A bulletin-board map in the coffee shop was dotted with pushpins indicating where visitors had come from. Dallas was already taken, so I pushed a pin into the spot where Grainola, Oklahoma, should have been, if Grainola were listed on the map. I may have been the first person from Grainola to ever set foot in Tillamook. I’m definitely the first one to set foot in the 5 Rivers Coffee and Antique Shop.
The Pacific Coast Highway (U.S. 101 in Washington and Oregon; State Route 1 in parts of California) is one of the most famous scenic routes in the country. Maybe the most famous, since I cannot think of a better one off the top of my head, and that is one of the main qualifications for being famous.
Never before had I seen so many Corvettes and motorcycles cruising the same road, and getting pulled over by the same cops.
The road’s scenic credentials are evidenced by the vast number of state parks, recreation areas, and viewpoints that line its seaward side. Almost every state park in Oregon is on the coast, to the point where it seems there is not even enough shoreline to contain them all.
They all want you to pay a user fee, but if you have a state park camping receipt from the night before, it will give you free access to all of the parks until late afternoon.
Besides all of the scenic views, 101 also crosses over D river—the world’s shortest river—and passes by the world’s smallest harbor. These seem rather dubious distinctions. The world’s shortest river—isn’t that akin to being the world’s largest midget? Or building the world’s smallest midsize sedan?
I ventured into several of the state parks, and at least one national something-or-other at the Yaquina Head lighthouse (camping receipt does not work there, but a National Park annual pass does). During one stretch of highway where 101 veers away from the coast, I took the side highway that stays near the ocean and wound up at Cape Lookout State Park. I walked down to the beach—this one was rocky, not sandy—to take some photos. I stood on one large rock that was safely beyond the farthest reach of the crashing waves, and at least a foot higher in elevation than the surrounding beach.
Almost before I could turn on my camera, an average-looking wave came sprinting up the shore and buried the rock I was standing on, as well as my shoes and my very last pair of clean socks.
“Oh, come on,” I protested, out loud, to the ocean. What? What do you have against me? What did I ever do to you?
That’s it, I declared. It’s on. Let’s settle this, for once and for all. You want a piece of me? Bring it.
The only way to overcome a fear is to face it, and for me, I knew that meant going out on the water. There was no good place to launch my kayak at Cape Lookout, so I stomped back out to the parking lot and drove off in search of a more suitable beach.
30 minutes later, it seemed I had found such a place at Cape Kiwanda. A ramp led down to the sandy beach beside the cape, allowing people to drive on the beach for the purpose of launching boats. The beach itself was not a good place for launching a kayak; it was too flat, which means the water was too shallow, and the constant waves meant the shoreline was constantly changing. I would have had to carry my boat hundreds of feet out into the surf, and try to climb aboard in-between waves. However, in the bay of sorts created by the jutting cape, fingers of low black rock jutted into the water at odd angles. The rocks served as buffers, partially blocking the waves, and also gave me shoreline access to water deep enough to launch in.
It wasn’t a perfect location, but it would work, and up to that point I had not seen any other places that were workable. The waves posed the only real problem, but the waves were a constant all along the Pacific. At least here, the cape and a large rock island had a chance to block some of the waves.
Nevertheless, I was passed by a couple of surfers as I walked on top the maze of rocks, scouting for a good place to carry my boat. Surfing was the popular beach activity on this day in late January. Temperatures were in the low 50s along the ocean, and considering that was about 15 degrees warmer than what I had become acclimated to, it did seem like nice weather to be out on the water.
Still, I had my doubts as I walked atop the shining wet rocks, and tried to talk myself into really going through with it. A bit lost in thought, I was not prepared when my foot hit a particularly slick patch of moss. I went flying backward, landing in a shallow depression on the rock that contained a Kevin-sized puddle.
Luckily, I was able to protect the camera in my right hand by breaking its fall with every other available part of my body.
I slowly stood back up. Though there were a couple of minor scratches, I was largely unhurt other than my pride—and perhaps my odor. Honestly, I had expected ocean water to smell more like ocean breeze laundry detergent, and a bit less like liquefied chicken manure.
I chalked it up to yet another taunt by the Pacific, and strengthened my resolve to face the bully. After a quick hike up the cape to make sure there wasn’t a better launching point on the other side, I walked back to the beach to get my boat.
The long-sleeved shirt I was wearing was already wet, so I left it on, but changed into swimming trunks in the cab of my pickup. I always stow a lifejacket in my kayak for legal reasons, but this time I put it on over my shirt.
My Hobie kayak is a bit unusual, because it has optional foot-pedal flippers that can be used to propel the boat instead of, or along with, the standard two-blade oar. I didn’t plan to use the foot pedals on this day, but I stowed them in the cargo area and tied them down with the bungee cord. I wanted them along for safety reasons, just in case I found myself battling some strong current. For the same reason, I packed several water bottles and my unopened packet of peanut butter cracker sandwiches in the zipper pocket on the back of the kayak’s seat. I topped that off with a disposable camera, and carried everything down to the rocky part of the shoreline.
