Storm Watching on the Oregon Coast
“IT IS GOING TO RAIN BUCKETS AND BLOW to 60 miles per hour.” How’s that for a vacation forecast? Perfect, actually, when you’re going storm watching.
One day later, I’m getting sandblasted on a deserted stretch of the Oregon beach, with nothing but dunes, waves, and a single pickup truck in sight. The wind whips my hair into a ropey mess, the rain falls in sheets from every possible direction. That forecast, from a local weather buff, was right on the money.
Storm-watching vacations begin online, but not on Orbitz. The National Weather Service in Portland is the authority on the coastline, updating a color-coded map with conditions from Florence, halfway down the Oregon coast, to Washington’s Long Beach peninsula. Today it sports the hot pink of a Gale Warning, the dusty rose of a Small Craft Advisory, and the burnt orange of a High Wind Watch.
I’m 25 miles south of where the Columbia River dumps into the Pacific, in Cannon Beach. Once a struggling logging town sitting under picturesque Haystack Rock, Cannon Beach has adopted the art-colony feel of California’s Carmel-by-the-Sea. Its well-appointed beach houses would be at home on Cape Cod, and the flashiest spot is the tony Coaster Theatre Playhouse, which puts on crowd-pleasers year-round like Annie Get Your Gun and Boeing-Boeing. Eight miles north, Seaside bustles with all the trappings of a shore retreat—saltwater taffy purveyors, a boardwalk, fast food.
From May to September, the sands fill with the usual summer crowds, but in the wet winter months the towns settle into seasonal hibernation. To popularize winter travel on the stormy coast, local businessman David Posalski opened a guide business in 2010 called Oregon Storm Tours. He is optimistic that Cannon Beach and Seaside can become two-season towns, and he hopes to convince hoteliers to give away winter rooms to avid weather nuts. “All the news outlets head down here to report on just how bad the weather is,” he says, pointing out a news van setting up on the streets of Seaside. “If we can change the paradigm to just how good it is, we can really make this the center for storm watching.”
With gale warnings and a high-wind watch in effect, I scramble onto the leather seats of Posalski’s F150—an extended-cab behemoth of a truck—and he drives straight onto the abandoned beach. Oregon’s coastline is 350-plus miles of flat sand and imposing headlands (remember The Goonies?), and it’s all public land. What’s more, it’s a public road. In 1913, the state legislature declared the oceanfront a state highway. Now it’s technically a state recreation area, but it’s still perfectly legal to motor down the beach.
From inside the car, it’s hard to appreciate just how hard it’s blowing outside. The shore’s stout trees and shrubs are built for the wind, and they barely shiver in strong gusts. Exiting the truck, I have to hold the pickup’s door to keep from being blown over. “Don’t smile,” Posalski instructs as we wander over dunes to a shipwreck—an open mouth means a grill full of sand. But it’s hard not to light up at the sight of the Peter Iredale, the metal rib cage of a ship that grounded here more than a century ago.
This corner of Oregon is crowded, historywise; just inland is Fort Clatsop, the end point to the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Best for storm seekers is the jetty at Fort Stevens, which emerges like a fingernail at the mouth of the Columbia River. On a viewing platform above the jetty, you’re almost a mile closer to the breaking waves than you would be on the beach. There’s a good reason this is the final stop on Posalski’s tours; it feels like being inside a hurricane. Spray reaches two stories into the air, and seals play in the surf.
As yet, Posalski is the only one leading outings like this. Storm appreciation doesn’t require a guide, however, and from December through April, you can’t do much better—or much gustier—than the turnoff in the dizzyingly high heights of Neahkahnie Mountain, about a dozen miles south of Cannon Beach. Ecola State Park on Cannon Beach’s northern edge has the best view of the decommissioned Tillamook Rock lighthouse, perched more than a mile offshore on a tiny lump of rock. It’s at its most dramatic during storms, when crashing surf can cover the 96-foot-high structure. Terrible Tilly, as it’s called, was most recently a columbarium, a depository for cremated remains, so it belongs to the ghosts now.
NOT ALL STORM watching needs to be done in the rain. At the beach-facing rooms of the Ocean Lodge in Cannon Beach, gas fireplaces are ideally positioned for seaside cuddling. A bigger hearth in the lobby gives off the aroma of wood fire, a scent perfectly suited to the wailing winds outside. Next door, the Stephanie Inn is decked out in even swankier furnishings, plus it hosts nightly wine tastings and nightcaps. Bathrooms hold Jacuzzi tubs with the dimensions of a lap pool (okay, more like the size of a double bed), and both hotels boast bottomless cookie jars in the lobby.
Given all this wind and rain, these parts do strong trade in clam chowder. Some swear by Dooger’s Seafood and Grill, a local minichain with chowder that’s mostly meat. Others prefer the creamier consistency at Norma’s Ocean Diner in Seaside. Or you can bypass the two big guns in favor of Mo’s, as Bill Gates did on a solo shore jaunt last fall. Posalski, for his part, serves Ivar’s chowder in his Seaside sandwich shop, Tsunami Sandwich Company, to the glee of visiting Seattleites.
Fine dining in Cannon Beach is done at Stephanie Inn’s own restaurant or the continental Newmans at 988. Marion-berry scones are plate size at the Lazy Susan Cafe, a charming breakfast spot that welcomes diners, sort of, with a sign that reads, “Be Nice or Leave.”
STORM WATCHING IS NOT ALL CUTE rain boots and frolicking seals. Common sense dictates that cliffs are off limits during heavy winds. Not even kamikaze-crazy surfers should try the water during foul weather; pairs of so-called “sneaker waves” sync together and instantly double their height. Day-after walks reveal the coast’s best bounty, the flotsam and jetsam blown ashore. After the sneaker waves come the sneakers: Every local has found a running shoe or two in the sand. They’re lost cargo from ocean barges—a ship dumped 80,000 shoes once—but it’s hard not to imagine lost Nikes returning to their Oregon homeland like spawning salmon. Glass Japanese floats are the prized treasures of the beachcomber, especially those dating back to the early twentieth century.
On the sunny morning after my midsize storm, however, all I find on the foamy beach is a bottle of Chateau Ste. Michelle riesling. Empty—I checked.