Man time is weird. Writing about these weeks feels like I’m writing about another decade. I feel like squeezing every drop out of each day has changed my sense of time. Days do not pass you by when you’re trekking through the Oregonian winter in the pouring rain. No, each second is felt with each sense, providing a lasting impression. Knowing that I only have precious moments in each location to see what I need to see forces me to capitalize on every waking hour. What a contrast to the dull moments that I am accustomed to seeing fly by. Without unknown bends in the road ahead, those moments quickly amount to minutes, hours, days, and weeks, and before you know it, a week has passed by without you really taking notice. Not here. Each day is a gift, and each day is a fight, and I have needs to meet. These needs are pressing and urgent; they are no joke, and they cannot be taken lightly. Needs give weight to the moments, and weighted moments weigh down time, hence the feeling of the slow passage of time.
I’ll go ahead and blame my altered sense of time on the delay in the post.
Most of the day was spent indoors, catching up on administrative business like route planning and blog writing. Before I knew it, it was dinner time, so I headed down to Long Beach to get something to eat. Along the way, I felt the strongest wind I’ve ever felt. They were truly gale-force winds. It felt like a team of ghosts was pushing me into town. If I picked up my feet, I could have floated into Long Beach.
What an insanely beautiful day on the Washington coast! It was well worth riding out that winter storm to experience the gorgeousness that was hiding behind the front. I mean blue sky, crisp air, and sunshine- all intensely foiled by the rain, snow, and sleet that colored the last few days.
It was an odd but freeing feeling to hop on the uni with 10% of my gear to head to the Riekkola Unit of the Willapa NWR (hence the photo). I could actually see the wheel below me, which is normally obscured by my front drybag. Lunch in hand, I made my way through some backroads to get to the entrance of the unit. Suddenly, a familiar chip caught my attention: Yellow-rumped Warbler? I dismounted to investigate further. Although I was unable to locate any warbler culprit, a finch frenzy brought me two year birds: House Finch and Red Crossbill.
After five miles, I had arrived. So I ditched the uni in the woods and took to my feet to squeeze all birdlife out of this refuge. This unit was relatively new and restricted, so it didn’t have much new to offer. I kind of expected that; I just thought I’d try something unusual and hope for an unusual result; that’s kind of what my Big Year is all about.
Among the 32 species that I would see at the unit, only Canvasback, a regal-looking duck, was new for the year.
I savored the rest of my evening in Washington, as it’d be my last for a while. I was leaving the state with 100 birds on my Washington state list.
In my early sluggish awareness I pick up on a fairly constant and irritating drone of traffic. Surprising for this sleepy little beach town and bothersome as can be. I cannot help but take it as an onomatopoetic foreshadowing of today’s journey. What would the world sound like if everyone parked their car for a year?
Like it or not it’s time for me to eschew the life of comforts for the life of adventure. I’ve been getting too settled here: too roped into TV, too inclined to lounge, and too unproductive. Following checkout, I reentered my ways of old, and I instantly remembered why I opted for this way. It was like my brain had awakened from sleep mode. The hills towards Raymond were still snow-covered, and I was grateful for the the way the week’s worth of wintry weather had played out. The snow cover revealed the land’s secrets: the whitest areas being the ones with the freshest wounds, the cutover plots.
It ain’t long before I’m in Chinook, and I’m on the fence about stopping until I see a triad of Greater White-fronted Geese feeding in a lot alongside the highway. So I make a quick stop to document them and then mount up to head for the bridge. But I’m not on the saddle for long before a tunnel appears and necessitates me pressing a button for passing bikes. If only I were agile enough to press the button and continue riding... Unfortunately I must get off and walk through the tunnel. Each passing car is like submachine gun fire to the eardrum. The effect of the reverberation feels like surround-sound gone wrong. I could not have gotten out of that tunnel sooner.
And as soon as I did, my next frontier appeared on the horizon: Oregon. It would be my second new state on the trip and my last. And I was pumped for it’s potential. I would be entering with 96 birds on the year list, poised for a flush of new ones. But standing between that promise and me was the Columbia River and the 4.1 mile Astoria-Megler Bridge, which is the longest continuous three-span through-trust bridge in North America, whatever the hell that means. And I walked it, apparently illegally. Along the way I’d encounter a Western Gull and Pelagic Cormorant in my path: both having perished at the hands of drivers. In a sort of rushed and unceremonious funeral, I tossed them back to the Columbia, their mother and true home.
