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Bigger water and smaller crowds help make winter a great time for an ocean visit

LON AUSTIN - A splash erupts from a pool at Cape Perpetua.

My wife and I love going to the Oregon coast in winter.

Not only are there fewer people than the rest of the year, but winter storms make some of the best scenery possible at the coast.

Normally, going to the coast is as simple as making a reservation and making sure you have enough money in the bank to pay for meals in the coastal restaurants.

However, in the age of COVID, traveling has taken on a whole new level of difficulty. Health authorities tell us to stay at home. Traveling could potentially spread the virus. Still, the hospitality industry is open for business. Things aren't the way they were, but hotels, motels and resorts are still open for business.

Last week, we traveled to Depoe Bay, where we stayed in a Worldmark Resort. The resort just happens to be the most popular resort in the Worldmark chain of resorts. Normally, to get a room in the high-demand resort requires booking more than a year in advance. But, with many people not traveling due to COVID, we were able to get a reservation on relatively short notice.

That doesn't mean that this was a normal vacation. We were given a check-in time. Not the usual check-in, where you can show up any time after the check-in time. Instead, we were given an hour during which we were expected to check in. Emails and phone calls made it clear that we could not check in earlier than 5 p.m. nor later than 6 p.m. without calling and notifying the resort that we were going to be late.

On arrival, we were met by a masked individual who gave us instructions for checking in, while still keeping social distancing. The resort made it clear that individuals were expected to wear masks at all times while on resort property either indoor or out, except for in the privacy of your own room.

That turned out to be a mandate that not everyone followed. And, I get it. After all, how likely is one to become infected by a virus while outside in 20-mile-per-hour winds, while no one else is within 30 feet.

On the way to Depoe Bay, we stopped in Lincoln City to go grocery shopping, expecting that no restaurants would be open for indoor dining. It turned out that earlier in the week, restaurants in Lincoln County reopened for business. However, with the refrigerator stocked with food, we saw no reason to dine out.

Our resort sat on a cliff, overlooking the ocean. Floodlights lit up the surf outside our room, making it possible to storm watch even at night. And, from what we saw, that is exactly what most people did; sit in their suite and watch the waves. A few individuals occasionally came out of their rooms and walked the resort's trail along the cliffside.

But, that's not what we came to the coast to do. My wife likes to relax in luxury. I prefer to spend the time outside photographing scenery.

Typically, when we vacation, bad weather seems to follow me. This time, things were different. A week before we left, the 10-day weather forecast said that it would rain every day we were gone, and even snow one of the days we were at the coast. But, by the time we left, the weather forecast had improved, and we were not scheduled to get any rain until the third day we were at the coast.

One of the things about photography at the coast is that in order to get the best photos, there is some measure of risk. Good composition and good images of storms require being close to the action. Close to the action means that you have to be on the alert for sneaker waves, logs floating in the surf, slippery rocks, and any number of other potential dangers.

I often wear chest waders while photographing at the coast. That way, I stay dry, no matter what the weather conditions. In addition, it is convenient when crossing streams that enter the ocean, or accessing tide pools. However, I never go into the surf, at least not without spending time watching the wave patterns and the size of the waves.

We got up Friday morning, our first day at the coast, and Karlene went out to run, while I walked out the back door of our suite and took photos of the waves from atop the cliff. Although the waves weren't huge, they were pretty good sized, and photos of waves crashing into a cliff are always interesting to take. High tide came shortly after sunrise, so there was no rush to leave the resort any time soon.

After a leisurely breakfast, we set out to photograph a portion of the coast near Depoe Bay. We watched waves at Boiler Bay then at Whale Cove. After eating the lunch we had packed, we headed south to Devil's Punchbowl State Park. Most people look at the punchbowl from atop a cliff. However, at low tide, the feature is accessible from the beach. A short hike north of the punchbowl accesses the beach and Devil's Punchbowl Marine Gardens.

The trail is paved but currently has a large drop off just prior to reaching the beach. A large storm a couple of years ago took out the lower portion of the trail, leaving a drop off of about 5 feet. People have made a narrow and slippery trail around the right side of the trail and down to the beach. However, I prefer to just sit on the lip of the drop off and then slide off to the beach below.

Once on the beach, the marine gardens are to the north, while Devil's Punchbowl is to the south. The best tide pools are far to the north near Otter Rock. However, those tide pools are often not accessible due to seals that reside in the area. It is against the Marine Mammals act to harass seal or sea lions and their pups. As a result, portions of the coast are not always open to the public. Even where the beach is open and accessible, do not approach the wildlife.

I turned south to Devil's Punchbowl. Even at low tide, you can expect to at least get your feet wet getting into the punchbowl, which is actually a collapsed sea cave. The sea cave has three arches, two of which can access the feature, while the third goes straight into the powerful surf, even at low tide.