I walked down a narrow sandy channel between two rocks, toward a relatively quiet spot with water a foot deep—ideal for easily getting into the kayak. Before I could even reach that point, though, another sneaky wave pushed water up the channel. The chilly water quickly went from ankle-deep to waist-deep, and threatened to keep rising. What do you do when you have water up to your waist and a boat on your shoulder? You get into the boat.
I did exactly that. With my feet no longer anchoring me to the sand, I immediately found that the surface water was moving rather quickly and unpredictably. The water carried me seaward, toward one of the boulders that was protecting me from the breaking waves, and I had to use my oar as a pole to swing me away from the rock. In the process, I discovered that the rough-looking surface of the boulder was actually an unbroken mass of shellfish—which was not an attractive sight.
No longer behind the rocks, I was now face-to-face with whitecap waves at least as tall as my seated body.
Less than 30 seconds on the water, and I could already tell this had been a bad idea.
I also knew that the best way to tackle a wave is to head straight into it, so I started paddling. The waves splashed over the front of my tiny boat and hit me in the face, but I knew I was safe as long as I kept the boat from getting sideways and hence getting overturned. A sit-on-top kayak is impossible to sink, even if submerged, because it is essentially a hollow plastic container. Unlike a sit-inside whitewater kayak, though, if it flips over, you can’t simply do a barrel-roll and flip it back upright. If it flips over, you fall out.
I managed to quickly paddle through the breaking waves, though, and out to the point where the waves were simply long, gently rolling, low hills. Though it felt a bit odd to be paddling uphill and downhill on the water, it was otherwise relatively peaceful.
I headed toward the rock island, one side of which the water had worn into a natural rock arch. I had originally planned to paddle around the island, but scratched that idea when I realized the giant rock was about twice as far from the shore as I had thought. I still did not feel comfortable going very far out on the ocean, and I definitely did not want to give the waves any chance to throw me against a rock.
I stopped paddling and just sat, enjoying the view. I spotted a black something, about the size of a football, on the water nearby. As it floated by, I could see that it was a small buoy of some sort, trailing a rope.
That was a tiny bit disturbing to me. Not the fact that there was a buoy—I had no problem with that—but the fact that it floated by. I was also floating freely, not using the paddle for anything, and yet the buoy had passed me by at a fairly good clip, heading north toward Washington. Who or what was making it move?
I looked back to the south and saw another dark object floating, though this one was not moving relative to my kayak. I naturally assumed it was another buoy, but then my eyes brought it into focus, and I realized that it was the head of a seal sticking above the water.
And he was staring at me.
I reached for my camera, but struggled to undo the zipper behind my back. By the time I finally got it out, the seal had disappeared. I took a few photos of the scenery around me, and then put the camera back in the zippered pocket. A minute later, I again saw the seal, again staring at me, and again reached to unzip the pocket on the back of my seat. Once again, though, the seal had disappeared beneath the water by the time I had my camera ready.
This time, I left the pocket unzipped, so I could be quick on the draw.
I paddled lazily for a bit up and down the hills, enjoying my victory over the Pacific. I was brought back to reality when the hills suddenly became much, much larger. It was only a series of 4 or 5 really big waves, before they returned to regular size, and they posed no problem to me while I was out beyond the breakers. But, they reminded me that I still had to get back to shore. I would have to go back through the breakers, and there was no way of predicting when a really big wave may arrive.
I started planning my escape route. I knew I could not go back toward the rocky shore where I had started, because the waves might carry me into the rocks. But I didn’t like the look of the waves heading toward the sand.
I picked a spot where the crashing waves did not seem quite as rough, perhaps because the rock island absorbed some of their energy, and paddled toward the beach. The goal was to head to shore at the same angle as the waves, so that the boat would not get sideways and get tipped over, and to paddle through the breaking area—the surfers’ playground—as quickly as possible. I knew from lake experience with smaller waves that if I could paddle fast enough to match a wave’s speed, I could surf, of a sort, on top of a wave. If a wave were big enough that the top could curl over and fall forward, though, all bets were off.
I entered the breakers, and the first wave passed me by with little problem. I paddled quickly, trying to stay ahead of the next wave until it had passed the main breaker zone.
I was not quite successful. I felt the stern of my kayak rise as the wave came up behind me. Though I managed to keep the boat perfectly straight, and avoided turning sideways to the wave, the back of the boat continued to rise. And rise some more. I found myself momentarily facing straight down, as the wave took my boat vertical, and then the stern of my boat came over my head as the wave curled forward.
I found myself underwater, with the kayak bouncing off my head before disappearing entirely. I was in the wave, and it was the standard cliché—not entirely sure which way is up, water turning me in every direction, seemed like an eternity though it was really only a few seconds. Eventually my sense of balance and my life jacket won out, and my head broke the surface. A few seconds later the next wave hit, again sending me under, though this time it was more an annoyance than any real danger.
