Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Blue light and the Dead Guy

A version of this story was published in the Post Register, November, 2010

DEPOE BAY, Ore. -- In the mornings, we awaken to the calls of shorebirds and the constant crashing of the waves on the rocks below as a blue light seeps through the fog. A single bell from a buoy at the entrance of the bay rings intermittently with the wind.

It’s two days from the autumnal equinox, so every day dawn comes later and the sun sets earlier. Tonight, perhaps it’ll be razor clams for dinner.

Our latest long-awaited visit to the Oregon coast had not started so idyllically. In a driving rain, we had driven into Depoe Bay and found the small city park where the annual salmon bake was under way in decidedly less-than-ideal conditions.

“It’s not worth $17 for the taste, but the ambience is great!” Kathleen eventually concludes as she sits under a large tent eating alder-wood-baked wild salmon, water dripping down her face. The fish is, well, it’s overcooked and cold. The slaw is fine, but the bread is cold and stale. As for the ambience -- it’s cold enough that our breath makes steam, water has seeped through our rain jackets and it’s so damp that my hair has gone frizzy and Kathleen’s has gone flat. As usual, she’s being a really, really good sport.

None of this should reflect poorly on Depoe Bay, of course. In late September it’s not uncommon for the coast to be wet and windy, though late autumn has its share of sunny days. We have a room at Arch Rock Inn (where we are greeted in our room by a small bottle of cream sherry -- that's a good start) with a view south across the small bay down the coast and of the tiny town. I do mean tiny -- we searched briefly for some coffee creamer and found one store that had only creamer that was past its buy date and another that was closed at 5 p.m. on Saturday.

 On second thought, however, the organizers do deserve a little of the blame. The web site indicated the salmon bake would go from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. We got there a little before 4 p.m. but the baking had stopped, probably because the rain hurt the turnout and they had more fish than they needed. Anyway, it’s a nice tradition and no doubt delightful when the weather is better.

Except for that small hiccup, Depoe Bay and the central Oregon coast don’t disappoint. On the first night, wind, rain and waves dominate the soundscape and lull us into a great sleep. It’s still overcast by morning but the rain has stopped. About a half-mile from our room, we park overlooking the bay and spend 45 minutes watching whales spout and surface. Frequent visitors to the coast, we make other favorite stops on south -- Yaquina lighthouse, Heceta Head, Sea Lion Caves, the Devil’s Punchbowl. We watch an enormous sea lion colony for awhile, but it’s raining hard at low tide so we skip our plans to check out some tide pools.

The highlight of the day, however, comes when we run across the Bay Haven Inn (it’s a bar) on the historic harbor front in Newport. It’s Sunday afternoon and there’s jam session going on in the century-old bar, led by Jim “Swede” Sweden. It’s definitely an old-timer’s band; missing teeth, gray hair and all. But the music -- mostly covers of Tom Petty and Bob Seger and the sort -- is good and loud and we stay for 90 minutes before dinner of fish and chips and pan-fried oysters. That is a good day.

Other days, there is much drinking of Dead Guy (the hoppy ale by local brewer Rogue), eating of fresh Yaquina Bay oysters, and watching of waves and whales. Somehow, visiting the tacky gift stores and sitting outside on benches breathing in the ocean air is relaxing for no obvious reason. I break my camera then fix it, because Kathleen convinces me that I can. I sit for an hour waiting for the waves to mimic a Yellowstone geyser at Depoe Bay’s spouting horn. It’s no Old Faithful, but I snap out several dozen images just the same.

There are more stops at lighthouses (Heceta is mostly obscured by fog) and breakfasts of bagels with local smoked salmon and cream cheese. And there are nights falling asleep with the window cracked just enough to hear the waves crashing and, sometimes, the rain falling. On a whim, I buy some local plum wine, which tastes like prune juice laced with ethanol. 

The weather turns warmer and sunny, so it’s time to leave, down to Bandon and California beyond. The Dead Guy and blue light will be there when we return.

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