I waded through a fairly deep tide pool and through the small arch farthest from the surf into the punchbowl. Waves splashed through the largest arch, however, at the back of the bowl, it is dry. After taking dozens of photos, I made my way out the second arch and back toward the marine gardens.

I was hoping to photograph the northernmost tide pools. However, seals basking on the rocks kept me from approaching the best tide pools. I hiked back to the car, where Karlene had stayed, reading a book on her Nook. From there, we slowly made our way back north to Depoe Bay and ate an early dinner. Once again, I photographed waves from the cliffside until dark.

The next day, we drove north to Cape Kiwanda. The cape is one of my favorite places to photograph. Located at Pacific City, it also happens to be where my wife's aunt lives. We left early in the morning so that I had some time to photograph prior to meeting her aunt and her husband for lunch and a game of cards.

Cape Kiwanda is in the process of rapid change. The cape is experiencing extreme erosion. A few years ago, there was an arch on the north side of the cape called Keyhole Arch. Although it has since collapsed, there are currently at least six arches either in the cape itself, or just to the north. In addition, there is now a large sea cave on the north side of the cape that was not previously there. Much of the area is now fenced off, limiting access, although, there are still plenty of viewpoints that are good for photography.

Sunday, we didn't have any photography planned. One of the worst things about timeshares is that each time you visit, they attempt to sell you more credits, points, or whatever you want to call it. They lure you to educational seminars with offers of gifts. Sixty minutes listening to how the rules have changed for bookings, and why it is in your best interest to purchase more credits, followed by an offer to purchase more credits may get you a free night's lodging, credits to book a future vacation, cash, or some other offer.

Basically, what you learn at the seminars is that the maintenance fees are going up, and the cost of credits is also about to go up. However, we agreed to listen to the presentation in exchange for $75 in gift certificates for the Lincoln City Outlet Mall. The 60 minutes turned to 75 minutes before we escaped and made our way to the mall, where we quickly spent the money.

It rained hard on Monday, and Karlene chose to stay at the resort working on a jig saw puzzle, which was one of the things we purchased at the outlet mall. Meanwhile, I headed south to Cape Perpetual National Scenic Area.

There are some places at the coast where the only way to get photographs is to get wet. One of those locations is Thor's Well, which is located in the scenic area. The well is a hole in a basalt ledge. Water runs under the ledge, then sprays up through the hole before draining back into the ocean. There are only two ways to get photos of the feature. You can either use a big lens from the parking area atop the cliff, which does show the feature but does not make for very exciting photos, or you can walk out onto the ledge and get close to Thor's Well.

Under normal conditions, the well is only active for a short time before, during and after high tide. However, on that day, the waves were huge. The well wasn't even remotely accessible until more than two hours after high tide, so I took photos of the spouting horn located nearby, as well as of the crashing surf. I had the area to myself for more than an hour before other tourists started showing up.

The rocky ledge that both the spouting horn and Thor's Well sit on has a number of areas where the waves have made channels into the ledge. Waves run up the channel, then crash high into the air when they hit the end of the channel. You can walk around most of the channels, however, if you time it wrong, you will get wet with sea spray. Get too close and time it wrong, and you will not only get drenched, you risk being swept off your feet.

And that is exactly what happened to one of the first people out on the ledge Monday morning. While I was photographing waves in one of the channels from a safe distance, a pair of young men decided to check the feature out from up close. First, they got doused with spray. Then one of them was knocked down by a wave that he got too close to. You would think that a person would learn from that, but instead, the two men took it as a challenge, trying to see how close they could get without getting knocked down again.

By the time that they left, both men were drenched. But they were lucky, neither got hurt.

Eventually the surf got low enough that I could approach Thor's Well, but I was never able to get close enough for the photo that I had actually wanted.

I had intended to photograph all day Monday, but when I left the resort first thing in the morning, I messed up, grabbing the bag with my remote controls instead of grabbing the identical looking bag with my spare camera batteries. The end result is that I ran out of battery and had to quit shooting. It was probably just as well. The rain was cold and miserable, and my hands were getting cold.

That's the thing about photographing in bad weather. With the right clothing, you can stay warm and dry. But you just can't operate a camera effectively with gloves on, so while the rest of you can be dry and nice and warm, your hands take a beating.

With no battery left, I hiked back up to the parking area, wiped any salt spray off of my camera and lens, then dried both carefully, before eating lunch. Then I made my way back to Depoe Bay. That afternoon, I spent more time shooting waves before dinner. Tuesday morning, we left early and returned to Prineville.

I realize that there will be those who say that we shouldn't be traveling. The thing is that other than in the factory outlet mall and the grocery store, we were never in contact with other people. And, even at the mall, stores were limiting the number of people entering, with lines of people carefully spaced apart outside the stores waiting to come in. So, I make no apologies for my choices. What I would say is that if you travel, stay safe, respect the rules that businesses have in place for the safety of their employees and customers, and follow the rules. Regardless of COVID, the Oregon coast is still a beautiful place to visit.


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