Cascade Head & Cape Meares, North Coast, OR 10–11 July 2020

alexsidles

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[Cross-posted on alexsidles.com]

The Oregon coast consists of a series of long, sandy beaches punctuated by rocky headlands with cliffs hundreds of feet tall. Offshore lie jagged islands, the remnants of older headlands that eroded long ago.

The modern headlands will eventually suffer the same fate. The relentless ocean swells are slowly beating them hollow. They, too, will one day collapse into the sea.

For now, the ocean’s work is only half done, but the ocean has already accomplished a lot. The swells have riddled the headlands with caves, tunnels, and arches, in the process creating a wonderland for sea kayakers intrepid enough to brave the waves.

Cascade Head is one of the tallest and bulkiest of Oregon’s headlands. Cascade Head does not protrude as far into the ocean as some headlands, but it has more sea caves than any other, including Oregon’s longest sea cave.

Route map Cascade Head topo.jpg

Route map. Knight County Park is day-use only, and the only nearby campgrounds are horrible, private RV parks.

One of the attractions of Cascade Head is its ease of access. Whereas most headlands must be accessed by way of a surf launch, Cascade Head lies adjacent to the gentle Salmon River, where launching is a breeze.

While launching is always easy, reaching the ocean is not. A sandbar lies across the mouth of the Salmon River. At low tide or during high swell, breakers can close out the mouth.

When I arrived, the water over the bar was only a few feet deep. Rather than batter my way through the confused chop at the mouth, I carried my boat over the bar and launched as if from a beach.

01 Mouth of the Salmon River near Cascade Head.JPG

Approaching the mouth of the Salmon River near Cascade Head. Cascade Head is justly famous as a beautiful hiking destination.

02 Sandbar at Salmon River.JPG

Sandbar at the mouth of the Salmon River. A dozen or so kayakers were paddling on the river, but only a handful braved the crossing into the open ocean.

Arches and caves appeared immediately north of the river and continued all the way around Cascade Head. In three-foot swell, most of the caves were accessible even during low tide, but a handful of caves were closed off by rocks or else had so many rocks inside it would have been reckless to enter. The better time to visit would have been at mid- or high tide.

Inside the caves, the swells boomed as if the Earth itself were a giant drum. From the deep recesses of the caves, sometimes so far underground the light was lost, swells would rebound and surge back out the mouth, battling the incoming swells and kicking up chop. Some of the caves were so large my ears would pop from the change in air pressure each time a swell rolled in or out.

In such an alien environment, I could seldom relax. At every moment, I had to be alert for swells doubling up when they bounced off the walls, or rocks suddenly exposing themselves during especially deep troughs. In the deepest, darkest caves, it was sometimes difficult to detect the uneven contours of the walls.

03 Arch at Cascade Head.JPG

Small arch at Cascade Head. Often, arches become inaccessible at low tide when the falling water exposes rocks, but this one was easily traversed even at a one-foot tide.

04 Inside sea cave at Cascade Head.JPG

Inside sea cave at Cascade Head. In the far depths of this cave, a black, sandy beach was exposed at low tide.
05 Light at the end of the tunnel.JPG

Light at the end of a tunnel. Water dripped from the ceiling of the cave, likely from sea spray or condensation.

06 Cliffs at Cascade Head.JPG

Cliffs at Cascade Head. Here is the front line in the war between the ocean and the continent.

The caves were a disorienting, intimidating environment for a human, but other creatures called them home. Inside some of the largest caves, I encountered harbor seals hauled out upon rocks or basking on underground beaches.

The seals could hear my approach, but they couldn’t see me very well in the darkness. They flailed around in a panic or tucked themselves into nooks along the wall, hoping I would pass without noticing. Whenever this happened, I would retreat to avoid stressing the animals more than I already had.

Inside other caves, pelagic cormorants or pigeon guillemots were nesting high up on the walls, where no predacious eagle or gull would ever find them. They panicked at the sight of me, emerging from around the corner without warning. As with the seals, I had to back out to give them space.

07 Exiting sea cave.JPG

Exiting sea cave at Cascade Head. The weight of an entire mountain presses relentlessly upon the roof of the cave.

08 Kayak inside large sea cave Cascade Head.JPG

Inside large sea cave, Cascade Head. Some caves went so far back it was frightening to proceed, as if I might become trapped forever, far from sunlight.

