September 10: Florence to Reedsport

I set off south across another beautiful Conde McCullough bridge, my spirits matching the somber weather. Somewhere yesterday I had passed the halfway point of the trail. Today marked a full week away from my daughters, and I missed them deep down in my bones. 

At the end of the bridge, the OCT turned west along South Jetty Road. I jogged past a bustling RV park and then increasingly desolate stretches of scrubby pines, open grassy areas, and empty campgrounds. The road had an abandoned feel that put me on edge. I usually love a peaceful backroad, but for some reason I had my hackles up along South Jetty. Maybe cumulative fatigue was playing with my emotions. 

My first glimpse of the Oregon Dunes from South Jetty Road.

My first glimpse of the Oregon Dunes from South Jetty Road.

Looking a little weathered.

Looking a little weathered.

A few miles on, South Jetty Road and I parted ways at a dog-eared turn. The road turned back to the North, and I plunged into the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area—47 miles of rolling sand between Florence and North Bend. I scrabbled up a foredune crisscrossed with OHV tracks to reach the beach. Only, when I reached the top of the dune, I couldn’t see the beach—at all. A thick marine layer obscured everything west of the dunes.

I edged toward the sound of the ocean, but I couldn’t see it until my shoes found the water’s edge. Tentatively, I began jogging south, keeping the sound of the ocean on my right. At first I felt scared, running blind, completely cloaked in mist. Then I thought about my husband Brady, who often sees the adventure and luck in uncomfortable situations. He would think this was cool. After that I began to love the fog.

Heading into the dunes and fog!

Heading into the dunes and fog!

Slowly the fog dissipated as the sun rose higher. Three people on dirt bikes crested a dune, silhouetted against the morning sky like train robbers in an old Western. I stopped to watch them tear off across the sand. After so many slow miles on foot, the speed looked exhilarating. Farther down the beach, I passed fishermen and encountered the first snowy plover closures of the trip.

From March 15 through mid-September, the State of Oregon cordons off sections of dry sand to protect plover nesting. I enjoyed watching the little birds scurry across the beach. My mood had improved, the sun was out, and I was enjoying myself again.

Western Snowy Plover, courtesy of  oregonconservationstrategy.org

Western Snowy Plover, courtesy of oregonconservationstrategy.org

I ran along happily for many miles, reaching the Siltcoos River in good time. I had read that the Siltcoos was unseasonably high and difficult to wade, but I must have hit the tide right. While swift, the water only reached my knees. 

Roughly 5 miles farther on, Tahkenitch Creek, however, was a whole different story. Draining one of the largest lakes on the Oregon Coast, the creek (um, river?) meets the ocean after a short, wending course through the dunes. From the north bank, the crossing looked similar to Sand Lake—wide and hard to gauge depth-wise. I walked upstream away from the waves. Less than halfway across, I was in past my waist. I eyed the dark water in front of me, debating how to proceed. A couple that had been snapping selfies on the opposite bank gaped at me. The man began waving his arms and shouting,

“You can’t cross. It’s a river.” 

“I have to get across,” I yelled back.

He looked at me like maybe I was stupid. I turned around and sloshed back to shore.

I’ve seen pictures online of Tahkenitch Creek looking like an innocent trickle, but this is how I found it—wide, swift, and deep in the middle. I learned a lot on this trip about how much the mouth of a waterway can change with the tide!

I’ve seen pictures online of Tahkenitch Creek looking like an innocent trickle, but this is how I found it—wide, swift, and deep in the middle. I learned a lot on this trip about how much the mouth of a waterway can change with the tide!

Undeterred, I moved my electronics to the top of my pack; I couldn’t risk drowning my phone, which held my guidebook and maps. The creek’s mouth fanned out at the sea. I didn’t like the idea of wading close to the ocean’s pull, but figured the water would be shallower there. I fought my way in against a strong current that seemed to tug me in more than one direction. Waves crashed into my knees. I had nearly made it across when I came to a deep-looking channel separating me from the bank. I tried to probe it with my trekking pole, but couldn’t find the bottom. Caught up in my crossing drama, the couple jogged over to help me assess the situation. The man shook his head, “It’s not safe,” he shouted. Maybe he was right. Or maybe I was just a chicken. I turned back.

So close, and yet so deep and fast.

So close, and yet so deep and fast.

I plunked down on a large piece of driftwood to regroup. I wished for the second time on the trip that I had a dry bag for my phone, chargers, and layers, and that I felt more comfortable in swift water. I considered the merits of packing a small, inflatable floaty next time (don’t laugh). The easiest thing would have been to wait out the tide. I’m sure Tahkenitch becomes a docile little crik at low tide. But I didn’t fancy sitting on that driftwood for six hours. Besides, I was almost out of water.

