Crossing the Sixes
Notes on hiking the Oregon Coast from Bandon to Port Orford, including an interview with Snowy Plover biologist Dave Lauten.
The Oregon Coast is public, free and relatively empty all the way from north to south. But only one thirty-mile section, from Bandon to Port Orford in Oregon’s southern half, is tucked away and isolated from coastal highways. To travel this beach route, traversed by only a few hundred people a year, is a rare experience in isolation and Pacific coast wilderness.
It’s a gray, still morning on the southern Oregon coast, and Brian and I are up early to hit the trail while the tide is still low. We plan to walk the route north to south, which keeps the strong afternoon coastal winds at our back. In high school, Brian and I worked together as founders of an outdoor adventures club. We grew up and pursued outdoor travel in our own ways. Today, I’m taking the first steps south with my friend of twenty-seven years.
The coastline at Bandon is complex with coastal rocks and sea stacks, broad, flat sand, vacation homes on bluffs. But as we head south, all of this quickly gives way to a vast and simple landscape of ocean, sand and sky.
For the next twelve miles, our route is constrained to the wet sand of the beach. This is for two reasons. One, a deep river flows adjacent to the coast, separating it from the mainland almost the entire stretch. Two, Snowy Plover signs, staked out about every twenty feet, warn us of no-entry, restricted beach grass and dune habitat for the threatened birds.
Everything on this endless beach is the same, except for what washes ashore. You can take note of the dead California Sea Lions, or the shells, or the pelican carcasses, or the rounded shapes of driftwood, the mangled crab-traps, the old refrigerator baking in the sun, the brightly-colored fishing buoys and marine lightbulbs. I take note of the abundant and perfectly-shaped skipping stones.
Holding such a skipping stone on this beach is truly unfortunate, given that there is no stone skipping to be had - the wind is gusting at thirty-miles-per-hour, and the breakers are fierce with whitewash. With no flat water, I throw my perfect skipping stone across the flat of the beach. It skips once. Twice. Then a few more, before plunking upright like a monolith in miniature.
When you are on an empty beach devoid of any terrain, you cannot help but construct how some beach drifter might make a living off all this driftwood and detritus. I imagine a dozen of these perfect skipping stones wrapped neatly in a small hemp bag. Cedar Valley Sand Skippers. Hand-collected on the Siskiyou Coast. Stone Coast Skippers for Sand and Water. Fiddle & Mask Skipstones.
I can’t help thinking about the next hipster product. And the marine litter on the beaches sets me off on tangents. Still, I want to share with Brian my theory about hipsters, even though every time I’ve laid forth my premise to others, I’ve been chewed out thoroughly. I tell Brian my theory that hipsters don’t exist.
As residents of San Francisco and Portland, we arguably live in twin epicenters of America’s obsession with hipsters. I tell Brian about how much hipster hate we see in our lives. It’s on Facebook memes, it’s fodder for suburban sports bar conversations.
“You see these people in both of our cities,” I tell Brian. “They are wearing the lumberjack shirt and the beard and the glasses. As a group, they appear to be the perfect hipster archetype. In actuality, when you get close and talk to them, the stereotype falls apart.”
From my experience, a lot of time, it’s just fashion missteps of young people, new to Portland from rural Oregon or Idaho. If you would approach a hippie, the characteristics of the stereotype would hold fast if you get to know them. But hipsters aren’t a thing. It’s a subculture that we invented. They are just a way for us to project the things we don’t like about our urban culture. The guy with the lumberjack shirt isn’t the one who is buying Asparagus Water at Whole Foods.
We sit behind a massive log which protects us from the wind, which is now gusting at thirty-miles per hour. I take out a snack of ten pitted olives in a sharp vacuum-packed container. The package says, Gluten-free, low in fat, vegan-friendly and 100% kosher. What's not to love? And then I just realize, isn’t this the sort of thing we make fun of hipsters for buying? Maybe, when we hate on hipsters, we are projecting our own fears about living an authentic life in an age where meaning in urban life is insoluble.
The idea is to plan your hiking around low tides, to maximize the hard, flat sand that those tides bring. But while we started out at low tide, high tide is now setting in, which means soft sand that others describe as being like ‘hiking on a Stairmaster.’
To be honest, this trip has been giving me the willies for weeks. Last year, I injured my hip and leg in a ski accident, and the injury has resurfaced a few times afterwards. The stories of nightmarish soft sand leaves me all but certain that something is bound to happen to me if I slog through sand for three days.