09 Inside a giant sea cave.JPG

Inside large sea cave, Cascade Head. Some caves went so far back it was frightening to proceed, as if I might become trapped forever, far from sunlight.

10 Mouth of giant sea cave.JPG

The mouth of a colossal sea cave. Some of the caves were so large and sinuous the swells could not reach all the way to the back.

Offshore of Cascade Head lay many jagged, rocky islands. The steep ledges made perfect habitat for pelagic and Brandt’s cormorants and huge numbers of brown pelicans. The seabirds formed dense colonies to protect one another’s nests from the only predators capable of reaching these remote redoubts: eagles and gulls.

The largest of the offshore islands had arches and caves of their own. Most notable of these was an island called “Two Arches,” so named for its most prominent feature. After scouting to make sure I wouldn’t disturb any nesting seabirds or basking seals, I paddled through the heaving swell beneath the arches.

11 Two Arches near Cascade Head.JPG

Two Arches near Cascade Head. The offshore islands are part of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, so landing is prohibited.

Approaching Two Arches.JPG

Approaching Two Arches. The swells created unpredictable, bucking currents beneath the arches.

14 Nesting brown pelicans and Brandts cormorants Cascade Head.JPG

Roosting Brandt’s cormorants and brown pelicans near Two Arches. Only rarely have I gotten such a clear look at a Brandt’s cormorant’s blue throat pouch.

13 Nesting brown pelicans and Brandts cormorants.JPG

Colony of Brandt’s cormorants and brown pelicans. These birds are not nesting; only roosting.

The caves continued the rest of the way around Cascade head. Some were long and narrow, others deep and tall. Some had multiple entrances, forming tunnels, while others had more traditional, single arch-shaped entrances. In many caves, sea stars and anemones clustered the walls, competing for valuable, wave-washed real estate.

Outside the cave complexes, close in to shore, a gray whale surfaced near my boat. I was surprised to encounter this species during summer. It must have been one of Oregon’s 200 or so resident grays.

15 Peeking out of sea cave.JPG

Peeking out of a sea cave. Most of the caves were wide enough I could spin my 18-foot kayak with ease.
16 Sea stars and anemones at Cascade Head.JPG

Sea stars and anemones in the mouth of a cave, Cascade Head. Wherever there are swells, marine invertebrates grow more densely than they do in the protected inland waters.

19 Water falling near sea cave.JPG

Water falling near sea cave. This natural shower was a little too chilly for this kayaker.

20 Paddling up Salmon River Oregon.JPG

Paddling back up Salmon River. At low tide, it would be possible to wade most of the way across the river delta.

CONTINUED IN NEXT POST

[Cross-posted on alexsidles.com]
 
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alexsidles

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Seattle WA
[Cross-posted on alexsidles.com]

My next destination after Cascade Head was supposed to be Cape Lookout. Along the way, I stopped at the magnificent parabolic dunes of Sand Lake.

Most of the dunes were managed by the US Forest Service as an off-road vehicle recreation area. Predictably, these sections were badly eroded and the vegetation obliterated by the thousands of hooting yobbos tearing around on their deafening ATVs. I don’t know when I’ve seen more Confederate flags and Trump paraphernalia than I saw at the ATV campground.

Mercifully, there was one small section of the dunes off-limits to the yobbos. There, the silence, solitude, and splendor reminded me of the Sonoran desert, somehow transplanted a thousand miles north to the Oregon coast.

21 Sand lake panorama.jpg

Sand Lake, Oregon coast. Of course, the Sonoran desert is not fringed by Douglas-fir forests as these dunes are.

22 Dune grass.JPG

Dune grass at Sand Lake. The wavy lines in the sand are evidence of the dunes’ slow migration before the wind.

I arrived at Cape Lookout State Park at 6:30 in the morning, expecting to make a surf launch from the beach. The park’s day-use area was gated and would not open until 9:00, so I moved to the park’s camping area to scout the launch. A ranger pulled up behind me and threatened to write me a ticket for using the camping area to conduct a day-use activity. She gave me “exactly three minutes” to scout the waves, because I was committing “a citable offense.”

Looking at the ocean is a citable offense! Yet a thousand beer-chugging ATVers are allowed to tear down the irreplaceable dunes at Sand Lake.

