Ghosts of the Oregon Coast

December 8, 2009
Bryan Harley
Bryan Harley
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Our resident road warrior has earned his stripes covering the rally circuit, from riding the Black Hills of Sturgis to cruising Main Street in Daytona Beach. Whether it's chopped, bobbed, or bored, metric to 'Merican, he rides 'em all.

Lighthouses have long been beacons of hope for wayward sailors off the treacherous waters of the Oregon coast.
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The Oregon Coast is both Muse and Siren. The blue-green waters of the Pacific have been the bane of many a sailor with its rogue waves, strong tides, hidden reefs and gale-force winds. As storms pound and shape the coastline, salvation is oft found in a solitary light, a beacon of hope shooting through the darkness. The lighthouses of the Oregon Coast have a long and storied history of saving sailors. They are also filled with otherworldly lore, stories of wrecked ships and lost souls. Many are said to be haunted – which made me want to visit them even more.
I pack the bags of the 2009 Yamaha FJR1300 while entertaining visions of encountering the “Lady in Gray” at Heceta Head Lighthouse. I join three friends on their sport-touring steeds for a three-day quest up the 363-mile long Oregon Coast, but keep them in the dark about my obsession with things that go bump in the night. We meet in Cave Junction, a small logging town that sits on Hwy 199 and serves as the gateway to the Oregon Caves National Monument. After fueling up on lumberjack-style breakfasts at Taylor’s Country Store, we head out. The two-way road winds through evergreen stands as it climbs the timber-covered Siskiyou Mountains.

Hwy 199 narrows and the canyon walls close in as we hit the Smith River Gorge. My friend’s Triumph ST sticks like glue on the blind, 15 mph turns, his head dangerously close to the rock walls on the inside while 150-foot vertical cliffs sit on the other. The guard rails bear the scars of bad judgment. Rockslides close this stretch almost every winter. We race the clear waters of the Smith River below us as fog conceals the mountaintops above.
Coastal rains sustain the forests that grow to the sea’s edge, including some of the largest trees in the world. The highway leads us through a giant redwood grove, trees old enough to see the rise and fall of civilizations. Four motorcycles parked in a row don’t even cover the width of a giant at the Simpson-Reed Grove. The tops of

Some of the redwoods in the old-growth stands on Hwy 199 leading to the coast are old enough to see the rise and fall of civilizations. Oh no! Now even motorcyclists are tree-huggers.
The giant trees in the Simpson-Reed Grove were here long before the settlers headed
West. Look, it’s one of those tree-hugging, environmental types from Ory-gun.

the trees are hidden in the low-lying clouds, an intermediary between earth and sky. The mighty redwoods have a way of putting things in perspective.

The ride is cool as it winds through the shadows of the trees. The road leads us into Crescent City, CA, home to Battery Point Lighthouse. The small white and red building sits on a rocky outcropping in the Pacific and can only be accessed by a thin isthmus during low tide. It survived the largest tsunami to hit the lower 48 states, a series of waves generated by the Great Alaskan Earthquake that struck on March 27, 1964.

Approaching Crescent City, I recall tales from the lighthouse’s resident keepers. Jerry and Nadine Tugel reported frequent visits from its ghostly residents who made chairs rock, tapped people on shoulders and trudged up and down the stairs in sea boots. I want to validate the spectral legends that abound from the lighthouse-turned-museum, but the tide is in and the offshore tower’s invisible through the morning fog. Beauty of the coast is, if you don’t like the weather, a break in the clouds often lies around the next bend. We point the sport-tourers north and dash back into Oregon.

The first seaside town is Brookings. Located in the Banana Belt of the Pacific Northwest, it gets more sun than most Oregon coastal towns with a temperate climate ideal for growing lily bulbs, a fact Brookings prides itself on. A small

You can almost smell the salty see breeze!
The Oregon coast is full of scenic vistas and secluded beaches. They are also great treasure hunting spots for agate and jasper.

harbor bisects the town, and despite its size is one of the most active Chinook salmon-fishing harbors on the West Coast. And while its Banana Belt reputation calls for sunny skies, coastal fog hangs over the fishing community. Fog is a way of life along the Oregon Coast.

All 363 miles of Oregon coastline is public land, thanks to a law passed in 1967, and the stretch between Brookings and Gold Beach is filled with small, secluded beaches as it cuts through the Samuel Boardman State Scenic Corridor. There is no shortage of small alcoves waiting to be explored and treasures like agate and jasper to be found along the shoreline. Public campgrounds are common, close enough to the beach to let the pounding surf lull you to sleep.

