COOS BAY —
The seas were in overdrive, and so was Bam Bam.
A mile off the Pacific coast, the towheaded deckhand of the Betty Kay was racing back and forth between the gunwales, tossing and pitching with every wave that rolled through the morning fog.
Bam Bam, born Ken Johnston, might well have been the lost child of Betty and Barney Rubble of “The Flintstones" fame. What he sacrificed in height, he made up for with energy, as if he had been overfed on sugar. With every shout of “Fish on!" from the 14 anglers aboard the 50-foot charter fishing boat, he leapt into action, raising colorful rockfish, ling cod and cabezon from the salty brine and tossing them into plastic buckets on the deck.
I, too, was tossing and pitching. Better I had chosen Dramamine and a toasted bagel over an omelet for breakfast. And I was not alone as a victim of motion sickness.
But I refused to let my discomfort stand between me and a good catch. I dropped my 30-pound-test line off the port side of the Betty Kay until slack tension made it clear that it had hit bottom, a couple of hundred feet beneath me. Then I reeled the spool back a few turns and drifted, waiting for a strike.
After four hours, I had taken my limit of seven fish on the two artificial lures that hung at the bottom of my line about 2 feet apart. Twice, I reeled in two blue rockfish at once. The boat's pilot, Capt. Kathi Johnson, had located a rich school of fish off the Seven Devils coastline, six miles south of the mouth of Coos Bay.
Johnston — “My mother would have put 'Bam Bam' on my birth certificate if they had let her," he said — was in a measured frenzy as one angler after another shouted for assistance in netting the catch. Most of the take was rockfish: blue, black, vermilion, tiger and other subspecies. Largest was a greedy, 30-pound ling cod that came to the surface with its jaws around a yellow-emblazoned China rockfish that had already been hooked when the cod struck.
We returned some fish to the sea, either because they were too small (some ling cod) or overfished and endangered (yelloweye and canary rockfish).
But by noon, our vessel had completely limited out and returned to its port in Charleston Harbor, eight miles southwest of the city of Coos Bay. Friendlier tides made the return passage less stomach-churning than the outward voyage.
Most of my fellow anglers were from other Oregon cities: Eugene, Medford, Grants Pass, Salem. I was the lone Central Oregonian, but one man on a visit from Ohio was making his first trip on the ocean. Finding the Pacific to be a lot different than Lake Erie, he spent much of the trip in a fetal position.
Charter fishing is a popular recreational activity in Charleston, one of the major fishing ports on the Oregon Coast. But commercial fishing is an even larger draw. Boats from the 14-mile-long Port of Coos Bay — widely acknowledged as the finest deep harbor between San Francisco Bay and Puget Sound — caught about 20 million pounds of seafood, valued at about $17 million, in 2009.
Charleston seafood markets sell fresh fish just off the boats, and a half-dozen cafes serve up fish, crabs and shellfish to diners on a moment's notice.
Larger ships, meanwhile, continue farther up the bay and around a hairpin bend beneath the mile-long Conde McCullough Memorial Bridge, arriving at the urban docks in North Bend and Coos Bay. Giant freighters still take on tons of raw timber — mainly Douglas fir, Western hemlock and Port Orford cedar — but the quantities pale compared to what they were in the years following World War II. At that time, the official state reference guide “Oregon Blue Book" referred to Coos Bay as “the world's largest lumber shipping port."
Shipping, lumber and commercial fishing were almost solely responsible for building “Oregon's Bay Area" into the largest metropolis on the coast. Known as Marshfield until 1944 (its high school still carries the name), the city of Coos Bay has a population of 16,000 — substantially more than adjacent North Bend, whose citizens number about 10,000.
Unlike the coast's next largest cities — Astoria, Newport, Florence and Lincoln City — tourism has been slow to embrace Coos Bay. The Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area, which extends in a sandy strip 50 miles north from the harbor, and the proximity of popular Cape Arago State Park, southwest of Charleston, have been real draws. But even during economic hard times, Coos Bay has remained a working man's community. And it is fiercely proud of its heritage.