The ranger’s punctiliousness had an unexpected benefit in that it drove me to nearby Cape Meares, where day use began at 6:00, not 9:00. I launched from the beach in Oceanside and unexpectedly paddled right into the most spectacular seabird nesting colony in all Oregon: Three Arch Rocks.

Route map Cape Meares topo.jpg

Route map, Cape Meares. A kayak is the perfect vessel in which to explore this rugged coast.

23 Kayaking at Three Arch Rocks near Cape Meares.JPG

Kayaking to Three Arch Rocks near Cape Meares. Offshore seabird colonies are some of my favorite places to visit.

24 Brown pelican at Three Arch Rocks.JPG

Brown pelican at Three Arch Rocks. When a pelican flies close overhead, it’s like seeing a pterodactyl.

25 Pelagic cormorants at Three Arch Rocks.JPG

Pelagic cormorants at Three Arch Rocks. In Washington, this species is more numerous than the Brandt’s, but in Oregon, Brandt’s are more numerous.

26 Brandts cormorants roosting rock.JPG

Brandt’s cormorants roosting on rock. The seabirds were more approachable here at the colony than out on the water.

27 Brandt cormorant with blue pouch.JPG

Brandt’s cormorant flyby. This is our most handsome species of cormorant, but in Washington, it’s rare to get so close to one.

Signage at the launch beach claimed Three Arch Rocks is home to 220,000 common murres and 2,000 to 4,000 tufted puffins. I found these numbers hard to believe, especially with regard to the puffins. South of Alaska, puffins have suffered a 90 to 95% decline in numbers since the 1970s. I simply could not believe a colony of 2,000 puffins (much less 4,000) still exists anywhere in the Lower 48.

Further research confirms my suspicion. The “2,000 to 4,000 puffins” figure was likely derived from studies conducted in the late 1970s and 1980s, but those studies appear to me suspect.

According to the USFWS Catalog of Oregon Seabird Colonies (2007), Three Arch Rocks (catalog sites 219-054, -055, -056) had an “estimated” puffin population that reached 4,000 back in the 1970s. However, there was no actual count of puffins at that time. There were actual counts of other seabird species, such as murres, but not puffins. There is no description of how the 1970s puffin “estimate” was arrived at.

In the late 1980s, researchers counted puffin burrows at Three Arch Rocks. The total burrow count came to 1,450, from which the researchers estimated 3,000 puffins. I do not doubt the accuracy of the burrow count number, but again, the researchers did not count actual puffins.

The first time puffins were actually counted was in the early 1990s, when researchers counted only a dozen puffins. Somehow, 3,000 or 4,000 “estimated” puffins had, within fifteen years, become just 12 actual puffins! Even if we grant a 95% decline in puffins since the 1970s, there should still have been 200 puffins, not 12. And the 95% decline figure represents the decline between the 1970s and 2010, not the decline between the 1970s and the 1990s. In the 1990s, the decline from the 1970s should have been less than 95%, so the surveys in the 1990s should have counted even more than 200 puffins, not 12.

I suspect the original puffin numbers were inflated by unreliable eyeball “estimates” and the ill-advised use of burrows as proxies for actual puffins. Having visited more than a few puffin colonies myself in Washington, British Columbia, and Alaska, I can confirm there are always many times as many puffin burrows as actual puffins. The researchers erroneously assumed the opposite.

The sign’s claims of 220,000 common murres is also suspect, although not quite as egregious as in the case of puffins. In the case of murres, the Catalog of Oregon Seabird Colonies documents actual bird counts from the 1970s and 1980s showing some 110,000 actual murres. The researchers then inflated the actual numbers to produce the “estimate,” which made its way onto the signage as 220,000 murres.

Interestingly, however, the USFWS website for Three Arches Rocks NWR has stated, since at least June 2015 that: “Three Arch Rocks historically was a breeding site to more than 200,000 Common Murres. These days, the larger colonies are all but abandoned.”

The website also states that: “Formerly whitewashed with Common Murre guano, today the rocks are brown and mostly unoccupied: resurgent Bald Eagle populations have driven many of the nesting seabirds elsewhere. While still majestic, the ecological character of the refuge and wilderness has shifted.”

And also: “As of 2013, Three Arch Rocks NWR is still being photographed despite its lack of Common Murres.”