This moment could have been a real low. I was rattled from the failed crossing—and I had no idea how I was going to get around the creek—but I didn’t feel defeated. This was part of the adventure of the OCT, and I was strangely excited to troubleshoot.

I didn’t have cell service, so I couldn’t access a larger map of the area. I considered following the creek upstream to the highway, but didn’t know if the route was passable. About a half-mile back I had noticed a break in the dunes with a small wooden sign. Was it a trail or just a campsite? I changed my socks and went to find out.

Sandy escape route

Sandy escape route

Luckily, the narrow signpost read, “Oregon Dunes Loop.” Surely there was a trailhead on the highway side of the dunes, too, right? Not knowing how long the hike might be, or even if it connected to the 101, I set off through the sand. Once away from the ocean breeze, the sun felt hot beating down on my shoulders.

Under most circumstances, I bet the Oregon Dunes Loop is a pleasant stroll through a dramatic landscape of rolling sand dunes and tree islands. On tired legs, the soft sand and blazing sun sapped my energy. I didn’t see anyone until I came upon a giant pink dune. Families were “sledding” the slope, laughing and tumbling in the sand. It made me think of the times we’ve taken our girls to the Coral Pink Sand Dunes in Utah and Great Sand Dunes National Park in Colorado. I missed them so much.

A short path led up to a picnic area with lovely shade and the merciful sound of Highway 101 nearby.

Found this carved into a picnic table at the Oregon Dunes Loop trailhead

Found this carved into a picnic table at the Oregon Dunes Loop trailhead

I found a busted spigot at the trailhead that produced a scant trickle of water; enough to slowly fill my empty reservoir. I asked a gentleman at the overlook if he knew how much farther it was to Reedsport. I was hot and tired, and I really, really wanted him to say, “It’s just down the road.” I knew it wasn’t, but still I held out hope in the seconds it took him scratch his head and do the mental math. “Pretty far. I’d say at least a half hour or more by car.” Damn. 

At least the highway miles were cool and shaded at first. While the highway sections of the OCT generally were not my favorite parts of the route, this afternoon I appreciated the 101 for saving me from menacing creeks and desolate dunes. Had I successfully forded Tahkenitch Creek, I would have had another 4.5 miles of beach before the OCT rejoined the 101 via Sparrow Rd and followed the highway into Reedsport, as I was doing now. All considered, I didn’t miss too much of the official route here. 

On the way into Reedsport, the OCT passed through the tiny railroad town of Gardiner. Named for a Boston merchant who shipwrecked at the mouth of Umpqua River, nearly the whole village is on the National Historic Register. A smattering of rambling old homes—their grandeur faded to missing shingles, peeling paint, sagging porches—hinted at Gardiner’s prosperous past as a steamboat building hub and later a paper mill. 

Gardiner in a more prosperous time

Gardiner in a more prosperous time

I looked for a cafe or store where I could grab a cold drink. Instead, I found the smallest post office mailbox I’ve ever seen, an art gallery closed for the afternoon, and quiet dusty streets, but no watering hole. I did pass a backyard party with children splashing in a kiddie pool. I considered asking the adults if I could buy a Coke off of them, but I felt too shy. By this point in the trip, I looked pretty ragged. I thought about how it must feel to be homeless, to be self-conscious in public spaces.

Jogging into Reedsport

Jogging into Reedsport

Two beautiful bridges lead into Reedsport—the first to Bolon Island and the second into Reedsport proper. As soon as I hit town, I made a beeline for the nearest gas station, where I bought a giant ice cream cone, Gatorade, and a soda. I sat outside on a sun-warmed bench devouring my calories, savoring the prospect of my motel reservation just ahead … or was it? I plugged the address into Google Maps and my heart sank. Six more miles!?! Maybe Reedsport was bigger than I thought?

There was nothing for it, but to stand up and keep going.

Less than two blocks later, the siren song of a McDonalds lured me in. Don’t judge. It was DELICIOUS. Clutching my bag of greasy goodness, I noticed a run down motel next door with a flashing vacancy sign. I caved faster than you can say cheap motel. I knew my standing reservation down the road was non-refundable, but I was too tired to care. Five minutes and forty dollars later, I was flopped on a bed stuffing french fries in my face, air conditioner rattling, shoes kicked halfway across the room. 

Do you want to hear the funny part? The next morning I would discover that Google had been dead wrong; the motel I had reserved was literally one block farther up the road from the motel where I stayed! This trip was so wonderful and absurd all at the same time.

Lucia Robinson