The Yaquina Head Outstanding Natural Area lies right off highway 101 between Newport and Waldport, OR. Like most of my dad’s favorite family activities, an outing to the Yaquina Head tide pools requires being ready to leave the house at 5:30 am. To appreciate the tide pools at Yaquina Head, you have to time your visit between when the sun comes up and when the tide comes in. My dad has bought a tide table every single summer just to plan his Yaquina Head visit, unless he actually finds it fun to sit around figuring out the next time the tide will change.
I drowsily watch my dad’s reflection in the dark window as he finishes up his cereal. My stepchildren amble into the kitchen wrapped in blankets.
“Why do we have to get up so early?”
“I don’t even want to see the stupid tide pools,” they whine.
Only Emma, the oldest, has jeans and sneakers on; Keeley, my middle stepchild, and Noah, the youngest, brought nothing but shorts and tee-shirts with them from our home in Arizona. Their foam and rubber flip-flops, which they swear are the only shoes that fit them, will just have to do.
We take my car, a rented SUV, instead of my dad’s hybrid. The sky is lightening, but it’s hard to say whether the light we see is dawn or just light pollution from the eight or ten street lights in Yachats, OR, a.k.a. the “Jewel of the Oregon Coast.” In the thick mists of the coniferous rainforest it is easy to see how a little bit of light could just refract endlessly in the fog, swirling around in the miasma instead of arcing out into space like it’s meant to. Or maybe that’s just the muddled scientific theory of an English major before her coffee–it’s been known to happen.
The children’s faces are lit up, not with the enchantment of discovery as we drive through the breathtakingly tall and verdant forest, but with the glow of their Nintendo DS’s. The aesthetic appeal of the deep woods on the right and the Pacific Ocean on the left overtakes me. I’ve driven up this stretch of highway so many times. This is the beach my family went to every year on our summer vacation.
Once, a friend at Sunday school was talking about her family vacation to the Gulf Coast. She talked about swimming in water so clear you could see fish all the way at the bottom.
“Swimming? Wasn’t the water cold?” I asked, thinking about the ocean water I’d experienced here in the Pacific Northwest.
“No. It was so warm, like a bath.”
For anyone who imagines places like San Diego or Oahu when they think about beaches, it might be hard to comprehend what I mean when I say the water in Oregon is too cold to swim in. You won’t find a Sandals resort on the Oregon Coast. You don’t enjoy these beaches lying around under a giant umbrella while a waiter brings out daiquiri after daiquiri; you look at, listen to, and feel the surroundings–waves, ivy, sand, rock, and seagulls. People don’t go to these beaches to feel comfortable and pampered.
Quiet couples and singles hold their windbreakers tightly closed; some even have earmuffs and gloves. They comb the beach for driftwood to put in their fireplaces, and they shop not for sunburn lotion but for jigsaw puzzles to keep them occupied. Yet the waves do beckon, especially to children who, wisely or foolishly, try to get wet as often as possible. Any kid who will take off her shoes and wade in a public fountain will do the same in the glacial waters of the north Pacific. I can personally attest to the frigidity of this surf, and to the way it turns your skin the same livid pink that an ice cube might evince.
When we get to Yaquina Head I negotiate with the kids about wearing their sweatshirts. It doesn’t feel cold right when you get out of the car, but I remember the sneaking, seeping kind of coldness that doesn’t kick in until you’re far away from wherever you left your sweatshirt.
Then we take to the park path. Sand as fine as sugar blankets the pavement. The path is also steep and wet from the heavy dew. I walk slowly and wish for a handrail while the kids all take off running down the path. I can see them in my mind’s eye slipping, wiping out, and tumbling down the hill (in my panic I think of it as a cliff). My dad doesn’t seem worried, though, so I let them run ahead.
A ridge of hard, spiky rocks sticks out of the sand at the bottom of the path. When the tide goes out, some of it pools in the cracks and hollows formed by these rocks. Shallow water sea creatures live on the rocks to be close to the air and the sun. They feed on detritus in the surf. The turgid waves stir up plankton and algae for the rugged cephalopods and miscellaneous invertebrates to eat. The trade-off for these rock dwellers is exposure to the sharp beaks of hungry seagulls and the careless soles of tourist’s shoes. The tide pool creatures protect themselves with hard exteriors that double as camouflage.
Imagine the children’s discontent when with their unaccustomed eyes they look for creatures and see nothing but the craggy rock. In places, busy nests of black-shelled barnacles stick out of the rocky surface, but barnacles might as well be rocks for our purposes. Barnacles are not cute or interesting. I really want to be the first person to find something interesting–a starfish, an anemone. But there’s nothing, just cold, dead lava rock. Bored, my stepson begins to wander and ask me if he can jump off the rocks and swim (absolutely not).
