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Tillamook Rock, north coast, Oregon 10 Sept 2023


Jan 10, 2009
Seattle WA
[Cross-posted at alexsidles.com]

Oregon boasts some of the most scenic coast in the Pacific Northwest. Little of it is wilderness, so it is not suitable for overnight kayaking, but all of it is publicly and easily accessible, so it is perfect for day tripping.

I waited for a day of slow wind and low swell and paddled out to Tillamook Rock to visit the abandoned lighthouse thereon—or, rather, the almost-abandoned lighthouse, as I shall explain.

On the way back, I also paddled through the arch at nearby Sea Lion Rock.

00 Route map.jpg

00 Route map. Parking at the Indian Beach Day Use Area is $5 USD per day, credit cards accepted.

Tillamook Rock is far from the only attraction here. Up and down the coast, for miles in every direction, stretches one gorgeous headland after another. The headlands are punctuated by long, sandy beaches and garnished with small, offshore rocks. Were it not for the pervasive crowds of beachcombers and the lack of officially sanctioned campsites, a kayaker could wander up and down this coast for weeks.

01 Crescent Beach seen from Ecola Point.JPG

01 Crescent Beach seen from Ecola Point. Surfing and horseback riding, more than sea kayaking, are the outdoor activities of choice here.

02 Tillamook Rock seen from Ecola Point.JPG

02 Tillamook Rock seen from Ecola Point. This lonely lighthouse exerts a strong psychological pull on all who lay eyes upon it.

03 Cormorants and pelicans south of Ecola Point.JPG

03 Cormorants, pelicans, and gulls off Ecola Point. Not for the first time, I was impressed at the abundance of Oregon’s seabirds.

04 Rocks off Tillamook Head.JPG

04 Tillamook Head Rocks. Like most of the offshore rocks along the north coast, these are prime habitat for nesting seabirds.

05 Sea Lion Rock at Indian Beach.JPG

05 Sea Lion Rock off Indian Beach. Ecola State Park looks so quintessentially “coastal” that it is a popular location for filming movies, including Point Break, Free Willy, Twilight, Kindergarten Cop, and The Goonies.

Tillamook Rock sits approximately one and a quarter miles (2 km) offshore of Tillamook Head, one of the north coast’s most prominent headlands. Indeed, Lieutenant William Clark of the Lewis and Clark Expedition called Tillamook Head “the Steepest worst & highest mountain I ever assended [sic]… .”

In 1879, the Army Corps of Engineers began construction of a lighthouse on the rock offshore. The work was exceedingly dangerous, as Tillamook Rock was and remains hostile to human life. The first man ashore slipped off the rock and drowned. The others huddled in jury-rigged shelters against hurricane-force winds. There being no flat surface upon which to construct a lighthouse, the workers chiseled and dynamited the top third of the rock into rubble to create a level foundation.

Even after construction of the lighthouse was complete, life on Tillamook Rock remained hard. There was no landing beach, so people and supplies had to be hoisted from boats via cable lift—a procedure that often resulted in a dunking if the line went slack. During winter storms, waves struck the rock with such force that the lantern room windows, some 133 feet (40 m) above sea level, were shattered by boulders heaved up the surf. The structure thus breached, seawater would flood down the tower, sometimes awakening the lighthouse keepers in their bunks. The keepers soon christened the station “Terrible Tilly,” a name that has endured even today.

In 1957, Terrible Tilly was abandoned, rendered surplus by advances in navigational technology and rising costs for manpower and maintenance. The entire rock, derelict lighthouse and all, eventually fell into the hands of a real estate developer from Florida, who, in the grand tradition of real estate developers throughout history, hit upon a surefire, get-rich-quick scheme. This one involved human remains.

The developer somehow convinced herself—and her investors—that people would pay to inter the ashes of their loved ones inside an abandoned, flooded lighthouse that can only be visited by helicopter or cable car. She calculated that more than 400,000 funerary urns would fit inside the facility.

