Canoeing the Oregon Coastline: The Salmon River Estuary

DSC_0704(State #43/50) All apologies to California, Maine and Florida: The Oregon coast is my favorite. I love the abrupt transition as the steep pine ridges of the Coastal Range plunge into the Pacific. I love the huge rocks that sit out in the surf unable to ward off the nesting seabirds and I love how the wave action eats away at their bases, turning them into island pagodas. So, when rampant fires dashed my plans to canoe the state’s interior, I shed no tears as I drove towards the most enthralling coast in America.

I arrived at a sun-drenched trailhead near the mouth of the Salmon River. The parking lot bustled with car-tethered sightseers, silver-haired hikers and blue collared fishermen, hosing off crab traps. Upriver, the Salmon wound up a wide valley. Pine-covered hills gave way to pastures, which angled towards low-tide mudflats encasing the clear, brackish waters. Toward the mouth, a forested spit protected the river from the open ocean. Overlooking it all was the 1,200 foot prominence of Cascade Head, a UNESCO biosphere reserve.


A view of the estuary from Cascade Head

DSC_0664From the launch, I could already spot seals, glistening on the far bank. I was eager to get on the water. So, once I sorted out overnight parking,* I paddled Rider up the estuary where the seals surfaced to watch me watch them. After a half mile, I turned around and rode the tide out towards Cascade Head and towards the sea. The Salmon widened out as a few expensive homes, made entirely of windows, CascadeHead2jutted out from the forested hills. As I drew closer to the peninsula, the wind picked up. It roared out of the north and entered the mouth, where it toyed with my boat. When I paused to put on a life jacket, a gust ripped across the water and spun my canoe sideways. Struggling, I regained control before wrecking against the rocks below the cliffs.DSC_0659 (1)

Nearing the Pacific, I saw a half dozen fishing boats occupying the nexus between river and ocean. The fishermen wore dour expressions as they braved the winds, waves and potential collisions with other vessels, while trying to reel in King Salmon. This was not the peaceful, beer-drinking, day on the lake type of angling most of us imagine; this activity looked high-stress and near miserable. I guess it must be great fishing.DSC_0385

I kept my distance as I paddled through the chaotic fray to where the water became more ocean than river. After a brief landing on a small patch of sand, I navigated between the boats and canoed across the mouth and into a small channel. With strong wind at my back, I sailed to the end of the long puddle and started to carry gear to the dunes, where I’d make camp. Sand ran with the wind as tan colored streams flowed DSC_0395 (2)across the beach, vanishing my fresh tracks. Stronger and stronger the gusts blew until the air howled and sand stung my shins. When the largest gust hit, I turned back to see my canoe — still half filled with belongings — blowing away, across the beach. I watched in disbelief before chasing after my boat. On a path to the Pacific, Rider made it over fifty feet before I caught and dragged her towards camp.DSC_0410 (1)

The dunes were capped with hacksaw-serrated beach grass and driftwood. Little bare sand glens occupied the low spot in between. Too windy to set up the tent and struck by hunger, I grabbed my cooler and found a sheltered area. There, I laid back against the sand and ate my entire ration of cold, supermarket-clearance fried chicken.DSC_0421 (1)

DSC_0573 (1)Soon, the gusts softened along with the evening light. Drink in hand, I walked a half mile to where a rock face terminated the long spit of sand beach. To my left rose a highland of pines, existing less as individuals and more as one windblown, green mass. To my right, a blue, cloudless sky sprawled above the sinking sun and an equally endless ocean. As I neared the outcrop, a natural arch took shape. Seawater streamed through from an unseen land beyond. I walked though the gateway and found a shrinking carpet of sand, sculpturesque rocks and crashing waves. I didn’t stay long as the tide began washing over my feet.DSC_0508 (1)DSC_0527

The sun was on final approach into the horizon as I strolled back. The next day was the dreaded and feared month of September — the terminus of summer and thus, all things good and holy. From there begins the downward spiral into the shitty season of fall, punctuated by kids returning to school, shorter days, dreary weather, cold and flu season and overly gleeful women, delighting in the opportunity to wear scarves and sip gourd flavored coffee drinks. So, I remained shirtless on the walk back, ignoring the goose bumps from the sea breeze, and soaking in the last sun of summer.DSC_0580

By the time I reached my camp, the August sun was almost gone. In cathartic repose, I watched it take its last few breaths before submerging into the Pacific. “Noooooooo!” I cried, falling to my knees, pounding the sand and screaming, for no clear reason, “You damned Dirty Apes!”DSC_0595

I freshened my drink and sat between dunes, near my canoe, and watched the swath of warm colors shrink over the surging sea. The moon rose over my shoulder, illuminating the white surf of the churning, foaming waves, while hundreds of miniature moons reflected off the waxy blades of surrounding beach grass. Out at sea, three rock islands sat, pitch black against the now dark gray horizon. The Big Dipper disappeared below the prominence and a shooting star zipped overhead. The air grew chilly and wind cut through my old high school tennis hoodie, so I headed for the tent and bid August adieu.

