Coastal Terroir

By Michael Kew

Near Cape Sebastian State Park. Photo: Kew.

"THAT GUY? HE'LL SHOOT YOU," Rick says with a laugh. “He takes trespassing seriously. His brother’s even crazier.”

Grayly mustachioed and a bit bald, Rick (not his real name) is a general contractor. He’s tired—long day at the jobsite. We lean against our car hoods in the potholed parking lot. Light east wind cools our backs, and up the beach, near those rocks, the waves look fun—head-high lefts, glassy, shared by a crowd of three.

Filtered by shreds of purply-pink cirrus, the February sun sinks toward the sea. Lately there’ve been several scenic descents, high pressure ruling the American west. Oregon’s coast, often stormy, has received scant rain this winter. No snowpack in the mountains. A drought, officially.

 “Want some?” I ask Rick, yanking the cork from my clear glass 750ml bottle of St. George Terroir gin. Along with whisky, I’d had it shipped to his daughter at their beachfront home, just past the state line. The gin isn’t sold in Oregon, and my online booze merchant won’t mail spirits to Oregon, so this was a minor case of smuggling, you might say.

“No thanks, man. Half a beer gets me drunk.”

A male gull lands on the sand, squawking at us.

“Dinnertime—gotta go!”

Grinning, Rick slides into his gray pickup and drives off, leaving me with psychedelic dusk pastels and questions about a piece of coast we’d discussed. I’d fessed to one recent day exiting Highway 101 for a narrow dirt track, normally blocked by a chicken wire gate festooned with signs: Private Property, Private Road, No Trespassing, No Hunting, No Parking, No Beach Access, Keep Out.

That day, the gate was open. Slowly I drove onto the track, actually a muddy rut. Fifty yards in, paranoia and guilt sparked an eight-point U-turn amid tall Sitka spruce.

On a map, the track winds west to a few rocky points and coves backed by cliffs and dense forest, with a few homes amongst the trees. Walking to the beach from the north or south is impossible due to impassable headlands, even at minus tides. Except by long-distance paddling or boating in or getting permission from the ornery landowner, there is no way to sit and wax one’s board on that surfy stretch of beach, despite it being public property.

“Maybe you can just parachute down there?” Rick had joked. “Or wear a wingsuit?”

“I couldn’t leave after surfing.”

“A jetpack? Could get up and out with one of those.”

Got me thinking about this, “the people’s coast,” dubbed such in 1913 by Democrat Oregon Gov. Oswald West, a public-lands advocate. West decided the 363 miles of beach between California and the Columbia River formed a public “highway” up to the high-tide line, aka the “wet sand” zone.

“No local selfish interest,” he said, “should be permitted, through politics or otherwise, to destroy or even impair this great birthright of our people.”

But a flaw hung high in that cool Pacific breeze—West had defined public domain as only up to the high-water mark. So, in the heady 1960s, after more than 50 years of public beach use, commercial developers began to rebel, claiming the “dry sand” zone—that is, unaffected by the highest of tides—belonged to adjacent landowners, who were entitled to rule their property down to the water’s edge, including fence-building for beach privatization (which actually happened in front of Cannon Beach’s Surfsand Resort).

Farewell to kite-flying and shell-collecting and sand castle-building? Hello to House Bill 1601, a front-page-news bid to save all Oregon beaches for public recreational use. The bill was the big issue of 1967’s legislative session and, to this day, drew the greatest public response to any topic in Oregon’s 170-year legislative history.

On July 6, calling it “one of the most far-reaching measures of its kind enacted by any legislative body in the nation,” iconic Republican Oregon Gov. Tom McCall signed the Beach Bill amid much pomp. Passing 57-3, it granted public free-reign from the low-water mark to the vegetation line, which McCall, a fervid greenie, studied and deduced to be 16 feet above sea level.

“Today, such things are nearly impossible to accomplish since coastal land has become so valuable,” Surfrider Foundation attorney Mark Massara recently told me. “Property owners are better organized and have more money to fight. Think about how desolate and unpopulated Oregon’s coast was in 1967—the good ol’ days, for sure.”

Forty-eight years on, though, of the 23 U.S. states that touch an ocean, Oregon still owns the best legal policies for coastal access that doesn’t require a jetpack or parachute. And with no boat or paddleboard, here at twilight at this very public beach, I glance down at the bottle in my hand, wondering if I might never surf one particular fetch unless I make nice with its landowner. Because I’d rather not get shot.

Hearing the thumping and sighing of the surf, I can’t help but think: Maybe the guy likes gin?