Afoot and Afloat on the Nestucca River
At this time of year, many of us may find that our lives are speeding by at a shattering pace
Grant McOmie says take a deep breath and savor this week’s getaway where you can go with the flow and follow the tide: “Afoot and Afloat on the Little Nestucca River.”
Take a deep breath and savor a place meant for the quiet times along the Little Nestucca River in Tillamook County
The waterway cuts a beeline thru the Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge and the trip is so easy anyone can try on a river paddle with local guides called “Kayak Tillamook” who cater to beginners.
“The paddle trip flows right next to the forest and through the wildlife refuge,” said guide Marcus Hinz. “As you paddle out toward the bay you quickly forget there’s anything else around you except the wildlife.”
You may see bald eagles, red tail hawks, osprey, deer, elk, beavers, river otters and more – in fact, the bird life is remarkable.
Be sure to dress warm – and in layers to accommodate your level of activity. Avoid cotton – don’t forget a rain jacket cap and gloves.
A PFD is provided and it is mandatory on a trip where safety comes first!
“When you’re paddling in a kayak, you’re much less intrusive than a car,” added Hinz. “You get pretty close to the Canada geese and other waterfowl because – (in a small boat) - they’re not as frightened away from you.”
Nestucca Bay Wildlife Refuge is also a place where you can leave the paddles behind and take a stroll along the refuge trail, just off Cannery Hill Road, that meanders across heart of the refuge.
US Fish and Wildlife Biologist, Roy Lowe, said that NBWR was established in 1991 to protect Canada geese that migrate to coastal Oregon from Alaska.
“You are missing something special if you don’t come up and take a look,” noted Lowe. “While you drive may drive by the site on Coastal Hwy 101 and see this ridge, folks should really take a drive up here. The refuge is spectacular!”
It is also a refuge that’s been successful for wildlife protection. Lowe added that in the late 80’s, up to 1,000 geese wintered across the refuge marsh and pastures. Now, nearly 10,000 geese show up here from November through March,
The stunning viewpoint atop the wooden deck offers a breathtaking panorama that reaches from the mountains to the sea.
“Sunset is spectacular, sunrise too,” noted Lowe. “In fact, if you come here once that doesn’t mean it’s going to be the same the next time – it can be spectacular anytime depending upon the conditions.”
Back on the river, our paddling party easily glided through the refuge property on the rising tide.
Hinz added, that the Little Nestucca River is a timeless and easygoing adventure.
“It really the best of both worlds because you’re seeing the land from the water as opposed to seeing the water from the land, so it is a much more intimate experience and you really feel like you’re in nature.”
In addition to the NBWR trip, you’ll also be pleased to know that there are more than 800 miles of water trails in Tillamook County that reach across rivers, estuaries and sloughs. There’s even a map to guide your way: “Tillamook County Water Trails.”
Down By the Old Mill Stream
There’s simply nothing like what you’ll find “down by the old mill stream” at Thompson’s Mills State Heritage Area.
When Park Manager Doug Crispin tells the unique tale of Oregon history at one of the newest state park properties the 19th century comes to life.
It is history that dates back more than 150 years to a time when leather belts wrapped wooden wheels to move augers and elevators that carried grain that gave life to the earliest settlers of the Willamette Valley.
It was a time when the Calapooia River produced hydropower that moved all manner of machinery at Thompson’s Mills near Shedd, Oregon.
Martin Thompson owned the mill for much of its life and even built a Queen-Anne styled cottage next door.
But it was the gleaming whitewashed grain silos and the towering five-story mill that marked the site for miles around.
Crispin said that Oregon State Parks and Recreation Department was so impressed with the treasured landmark that they bought the mill, the cottage and the surrounding property a few years ago.
“Every time I walk through this mill and see the axe marks on these original timbers, it comes alive to me. I just marvel at the craftsmanship, the hard work and the ingenuity of our pioneer ancestors. Plus, the fact that it still stands today.”
Restoration efforts at the site continue and offer hands-on exhibits that show you how tons of grain was moved and then milled with giant limestone millstones.
It’s a remarkable site with many hidden nooks and crannies according to Crispin, who added it is: …“the sort of place that demands exploration.”
Thompson’s Mills flour was shipped across the country – even to China and Europe. Parts of the process offer homespun memories for visitors who recall the double-life of cotton flour bags.
“They were recycled and made into aprons,” noted Crispin. “Or tea towels by thrifty farm wives during the Great Depression and World War Two. Folks were recycling the old flour bags long before it was fashionable – back then it was simply more practical.”
It’s a site that holds on to history and it is even more amazing when you consider that it was all built by what Crispin termed, “Saddle Back Engineering.”
“All of this – the mill, the cottage, the machinery – was built and put into place long before GPS, long before aerial photography, laser levels or any modern technological help. These people figured the whole thing out by cruising the neighborhood on foot and on horse.”
