the scene repeats into the haze and mist til it rounds a headland and fades out. This drama has been going on for eons, and we can’t help but smile as we stand here wrapped in the grandeur of it all.
It is morning on the coast, and we are amongst friends here in the company of gulls and oystercatchers. The wildflowers are blooming here, too, though not quite in the profusion that was on display at Indian Sands. Instead of looking down on the waves, we walk beside them now, weaving our way along this rock-strewn beach. The wind is calm, maybe because the day is young and maybe because the geography here affords protection from the gusts. Either way, it is a pleasant place to temporarily reside.
The beach below us once more, we are now perched atop a shelf that overlooks a small but tumultuous cove. Holes in the rock down to our right convey water into a sea cave, the other end of which we witnessed upon our arrival here. Waves crashed in from a dark corner and sloshed back and forth in the light of the crater-like mouth. Anemones and barnacles hold fast to the rocks below, still underwater as the tide slowly recedes. All this is lovely to behold, but I am transfixed by a lonesome island just off the coast. Its shape is simple, its colors a happy mix of green, yellow, and shades of gray. Birds circle the great rock, landing among the flora that cling tight to the slopes.
I envy the birds. This island, like countless others along the Oregon coast, is perfectly inaccessible to me. As part of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, my entry as a human is strictly prohibited. Even if I was allowed to visit this small and rugged territory, I would be hard pressed to make landfall. There is no apparent place to moor a boat, no calm cove to swim into, and nowhere to land from the air without being precariously dangled in the wind beneath a helicopter. To visit this place, you must be a bird.
I respect these conditions of entry. I will stay here, look across the water, and be content to imagine what it would be like to inhabit a place that is beyond the ever-growing reach of a human. May it stay that way forever.