We ride over Thomas Creek Bridge, the tallest bridge in Oregon, 345 feet above Bosley Creek. It’s easy to miss, as only a small green sign with white lettering lets you know that you’re riding over the first of many epic bridges along the coast. For the best view, pull into the parking lot on the bridge’s south end and follow a short trail west to see gigantic steel support towers disappear into the treetops below. The geometric arrangement of the Warren trusses is an architectural art form.

The fog lifts around Gold Beach and traffic is light so we open it up a bit as the road parallels the Pacific. The stretch is mostly single-lane traffic, but the power of bikes like the Kawasaki Concours and BMW K1300GT grants us the ability to dismiss slow cars at our leisure. Halfway to Port Orford is a scene straight from Jurassic Park. A full-scale replica of a T-Rex guards the highway, with the out-stretched neck of a brachiosaurus jutting from the trees behind him. Prehistoric Gardens consists of 23 life-size sculptures of dinosaurs displayed in the giant ferns and dripping mosses of the temperate Oregon rainforest. Campy but creative, the Prehistoric Gardens’ display has been educating and entertaining kids for almost 40 years.

The Oregon coast is rife with beautiful bridges  like the Conde B. McCullough bridge that sits in the background. The four sport-tourers in the foreground aint too hard on the eyes  either.
The Oregon coast is rife with beautiful bridges, like the Conde B. McCullough bridge in the background. The four sport-tourers in the foreground aren’t too hard on the eyes, either.
The Oregon Dunes is an off-roaders paradise. Too bad they dont make sport-touring paddle wheels.
The Oregon Dunes can reach up to 500 feet high and are a popular attraction for off-roaders.

Hwy 101 leads us to Oregon’s Bay Area which is centralized on Coos Bay, the largest natural harbor between Seattle and San Francisco and a major shipping and manufacturing center. Weathered saw mills butt against the bay as tugs tow log-filled barges. The town received national attention in 1999 when a Japanese freighter called the New Carissa ran aground during a storm a few miles north of the entrance to the bay, spilling oil and becoming an eyesore. It quickly became a tourist attraction until salvagers dismantled it and removed it from the beach in 2008.

At the north end of town, the tall, green beams of a steel, cantilever bridge rise before us. The Coos Bay Bridge, also named the Conde B. McCullough Bridge after its designer, was the longest in Oregon when it was completed in 1936 at 5,305 feet. McCullough oversaw the development of the coastal highway after he became the state bridge engineer for the Oregon State Highway Commission in 1919. He designed the majority of the beautiful bridges along the Oregon Coast in the early 1930s, which are full of classic, artistic details like Romanesque arches, Gothic spires and art deco obelisks.

A westerly wind starts to blow in from the ocean as the forest that buffered us thins, the tall trees replaced by wind-worn dunes. The landscape is like no other in Oregon, an odd combination of stripped-down desert dunes against ocean hues. It’s an OHV rider’s paradise. ATVs rip up the side of a berm, sending 20-foot roosts in the air. The Oregon Dunes dominate the landscape and shroud the road for almost 50 miles until we pull into Florence.

A long concrete bridge, stained grey by the salted ocean air, sits at the entrance to the quaint fishing village. It is a combination of points and curves, towers and Gothic obelisks with sunburst patterns pointing to the sky and two smooth arches in another of McCullough’s classic creations, the Suislaw River Bridge. We ride to Old Town Florence, a collection of restaurants, art galleries, and specialty shops colorfully restored with Victorian-era charm. The rooms of

Mos Restaurant  with multiple locations on the Oregon coast  is famous for its clam chowder and serves a mean seafood platter as well.
Mo’s Seafood Platter. Yum-m-m!

the River House Inn are warm and inviting after a day’s riding. Besides its scenic location on the Suislaw just below the bridge, it’s a walk away from Mo’s Restaurant, home of Mo’s World Famous Clam Chowder. Home-baked bread, thick chowder and a hearty pint of Hefeweizen rejuvenate the spirits.

The next morning, we latch the saddlebags back on the FJR, Concours, K1300GT, and Sprint ST to begin the trek to the end of the Oregon coast. The road rises steeply as we leave Florence. A strip of postcard-perfect beach stretches behind us, white sand and blue-green water, and the forest joins us once again. We stop at Sea Lion Caves, billed as the “World’s Largest Sea Cave,” and home to hundreds of Stellar Sea Lions at any given time. A 208-foot elevator ride takes you down to the main cavern, which is filled with the sound of sea lions squabbling and the surging sea. The air is acrid, sea lions and animal waste, so if you want to avoid the odor, there are also viewpoints above where you can watch them swim.

