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Oregon's coastal splendor

Port Orford, Oregon

John Treadwell Dunbar image

By —— Bio and Archives May 31, 2011

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imageThe mighty headland named Cape Blanco on the southern Oregon Coast is regarded by many Oregonians as the western-most land protrusion in the Lower-48. It certainly feels that way as one stands overwhelmed by the scenery on the very edge of the continent. The natural drama is palpable, sensual, ... potentially erotic.

It’s a place where you can lean into the wind as it blows ashore under a broad canopy of clear blue sky whose seasonal colors shift from summer’s deep blues to winter’s dark-grays when sagging clouds verging on black roll overhead with the grace of titanic spaceships invading this water-logged state in rapid slow motion.

Wrapped around the mighty cape, the flat expanse of the Pacific reflects the sky, churning deep blue as the case may be or frothing among the darker shades of silver during relentless winter storms that are quintessentially Oregon and march in succession across the heavens well into May.

Predictable foul weather pounds the land in to inevitable submission, eroding soil and stone with frigid gale winds and a wet, horizontal lashing never to be trifled with, stinging rains and brutish blows that routinely catch T-shirt-clad summer visitors off guard and send them scurrying back to the car. Cold and sloppy on dismal days, Cape Blanco would be a great place for a wet T-shirt contest.


Dominating the coast two-hundred feet above the tumultuous sea that appears deceptively placid at times, and crowned on its farthest point with the oldest working lighthouse on the Oregon Coast, this massive block of land blanketed in lush grass and low shrubbery endemic to the coastal environs anchors two isolated crescent beaches; long strands of sand, gold and tan, bending north and south, each littered with bleached logs in repose and driftwood tangled in varied configurations.

Offshore, sea-stack rookeries are home to the feathered. And behind unpopulated beaches, crumbling bluffs are fringed green with stunted spruce and pine and salmon berries and bracken fern. These are without a doubt some of the finest beaches Oregon offers, and they’re open to all.

imageI’m not the only one who has an ongoing affair with Cape Blanco and tiny Port Orford 5 miles south of here, just 55 miles north of the California border. Five miles off the beaten path known as Highway 101 and far enough away from the maddening crowds of Portland and the greater Willamette Valley, this little slice of Eden is another one of those places you don’t want to skip over as you race elsewhere.

The approach to the cape is rural, a smattering of farm homes and pastures that give way to dense wetland bogs, dark green or gold as the season dictates. It’s a photographer’s delight on misty, fog-shrouded mornings as ducks take flight and break the eerie silence with their quacking and flapping.

Like significant swaths of Oregon’s coastal splendor, much of the terrain near the water’s edge lies within a protective park. Here, 1,900-acre Cape Blanco State Park is a popular destination for RV-enthusiasts seeking shelter from the winds among towering evergreens - road-warriors in need of electricity which is offered at all 52 available campsites, whether you need it or not.


That’s a common complaint one hears, a lack of basic fairness when those who don’t need, use or want electricity pay the bill for those who do because one hefty price fits all. I use the juice all the time, but those who don’t shouldn’t have to pay for my luxury. I’m shaking my dirty finger now.

Shame on the state of Oregon and their petty, bureaucratic moneygrubbers for this indecency. And while I’m at it, shame on those among them who force the elderly and handicapped to shuffle great distances to restroom facilities in our state parks; I see those desperate, poor people regularly, and not all of them make it in time. That’s right, I’m talking to you and still shaking my finger. Don’t try hiding behind your feeble “lack of funds” excuse because these problems have been a plague long before the state fell on hard fiscal times. It won’t wash, you’re probably violating federal law, and don’t pretend you haven’t noticed.

Those not hauling around a plastic box on wheels can tent it, or you could spring for a heated log cabin. Horse lovers enjoy the park’s horse camp, corrals and seven miles of trails, not to mention galloping romps on the beach. They’ve even set aside a 150-acre, open riding area near camp for trotting your trusty steed in figure-eights out in the open. Forgot your horse? You can still enjoy the terrain on foot where trails lead to the lighthouse, the beach, to scenic overlooks up and down the coast, and to the Historic Hughes house.


Built in 1898 and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and open for tours, the 11-room, two-story home constructed by James Hughes with local old-growth cedar is pretty fancy considering it was built by a dairy farmer who was also known as one tenacious lighthouse keeper - he kept the light on for countless sailors for 28 long years. That stint, however, was outdone by James Langlois who tended the 59-foot tower for an impressive 42 years, raised a large family in the process and milked his fair share of cows on the side, sometimes just for the sheer pleasure of it.

The Cape Blanco Lighthouse was commissioned in 1870, continues to twirl in circles, rises 59 feet above the ground, and backed with the force of a 1,000-watt bulb casts a long beam of light 28 miles out to sea. As many lives as the 6 1/2-foot, handcrafted Fresnel lens has saved over the years, the early warning system wasn’t foolproof. Lying submerged beneath the waves are thousands of hidden rocks and reefs that have claimed far too many human lives and ships, their skeletal remains splayed at random along the bottom of the watery deep.

Memorable among those horrible wrecks and untimely deaths was an oil freighter which succumbed to this fate right off the end of the cape in 1919. It killed 36, let three men live, and serves as a stark reminder of the vital role all functioning lighthouses and contemporary navigational aids play in this deadly business of maritime travel.

imageThe 50-some acres surrounding the lighthouse are federal property and off limits to the general public except those on an official tour of the facilities. Trespassing is forbidden primarily out of respect for a Native American burial ground somewhere out there. I didn’t know that when I sneaked across the fence for a closer look and a few snapshots many years ago - the statute of limitations having long since past I should add - but in the event I stomped over the remains of someone’s rotting ancestor, I apologize. Really.

