Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

August 18, 2017

© Jeremy Ferguson

The tide pools on Cannon Beach are famous for their statuesque formations, like Haystack Rock.

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On the edge

Dubbed the People’s Coast, Oregon’s Pacific shore is all public land and just begging to be explored

Among the characteristics defining the Pacific Northwest — an impassioned commitment to wilderness environment, a free-spirited sensibility, the abundance of fish and seafood in spite of declining stocks and, of course, rain, rain, rain — none is as binding as the Pacific coast itself. But where British Columbia and Washington State offer only occasional access, Oregon goes all the way: its remarkable Highway 101 hugs the ocean from top to bottom.

Not only that, it’s legislated public land, the lot of it, smartly designated in 1913, when developers and sharks must have been different species. In 2008, state tourism marketers branded it “The People’s Coast.” It may have lacked an element of splendour, but at least it was true. Today the 584-kilometre drive from Washington State to the California border makes for an incomparable ocean-side odyssey. It’s thundering surf and scimitars of golden sand afloat in Pacific mists, yes. But it’s also the sea stacks — giant stone pinnacles shaped by wind and water — that garland the coast. It’s the 80 state parks that serve as temples of nature. It’s the wind-tilted forests of fir and blue spruce. And it’s the entire coast punctuated with lookouts through the winter and spring months, as 18,000 gray whales make their way between Alaska and their Mexico, breeding grounds — the greatest whale migration on the planet.

A slice of 1920s America

The two-legged traveller begins the coastal journey in Astoria, Oregon’s northernmost city, near the mouth of the Columbia River. The sweep of the Columbia, the harbour, the multicoloured Victorian and Craftsman houses that rise up the city’s vertical hills like candy boxes — Astoria resembles a hand-tinted postcard from the 1920s.

Which is pretty much what it is: the territory first explored by Lewis and Clark became the first trading post on the Pacific and later the salmon “Cannery Capital of the World.” But hopes of grandeur were aborted by the decline of salmon stocks, the closing of canneries and timber mills and the rise of Seattle and Portland as busier ports. Time left Astoria behind, a living museum with a hangover. As usual, lack of funds proved the great preserver of the past.

A beacon of recent gentrification, the Cannery Pier Hotel (10 Basin Street, Astoria; tel: 888.325.4996; cannerypierhotel.com; doubles from $189. All prices in US dollars) sits on a 182-metre-long wharf over the Columbia, a modern barn-red boutique property with harbour views, walk-in showers, gas fireplaces and, delightfully, a robin-egg blue 1952 Cadillac that transports guests between the hotel and local restaurants. Astoria has a classic restored theatre, the Liberty — from 1925, ancient in American terms. And none other than Clark Gable launched his theatrical career at the Astoria Theatre in 1922, in what was then called a "bustling, booming, hell-raising town."

The city has a swish-looking restaurant, Clemente’s, and a cluster of multicultural eateries: Mexican, Chinese, Indian, Thai, even Bosnian. The old-timer is Baked Alaska (1 12th Street, Astoria; tel: 503-325-7414; bakedak.com). Chris Holen opened it 12 years ago when he was a young chef. It sits on a wharf, the harbour its decor, a love of fish and seafood its song. Clams come steamed with Italian sausage, fennel and Pernod. Chinook salmon jumps from the pan crispy-skinned and juicy-fleshed. Alaskan tuna shows up seared rare in a crust of coffee, while halibut picks up excitement from a hazelnut crust. Nary a bite arrives overcooked. And there are 50 wines under $25 a bottle — try to find that sort of thing in Canada.

Rock and foam

Driving south to Cannon Beach is uneventful except for the footnote of Seaside, a honky-tonk town of arcades, tattoo parlours and fast food. Spend a minute on it, but no more. Drive on to Cannon Beach.

Cannon Beach is rightly famous for its vast arc of pale sand and Haystack Rock, the mother of all sea stacks. The town has galleries, boutiques and good restaurants. Its luxe hotel is the Stephanie Inn (Cannon Beach, Oregon; tel: 800-633-3466; stephanie-inn.com), its accommodations sumptuous with top-of-the-line everything, gas fireplaces, Jacuzzis and verandas overlooking the beach. In late afternoon, guests are treated to a wine tasting of a dozen premium labels. The hotel offers lanterns to guests for night-walking on the beach.

Dinner is a candlelight-and-crystal affair. Chef Aaron Bedard marries Dungeness crab, organic greens, tomatoes and lemon vinaigrette as a salad, then tosses in a crunch with fried leeks. Seafood Provençale brings a seamless meld of shrimps, Manila clams and salmon in a scrumptious lobster-tomato broth. And the chef loves crusts: he crusts pork tenderloin in cocoa and stuffs it with cherries marinated in port. He crusts beef tenderloin in pepper. And maple pumpkin cheesecake gets a crust of ginger molasses.