Around the bend from the Caves, we wheel the bikes into an overlook. Below us, the coast comes to a point where a tall white column stands against the green backdrop of a tree-covered hill. Heceta Head Lighthouse is the brightest light on the Oregon coast, both in the magnitude of its Fresnel lens and in beauty. It is said to be the most photographed lighthouse in the U.S. It is also home to the “Lady in Gray,” the local long-lost soul and mother-in-grieving who is claimed to haunt the joint after committing suicide when her daughter drowned. Mischievous “Rue,” as she is also known, has spooked window cleaners in the tower and haunted keepers. But

Heceta Head Lighthouse is said to be the most photographed lighthouse in the United States. Its also home to the infamousLady in Gray.
Heceta Head Lighthouse is said to be the most photographed lighthouse in the United States. It’s also claimed to be haunted, home to the infamous ‘Lady in Gray.’

about a half-mile path lies between the parking area and the lighthouse and we’ve got miles to go with a storm forecast to blow in that night, so I dismiss my notions of a rendezvous with “Rue,” climb back on the FJR, and hit the road.

It’s not long before we pass under the tall steel arches of the Yaquina Bay Bridge as we roll into Newport. A quick right after the bridge drops us into the historic Bayfront. Nautical murals decorate the district, colorful life-size scenes of a mermaids and whales and a portrait reminiscent of “The Old Man and the Sea.” Kitschy tourist attractions like Ripley’s Believe it or Not and Undersea Gardens squeeze in between trendy shops and restaurants boiling live crab. Across the street, fishing boats bob in the harbor and gulls screech overhead. The road is ripped apart right now, but overcoming a few bumps is worth the visit.

While I wish we had time to visit the Oregon Coast Aquarium in Newport, we’ve done more stopping than riding, so we up the pace until Depoe Bay. A strip of small single-story buildings face the seawall across the street. Waves roll in and

Fishing boats bob in Newport Harbor.

high tide spray often pours over the wall. Further down, the waves pound into porous lava beds and create geysers that can spout 50 feet in the air. Depoe Bay is hailed as the “Whale Watching Capital of the Oregon Coast.” Every little turnout is filled with camera-toting tourists hoping to see a spout or breach by the Gray Whales that migrate through twice a year. Peak “Winter Watch” is the last week of December to the first week of January. We’re on the tail end of the “Summer Watch” that runs June through mid-November.
Clouds to the north are getting thick and dark as Hwy 101 winds away from the coast and flattens out. Green pastures and dairies replace coastline and dank forest. An old wooden airplane hangar sits to our right as we approach town. It’s the Tilllamook Air Museum, built for blimps during World War II, and home to over 30 vintage fighter planes, like P-38 Lightnings and P51-Mustangs. The town is also home to the Tillamook Cheese Factory, a popular tourist attraction that lets visitors take a self-guided tour to learn the process of cheesemaking. Better yet, it includes free samples of cheddars and spicy jack.

Headed back north, we pass by the small artsy communities of Garibaldi and Cannon Beach, popular retreats for

Sunsets on the coast can take your breath away.
Sunsets on the Oregon coast can take your breath away.

Portland residents. In many spots the highway runs close to the ocean, and the smell of salt and seaweed constantly fills my helmet. Outside of Tillamook is another epic lighthouse. The Tillamook Rock Lighthouse sits a mile off shore of Ecola State Park. Because of the constant toll the ocean bore on this island-bound beacon, it was abandoned in 1957, and is now a “cemetery at sea,” designed to hold more than a half-million urns of human ashes. One man died in its construction, too,

          Ghosts of the Oregon Coast Map

so who knows what supernatural tales it holds.
In the distance, a monstrous steel truss bridge sticks out of the side of a hill. The Astoria-Megler Bridge stretches 4.1 miles across the mouth of the Columbia River into Washington State. Over 200 shipwrecks have occurred at its turbulent mouth, earning it the nickname “The Graveyard of the Pacific.” It isn’t long before we ride into the oldest American settlement west of the Rockies, Astoria, Oregon. The pitched roofs of Victorian homes dot the steep wooded hillside, and the Astoria Column rises above the town on Coxcomb Hill. The 125-foot landmark is patterned after Trajan’s Column and is painted with 12 colorful panels, scenes of indigenous peoples and the westward exploration by Lewis & Clark. Standing at the Column, I see the Pacific Ocean to the west, the majestic Columbia River to the north, and the snow-capped peak of Mt. Ranier in the northeast. Looking around, I understand why the pioneers risked everything to head out West. From the seat of my sport-touring bike I finally find my ghosts in the bonds of our adventurous spirit.

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