Civic leaders today support efforts to develop a tourism industry around that very heritage. Last year, a $1.4 million visitor center opened beside the Coos Bay Boardwalk, which is raised on pilings along several blocks of Bayshore Drive. The boardwalk incorporates exhibits on old Coos Bay and displays a celebrated tugboat, the 1924 Koos #2, beneath a roof.
Someday, perhaps, a pedestrian and bicycle route will extend miles north from here to the North Bend Boardwalk, passing en route the new Coos Historical & Maritime Center and The Mill Casino, Hotel & RV Park. The casino was developed by the Coquille tribe after they purchased an abandoned lumber mill in the mid-1990s; the lodge was added in 2000 and a convention center in 2008.
When completed, the historical center will replace a small, outdated and often-overlooked museum that has stood for years just south of the McCullough Bridge in North Bend. Executive Director Anne Donnelly, who maintains a small office in the 1891 Marshfield Sun printery, said she hopes to break ground on the new building early next year.
Located on four acres where Front Street meets U.S. Highway 101, the 17,000-square-foot building will feature exhibit space, a research library and bookstore, a theater, a waterfront plaza for maritime demonstrations, a wharf to accommodate visiting “tall ships," and more.
“The heart of the main building will be a sunlit atrium lobby," said Donnelly. “And our plaza will be something special, a wind-sheltered community gathering place where we can host markets, festivals and other cultural events."
The Sun building and nearby Coos Bay Iron Works, in continual business since 1888, are the only buildings that endure from a time when Front Street was the city's bustling waterfront strip. Most structures fell victim to a devastating 1922 fire; others have merely been removed or sometimes replaced.
Across town, on Coos Bay's westside harbor in the Empire District, the Coos Bay Boat Building Center is already up and running. Still in its infancy, it sits at the end of an old wharf in a future urban development site known as “The Hollering Place" — so called, I was told, because late-19th-century pioneer residents could shout across the narrow channel here for local transportation.
Fully run by volunteers, the Boat Building Center today is actively making small boats such as canoes and skiffs, and offering lessons in the use of shop tools along with paddle making, knot tying, scrimshaw and other forgotten arts. Profits from its Sjoberg Gallery help to support the center.
Reimagining Coos Bay
The new visitor center stands at the hub of downtown Coos Bay. Oregon sports fans may pause for a moment outside of the center and regard a figurative statue of local hero Steve Prefontaine, a renowned distance runner whose life was cut short by a 1975 automobile accident. The city celebrated “Pre" just yesterday in the 33rd annual Prefontaine Memorial Run, a 10,000-meter (six-mile) race always staged on the third Saturday of September.
Curiously, there is no equivalent tribute to Coos Bay-born Mel Counts, a towering Oregon State University basketball star who won a gold medal (something that eluded Prefontaine) at the 1964 Olympic Games and went on to play 12 years of professional basketball.
The Coos Bay Farmers Market runs every Wednesday and Sunday from May through October. Two blocks of Commercial Avenue are lined with vendors selling everything from fruit to plants, paintings to cottage crafts, homemade tamales to house-roasted coffee.
One block over, the Coos Art Museum exhibits its collections in a building that originally housed the Marshfield Post Office. Of federal design with art deco flair, it was built in 1934-35 by the Works Progress Administration.
The tallest building in town — at nine stories, in fact, the tallest on the Oregon Coast — is the Tioga Hotel, facing Broadway at Market Avenue. It no longer takes overnight guests, however, having been converted to low-cost senior housing. Adjacent blocks of Broadway look like a typical small-town main street, its wall-to-wall two- and three-story buildings housing shops, offices and a handful of restaurants.
Twice a summer week, however, the Menasha Forest Products Corp. does its part to get visitors out of downtown Coos Bay, inviting them on a free Wednesday afternoon “working forest" tour. Leaving at 1 p.m. (through September) from the visitor center, a company bus travels nine miles south to Isthmus Slough, where a professional forester describes timber management practices during a three-hour tour of a 650-acre site.