The morning began cool as a light breeze blew the salty mist in from the ocean. The sun rose, dispersing the chill. I sat in the shade of beach grass, drinking instant coffee from a McDonalds cup, while eating an egg rolled in an old tortilla. Gazing at the surf, I pulled out the computer and searched for words to describe the day. All I managed was b-e-a-utiful. I accept no points for creativity, but I’ll stand by it.DSC_0642

I counted eight boats fishing for salmon, all jockeying for position in the waves of the narrow mouth. Above the awkward spectacle, I studied Cascade Head. Cliffs sprang from the sea, supporting yellow grassy slopes, which climbed to a blunted, pine dotted summit. I had scanned for the elk that lived there the previous evening, but came up empty. Every potential sighting ended up being a human on the hiking trail.

DSC_0667 (1)I returned to the launch and crowded parking lot by early afternoon. “Have you hiked up to the top of Cascade Head?” someone asked. “No, but I got a great view of it from the beach,” I responded. They weren’t satisfied. “You don’t get many days like this on this coast… There’s no smoke and all the typical clouds are gone. You have to take advantage of a day like today,” urged the stranger. So I did. I put off a long drive and hiked three miles to the top. Looking down, I saw my beach and campsite across the Salmon River. Gazing further south, I saw miles and miles of rocky coast, sweeps of sand and the arching white lines of breaking surf stretching on to, what I swear, was The Golden Gate Bridge. Okay, maybe September isn’t the worst, I thought for a moment. No that can’t be right; the Oregon coastline is just the best.DSC_0701 (1)

*Unfortunately, gorgeous coastlines often pair with luxurious homes and boutiquey communities, which strive to keep up their appearance by keeping riftraff — me being a prime example — out, especially after dark. Luckily, I found a sympathetic landowner who let me park overnight on their property, saving me from a several mile hike from a sketchy parking area off the 101.

Estuary Facts and Fun Stats:

  • Salmon River Estuary, Oregon
  • Dates Canoed: 8/31-9/1/17
  • Elevation: Sea Level
  • Launch/takeout Point: Knights Park Public Launch, no overnight parking (45.040587, -123.993496)
  • Campsite: Dunes on the sandy peninsula: (45.043854, -124.005298)
  • Furtherest Point Reached upstream: (45.034343, -123.988008)
  • Songs Sung on Beach: Cowgirl in the Sand by Neil Young, I’ll Be Here by Robert Earl Keen, Ruby Tuesday by the Rolling Stones, Lightning Crashes by Live and Say it Ain’t So by Weezer
  • Thank you to Kimberly at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology for great advice on the area and letting me refill my water bottles before the hike up to Cascade Head. Thanks to Bill and Betty for the great conversation and for sending me a picture of my launch onto the Salmon. I met numerous other tourists, locals, state officials whom were all friendly/fascinating — what a place.
  • Birds: Sea gull, Crow, Canada goose, Merganser, Kingfisher, White egret and Vulture
  • Mammals: 5-6 Harbor Seals
  • Other Creatures: Dungeness Crabs (10 feet underwater), Sand Fleas (2 bit me) and thousands in the surf zone as the tide came in.
  • Noted Species: Elk, Pacific Giant Salamander Sea Otter, Humpback Whales, Peregrine Falcons and King Salmon (Chinook)
  • Dominant Vegetation: Trees: Sitka Spruce, Western Hemlock, Douglas Fir and Red Alder. Grasses: Red fescue, wild rye and Pacific reedgrass to name a few.
  • Ecoregion: Coast Range (1a), Coastal Lowlands
  • Current Threats: Like all coastal ecosystems, climate change threatens estuaries along the Oregon and entire Pacific Northwest coast. Rising sea level, warming waters, changes in precipitation patterns, acidification, etc. are all major threats to these fragile, complex and productive ecosystems.There are multiple threats to native salmon. One of the biggest problems is caused by invasive species like crappie and smallmouth bass, which eat juveniles migrating downstream to the ocean. Invasive beach grass also threatens to change dune height and structure, causing loss of protective barriers from storm surges and possible tsunamis. Finally, upstream development and pollution runoff pose a threat to water quality and the crab and salmon fisheries.
  • Trash Collected: Tennis ball and a shotgun shell. For a beach, surprisingly little sea garbage.
  • Fundraiser for American Rivers: Currently at $3959 of my $5000 goal. Please go to my Crowdrise link below to donate. American Rivers is a 40+ year old NGO working to clean up rivers, remove antiquated dams, restore riparian ecosystems and preserve Wild and Scenic Rivers among much else. If you find my trip remotely inspiring, please consider donating! As always, thanks to all that have already given!
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