Man this is a wide river. Four miles?? The Columbia is the fourth largest river in North America, and somehow man has placed not one, not two, but 14 dams along the main channel. Fourteen dams? This thing must be more backed up than the Comcast customer service queue. But what comes around goes around, and the Columbia’s deceptively enticing inlet has been the siren for many a lost crew, as Maritime Memorial Park in Astoria can attest.
Taking my first steps in Oregon, I became aware of an odd phenomenon transpiring at my feet. Drainage holes in the bridge had turned into miniature water spouts, the wind having the gravity-defying effect of forcing water droplets upwards to the road’s surface. It was another little magic moment that the speeding and oblivious SUV’s had no chance of observing. As was the passing biker: a true vagrant on a baby blue bike with whitewalls and a bottle of vodka in the front cupholder. He eyed me and exclaimed “That’s a huge f%&*in’ wheel! Cool!”
So I mentioned that my means of crossing into Oregon was apparently illegal: it brought my first (and certainly not last) run-in with the law. All of a sudden, after having crossed about 75% of the bridge, an Astoria police cruiser approached and blocked off the north-bound traffic lane (I was walking against the flow of traffic in an attempt at self-preservation). While biking is allowed on the bridge, walking is not, and apparently my stroll along the shoulder had been the cause of several calls placed to the Astoria PD. Fortunately my officer was extremely understanding and did not require that I ride the remainder in his squad car or that I needed to do anything other than finish what I had started. As we chatted, some California Sea Lions honked their circus-act honk, perhaps in an effort to salute a fellow patron of performance arts. It was my first interaction with these fellas, and the officer was nice to identify them for me. After running my license, confiscating the Washington license plate that I found on the bridge, and verifying that my intention was not to jump from the bridge, he let me continue onwards.
Finally I got the heck off of that confounded bridge and made my way to the Astoria Riverwalk. From there it was just a stroll up a really steep hill to my Warmshowers stay, where Becky let me into the guest room. Holy smokes was I blown away. Looking around the room as I write, I’m still in denial. Steve and Becky offer a space for traveling cyclists that is literally a cyclist’s dream. I’ll check tomorrow and make sure that I wasn’t actually just dreaming. The space is independently accessible and features a kicking common area, stero, bike repair area, free stuff box, kitchen with all kinds of wares, furnace, full bathroom, beds, books, games, a roller, yoga mats, a medicine ball, and a clothesline. All of this is framed with a neat industrial look and adorned with Grateful Dead imagery, including a immortalizing photo of Mr. Garcia just laying into a sick lick. The wifi network name is shipoffools. I literally could not have imagined this any better.
I had to take a stroll just to digest the awesomeness that I was just presented. So I returned to the Riverwalk, which showed some promise. In route I grabbed a big tray of chicken mac n’ cheese from a food truck (and didn’t have to pay sales tax-there is none in Oregon). The Riverwalk was actually productive, and I added Greater Scaup and Orange-crowned Warbler, my second warbler species for the year.
Later on I’d make my way back down to town to grab some fish tacos and appreciate Astoria at night. The sidewalks have these cool mosaic-type insets with illumination-you have to see it to appreciate it.
I rise leisurely. I may as well just stop saying that since it happens so often these days. But there’s no urgency in my acts because I have decided to take Steve and Becky up on their offer and stay another night. Why not? It’s too good to pass up, and I ought to check out more of Astoria.
Soon I’m scaling the steep grades of the Astoria sidewalks, heading for the highest point of the city. I find myself humming the Full House theme song. I can’t help myself, the resemblance to the San Fran of the sitcom cannot be overlooked. After all, Astoria is referred to as “Little San Fransisco.”
I make my zig-zag way through the disjointed streets, climbing ever higher. I find that the streets arbitrarily end, requiring that I connect to the adjoining one. I later learn from my cycling buddy Brian that the discontinuity is the artifact of repeated landslides. How nice.
Passing through the entrance to Coxcomb Hill, I spot my destination sitting atop a lush, grassy hill: the Astoria Column. No, it’s not a newspaper office; it’s a structure. It recalls an out-of-place lighthouse and does not appear to have much of a command from its perch. But the views from the top always beat the views from the bottom, and the Column didn’t disappoint.