But on the first day, we pass through the eleven miles of plover habitat with little difficulty, and find the small BLM campsite tucked behind the dunes. The campsite itself is so small that I would have trouble seeing three tents fitting in this small space. Since this is the only legal place to put a campsite for a stretch of almost twenty miles, this is our first hint of just how few people hike this trail each year.
In high school, Brian approached me and a mutual friend with the idea of starting an outdoors club. The administration was suspicious since the old outdoors club had been an excuse for underrage drinking, and they accepted our club with trepidation.
Brian envisioned the outdoors club as a very certain thing. He wanted it to be called the Patagonia Club. When he asked me to design the club t-shirt, he painted an image for me: It’s two guys on an elephant, which is hauling kayaks through a Savannah.
Brian organized everything, and the types of outdoor adventures he put together were like this: teaching kids how to roll kayaks at the school swimming pool. Rock climbing on Minnesota’s granite cliffs. Spelunking in midwestern caverns. Trail biking in Wisconsin. Early spring canoeing in the Boundary Waters.
I was just along for the ride, but when I came to school one morning and saw ropes tied to a tree on one side of the school and draped over the roof of the school, I wondered how Brian was able to get away with this one. “Brian, there are freshmen belaying off off the roof of the school!”
Somehow, he managed to talk climbing instructors into teaching high school kids to jump off the side of our school. And the administration let him?
Every once in a while, someone comes up to me to thank me for the Patagonia Club; how it made them fear outdoor sports less, or how it inspired them to travel more. What I don't always tell them, it was all Brian!
This time, though, I'm turning the tide, and I'm getting a chanceto organize a wilderness adventure. All of Brian's high school trips went off without a hitch, or an injury. But none of those trips had a river crossing like the Sixes River.
The next day, as we walk, we begin to see ochre-colored cliffs to the south, and we also catch sight of our first human; the faint impression of a figure walking in the distance. Later, we see this figure on the other side of the plover habitat, wandering among the beach dunes. And I can’t help but to sense that this human is, or even has been, keeping an eye on us.
As we approach Floras Lake, the first human-populated area on our hike, the figure, a woman dressed like a naturalist, approaches. “Yes, that was me you saw back there,” Mary says. “We really try to keep in touch with anybody who is walking these stretches of beach. People take their dogs through the snowy plover site. I found nine people who were actually camping in the Snowy Plover dunes yesterday.”
I ask Mary if I can get in touch with her later about her work with the Snowy Plovers. She puts me in touch with Dave Lauten, a biologist working with Portland State University’s Institute for Natural Resources.
A few days after our hike, I ask Dave, “Snowy Plovers are threatened. What does that mean in terms of global numbers?”
Dave responds, “There is a West Coast population that breeds from southern Washington to San Diego and also inhabits much of Baja California. There is a population that winters on the West Coast of the United States and Baja that breeds in the Great Basin, from Mono Lake to our salt lakes in eastern Oregon on to the Great Salt Lake in Utah. There is also a population that breeds on the Gulf of Mexico coast, and some even breed up in the prairies in Oklahoma and surrounding areas, and then there are some on the Caribbean Islands. And then there is another population in Peru!”
“The North American population is estimated to be about fifteen-thousand. Right now, the only population that is listed as threatened are the West Coast birds. The current population estimate for the West Coast, from Washington to San Diego, is about 2,600 individuals. Here in coastal Oregon, we have about 450. I believe the estimates for eastern Oregon are about 600.”
I ask, “If Snowy Plover levels are more stable in other parts of their range, why is it important to protect them here in Oregon?”
Dave replies, “Plovers are what are considered a keystone species. They are a species that indicates the health of the ecosystem they inhabit, and if that ecosystem is failing, they are one of the first species to disappear. Protecting keystone species and managing them has benefits to many other organisms that also live out there. So for instance, plover management work has also helped several rare plants to continue to flourish, like Pink Sand Verbena. Plover management has also assisted creating good habitat for Siuslaw Hairy Tiger Beetle, another rare species. Neither of these two species is protected by the Endangered Species Act, but they benefit from the plover being listed.”
“Second, while plovers are somewhat widely distributed, the total population of 15,000 is not large. If we were to let the 2,600 coastal birds vanish, then we are down to 12,000 plovers. Each loss counts. They are unique in many ways and inhabit a unique environment. We could settle for a few common species, or we can have diversity. Protecting the rarer animals increases diversity and makes for a healthier ecosystem that is more balanced.”
