MANZANITA — One of the simple pleasures of being a writer is that I am sometimes able to join two names of decidedly different eras in a single stream of consciousness — such as those of Fig Walnut and Sir Francis Drake.
Although Drake’s lifetime and that of Ms. Walnut missed overlapping by nearly four centuries, both individuals have ties to the estuary of the Nehalem River, at the northern edge of Tillamook County on the Oregon Coast.
Recent historical research suggests that Drake spent five weeks within the Nehalem River mouth in the summer of 1579, during which time he made extensive repairs on his ship, the Golden Hind.
For centuries he was believed to have harbored on the Northern California coast, claiming “Nova Albion" (New Britain) for Queen Elizabeth I. But historians have discovered that Drake falsified many of his maps and journal entries to hide his actual location from the Spanish. Plentiful new evidence suggests that it was here, at the foot of a mountain the Tillamook Indians called “Neah-kah-nie," that the British privateer found a quiet haven.
The very fact that Drake slept here gives credence to a longtime local legend — that a chest of pirate treasure is buried on the slopes of Neahkahnie Mountain, which rises 1,795 feet above the Pacific Ocean near the resort village of Manzanita.
This story is not unknown to Fig Walnut. She adopted the stage name some years ago to accent her work as a jazz singer (she has several recordings) and a textile artist. She is also the bartender at Dixie Lee’s Vino Manzanita wine bar, and it was in this capacity that she advised me to climb the mountain.
“It will only take you about 45 minutes," she said. “And even if you don’t stumble upon the treasure, the views are amazing."
The 1½-mile hike to the summit actually took me closer to an hour, even though I took off from the higher of the two trailheads. (The north trailhead, beginning on U.S. Highway 101 in Oswald West State Park, is an extension of the Oregon Coastal Trail; I started a mile nearer to Manzanita, off a short gravel road that wound up the hillside.)
The walk was steeper than I had anticipated, like Pilot Butte times three. I counted 14 switchbacks on the lower slopes alone. Cut through sword ferns and the thorny stalks of salmonberries bereft of summer fruit, the trail was well maintained, but it was muddy in patches from a rainstorm that had passed through the night before.
I often found myself scrambling over Sitka spruce roots so thick they formed gnarled staircases in the mountainside. More than once I stumbled.
The switchbacks ceased where the trail crossed a primitive road. It then wound around Neahkahnie’s northeastern flank. Far below me, I could see and hear loggers at work. But the trail’s ascent was gentle from here until the very end, where it zigzagged twice more over a ridge to the mountain’s seaward side, just beneath a final rocky pinnacle.
Fig was right: The view was stunning, despite a light haze blowing in from the Pacific that kept it from being absolutely crystal clear. This was a treasure worth holding in memory. Row after row of ocean surf washed a perfect, crescent-shaped beach that stretched for miles to the south. Behind the golden sand in the near distance, the homes of Manzanita protruded through a forest of shore pine.
Beyond the beach, the Nehalem River jetty marked the point where Drake must have entered the harbor. It broadened into a shallow but placid anchorage where one might easily have imagined a medieval galleon finding moorage.
At the Nehalem Valley Historical Society, volunteer Lila Hendrickson told me that Indian lore first enticed early settlers to look for Neahkahnie’s pirate treasure in the 19th century. Since 1890, when the first of several carved rocks were discovered at various places around the mountain, small fortunes have been invested — and a few lives lost — trying to decipher the glyphs to find the treasure. Yet it remains a mystery.
In the sands of Manzanita Beach, at the foot of Neahkahnie Mountain, a different sort of treasure has been found: Beeswax. Once prized in candle-making before man learned to harness electricity, beeswax washed ashore from a shipwreck here between 1694 and 1705. Historical records confirm that a Spanish galleon was blown off course while en route from Manila to the missions of Mexico and California.
“They’ve even found Philippine bees in the wax," Hendrickson assured me. She showed me several pieces of beeswax kept behind the counter of the historical museum. “People are still finding it on the beach, all the time," she said.
For most visitors to Manzanita, a beautiful beach and a quiet village with minimal commercialization are reason enough to visit.
The town is located about 15 miles south of Cannon Beach and 25 miles north of Tillamook. Its 600 citizens (and a great many second-home owners) take advantage of being just off U.S. Highway 101 — the coastal artery skirts the community, but does not run directly through it — to attract artists such as painters Don Osborne and J. Scott Wilson, as well as glass artists Roger and Trevor Crosta.
“We use a process called ‘scavo,’ which is Italian for unearthed," Roger Crosta explained to me. “It’s an obscure Venetian technique that requires sifting a mix of organic compounds on an unformed glass piece, then blowing and shaping it without tools. It’s all hand-blown, but it’s rough in texture and looks like it’s been dug up after hundreds of years."
Laneda Avenue, Manzanita’s main street, is about eight blocks long from Highway 101 to the Pacific Ocean. En route, it passes two banks, the town library, city hall and a slew of small shops that include a couple of galleries, two bookstores, two grocery stores, several beachwear stores and a pet boutique.
There are even two spas serving the community. And recreational purveyors offer bicycles, surfboards and stand-up paddleboard rentals and lessons.