From the top, I take in the view, enjoying a solitary occupation of the platform for several minutes.
|A Selfie for Posterity|
Below, the city of Astoria is perfectly patterned along the banks of the Columbia, stretching neatly onto the neighboring hill. Everything below appears so nicely laid out, as if it were all constructed from Legos. Houses look perfectly geometrical, cars move in an orderly and predictable fashion along the sleepy streets, docks reach out into the impressive Columbia, and Coast Guard ships motor along happily. Suddenly the whole scene appears as Google Maps programming: my bird’s eye view converting the lay of the land into a series of routes. Which will I take in the morning?
From my vantage atop this lookout, I realize that I am the highest man in Astoria. Well, on second thought, maybe not... I guess it depends on your definition of high.
From the ground, I look up to appreciate the Column once more. A vertical crack from top to bottom becomes apparent. I’m glad I didn’t have to see that before climbing to the top.
My return to town is mostly accomplished along a muddy stretch of trail. Soon I’m back on the riverwalk. The fastest animal in the world-the Peregrine Falcon- provides a typical fleeting view. A couple of crows loudly signal their presence nearby. As I go to put them into my running eBird list, I see that Northwestern Crow/American Crow is no longer an option. Apparently Oregon birders consider their crows to be pure enough to be considered American Crows. I guess now is as good a time as any to add them to my year list; it’s not like it’ll be my last sighting of them.
Sitting on the cliffhanger of 99 species, I gorge myself on more Astoria food; it’s the best culinary destination I’ve seen so far. Then I’m back up to the house, where a nap is an unavoidable next move.
I woke up an hour later from a cavernous sleep- I thought it was the next day. I cannot remember the last time I slept so hard, especially when napping. I must have been supremely at ease. Undoubtedly I was rested for the moving day that was next.
This morning I finally met Steve, the host of this incredible venue. It was difficult to peel away from his place, knowing that much worse housing options lie ahead. But it had to be done; other travelers would follow. The Oregon stretch of Highway 101 is 358 mi from border to border. The Oregon coast is 363.1 miles long. Time to get some of those miles under my belt.
I walked the uni over the hill to reach a smaller bridge on 101, the lesser of two evils. Just as I’m preparing to mount to begin the day’s ride, a cyclist pulls up alongside me and asks if I was in AdventureCycling Magazine. I resist the temptation to claim another’s fame and tell the guy that I’m not famous.
He introduces himself as Brian Squire (no relation to Billy Squire-I asked) and offers to ride with me to Seaside. He diverts my route from 101 to the more scenic and less traveled Lewis and Clark Road. This is my first group cycling experience ever, and it’s loads more fun than riding alone. After passing over the bridge, I’m confronted with year bird #100- a milestone! It’s a Red-shouldered Hawk that takes flight from a powerline and offers a fleeting view.
Before long, we are well on our way to the Oregon woods, leaving the hustle and bustle of 101 behind. The day simply cannot be any nicer, and it takes me off-guard.
Brian and I begin to chat, and pretty soon I’m aware of how incredible his cycling past is and how lucky we both are to be in his company. After being the victim of a head-on bike on car collision, he nearly lost his leg. His injuries, including spinal damage, required weeks of recovery in the hospital. His outlook was grim. And yet here he was, twelve years later, not visibly phased, and enjoying the ride as if nothing of the sort had ever happened. He truly has a sunny outlook that cannot be dampened.
And he commuted to work on his bike for thirty years! He and his wife do not even own a car; all of their business is done by bike or foot. They practice an admirable lifestyle. Not to mention they’ve crisscrossed the US on their bikes like a couple of navigators with a broken compass.
Brian insisted that we make a quick detour to Lewis and Clark National Historic Park to check out the reconstruction of the encampment that these fellas spent a winter in. Attempting to skirt the visitor’s center, we caught the attention of some NPS employees. We caught flack from them as they dealt with us in their usual entitled manner. I don’t know what it is about NPS, but they always exude this air. You’d think we were trying to infiltrate the Treasury in DC. These folks would later lighten up a bit when we passed by on the way out.
Brian was insistent about getting photos, and I am glad that he was. It’s something that I usually neglect to do but regret. So his willingness to capture the moment was valuable.