When I visited, on July 11, 2020, I encountered thousands of murres covering the rocks. I did not attempt a seabird count, but I estimate—look, now I’m doing it, too!—a minimum of 3,000 murres, likely many more. I also counted six tufted puffins.

It’s hard to reconcile the USFWS claims from the 1970s and 80s of 220,000 murres with the claims from the mid-2010s of no murres with my observation from 2020 of thousands of murres (but not hundreds of thousands). Murre populations are known to be mobile between widely dispersed colony sites, so I hope what’s going is merely that the murres are moving from place to place, not actually declining in numbers.

As for the puffins, even if the original population figures were inflated, their decline is likely real and precipitous.

28 Common murre at Three Arch Rocks.JPG

Common murre at Three Arch Rocks. Murres not only look like flying penguins, they also fill the same ecological niche in the northern oceans that penguins do in the southern.

29 Sky full of murres at Three Arch Rocks.JPG

Sky full of murres at Three Arch Rocks. The website was right about one thing: every time an eagle attacked the colony, the adults would flee to the sky in a great rush.

30 Murre colony on Shag Rock.JPG

Common murre colony on Shag Rock, westernmost of the three arches. There were so many murres the top of the island appeared, from a distance, to be covered in dark lichen.

It was an absolute joy to encounter so many seabirds. The murres kept up a steady, groaning chatter, magnified by thousands of voices until it was louder even the swells striking the cliffs. There were so many murres, I could have found the island from downwind simply by the smell of fish.

Besides seabirds, the other attraction here is the three arches themselves. Actually, there are even more than three arches, but three of them—one on each main island—are more prominent than the others.

Of course, the kayaker’s first instinct on seeing such lovely arches is to paddle through them, but there were murres nesting around the entrances to the arches, and in some cases even inside the arches’ tunnels. I would never forgive myself if I flushed the largest murre colony in Oregon, so I had to keep my distance.

Luckily, the middle of the three islands—named, with typical Oregonian artlessness, “Middle Rock”—had an arch so tall, the murres nesting around its rim would not be disturbed by my passage. I was able to shoot through at tremendous speed, rammed through by the swell. No Roman emperor ever devised a monument so majestic as this.

31 Finley Rock tunnel and nesting murres.JPG

Finley Rock tunnel and nesting murres. The murres liked to take a shortcut through the tunnel rather than fly up and over the island.

32 Arches at MIddle Rock and Finley Rock.JPG

Arches at Middle Rock and Finley Rock. On the east side of Finley Rock, a large haulout of Steller sea lions raised a continuous, growling chorus.

33 The arch at Middle Rock.JPG

Passing beneath the arch at Middle Rock. One day, the keystone of the arch will give way.

34 Tunnel with murres.JPG

Tunnel with murres. Many murres nested inside this cave, where they would be safe from marauding eagles and gulls.

35 Rounding Cape Meares by kayak.JPG

Rounding Cape Meares by kayak. The cliffs here were so steep, there were even murres nesting on the mainland, which I had never observed anywhere else.

There were not nearly as many caves at Cape Meares as at Cascade Head. What few caves existed were inaccessible at low tide. Thanks to the incredible bird life, however, Cape Meares was every bit as wonderful a destination.

The next day, my original plan was to paddle Cape Falcon, ruggedest and least accessible of the north coast’s headlands. Rising swell and wind thwarted my plans, so I headed to the placid waters of the Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge on the Columbia River.

The Oregon headlands offered some of North America’s best sea kayaking. The caving at Cascade Head rivals that of Cape Flattery, while the seabird colony at Cape Meares exceeds any other colony south of Solander Island. It is a rare privilege to visit such remote and wild places.

Alex

[Cross-posted on alexsidles.com]
 

benson

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Aug 28, 2011
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Sequim, Wa
Terrific photos and informative trip report. Looked like some optimal conditions for your coastal exploration.. Thanks for posting.
 

alexsidles

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Seattle WA
Oh dear. My post-trip research has shown me that I should not have paddled under the arch at Middle Rock off Cape Meares.

Under OAR 250-020-0309, Three Arch Rocks is subject to a seasonal 500-foot no-access buffer between May 1 and September 15. Under ORS 830.990(4), violation of this closure is a Class B violation. Under ORS 153.008(1)(a), (2), a violation is a civil offense, not criminal. Under ORS 153.018, -.019, the presumptive fine for a Class B violation is $265, and the maximum fine is $1,000.