What would be the expected value of such a vast number of urns? She’s so glad you asked. Niches for urns would be priced along a sliding scale, as one must only expect in our capitalist society. Niches in the most desirable locations, say, inside the majestic lantern room, thence to gaze o’er the horizon for all eternity, would go for $5,000 USD. For the budget-conscious decedent, cheaper options would be available. For a mere $1,000 USD, your urn could be squirreled away in a somewhat more modest depository, such as, one imagines, the cramped and dismal hoisting-engine house or perhaps some particularly bleak corner of the boiler room. If we conservatively assume a mean price of $2,500 USD per niche, why, this old lighthouse has an expected value of … one billion dollars.

There was only one tiny flaw in the plan, only one conceivable way such a foolproof idea could ever fail to generate stupendous wealth for everyone involved. You guessed it: the government. Over the course of the nineteen years following the real estate developer’s 1980 acquisition of the lighthouse, she managed to inter no fewer than thirty urns—a real running start toward her ultimate goal of 400,000—when all of a sudden, one day in 1999, the Oregon Mortuary and Cemetery Board noticed that her license to operate a columbarium had expired. Nor was the Board willing to renew the license, in light of what the Board called “poor record-keeping and improper storage of urns,” to say nothing of the seabirds nesting inside the lighthouse, the sea lions consistently crashing their way through the door, and the theft of at least two of the urns by vandals. “Eternity at Sea,” the developer’s name for her billion-dollar enterprise, was suddenly out of the urn business.

In light of this incredible and insane history, how could I not paddle out to see Terrible Tilly for myself? Who knows, I might even want to reserve a niche for my urn, before they’re all snapped up.

06 Tillamook Rock seen from Indian Beach.JPG

06 Tillamook Rock, seen from Indian Beach. Tidal currents at sea were merely moderate, and I did not detect any riptides near the beach.

07 Pelicans off Indian Point.JPG

07 Brown pelicans off Indian Point. This species becomes more common the farther south you go along the Pacific coast.

08 Pelican takeoff at Indian Point.JPG

08 Brown pelican taking off. They are graceful once in the air, but getting up can be a challenge.

09 Kayaking off Indian Point.JPG

09 Kayaking off Indian Point. From only a mile out to sea, human development fades into the background against the forests, rocks, and mountains.

10 Fog blowing over Tillamook Head.JPG

10 Fog blowing over Tillamook Head. Hikers to the top of this peak can gaze out to sea and contemplate the awesome isolation of the lighthouse … or they can peer blindly into the featureless gray cloud of a fog bank, depending on the hour they are there.

11 Tillamook Rock lighthouse seen from kayak.JPG

11 Tillamook Rock lighthouse, eastern facade. Whenever the sun peeks out from behind the clouds, the gleam of the lighthouse can be seen for miles.

12 Tillamook Rock lighthouse south face.JPG

12 Tillamook Rock lighthouse, southeastern facade. The east facade of the building was repainted in spring 2023 by volunteers working for Eternity at Sea, but the other facades have remained unretouched since the real estate developer’s last cleanup effort in 1980.

The Oregon Mortuary and Cemetery Board is not the only bane of the real estate developer’s existence. Her other bane is sea lions. Both California and Steller sea lions, in vast numbers, use Tillamook Rock as a haulout. They have done so for centuries, since long before the lighthouse was established. The earliest comprehensive survey of the Oregon coast, the “Directory of the Pacific Coast of the United States,” Appendix No. 44 to the 1858 Report of the Superintendent of the Coast Survey, describes Tillamook Rock in that year as “the resort of thousands of seals.”

The 1858 report should have served as a warning to the real estate developer, but, alas, she failed to heed the wise words of Appendix No. 44. Shortly after the lighthouse was abandoned by its keepers in 1957, the sea lions moved back in, reasserting their aboriginal title to the rock which the lighthouse had infringed during the many decades of its operation. By the time the real estate developer entered the scene in 1980, the sea lions had invaded the interiors of all the structures on the rock and had left an unspeakable mess.