Driving from north to central Oregon, the coast becomes more rugged, with fewer beaches and more cliffs, crags and promontories. Out of little Yachats, Cape Perpetua delivers another, completely different scenic knockout. The view from the top takes in 120 kilometres of Oregon coast, including the Devil’s Churn, a spectacular fissure marked by gusts of exploding surf. Trails spider-web the landscape, 42 kilometres of them, leading to tidal pools and ancient forests. One takes hikers to a 600-year-old giant Sitka spruce standing 56.5 metres high with a 12-metre circumference at its base.

Popular with tourists in central Oregon are the Sea Lion Caves (91560 US 101, Florence; tel: 541-547-3111; sealioncaves.com), a complex that includes the largest natural sea cave in the world, seen through an underground portal. In the winter months, it shelters hundreds of sea lions. In summer, the mammals huddle on rocky ledges outside the cave.

Dune with a view

Oregon’s south came late to tourism. A hotelier describes the region as “underpopulated, undertrafficked and underdeveloped.” The south isn’t the place for opulent beach resorts and upscale restaurants, but it compensates with a grandeur that stands up to Cannon Beach and the heralded beauties of the north.

On the road towards Coos Bay, sand dunes begin to loom on the side of the highway. Welcome to the Oregon Dunes, 64 kilometres of them, the biggest on this continent. The northern, areas are preserved for wildlife, while the southern dunes are a giant sandbox for thrill-seekers on dune buggies and dirt bikes.

Coos Bay, with a population of 16,000, is the coast’s largest city. Nearby, Shore Acres State Park (Coos Bay; tel: 541-888-3732; shoreacres.net) combines the formal gardens of a once-private estate and eye-popping sandstone formations lashed by the ocean, for the photographer one of the most arresting images on the coast.

Redfish (517 Jefferson Street, Port Orford; tel: 541-366-2200; redfishportorford.com) has picture windows overlooking the coast, flamboyant abstract art and a smart contemporary menu. Chef Jeremy Kelly’s signature scallops dazzle, barely cooked through and served with pancetta, truffled polenta and sweet potato “hay.” Lamb rack is a massive weapon of a dish; one might use it to pulverize a vegan or two. To finish, crème brûlée tops the dessert-lover’s 10-point scale: a rich, velvety cream under a crackling crust with fresh blueberries and raspberries.

Where the fish are

The south is also the place to fish for orange-fleshed steelhead trout and Chinook — Americans call it “king”— salmon. When local anglers talk about fishing, they mean river fishing, trolling. It’s a treat for people who don’t much enjoy being tossed around like rag dolls on open water. Adventure novelists Jack London and Zane Grey fished the Rogue River. Fishing guide Darrell Allen (Gold Beach; tel: 541-247-2082), who’s been pulling salmon out of the Rogue for 50 years, operates out of Gold Beach and invites strangers to throw a line. His personal best was a 49-pounder, twice. “Just couldn’t get that extra pound,” he laments.

Brookings, less than 10 kilometres from the California border, is the southernmost town in Oregon. It comes rich with sea stacks, panoramas, secluded beaches and the 43.5-kilometre-long Oregon Coast Trail cherished by wilderness hikers. Fishers troll the Chetco River for Chinook in November and December and for steelhead later in the winter months.

Surprisingly it’s also where you’ll find O’Holleran’s Steak House (1210 Chetco Avenue, Brookings; tel: 541-469-9907; ohollerans.com), a 1952 steakhouse, turned stylish lounge and restaurant. The highlights include salmon soup, fresh calamari, a vast selection of swimmers from razor clams to grilled oysters and yes, first-rate beef. Locals are known to pull up a chair for a ling cod breakfast at the Oceanside Diner (16403 Lower Harbor Road, Brookings; tel: 541-469-7971). It opens at 4AM for local fishermen and loggers, and sells fishing licenses on site.

Intriguingly, Brookings was the site of one of two Japanese attacks on American soil during WWII. Attemting to turn the forests of the Pacific Northwest near Brookings into a colossal blaze and create mass panic, a Japanese submarine launched a seaplane carrying incendiary bombs. But the Japanese hadn’t consulted the weather man: it was wet. The bombs fizzled out.

Twenty years later, pilot Nobuo Fujita, ashamed of his wartime activity, returned to Brookings and presented the town with his family’s 400-year-old samurai sword. Had he received a hostile reception, he was planning to use it to commit seppuku, ritual disembowelment. But the ending said much about the largesse of Oregonians: Fujita was received with kindness. He became a frequent visitor and prior to his death, was made an honorary citizen of Brookings. His sword occupies a place of honour in the Brookings library to this day.

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