Participants see 100-year-old Douglas fir ready for harvest, year-old plantations on recently clear-cut land, and stages between. They are walked through such ecology-based projects as wildlife habitat and stream enhancement, and learn something about the economics of forestry.
I had been scheduled to join the Wednesday tour, but it was canceled during my visit as drivers were called away to fight a wildfire. Timm Slater, a former Weyerhaeuser executive who is now president of the Coos Bay Chamber of Commerce, took me on a verbal tour — but I'll look forward to the real thing, perhaps next summer.
Back in Charleston, I paid a visit to the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology (OIMB), the University of Oregon's marine research and teaching facility since 1931. Graduate and undergraduate students, as well as visiting scientists from around the world, make a temporary home here.
Spread along Boat Basin Drive in several shingled and weathered buildings facing the Charleston Marina, the institute is directed by Dr. Craig Young, one of the world's foremost authorities on life in the deep sea. For more than three decades, Young has piloted robotic-armed submersibles to the floors of the planet's oceans, where he has taken samples of their unique denizens for study.
Young exhibited several odd-looking specimens in his OIMB laboratory, one of a half-dozen maintained by the institute's teaching faculty. He showed me a newly discovered mussel, captured over Labor Day weekend off the coast of Maryland, which feeds from underwater methane vents that were unknown only 20 years ago. He showed me “the only place in the world" where deep-sea corals are cultured. He introduced me to the world's largest species of octopus, an animal from Cape Arago with a nine-foot arm span and a Mr. Potato Head toy.
But mostly, he raved about the new Charleston Marine Life Center, currently under construction across Boat Basin Drive from the OIMB.
We walked through the bones of the building, and with Young's mental blueprint and my imagination, I was able to envision what the two-story aquarium-museum might look like when it opens next August — that's Young's goal — at a cost of less than $1 million.
Downstairs, there will be sections on marine ecosystems and deep-water species, along with exhibits focusing on offshore reserves and Oregon fisheries. Upstairs, one large room will focus on the evolution of whales and other marine mammals, while another will explore the diversity of marine life, from giant squid to tiny worms.
“In the animal kingdom, there are 30 phyla, and almost all are marine invertebrates," Young said.
Back in 1825, pioneer explorer Jedediah Smith camped on the land where OIMB now stands, Young said. The 80-acre plot later became the Coos Head Military Reservation, and the first U.S. Coast Guard station was built nearby in 1914. It was donated to the University of Oregon by the federal government in 1931.
On previous trips to the Coos Bay area, I have often visited the state parks and wildlife refuges along the Cape Arago Highway southwest of Charleston. Sunset Bay State Park is a wonderful place to camp, with a fine tidal beach near the picturesque Cape Arago Lighthouse. Shore Acres State Park features a spectacular, four-season botanical garden on the erstwhile estate of early-20th-century shipbuilder Louis J. Simpson.
Shore Acres' Simpson Reef Overlook gazes out upon the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, where sea lions, seals, waterfowl and even whales are easily observed. And at the end of the road, Cape Arago State Park is one of the best places in the state to go tidepooling.
This time, however, I spent a few hours off the beaten track at the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve. Four miles south of Charleston via Seven Devils Road, it features a visitor center with excellent descriptions of the salt marshes, tidal flats and channels readily accessed by nearly eight miles of trails. My walks were at once relaxing and educational.
I stayed at The Mill Casino and Hotel, which offered comfort and excellent service beside a mountain of sawdust near the boundary between the cities of Coos Bay and North Bend. Abundant exhibits of Coquille Indian culture in the public areas were an added attraction. I ventured through the double doors into the casino only twice — for a halibut dinner at its Plank House Restaurant and for my doomed, pre-fishing trip breakfast in its casual Timbers Cafe.
I had excellent dinners in the Plank House and at Ciccarelli's in downtown North Bend, where a giant bowl of non-methane-sucking mussels was prepared in a savory cream sauce. Tuna and chips at Miller's on the Cove, in Charleston, made a fine lunch.
But my favorite meal of all may have been a big mushroom burger from Yeong's Place, a local diner in working-class North Bend. By that time, perhaps, I was ready for anything but seafood.