Those looking for another Bandon or Cannon Beach should look elsewhere because laid-back Port Orford is in a different category altogether, thankfully. It’s not bursting at the seams with art galleries, upscale lodging, fine dining and swanky decadence that infests other communities. Over 150 years old, Port Orford is the oldest incorporated city in Oregon. It’s refreshingly normal and the people are normal in the best sense. Main street is long and wide, and while there are eateries, some galleries and ample lodging, the atmosphere is far from flamboyant and artificial maritime ambiance isn’t crammed down your throat.

The main thoroughfare, Highway 101, where traffic slows to a crawl, or better, doesn’t adequately reflect the size of the community or the rich texture because east and west lie delightful residential communities, modest to upscale homes tucked back in the pines, many inhabited by wise retirees or prudent second home buyers who spotted a good thing when they saw it.


Ask directions to Port Orford Heads State Park on the edge of town and which sits on a prominent hill buttressed by plunging cliffs overlooking the ocean 300 feet below. It features the historic Coast Guard Lifeboat Station Museum which chronicles the life and times and daring-do of the Coast Guard which served this part of the country admirably for 36 years until 1970. A roaring sea and rocky shores made their contribution to saving lives vital, and due to its location all the more difficult because the crew lived high on the bluff and the boathouse was way down on the water in a cove under the Heads.

As there was no convenient Shell station at the time, fuel was lugged in five-gallon jerry cans down 530 steps come rain or shine or wind and weather. I believe they’re called heroes, these men in white, coming to the rescue in three major shipwrecks, and during World War II saving sailors and merchant marines ravaged by Japanese submarine attacks. Something to think about tomorrow on Memorial Day.

If you visit the Heads, take the time to stroll down some of their trails that supposedly provide splendid views up and down the coast. But who are they kidding? Someone needs to get up there with a weed whacker and start whacking some weeds and trimming back some branches because our view was blocked by a wall of green. Stand on your tiptoes and peek through that little hole in the forest and you might get an idea of what that “splendid” view should look like, hopefully more than a glimpse of water or a distant view of Humbug Mountain. A bit disappointing I must admit.


The port at Port Orford nestled beneath a wall of towering cliffs is unique and whatever you do, drive down there and poke around. The marina is actually a “dolly dock.” At a cost of $5.5 million, fishing boats up to 44 feet in length and weighing no more than 44,000 pounds are hoisted in and out of the deep water by towering, yellow hoists. Watching boats plucked out of the ocean, their catch hauled ashore and those colorful vessels parked on trailers in neat rows on the concrete and asphalt deck is good for a morning’s entertainment.

As one would expect the local waters are teeming with wildlife. If you’re fortunate during whale-watching season you might spot a 40-foot gray whale or an Orca killer whale feeding close by right off the dock. The Orford Reefs are home to one of the largest Stellar sea lion rookeries on the Pacific Coast, and the local kelp beds are some of the largest to be found, at least that’s what I’ve read and we’ll just have to take their word for it.


Like bees to tulips I’m invariably drawn back to Cape Blanco despite gales that top 100 miles an hour, winds that have reached 184 mph. It’s worth it even though it will have you crawling across the parking lot on your elbows and knees. Roosevelt elk in the meadows, salmon struggling up the Sixes and Elk rivers, an amber sunset that lights Needle Rock afire, ... it doesn’t get much better than this.

I stood in the rain in my white T-shirt within sight of the lighthouse between periodic gusts drenched to the core and staring out to sea. It was very cold, ... ask my nipples that stood at rapt attention seeking shelter from the storm, jiggling left then right as the wind had its way with my sagging pecs. I couldn’t get enough of mother’s wrath so I took off my wet shirt and let the rain coarse down the soft folds of my hairy chest.

Looking over my shoulder at the sound of an approaching vehicle, I watched a Bentley drive slowly up and park ten feet away. The driver, wearing his trademark cap, raced around to the back and opened the door for her; platinum blond, slender, stunningly gorgeous and wearing a fake fur coat and high heels. You’d recognize her in an instant from the silver screen, an icon, a goddess, a fox in red lipstick and long fingernails donning a tight-fitting white dress that was becoming rapidly soaked in the deluge.

With a slink and a swagger the love of my life approached, stopped at my feet and stared at my hairy teats bouncing in the wind. “May I,” she asked, and before I could muster an answer she grabbed a hold of the left one to steady it - five pounds of manly flesh - and with the other hand started pushing in my nipple with the tip of her finger like a doorbell. I could hear one of the kids in the back room yell, “Will someone pu-leeze get the door!” She was fascinated beyond measure, mesmerized by the width and length of that little brown button. In and out, in and out. I could have stood there an eternity but chose not to out of my profound sense of decency.

Hesitating, I leaned forward, stuck my head in the soft cushion of her lovely locks and found her ear. Though I was tempted to stick my tongue in there and do some probing, I whispered instead, “Are you my metaphor? Are you Cape Blanco?” The doorbell stopped ringing, she looked up at me with melancholy eyes running heavy with mascara. I knew better than to expect an answer, after all, she didn’t have a script. But she tried, her ruby red lips opening and closing like a blowfish as she struggled to come up with something original. To my chagrin she must have read my mind because she gave my nip a twist that stood me on my toes and made me squeal like a stuck pig. And after I calmed down, in a voice reminiscent of Dr. Henry Kissinger, my little blowfish gargled and croaked six words no grown man should ever hear at four-o’clock in the morning. “Wake up, you smelly old goat.”

John Treadwell Dunbar -- Bio and Archives | Comments

John Treadwell Dunbar is a freelance writer