Arriving by helicopter, literally behaving as if she owned the place, the real estate developer imperiously evicted the sea lions from the structures and bricked up most of the doorways and windows to prevent their return. However, she had no choice but to leave open at least one entrance to each structure through which to cart in the hundreds of thousands of urns she was expecting to materialize at any moment. These remaining, unbricked entrances proved to be her Achilles’ heel. No sooner had she and her crew departed the rock than the sea lions broke down the flimsy barricades securing the entrances and, once again, made themselves at home in the structures’ interiors.

The real estate developer has never publicly described the interaction that must have ensued between the sea lions and the first batches of urns. She has never permitted the volunteer clean-up crews that visit the rock to photograph that portion of the lighthouse’s interior. One is left to contemplate, in icy horror, the scene that the Oregon Mortuary and Cemetery Board gingerly described as the “improper storage of urns.”

To say the real estate developer nurses a grudge against sea lions would be an understatement. Her social media feed is full of imprecations against these animals. I never thought a sea lion, of all creatures, could elicit any kind of phobia in anyone’s mind, but the real estate developer has more reason than most to despise them.

I, of course, do not share the real estate developer’s low opinion of sea lions. On the contrary, I love them. When I arrived off Tillamook Rock in my kayak, I was delighted to find no fewer than 400 sea lions of both species, barking and honking and roaring from every corner of the rock. The sea lions occupied every surface, both natural and manmade. They trooped up and down the lighthouse stairs, using it like an escalator. They flopped around inside the hoisting-engine house, whence their calls echoed and boomed from the building’s gutted interior. They lounged on sunny terraces and rooftops, like tourists in Tuscany. They crowded the rocky shelf by the shoreline so densely it would have been impossible to land, even if it had been legal to do so.

13 Sea lions Tillamook Rock.JPG

13 Sea lions on Tillamook Rock. More than ninety-five percent of the sea lions present today were Steller, with the remaining few being California.

14 Sea lions bickering on Tillamook Rock.JPG

14 Sea lions bickering on Tillamook Rock. Much like the customers for funerary urns, the sea lions compete for the most desirable niches on the rock.

15 Sea lion descending stairs Tillamook Rock light.JPG

15 Sea lion descending the lighthouse stairs. I was hoping to see one belly-slide its way down, but sea lions are responsible, safety-conscious tenants who always watch their step.

16 Sea lions descend to the water.JPG

16 Sea lions on the rocky shoreline shelf. This ramp is the sea lions’ primary means of landing and launching on the rock.

17 Sea lions below arch.JPG

17 Sea lions lounging beneath bricked-up windows. The proportion of California sea lions seemed to be somewhat higher in the upper reaches of the rock, while Steller sea lions predominated nearer the shore.

18 Sea lions on every surface.JPG

18 Sea lions on every surface. There is nowhere you can go where they can’t get you.

It is not legal to land on Tillamook Rock. First, the entire rock, including the structures, is the private property of Eternity at Sea, so it would be criminal trespass to land under Oregon State law. Second, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has a conservation easement from Eternity at Sea to operate a national wildlife refuge on the rock, so it would also be criminal trespass to land under the federal National Wildlife System Administration Act. Third, as the real estate investor and I each discovered independently, there are hundreds of sea lions all over the rock. Driving them off the rock in the course of landing would constitute a criminal violation of the federal Marine Mammal Protection Act, and, because Steller sea lions are a federally listed species, it would also constitute a criminal violation of the federal Endangered Species Act. (As a private property owner, the real estate developer might be exempt from some of these prohibitions, so long as she drives off the sea lions only to the extent necessary to prevent damage to her property.)