In my defense, there was no notice posted on the beach of the seasonal closure. However, under Oregon law, the government is not required to post notice of its regulations other than by publication, so my defense is no defense at all.

I always try to be respectful of regulations while kayaking. Had I known in advance I would be visiting Three Arch Rocks, I would have done my research ahead of time. My trip to Three Arch Rocks was occasioned at the last minute by being chased off the beach by the ranger at Cape Lookout State Park, so there was no opportunity to do research.

Alex
 

cougarmeat

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Bend OR USA
Alex, You are to be commended for not loosing your head with your encounters with these “Rangers”.

This is not an attempt to hijack your thread, but because you make investigating those caves so enticing, I wanted to add a little of my “caving” experience in the Channel Islands off of Ventura CA. When we approached the caves, the guides sent one of their own to the back of the cave and let the rest of us in about two at a time. As I started out, a BIG wave came in and washed over me. Though TIGHTLY succured under bungees, my water bottle, pump, and paddle float were pulled off my deck and floated around the boat. About that time I started to realize that many of the rocks I saw lying around had, at one time, dropped from the ceiling. I collected my gear, stowed it inside the kayak, and headed out again. I punched though a second large wave on the way out and was completely ready to give anyone else a turn.

Later, we entered a narrower cave - again, with a guide in first to the back of the cave, then two clients at a time, but still staggered a bit. A wave picked up a woman’s smaller kayak ahead of me, spun it 90 degrees and ebbed out. That left the woman stranded, in her kayak wedged between the two walls, about 3 to 4 feet above the water. The inside guide sent me out (I was between the stuck person and the entrance), to summon one or two other guides (always leaving at least one guide with the remaining group), A guide paddled in and said, “I know just what to do. Quick, does anyone have a camera?” Like how could they miss this photo opportunity!

I’m not sure how they got that person out - maybe she’s still there … - no, I think they were aware of the wave “sets” and waited for another big one. Through some combination of wave action and maybe the person getting out of the boat, it was lifted from it’s stuck position and paddled free.

So when I read this report by Alex and started looking for those locations on the coast, I noted to myself that I would absolutely research the tide situation before venturing out.
 

cougarmeat

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Bend OR USA
Alex, don’t you usually paddle a softshelled boat (FeatherCraft)? Is the boat for this trip a new boat for your or - considering the potential rock/boat interaction - just a choice to use a hardshell?
 

alexsidles

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Seattle WA
Paul and Jim,

Thanks for your kind words. Paul, that is a great caving story. No doubt about it, caves can be a scary environment. Several times, I've stuck my head in only to lose my nerve and back out. Swells do weird things inside caves, and as you noticed, rocks can pop up out of nowhere.

I recently upgraded from folding kayaks to a hardshell British boat. Folders aren't really suitable for use in swells, surf, or other rough conditions, but they actually hold up better against rocks than fiberglass boats do. I took the hardshell to the Oregon coast not to protect myself from rocks but so I wouldn't get swamped during launches or capsized by breakers.

I've really got the taste for sea caves now. I want more. Cape Flattery in Washington has a huge cave complex, but in most places, I only encounter sea caves in ones and twos, and usually not very large. Can anyone recommend good caving in BC?

Alex
 

cougarmeat

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Bend OR USA
Alex, if you don’t have them already, and you like caving, get yourself a sturdy pair of gloves. Maybe even “workmen’s” gloves instead of something more dainty like paddling gloves. The shells that show up on the walls - and of course on Narrow passages - of caves can be very sharp. You may find yourself in a situation where to “escape” you have to propel (repel?) yourself backward by pushing off those walls.

If you ever get to the Ventura (California) area, you can water taxi to the Channel Islands or paddle over if you are feeling robust. Google earth shows about 11 nm. from Oxnard to Anacapa Island. The fun thing, for me, about caving is trying to decide what to be afraid of most - rocks falling from the ceiling, unscheduled high tide (higher/earlier than anticipated), hands cut to ribbons on the wall sides, boat left stuck kittywampus by last high wave of the day, etc. But you know … there’s could be treasure back there. ARRRRRH!
 
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