“Third, we messed up the ecosystem by introducing non-native plants that have fundamentally altered the ecosystem. It should be our responsibility to address these problems we created and not ignore them.”
I remembered how perilous the Snowy Plover numbers were when I moved to Oregon twelve years ago, and I ask, “What can you tell me about Snowy Plover population levels in Oregon? Their numbers have gone up, but what is a healthy population level?”
Dave replies, “In 1990, there were approximately 35 birds left on the coast. In 1997, there were 75 plovers. Our recovery goals for Oregon are 200. We managed to increase the population to about 100 in the early 2000s. Since about 2008 or so, we have increased substantially and are now at 450 or so. We believe that 200 would have been a healthy population. We believe at the moment we have a very good, healthy population, but they need continual monitoring and management or the population will decline rapidly again.”
I ask, “What led to the decline in the Snowy Plovers in the first place?”
Dave replies, “This is a two-fold issue. Loss of habitat due to introduction of non-native plants, specifically European Beachgrass. All that grass out there is non-native. And it altered and removed most of the plovers’ preferred habitat. The resulting influx of predators have caused the most direct impacts, depredating nests and chicks. The loss of habitat is directly linked to this. You cannot talk about one without talking about another.”
I ask, “Is there ever a possibility of a larger effort to get rid of the beach-grass and predators, and restore and further preserve the native habitat?”
Dave relies, “That would be great, but unfortunately very expensive. There is only so much political will and funding, and there is a general lack of will and desire to research and remove beachgrass. If we had an endless stream of funds, we could do much more work to help restore more habitat. With all that said, restore is a tricky word, because at the moment we are unable to restore habitat, we are only able to manage it. The grass grows back so fast, that every year we need to maintain the existing nesting areas.”
I ask, “What is special about the area south of Florence, Oregon? Why is this habitat specifically critical for our nesting plovers? I have seen them on beaches south of Newport, for example, and in fact, resting on beaches filled with ATV’s and dogs.”
Dave replies, “One reason is the remoteness. But also, the habitat has something to do with it. I suspect that the structure of the beaches; fine sand, wide and flat beaches, and I suspect that food resources on these types of beaches is high. And then there is the reality of how they disperse, and where they like to nest.”
“The plovers are incredibly tolerant of humans. We have worked with the birds very closely for nearly 30 years, and if they were not tolerant, we could not have accomplished what we have. The birds can inhabit a place like Newport only because they are willing to put up with a certain level of disturbance. It might not be the best thing for them, but they still tolerate it, and if given a little bit of space, they will nest right behind where the beach-walkers walk. Funny enough, give the plovers a little respect, and they will return it. They aren't asking us to not use or enjoy their habitat, they are asking us to share it a bit. Share the beach, that's our message, and it works.”
We say goodbye to Mary, and begin to gain elevation above the cliffs south of Lake Floras. Brian wonders aloud if maybe we’re going the wrong way. When we realize that indeed we have gone the wrong way, it’s too late. Our eight mile hike day will now turn into fourteen.
Now, we are high up on the cliffs of Blacklock Point, and we are backtracking our mileage north, looking for a water source and a place to camp. All the creeks are dried up, and we are discouraged by the potential mileage we’ll have to backtrack if all the streams are dry.
But as the sun begins to cast an orange glow over the Pacific, we finally find a creek with clean water. Shortly after that, we find a spectacular spot to pitch our tents, high above the ocean over steep, ochre cliffs.
Brian reminds me that while we had some difficulty today, tomorrow morning is our crossing of the Sixes River, which we estimate to be the biggest challenge of our hike.
The next morning, we descend down from Blacklock Point onto a steep-grade beach. This stretch, from Blacklock Point to Cape Blanco, with its sandstone cliffs and pine-tree headlands, bountiful sea rocks, is the pinnacle of Oregon’s coastal geography. Still, at the heart of this resplendent geography is the Sixes River. We’ve seen the pictures of the swollen, occasionally uncrossable river, and wonder about our own crossing.
We can't get a good view of the Sixes, but from afar, the crossing looks massive; almost like a lake. All that water tumbling into the ocean! Throughout the morning, images of a river crossing gone bad cross through my mind. Finally, I'm planning a Patagonia Club Expedition, and we're all gonna get washed off into the sea!