In-between waves, I found that I was able to stand up—the troughs between breakers were only as deep as my chest. I started walking toward the shore, which was still a few hundred feet away, as waves occasionally splashed me from behind. I grabbed my oar, which was floating nearby, though it was more a hindrance than a help without my kayak.
Where was my kayak? I knew it couldn’t sink, but it was nowhere around. After a few moments, it appeared behind a wave, upside-down and about 100 feet closer to shore than I was.
I caught up to it as quickly as I could, and rode its overturned hull as the next wave rushed it quickly to shore. Now in thigh-deep water, I turned the kayak over to take inventory.
Since I had left the zipper open on the storage pocket to allow quick access to my disposable camera, the camera was now missing, along with one of my water bottles and the package of crackers. All of that was an afterthought, though, when I saw what else was missing: the foot-pedal flippers. The bungee cord designed to hold down cargo was still fastened securely, but the rather large pedal system had inexplicably slipped out. This was a big loss. I could buy a replacement, but I was pretty certain it would not be cheap: I had heard it might cost as much as half as much as the entire kayak.
Feeling defeated, I dragged the kayak through the water and then through the sand toward where I was parked. Ignoring any looks from the surfers or strolling families, I grabbed a towel and a dry shirt from my suitcase and headed back to the water’s edge to see if anything might wash up.
I figured the lightweight disposable camera should float, though I was not sure if the photos inside would still be any good. The pedals were a bit trickier. They probably would not float, but they would not exactly sink, either. The rubber flippers were buoyant enough that I could imagine them floating above the ocean floor while the foot pedals dragged lightly across the sand. Without enough weight to anchor them down, they would probably be pushed along by the waves or any currents. Whether that meant they would wash to shore was yet to be seen.
I saw a piece of trash lying several yards down the beach, and walked toward it, simply because it was the only thing currently along the shoreline. It was an empty wrapper for some peanut butter cracker sandwiches. Not mine, of course, since mine was unopened and still had all the crackers inside. Still, odd that it would be the same kind of wrapper…I took a closer look. It was the exact same brand that I had bought the day before, and the same size package. Then I noticed the paper sticker price tag—a slight bit of a rarity these days—and the price listed: 60 cents. Not 59 cents, or 79 cents, but 60 cents even—the same price, with the same price tag, from the tiny store where I had bought it the day before. The Pacific Ocean had opened the wrapper and eaten my crackers.
Give me a break! I mentally yelled at the laughing ocean. It’s not enough that you beat me up; you have to eat my lunch, too?!
Fine. Fine! You win. You win. You’re strong, I’m weak; you’re fast, I’m slow; you’re smart, I’m dumb; you’re very good-looking, and I’m…I’m not quite as good-looking as you are. I give up: I’ll never become a surfer dude; I’ll never be a sailor; I won’t join the navy; I won’t join the marines, just because of their name; I won’t hunt down the great white whale, blue whale, or any other color of whale; I’ll only eat dolphin-free tuna or tuna-free dolphin; and I’ll never, ever, ever sell seashells by the seashore.
I’m out. I quit.
I walked back up the beach to load my kayak. A couple of middle-aged women out for a walk commented on the little boat lying on the sand. “You’re not going to go out in the water with that, are you?” one of them asked.
“No, I’m not going to go out there…” I started.
“Good,” she interrupted, “I was going to say, are you crazy?”
“Actually…yes. I am crazy.”
I loaded up my kayak, and my wet clothes, and made one final pass down the beach to see if anything else had washed up. Nothing had.
I approached a couple of people on the beach, hoping to find someone local who I could leave contact information with, and who could call me if the expensive pedals ever washed up on shore. The first person I asked was there on vacation, and was about to leave. I asked her if she might know whether it was high or low tide, realizing that might be the key to uncovering what I was looking for.
“It’s low tide,” she replied, “because the water was much higher up the beach this morning.”
Great. That worked against me. I caught up with a couple of men who were walking back to the parking lot.
“We live sort of near here, about 30 miles away,” they replied, in response to my question. “Why do you ask?”
I explained my story. They confirmed that they would not be able to help me, since they rarely ever came to the beach.
“Thanks anyway,” I replied. “I just thought I would check. I don’t know if it will even ever wash up…”
“Oh, everything washes ashore eventually.”
“Yeah, it will wash up somewhere. But probably not here.”
Super. I wondered how to leave a business card with the kid in Japan who probably find my flippers washed up on the beach, and have absolutely no use for them.
I finally found a woman in a park ranger uniform who would be at the beach regularly, and wrote down my contact information for her. Realizing I had an unusual lost object to describe, I also drew her a rough picture.
“For future reference,” she politely offered, “you aren’t supposed to park on this part of the beach unless you are loading or unloading a boat.”
“Yeah, that’s…well, that’s what I was doing. I just finished loading my boat.”
She looked back at my vehicle. “Oh, I guess you do have a boat there! I didn’t see it at first.”
I thanked her again, and then drove up off the beach. I stopped at the beachside inn to leave my contact information and another rough sketch of what I was looking for. I then retreated back inland, where I belonged.