We were putting along nicely, with hardly any traffic. Towards the tail-end of the ride, we began a slow climb. I was sweating like a stuck pig in the sunshine and finally had to stop to shed my well-insulated jacket. Feeling like a new man, I entered Seaside with a smile on my face and a new friend by my side.
Like all good things, our ride had to come to an end. So Brian turned back and headed for Astoria, and I made my way to the hostel to check in.
This would be quite the interesting next step on my journey, to be honest. I was so hungry after stashing my stuff, so I headed into the thick of it around 2. And boy, was it thick. People were swarming like termites before a colony dispersal. Seaside has a real Santa Monica feel: a coastal town that’s overrun with people, most of whom are wearing Vans. People raced around in 4-wheeled pedal cars and a minivan family tailed a police cruiser while blasting the theme from Cops. What in the world had I stumbled into? My hunger was not allowing me to interpret the scene fully. A man was handing out saltwater taffy at a street corner.
|“Vincent, you ever had a Big Kahuna Burger?”|
Walking along the shooting galleries, arcades, and souvenir shops, I scanned for a reasonable-looking place for a meal. I settled on a place where hearing Harry Chapin over the speakers really summed the scene up.
With some food in my belly, I ran back to the hostel to grab my effects and try for the residing rarity -a Mountain Plover- in the fading light. I had a close encounter with a young bull Elk and was relieved that he did not feel threatened by me in any way.
By the time I made it to the spot, mist began to enshroud the huge exposed beach, rendering my attempts at finding a small brown bird futile. In all honesty, I felt relief in not seeing the Plover, feeling that I’d get much more satisfying lifer looks the following day.
|“Somewhere, over the dunes.”|
|“You built a time machine, out of a DeLorean?|
Mountain Plover and Long-billed Curlew were my priorities for the next day. These were both birds that I did not expect to have a shot at until months later in California, and learning of their presence and apparent cooperativeness struck me as odd for this location. But I wasn’t going to pass up good looks at these normally clandestine shorebirds.
A sad day. Midway through the day, I would receive word that my sister’s and my long time babysitter/nanny/housekeeper passed away. Mrs. Ren embodied all of the characteristics of a virtuous person. She imparted peace and calmness, and we were blessed to have her in our lives; she touched our lives and shaped their courses for the better. We cherish fond memories of her and her husband Clint, and from now on we’ll cling to them especially tightly. Our hearts hurt for the loss a friend, loved one, and member of the family. At the same time, we are relieved to know that she has found the place where she truly belongs and that we may see her again one day. I am grateful for Mrs. Ren’s life and her impact on mine.
Before I received word about our loss, I was hard at work, covering most of Seaside Beach down to the cove, where I picked up my lifer Black Turnstone (the *’s in my species list denote life birds). They were pretty confiding, foraging just beyond the brigade of surfer vans parked at the cove’s edge.
After taking a moment to appreciate these unusually spectacular lifer looks, I continued onwards to the south, hugging the cove and hopefully unearthing it’s bird wonders. A quartet of friendly and knowledgeable birders also found themselves in Seaside Cove. They introduced themselves as Jay Withgott, Wink Gross, Andy Frank, and David Mandell. In addition to answering my new kid on the block questions, they put me on a few year birds. Among them was a Harlequin Duck, a much sought-after bird that I had last seen in February of 2018 off of the south tip of Cumberland Island.
After they moved on, I continued along the rocky shoreline, hoping to unveil other wonders among the rough surf. Surfers eyed me as if I had just burned down an orphanage in town and gotten away with it. One of them told me that I was brave to take “that camera” where I was going (referring to my scope which is most definitely not a camera). I said “oh because of the waves?” He responded with “no, because of the locals.”
With that strange dose of foreboding behind me, I set up shop to scan the rafts from a more direct location. Miguel from the Augusta Chronicle called me to ask about my undertaking. After the call, I sat to rest and appreciate the scene and my apple. Just before sitting down on a rock, my scope went crashing into the rocky shoreline, sending the eyepiece on a concerning trajectory. Yup, it’s pretty much busted.
The rest of the day was very long and consisted of many miles walked to find the Curlew and Plover, but it was not to be today.