But when we reach the Sixes, there is indeed a lake. That lake is the result of a lazy summer river settling in and filling its delta. The river itself is just a narrow, meandering stream in a drought year, cutting through the sand. A small driftwood log is neatly placed by a previous hiker across the pint-sized chasm.
This is where the river teaches a good lesson; when we talk about a hiking trip, we talk about outdoor travel in terms of its dangers. And when we plan, we ponder the worst. But isn't this really just a walk on the beach? The point is not its danger but rather the simple pleasure that comes from being free - and crossing this simple river feels like more of an accomplishment for this lesson.
We hike along the beach to the enormous Cape Blanco headland, from where we can see Port Orford in the distance. We walk the beach below reddish sandstone cliffs, to our next river crossing.
Unlike the Sixes, the Elk River is swollen with a flood tide, and now we're facing our Sixes. We both try to cross, but the river is deep, and fast. There is no way to follow it upriver, as the flood tide has creating a small lake of water which abuts vertical cliffs.
I try to cross through the lake itself, but after seeing a harbor seal diving near my crossing, I see that the crossing is impossible.
But having crossed the river that we feared, this one seems like the other half of the lesson. We decide to wait out the tide, and within an hour and a half, the log that was being pulled up and down the river by wave action was starting to float off into the ocean. Now the was time to cross.
At a lower tide, our crossing is easy, and the cliffs of Port Orford are ahead of us. Today’s mileage is through some of the softest sand of the trip, and so as we reach the end of the beach trail by evening, we are weary.
But there’s still a mile to walk to the highway.
When we reach the highway, there is only a few hours of light left in the day. We stick our thumbs in the air, trying to look respectable.
The backpacking guidebooks all say that the people of Port Orford are very eager to help support coastal hikers, and that we’ll be picked up in no time.
What we get instead is mostly nasty looks.
Brian, a bastion of outdoors energy and optimism, looks deflated. I am consumed by sunburn and genuine weariness. After a half-hour, we give up, with the fallback plan of an hourly shuttle between the two coastal cities. Where is the shuttle? We walk to Port Orford to find out.
“Ah, no, that shuttle hasn’t been around for years,” says a police officer. “Best thing to do is hitch-hike.”
“We already tried that. Nobody’s picking us up.”
“I’ll tell you what,” he says, grabbing his radio. “I’ll drop you off a few miles out of Port Orford. Get you a couple miles closer, anyway.”
Brian doesn’t like the sound of this, and I can see how he is imagining us pitching tents on the side of the highway in desparation. But I see an opportunity. What if the police officer will take us all the way back? We get in the back of his patrol car. If we can keep him talking, he might just take us farther than two miles north.
I want to relay this to Brian; to somehow get him to help me keep the officer talking. But I sense that the officer will pick up on any secret communication between us. I must hope that Brian is thinking the exact same thing as me. We ask him a few questions, but, when he looks in the rearview mirror and says, “Fellas, I have to apologize but I just had a Monster. When I have a Monster, you pretty much can’t stop me from talking too much.” Brian and I don’t even look at each other in approval. We just listen intently, asking little micro-questions to keep the officer’s monologue moving along.
“When it starts to rain,” he says, “it gets beyond gorgeous out here. This is beautiful country. Only problem with the rain is, it gets harder to fish a body out of the fields.”
He radios in to the station. “I’m doing a courtesy call. Taking some hikers north to Langlois.”
Langlois is the half-way point to Bandon.
As we approach Langlois, the officer recounts the “fucking- crazy” bar-brawl from a few days ago. “This is pretty much the most violent place in Oregon,” he says. “I don’t know what it is, it’s the mentality from another century. The meth and the heroin don’t help much, either.”
We pass Langlois, and alongside stories of bruised bodies, knife-fights and drug busts, the officer describes his love affair with Port Orford. “You can just be yourself out here. Sometimes, I take my dog and we just go drive in the Wrangler into the wilderness, and there is nobody out there, and you have this entire place to yourself. It’s quiet, it’s green, it’s empty, and you can smell the sea deep in the woods.”
“Excuse me, you said you have a Wrangler?” I say.
“Love my two-door Jeep,” he says, looking at me in the rearview mirror.
“Well, if you do happen to take us all the way to Bandon,” I say, optimistic, thrilled, the moment of victory at hand. “I’ll show you my Jeep!”