It’s a wonderful step back into an earlier time and place that’s pretty much like it was – and that makes it all worth a visit.
The Nut Man of Washington County
On the family-owned “Lewis Century Farm,” the hazelnut harvest takes place in a cloud of dust.
It’s a dirty job down a gravel lane in Washington County, where Mark Lewis carries on what his great grandfather started in 1905.
While the passing years have seen more and more “new” machines added to the his farming operations, some machines haven’t changed in decades.
For example, a stone’s throw away from the Lewis hazelnut orchards, that rise and fall across the gentle rolling hillsides, there’s one particular machine that cleans the nuts just like it did after World War II.
It’s a monster of a machine with wheels and gears that go round and round to carry pounds of freshly harvested nuts that go up and down on belts with conveyors that eventually roll into large perforated cleaning drums where the nuts are showered and sprayed and cleaned with water.
“You have to get all the dirt washed off,” noted the longtime nut man. “And sometimes it gets awfully muddy, so the more drums, the more nuts you can wash. This one works just great!”
In fact, all of the old machinery on the Lewis farm works great.
Mark makes sure of that – not just the nut cleaner, but a nearby “sorter ‘n sizer” that shakes the hazelnuts from side to side and picks out the “blanks,”(shells that don’t contain the prized nutty meat) to a massive walk-in forced hot air dryer that dates back to 1927.
Inside the dryer, warm, 90-degree air blows 80 miles per hour. Flats full of hazelnuts will slowly dry out in the large room so they can be packaged and shipped to varied worldwide markets.
Back in the 1920’s, there were scores of dryers just like this one on farms across Washington County. But today, his is the last!
In fact, Lewis noted that his is one of just two operating family owned dryers left in Oregon. (It is used to dry tasty plums into prunes as well as hazelnuts.)
But it’s the cleaning machine that usually gets the twice over by visitors to the family farm.
That’s easy to understand! It’s just so much fun to watch.
John Day Fossil Beds and Digging Fossils For Keeps
The John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is a landscape of enormous vistas and endless horizons along one of the longest undammed rivers in the Lower 48.
From its headwaters in the Blue Mountains to its salmon-rich confluence with the grand Columbia more than 225 miles away, the John Day River twists, turns, and carves a path through a 14,000-acre treasure trove of colorful volcanic history and some of the world’s most important fossil beds.
The national monument is a three-unit preserve that draws professionals and amateurs alike from many different fields--as well as the generally curious who want to learn more about Oregon’s geologic history and a fossil record dating back 45 million years.
The Sheep Rock Unit (thirty miles west of the town of John Day) is home to the monument’s main visitor center and fossil collection. Colorful Sheep Rock looms above the narrow valley and its green fields on either side of the snaking river.
That’s about all the green you’ll see at a place that turns time on its head. When you stare up at the brown and tan rock walls in the sweltering heat that cooks like an oven, it’s hard to imagine that a lush, near-tropical forest once existed here.
But according to the monument’s curator and paleontologist, Josh Samuels, “the records in the rocks don’t lie.”
Samuels added, “This is a wonderful area to study changes in plants and animals or biological evolution. We see animals coming into existence in these fossil beds and, millions of years later, disappearing. It’s also an area where we have abundant fossils, so we go out and collect fossils there It’s a very important place.”
Josh Samuels said that visitors are best served to begin their adventures at the Thomas Condon Visitor Center.Samuels added that classes and lectures teach you more about the region, while the center’s murals and fossils give perspective on periods that reach back 50 million years.
“You really have a jungle in those times with things like crocodiles that truly contrast with today’s dry, arid environment of open sage brush and grass land environments with things like deer, mountain lions and elk running around.”
The center is administered by the National Park Service and also serves as an active research area, so you may chance upon the laboratory and see how specimens are prepared for analysis: the past is revealed in front of your eyes – one grain of rock and sand at a time.
Technicians use patience and critical care to remove the rock so to expose fossilized animals that lived so long ago.
The Sheep Rock Unit is a good starting point for your journey through time. It prepares you to understand the remarkably vivid colors of the ash deposits at the Painted Hills Unit about sixty-five miles south of Sheep Rock and near Mitchell, Oregon.
The Painted Hills Unit lies at the end of a three-mile paved access road.
It’s a popular site for photographers who wish to capture the brilliantly colored ash deposits that range from rose to pink, from gold to bronze, and seem splashed across the eroded contours of nearby hummocks and hills.
This is the kind of treasure Oregon legends are made of, and I never tire of an early morning or late evening visit when the light is just peeking up or winking down the hillsides.
Several short hiking trails allow closer inspection, and you will also find shaded picnic tables, water, and restrooms, as well as exhibits and trail guides. At the “Painted Cove Trail” you’ll appreciate the fact that they have built a boardwalk above the environment in order to protect it – in this case, it’s ash fall dating back 33 million years.