During one of the stints of my three part Mountain Plover-a-thon, a man spotted me on the sidewalk and asked if I was after the Mountain Plover. I’ll be dogged if it wasn’t Steve Warner, the very birder who found the Plover just four days prior. During our conversation, Steve offered a suggestion for a last-ditch effort at spotting the bird. I followed his lead but found myself unsuccessful and absolutely bushed at the day’s end. Imagine my surprise when Steve shows up and invites me over to dinner. What a way to end the day!
As I enjoyed burritos with Steve and his wife Marylynn, we talked Oregon, routes, and birds. The Warners both explained the hint of surfer hostility that I experienced earlier. Apparently the surfers are very territorial and do not want word to get out about their local haunt. They thought that I was taking pictures and spreading the word. Well I guess 50% of their suspicions had a basis.
But I cannot disrespect the surfers with sweeping judgements. Steve is a surfer himself. And he is undeserving of disrespect.
I want to thank Steve and Marylynn for their hospitality and a warm Oregon welcome! It is much appreciated!
I was really looking forward to a good night’s sleep last night, but my maniacal dorm-mate decided to have premonitions about going to some nonexistent job all night. As he mumbled and went about his unconscious preparations, I laid restlessly, waiting for morning to give me some escape.
And morning did come, and so did the rains. I couldn’t leave Seaside without trying for the two shorebird targets again, so I spent the next couple of hours running around in the rain chasing ghosts.
My suspicions about the nature of my targets, the Plover and the Curlew, were confirmed. Like me, they had arrived at an unusual destination for their kind and were not intent on being gawked at for any particular reason. I felt a lot of kinship for these shy individuals, a feeling that eased the blow of the miss. Until California...
But that’s the thing about birding. It’s real. You cannot just say “Siri, show me a Mountain Plover.” No, this sport requires effort, dedication, and positivity. Instant gratification doesn’t come around to spoil its practitioners. And if it does, it’s really special. It’s the rarity of ease that defines it. Otherwise even ease becomes diluted by itself. Birding restores expectations to a more reasonable state, reminding us that not everything can be achieved with minimal effort.
Bearing this in mind, I am temporarily assuaged in my defeat. The rematch will come.
But before I earn that fifth or sixth chance with this Plover, I’ve got to skip town. I’ve got a short hop scheduled for the day. I’m heading over to the next town to the south: Cannon Beach, a location of Goonies fame.
So it’s back to the unicycle life for a bit. Just enough exposure to the road to remind me of its mysteries without totally draining me. You know what demographic really likes my unicycle-riding antics? You may be surprised to hear that it’s neither the truckers nor the chicks that respond most favorably to me. It’s the dogs. I simply cannot pass by a dog, whether I’m walking or pushing, without it just exploding into a barking fit. There’s something about this one-wheeled business that just sends them over the edge. I wish I could understand what they were saying like the dogs from UP.
The trip to Cannon Beach was not too bad; although it did require a bit of walking on the upslope. If you’ve noticed the weirdness with my track on this stretch, it’s due to some GPS error. I did not go on a pelagic nor did I go swimming in the Pacific as my tracker seems to suggest.
I had a treat waiting for me in Cannon Beach. Hannah Buschert and Erik Ostrander, a zealous birding duo out of Oregon, had invited me to stay in their hotel for a free night! It would be the first time that I was hosted by birders on the year. Hannah and Erik are very active nationally, attending and presenting at numerous birding festivals across the states. They also produce their own birding podcast: Hannah and Erik Go Birding
In other words, they’re big-time. Their website is really well laid out, with great photos and eBird visuals. I could tell that they were talented photographers by their selection of tropical birds adorning the wall of the hotel lobby.
|My Kind of People|
They put me up in one of their better rooms; it had a direct view of Haystack Road, and it boasted the potential to show off Tufted Puffins at the right time of year. Unfortunately they aren’t around in January.
After settling in, I took off on a route suggested by Erik and Hannah that finished at Haystack Rock. It was a nice evening bird walk. Although I did not pick up any year birds, I had the chance to admire the renowned sea stack in surreal twilight conditions.
The evening was crowned with a visit to a cool hardware store/ restaurant concept with my generous hosts. Over dinner, we talked birds like we’d birded together for years. Man it felt good to talk birds. It’s like birders have an endless bank of topics to draw from. Mayer Hawthorne, St. Paul and the Broken Bones, and the Tedeschi Trucks Band provided a happy ambiance.
The comforts that I was awarded on this night would be especially valued considering how the following day would progress...