Depoe-Bay_Bay-View

The turbulent waters off of Depoe Bay provide coastal storm watchers with some amazing views of the powerful Pacific Ocean. (Photo by Jeremy Burke)

Though we had rain and wind earlier this fall, the first real storm of the season pounded in on the morning of Sunday, Oct. 24. In an attempt to up my naturalist game, I have been documenting how the water, land, animals and people respond to weather events. This event was marvelous on a number of fronts.

Warnings suggested we keep away from windows, that power outages were likely, and flooding possible. We saw friends at the store on Saturday evening. They were stocking up, and the aisles were abuzz with a kind of nervous holiday energy that contrasted the eerily still air outside.

The morning it began, I woke around 5 o’clock. After a quick breakfast, I threw on running gear and a headlamp and dashed out. The wind was gathering by the hour, slated to work itself into a tizzy of 35 to 45 miles an hour with gusts predicted above the 60s by afternoon. In South Beach State Park, the shore pines were already whipping. Around daybreak, buckets of cold water poured from the sky. This felt like the start of the storm proper, and to my surprise, there were a handful of people out in it.

“Good to get out of the wind,” another runner shouted.

Others, decked in rain gear, walking dogs, nodded or said hello.

As the jetty turned into a wave pool, the pair of harlequins I’d been keeping tabs on near the first finger seemed to float about indifferently. The half dozen loons, however, all faced the bridge. By late morning, the rain had stopped. Like a trumpeted blast announcing a marching army, it was followed by freight trains of wind, and would not return until the following morning.

One way we gauge wind strength is by how loud it rattles the piece of loose siding on our apartment. That morning, our living room sounded like the revving of a poorly calibrated muscle car. Thunder rumbles shook the floor. By early afternoon, the 50-foot fir in the field across from our place, another storm strength marker, was arcing wildly back and forth. It was time to head over to the lighthouse.

The waves were chaotic, rearing up and slamming against a cliff, spraying foam bubbles onto the handful of cars in the lot. The sun was a bleary token. A flock of geese attempted flight. I watched from my shuddering car as the leader of their loose arrow attempted to find workable currents, was blown back, tried again. A laughing woman attempted to thread her arms through her jacket. A guy with a long-lensed camera hunched into the majesty before him.

Back home, the tree was bending even more; a starling flock flew from spot to spot with the uniform grace of a school of fish. Our window panes bowed. The building flexed. Sleep was fitful.

By 7 o’clock Monday morning, the wind was still cranking through nearby fir trees. Our patio table was on its side and the greenhouse door blown open. Down at the bay later that morning, I watched a large gull flock. They faced southwest, the direction the storm was coming from, and did not move when hard gusts sent sprays right through them. The water resembled dust clouds blown across the desert floor, and had a similarly gritty sting as it lashed my face. A harbor seal rose, cocked its spotted head back, and slipped out of sight.

Through binoculars, the mouth of the jetty looked as if explosions were being detonated every couple seconds.

Back at the lighthouse that afternoon, the cliff that had doubled as a bubble machine was now being bashed by loose buoys and a huge tree. The waves were more rhythmic. Over 20 feet tall, they seemed to roll forward in slow motion, casually submersing a two-story basalt haystack. The wind had mellowed some, though the car door tugged hard at its hinges when I opened it.

My wife and I drove up to Depoe Bay. It was nearing dusk, about two hours after high tide. The sun was slipping into towering fluffy clouds as waves shot thick spray over Highway 101. We looked for patterns in the roiling cauldron, found a steady wave about 30 feet long near the harbor mouth. It rose up and slammed down against a submerged shelf, regrouped and pummeled forward against the rocky wall beneath us. We licked salty mist off our lips. It struck me how much one doesn’t see when the ocean is calm. Water was now lighting up a skeletal structure of reef all over the place.

By Tuesday morning, the wind gusts were still blowing over 20 miles an hour. I started my assessment run in the Wilder woods, a fallen hemlock blocking part of a favorite trail just a few yards in. A mile or so later, I stopped. A knee-high fern was covered in what appeared to be snow. It took a moment to realize it was spruce sap, and with armchair scientific curiosity, I wondered if the stress of the wind had caused a sudden release, having never seen a concentration like it.

Whole fir trees had fallen in creek valleys, while alders seemed to have given up only fragments — their leg-sized mossy limbs were scattered about a trail carpeted with colorful leaves.

The storm ended as it began, with a deluge of cold rain that gave way to hazy stillness, the background roar of huge seas. Dawn on Wednesday arrived with a brief blaze of light. Sunrays shot crown-like from a low bank of clouds, the sky patched in pink, dove gray, robin egg blue. A lid of overcast then slid over the coast, and soft rain began to fall.

Paul Lask is a freelance outdoors journalist and writing instructor at Oregon Coast Community College. His work is at prlask.com, and he can be reached at paulrlask@gmail.com.

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