Though small, Manzanita has a variety of lodging options: motels, vacation rentals and bed-and-breakfast inns. At the top end is the luxurious, beachside Inn at Manzanita. I saved money by spending two nights off the beach at the pet-friendly San Dune Inn; unpretentious and comfortable, it is operated by a jolly Englishman named Brian Hines.
There is a surprising variety of dining options, a dozen in all. I ended my visit convinced that the Terra Cotta Cafe serves the best food between Cannon Beach and Lincoln City. My paper-wrapped halibut was perfectly poached, and the selection of wines was outstanding.
But for pure quirkiness, nowhere beats Wanda’s Cafe, just down the road from Manzanita in tiny Nehalem. No sooner had I walked in the door than a waiter asked if I was meeting someone named Joseph for lunch. “He’s been waiting there for quite a while," he said. I assured him I was not — then laid my eyes upon an illuminated plastic mold of St. Joseph, sitting piously at his own table.
Nehalem and Wheeler
The Nehalem River flows 119 miles through the Coast Range, rising near Vernonia and draining more than 850 square miles of forest and dairy land before reaching the coast. Highway 101 crosses the river as it leaves the town of Nehalem (pronounced “neh-HALE-em"); just below this point, it widens into the bay where Drake may once have moored.
Today this tranquil reach is shared by fishermen, kayakers, stand-up paddleboarders and a resident herd of elk.
The Nehalem Bay area supports three separate communities, each about two miles from the next. Manzanita, the beach town, is the westernmost. Wheeler, on Nehalem Bay not far from the river mouth, is the most southerly. In the center is Nehalem, the river town.
Once a bustling logging community, Nehalem today is down to a couple hundred residents. In decades now long past, the town was partially built upon the river itself, with log planks supporting structures beside a lumber mill that cut logs carried by rail from further inland. The logs were then shipped out through the river mouth.
Today, a single row of two-story buildings on either side of Highway 101, where it makes a 90-degree turn through the village from the north, is the only real clue to its former prosperity. Cross streets end abruptly at municipal piers that are all but submerged twice daily by estuarine tides; when they meet heavy rains flowing downstream, the overflow sometimes floods the highway itself. A regal high school that once served the entire valley stands two blocks away, its purpose having been diminished to that of an elementary school.
“They say you’re losing your mind. They say you’re leaving Nehalem," wrote Art Alexakis of the Portland band Everclear in 1995. In fact, a lot of citizens have departed over the years. But it remains a picturesque community, especially as viewed from the southbound highway bridge over the river.
Just across the bridge, state Highway 53 branches east to the hamlet of Mohler, home to the Nehalem Bay Winery. A part of the community since 1974, when Oregon’s fermented grape business was just getting off the ground, this winery is at home in a historic creamery. Although it’s best known for its berry and fruit wines, it also offers some reputable chardonnays and pinot noirs from Salem-area vineyards.
Wheeler is built on the lower slope of steep Onion Mountain overlooking Nehalem Bay. A small riverfront marina provides inspiration for some visitors to get out on the water. Highway 101 cruises through the town of 350 people, past the Old Wheeler Hotel — whose eight historic rooms (dating from 1920) now offer an elegant bed-and-breakfast experience — and a row of antique stores.
Greg Nichols and his wife, Katie Brown, own both the hotel and Old Wheeler Antiques and Collectibles. They moved to town in 2008 and began buying art deco-era fixtures for the refurbishment. And Nichols had an “Aha!" moment, one as simple as turning on a light bulb. Or a whole lot of light bulbs.
The first thing a visitor now sees upon entering Old Wheeler Antiques is a display room showcasing a couple hundred lamps from the 1920s and ’30s. There’s a lot more in the expansive store, to be sure, but these are Nichols’ calling card. Just this year, in fact, he struck a deal to provide a West Hollywood restaurateur with 100 period pieces to decorate a new Southern California business.
It’s hardly the type of story you’d expect to hear in an old Oregon logging town. But, then, who would have expected Sir Francis Drake, in the first place?
Nehalem Bay State Park: a gem of the Oregon State Parks system
Visitors often rave about Nehalem Bay State Park, which embraces the 4-mile-long sandspit extending south from Manzanita, separating the bay from the Pacific Ocean.
Indeed, it’s one of the gems of the Oregon State Parks system.
At the park’s north end, sawgrass-covered dunes shelter 265 campsites and 18 lightly furnished yurts, open year-round, from ocean winds. There’s a well-maintained bicycle path through the park, as well as a horse camp where summer riders may rent steeds for a trot along the sands to the jetty at the mouth of the Nehalem River.
From Memorial Day through Labor Day, an open-air amphitheater offers interpretive programs that both adults and children find of keen interest. They may focus on subjects as diverse as natural history, marine biology ... or hidden treasure.
Signs posted around the park ask visitors to keep their eyes open for debris that may wash onto the Pacific sands from the 2011 tsunami that struck Japan’s Tohoku coast. Flotsam, some of which may have been family heirlooms, is still being found on the Oregon coast.
— John Gottberg Anderson