All this is to say nothing of the liability that might arise under civil law for trespassing upon and revealing the secrets of an enterprise whose expected value, remember—at least in the minds of its investors—is one billion dollars. A single leaked photograph of sea lions rioting in the urn room could torpedo the whole ship, and the investors might be tempted to believe they had a right in tort to see their ten-figure future lost profits made whole.

Besides the legal barriers to entry, there are also substantial physical barriers. There is no beach on Tillamook Rock. There is only a steep, rocky shelf on the east side of the island. The swells wash up and down this shelf without cease. Even on this day of two-foot swells, there was at least twenty feet of run over the shelf, so beaching would have been quite an adventure. The shelf is also covered in a thick mat of barnacles, which would have made mincemeat of my fiberglass kayak, to say nothing of my hands and knees. For reasons both legal and practical, I decided the lighthouse was best appreciated from the water.

19 Tillamook Rock lighthouse north face.JPG

19 Tillamook Rock lighthouse, northern facade. One visitor in 1937 described the station as a “feudal castle-like shelter.”

20 Tillymook Rock lighthouse southwest face.JPG

20 Tillamook Rock lighthouse, southwestern facade. The twin fixtures protruding from the roof of the nearest wing are exhaust vents for the boiler room, which was later repurposed as the fog signal room.

21 Tillamook Rock lighthouse main stairs.JPG

21 Tillamook Rock lighthouse, main stairs. The main entrance to the lighthouse is boarded up, but if history is any guide, it’s only a matter of time until the sea lions muscle their way in again.

22 Ruined lantern room Tillamook Rock.JPG

22 Tillamook Rock lighthouse, ruined lantern room. Still visible are the remnants of metal mesh, which the keepers installed around the lantern room in a failed attempt to protect it from boulders, thrown by the sea some 133 feet (40 m) into the air during winter storms.

23 Ruined derrick Tillamook Rock.JPG

23 Tillamook Rock, ruined derrick.This device was one component of an elaborate system of cranes and cables for moving people and supplies onto and off of the rock.

24 Tillamook Rock light west face.JPG

24 Tillamook Rock lighthouse, western facade. The stench of sea lions wafting off the rock was overpowering, even from hundreds of yards out.

The sea lions may be the barons of Tillamook Rock, but there are also lesser tenants. The island is a substantial breeding colony for western gulls, Brandt’s cormorants, and common murres, as well as a roosting site for brown pelicans.

The common murres were a particular treat for me. Murres are more common in Alaska and Oregon than they are in Washington and British Columbia, so one of the things I like about paddling in Oregon is the chance to see big rafts of murres.

Murres do not build nests. They lay their eggs on bare rock, so a barren island like Tillamook Rock is perfect habitat.

At the time of my visit, the murre chicks had fledged and were following their fathers on the water, begging for food. The chicks could not yet fly, and the adults may have begun molting and were, in any event, unwilling to leave the chicks. As a result, they tolerated my approach more closely than murres usually do, although even non-breeding murres are usually fairly tolerant of kayakers.

Besides the pelicans, cormorants, and murres, the other exciting bird was sooty shearwaters. Sooty shearwaters are a pelagic species, but they do frequently close within a mile or so of shore, and I was fortunate enough to be on-hand when a loose flock of fifty or so passed by a quarter-mile offshore of Tillamook Rock. I practically capsized myself twisting this way and that in the cockpit, trying to photograph these fast-flying birds.

On the way back, I swung through Sea Lion Rock, another notable seabird breeding colony. Since breeding season had already ended, I paddled through the arch, but this turned out to be a bad idea. Cormorants were roosting on the far side, and my unexpected appearance through the arch startled them into flight. Several flew directly over my head to file tangible notices of their displeasure. Fortunately, I was wearing a broad-brimmed hat.

Surf had come up a bit by early afternoon. Upon my return to Indian Beach, some two dozen surfers had arrived and were riding the waves, with more surfers and cheerleaders ashore. I was the only kayaker.

