An oddity on the Oregon Coast: A dusty trail
I have very nearly exhausted my internal thesaurus in describing the breezes that buffet the Oregon Coast, delving on occasion into that subsection of words which aren’t fit for publication in a newspaper.
Being by nature lazy, I tend to grasp for the low-hanging profanity when I’m annoyed.
Although I believe even the rare saint among us would have his equanimity sorely tested if, say, he were scanning the retreating tide for agates while an onshore gale was trying to sandblast through his contact lenses to get at his corneas.
But never had I believed that the appropriate adjective for these almost constant winds was “refreshing.”
It was a queer feeling to be hiking through a rain forest of moss-laden Sitka spruce and Douglas-fir, the Pacific breakers visible (and audible) below, and there to pine, as a desert traveler might, for even a gentle zephyr to fan my sweaty face.
Stranger still that my walk on Cascade Head, just north of Lincoln City, happened only a few days after I had hiked in arid Eastern Oregon and there dealt with conditions more familiar to the beachcomber than to the backpacker.
The five of us — my wife, Lisa, her dad, Howard Britton and her brother, Dave Britton, and Dave’s son, Tyler, who’s 11 — hiked from Wallowa Lake to Ice Lake on Aug. 15.
During the final series of switchbacks that deliver hikers to this magnificent alpine lake, we were at times enveloped in a fog that briefly thickened into a light rain. But for the absence of crashing waves, the cawing of gulls and the heavy scent of salt on the air we might well have been hiking on a coastal spit rather than climbing a mountain slope 250 miles from the sea.
The trail, which typically has been churned by mid-August to a talc-like dust by the passage of hundreds of boots and the hooves of pack animals, was instead perfectly damp — neither dusty nor muddy.
We relished the cool air, too.
After a torrid summer it was pleasant, hiking with the temperature about 60. I even donned my light fleece jacket when tendrils of fog began to waft up the canyon of Adam Creek, the outflow stream from Ice Lake.
This reprieve from the usually relentless heat of an Eastern Oregon August is among the attractions of hiking along the coast.
The proximity to the chilly North Pacific, where the water rarely warms beyond the mid 50s, and the prevailing onshore wind create a nearly infallible air-conditioning effect.
I grew up near Salem, about an hour’s drive from the beach, and I remember escaping Willamette Valley heat waves by driving to Lincoln City.
The experience seemed to me magical then, and if anything it’s more so now what with the ubiquity of external thermometers on cars.
It borders on ecstasy to cross a Coast Range pass and watch the numbers on the dashboard spin backwards from 95 degrees to 65, sometimes within the span of a dozen miles.
And so I at first puzzled when, 15 minutes after Lisa and I, this time accompanied by our two kids, had started hiking toward Cascade Head, I noticed that my T-shirt was stuck like a barnacle (only clammier) to my back.
This had something to do with my passenger — 35 pounds of three-year-old Max is a considerable burden to bear even on flat ground.
Still and all, I noticed that even when we stopped to rest I didn’t immediately feel cooler, as I expected I would.
The car thermometer did show 70 degrees when we parked, but I put that off to our being a couple miles inland, where the moderating influence of the world’s largest ocean isn’t quite so blatant.
It’s common for the temperature on the beach to be 10 or even 20 degrees cooler than just a mile or so inland.
Yet even after we reached the first view of the beach the relief I anticipated was absent.
I was in fact hotter than ever, with sweat soaking my hair as well as my Max-embraced back.
The Nature Conservancy’s trail to Cascade Head stays among the deep woods for most of the first mile but as it climbs onto the south slope of the headland itself the path leaves the trees for grassy meadows.
This, I figured, is where the bracing ocean breeze would assert itself.
What I got instead was full sun and a barely perceptible breath of wind.
The trail, once clear of the forest, was coated with a couple inches of dark brown dust that puffed with each step like the dregs of a box of Cocoa Krispies cereal.
It was as though the boot-invading, leg-staining, nostril-clogging powder that distinguishes trails in the Eagle Cap had migrated clear across Oregon.
(It wouldn’t be the first such trip, geologically speaking. Some coastal rocks — Cascade Head not among them — are basalt that erupted from vents in the Wallowa Mountains 10 to 15 million years ago.)
Now I expect to come home from a beach trip with sand having infiltrated ever crevice — of body, car, footwear.
But a dusty coastal trail was, until last week, outside my ken.
This, of course, is the sort of trick Oregon excels at conjuring.
Our state’s diversity, in climate and landscapes, in flora and fauna, is rivaled by few states and, in my estimation, is surpassed by none.
That’s reason enough, certainly, for me to keep exploring this place and to remain forever in awe of its ability to whip up an ocean fog in the landlocked mountains, to slather desert dust on a trail that’s almost out to sea.
Jayson Jacoby is editor