“Leave no footprints and take only memories,” is a standard and strict rule inside the parkland, but fifty miles to the northwest, the Clarno Unit sits on the banks of the John Day River.
You may have the most fun up the road a piece at Wheeler High School in Fossil, Oregon, where you can dig the fossils--for keeps. Kids especially love that activity.
Stroll through the back gate at the high school - where donations are kindly accepted - and pass under the goal posts to take up a hand full of fossils that you can actually keep.
School Superintendent, Brad Sperry, told me, “It has been kind of a local secret, and the community knew about it; would come up and kick around in the rocks and pick up a fossil. Got on a couple websites and before long, it looks like today: busy.”
All you need to dig your own fossils are simple tools, a strong arm, keen eyes, curiosity and a ton of patience.
For just a few minutes, I dug, pried, and separated the layers of muddy shale and found perfectly preserved imprints of ferns, cedar fronds, and an unusual leaf.
Brad noted, “None of these plants survived the era, of course, but it is the record of this tremendous diversity of life and the record of a totally catastrophic end that, taken together, really make you think.”
Just down the street from the school, the new Paleo Lands Institute will teach you much about the fossils that you collect and perhaps provide a new way to look at the high desert.
Institute spokesperson, Anne Mitchell, said, “I think a lot of people come out and go –‘I want to dig up a fossil.’ But when they actually get here, they start learning how it all goes together. This center was designed to be sort of a hands-on, get dirty and get comfortable with science and learn about fossils and geology.”
It really helps to present what people have right in their own backyards – there are fossils really,” added Samuels. “These fossils are something that we can highlight and help others to appreciate the history of the area and the valuable natural resources that are here.”
Crazy For Crabbing
Searching for new adventure in the Oregon outdoors?
Consider going back to school for an adventure that may leave you a little crabby. But that’s a good thing as Grant takes us to Yaquina Bay at Newport for a new way to catch fresh Dungeness crabs.
Each October, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife offers a unique Outdoor Skills class that teaches folks how to catch their supper from the sea.
It’s the sort of experience that draws lots of beginners to Yaquina Bay at Newport, noted instructor Mark Newell. He said that the class is perfectly suited to folks who want to learn the ropes of Dungeness crabbing.
“We want people to care about the environment and the best way to do that is to get them out enjoying it. Crabbing is a great family activity that they can do together, boating, pulling pots and all of that. There are lots of places to do it.”
One of those places is along Newport’s Bayfront Avenue where Steven De-Mars demonstrated his new gear and technique that catches crabs called the “CrabHawk.”
“I made this for the recreational crabber and the people who don’t own a boat.”
DeMars said that “CrabHawk” (the name comes from a South American raptor that actually eats crab) allows anyone with a rod and reel to cast the trap from a dock or shoreline to reach the big crabs.
“You bait it, cast it out, let it hit bottom and take up your slack just like you’re fishing for trout or catfish.”
De-Mars explained that he came up with the idea after years of frustration with traditional traps and pots that were big, heavy, messy and limited him to one spot on the dock. The CrabHawk gives the fisher lightweight portability and flexibility to move to a new spot.
Initially, Demars used coat hangers and old fishing net to create different prototypes. It took a couple of years to perfect the all stainless steel folding trap that opens like a book on the bottom. The crabs walk onto the trap to feast on the chicken drumstick that’s used for bait. Why chicken?
“The crabs love chicken and sea lions don’t! That’s why it works so well. I’ve had three keepers in one pull and when the crabs are really running, it’s nothing to get doubles every other pull.”
DeMars recommends a ten-eleven foot rod that holds a spinning reel loaded with 50 pound test line. He can easily cast the CrabHawk 150 feet into Yaquina Bay and then props up the rod and watches the rod tip for a bite.
“That’s the key to this; the fact that you can see the bite. If you’re a fisherman and a crabber you get the best of both worlds.”
Nearby, his fishing partner - Gary Bowman - cast his CrabHawk into the bay. He said that he used traditional crab pots for years, but after getting skunked as DeMars limited out, he gave in and bought a couple Crabhawks to try.
“For me, I like the ability to really fish – to cast, watch for the bite and then reel in the catch. It’s more interesting and fun than just watching a rope.”
Demars added that the release of small crabs is easier than traps too – simply unfold the trap and the small crabs fall right back into the bay. “No muss, no fuss and that’s what the CrabHawk is all about,” noted the smiling DeMars. “It doesn’t harm the animal at all.”
It’s new and innovative and recently DeMars has become a part of the ODFW Crabbing classes – demonstrating how they work and catching lots of new customers along the way.
“It works so well and it’s just so simple. Give it a try!”