Surfers are never happy to see kayakers in the line-up. They worry that we will steal the best waves from them, or that our capsized kayaks will put them in jeopardy. We are also more handsome and cooler than they are, and this makes them jealous.

Under the baleful gaze of the local surf squad and their buddies ashore, I launched myself through the breakers. I swiftly found myself broached by the waves, as I almost always seem to do, and ended up executing an involuntary, complete, 360-degree rotation. Luckily, my rotation was around the yaw axis rather than the roll axis, so I remained upright. I may have been out of control, but at least I looked cool—not that any of the onlooking surfers would ever have admitted it. I finally got everything pointed in the right direction and made it ashore without even getting my hair mussed.

25 Sooty shearwaters off Tillamook Rock.JPG

25 Sooty shearwaters off Tillamook Rock. Distinguishing this species from the nearly identical short-tailed shearwater is one of the great challenges in west coast birdwatching.

26 Sooty shearwater skimming water.JPG

26 Sooty shearwater skimming water. This species flies so low and fast it can disappear behind the swells in an instant.

27 Brown pelican skimming water.JPG

27 Brown pelican skimming water. I am not the first observer to detect a similarity between pelicans and pterodactyls.

28 Common murres off Tillamook Rock.JPG

28 Common murres off Tillamook Rock. The fathers stay with the chicks at sea to feed them for a few weeks after the chicks have fledged.

29 Kayak bow riding through murres.JPG

29 Kayaking through murres. Common murres are the most abundant breeding seabird in Oregon.

30 Pelagic cormorant and two brown pelicans.JPG

30 Pelagic cormorant and two brown pelicans, Sea Lion Rock. In Oregon, Brandt’s cormorants are more numerous than pelagic cormorants, unlike in Washington, where the reverse is true.

31 Arch at Sea Lion Rock.JPG

31 Arch at Sea Lion Rock. Thanks to the low swell, it was no difficulty to shoot the arch.

As much as I enjoyed seeing the evidence of the human history of Terrible Tilly, it was the natural history that stole the show. Both on the island and off, the mammals and birds were a thousand times more delightful than some derelict light station and the failed dreams of its subsequent buyers.

Oswald Allik, the final keeper of the Tillamook Rock light, wrote the following in the logbook on 1 September 1957: “Farewell, Tillamook Rock Light Station. An era has ended. With this final entry, and not without sentiment, I return thee to the elements.”

It is time for Mr. Allik’s sentiment to become reality. Tillamook Rock should at last be “returned to the elements.” No more paint jobs. No more helicopter trips. No more urns. The sea lions and murres have waited long enough. They keep trashing the lighthouse because they are anxious for us to leave.

The real estate developer may finally have begun to see the light, so to speak. She put the island up for sale in 2022, asking $6.5 million USD. She hasn’t fully given up her dream of a billion-dollar columbarium, however: she wants a three-percent cut of any future urn niche sales. She’s also looking for a $2.5 million USD loan so she can finally fix the place up.

Tempting though her offers are, my money is on the sea lions and murres.


[Cross-posted at alexsidles.com]
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> We are also more handsome and cooler than they are, and this makes them jealous. :) (Clap emoji won't stick).

>"... and ended up executing a ̶n̶ ̶i̶n̶v̶o̶l̶u̶n̶t̶a̶r̶y̶, complete, 360-degree rotation." You MEANT to do that!
One of the best stories ever told. The fact it is still going on is really remarkable. I think I might try to look up any interview of the woman, just to see how crazy she is. She seems to have more dollars than sense and even that seems to be waning. I too am for the animals who live on the rock. I hope someone starts a drone ash drop on the rock. Drop your loved one's ashes onto the rock and let them get mixed in with all the sea lion and bird poop. That would be some quality eternity for someone. Don't be stuck in an urn, get cemented outside mixed in with the brown funk. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, now you are some stinky brown stuff.