Finally, I see something. A green spot on a chunk of rock in a puddle. I squint and squat to see it clearly. It’s either a small piece of seaweed or…yes, it’s the fuzzy-looking tentacles of an anemone. I summon everyone to where I’m crouching. It takes a few minutes of pointing and describing before anyone else sees what I see. Now it will start. Now that we know what we’re looking for. Emma finds another anemone. It’s a tiny baby, no bigger around than a nickel, but all of its tiny, pale green tentacles reach upward to the surface of its puddle. Keeley finds another miniature anemone; they’re everywhere.
Gradually, we observe a pattern. The crusty outside of an anemone looks different from the rocks around it. The rock surface is slick black, while the anemone is speckled with multicolored bumps. They look like sand but they’re not. My dad sees our first starfish, which clings to the underside of a rocky outcropping.
Intertidal rocks make a terrible surface for walking on. They are actually kind of scary. You put your foot down on a surface gradually; at first you just feel its texture, then lean forward a little bit to see if it moves. Large rocks look like good places to step, but some of them shift under your weight. These rocks may have just gotten dropped in that spot within the last few hours; that’s how powerfully the waves crash around this rocky ridge. The terrain is uneven and wet. Moss is everywhere, which you don’t want to step on because it’s slippery as hell. Barnacles, with their pointy tops, look like they would give you some purchase, but when you step on them they move. They wobble like the needles of a hundred metronomes. The barnacle shells are slicker than the rocks themselves; if you slipped and fell on them the pointy tops would dig deep into your knees and elbows and cut your skin to ribbons.
Because the hike is both arduous and perilous, you can’t just gaze into puddles all the time. You look at the ground in front of you and think carefully about your next step. You focus deeply and strategize. If you don’t pause after every few steps and look around, you might be surprised to come to a place where the rock drops off suddenly into the roiling waves below. When you do have to backtrack, the rocks you just walked on look no easier to navigate than they were the first time.
So when you do see a creature, you count yourself lucky. It is like seeing a shooting star, like something cool just happened to be in the exact spot where you were looking. But the kids know what to look for now, and they’re spotting anemones everywhere. I show Keeley how to tickle an anemone. I tell her it will grab onto her finger, and I explain that the sticky tentacles are how it gets food out of the water. At first she is scared to touch it, then she tries. You can tell when the anemone’s tentacles grab hold and pull on her skin by the look of alarm and delight that crosses her face before she quite knows what’s happening.
She shows Noah, who shows Emma. The tentacles of the anemones feel soft, spongy, and very sticky. Not like tape, but like Velcro. Now we also see more and more starfish. There are two colors of starfish: orange and a dark purplish-reddish brown. The brown ones are more plentiful than the orange ones. I feel like there aren’t as many starfish on the rocks now as there were when I used to come here as a teenager.
While walking around here with my brother years ago (an epic, five-hour odyssey that my whole family still talks about), we came to a place where every surface was covered in starfish. We had no choice but to step on them. The feeling of starfish underfoot surprised me as much as the feeling of shifting barnacles. Starfish are as rough and stolid as barnacles are slippery and shaky. They only look delicate.
My dad spots a fish. Finally, I see it, too. It looks more like a shadow than a fish, and it’s swimming around in a deep tide pool with lots of dark places to hide. It must have gotten stuck in that tide pool when the tide went out. It makes me anxious to watch it glide in and out of the sunlight all by itself. I doubt that this fish’s worldview permits it to feel trapped, but all I can do is imagine how I would feel in its place.
I summon the kids again so that they can see the fish. Then Emma slips and gets her foot stuck in between some rocks. She screams and sits down suddenly. She’s not hurt badly, but she has a scrape and is now soaking wet. Time to go home. The other kids protest. They want to stay outside and play with anemones. Climbing the rocks has helped us all warm up slightly, and the haze of early morning is starting to lift.
“We’ll get some hot chocolate,” I promise. Still, they’d prefer to stay. It’s harder to get them to go home than it was to get them out in the first place.
I am happy to have to cajole them. I want them to love this place, to share a secret with my dad and me. Yaquina Head doesn’t look like much fun at first glance–just a damp, windy place with not a lot of sunshine. People don’t play beach volleyball here. There’s no boardwalk, roller coaster or late-night luau, yet some people still love to come. Contrary to what you’d expect, thousands of people are like my dad and me. We actually want to spend our summer vacation waking up early in the morning to risk life and limb just for the chance to see a living flower in a puddle, or wrestle razor clams out of their sandy burrows, or listen to sea lions bark at each other, or catch a fish from the deep sea.
Like jazz or Shakespeare or physics, this place has a beauty that takes time to learn how to appreciate. It’s a place in which one can be quiet and careful, move slowly, look closely, and think deeply. The process isn’t easy, but it is worth it. You will want to get an early start.