Living in Portland has forced me to reevaluate how I measure the distance of things.
For example, I drive from Oregon to Washington 5 days a week, where I work in a different state with different tax codes, regulations and laws. It’s only 22 kilometers, but the distance is significant.
At the same time, surfing in Oregon has forced me to be prepared, which has not historically been my strong suit.
The closest thing to a ‘local break’ I’ve got is 1 hour and 35 minutes away, about as far as the drive from P.E. to Joubertina, where I did my driver’s license 15 years ago after failing it twice in Humansdorp.
I’m still not a great driver, but I like driving.
This morning, I packed the car at 5 a.m.
There was a cruel wind brushing leaves down Jarrett Street and ice on the lawn outside my house.
I assessed my gear and tried to figure out what was missing. Board, suit, leash, fins, booties, fin key, water, food, towels (plural), extra contact lenses, extra jersey, extra socks.
It was all there, but something felt absent. Something important.
I headed across the Fremont Bridge, towards the coastal freeway, with Downtown Portland on one side and the industrial railway yard on the other. The moon cut a smile into the sky above me, while the city lights shimmered across the Willamette River. In the distance, Mount Hood etched its profile into the red dawn, showing off its striking, snowcapped peak that always looks photoshopped onto the horizon.
In some ways, Portland reminds me of Port Elizabeth, how the industrial roots overlap current development, which seems to be a never-ending process. The city is in constant transition, preserving the old while forging ahead.
It’s important to find these common threads when you’re living in another country. That’s where surfing has been a lifeline over the last four years, adding familiarity to all the new routines and adjustments.
The first time I surfed in Oregon was in October last year, at a spot called the Cove in Seaside, a touristy hamlet 15 minutes north of Cannon Beach (which people might recognize from The Goonies).
It’s mostly a longboarding wave that gets really crowded when it’s good and pretty hollow with the right swell angle.
This particular day was about one and a half feet and tormented by a howling cross-shore that would have made my kiteboarding friends lose themselves. The water was brown and clumps of seaweed draped the rocky shoreline. There were three other people out, all wearing hoods, gloves, and boots. That is what being prepared for 12 degree water looks like.
I had 4/3, no booties, no hoodie, and no clue.
It was a complete change from Ocean Beach, San Diego, where Natalie and I had been living for 2 years before moving up here. One of my local breaks there was a playful spot called Avalanche, which looks nothing like its Port Elizabethan namesake. On any given day, there’d be 20-30 people out, scattered across the rippable peaks that drain off a rock jetty. In the teeth of winter it was still about 18 degrees in the water. It was an amazing neighborhood that really holds a special place in my heart (I recently wrote a collection of stories about it.)
Compared to San Diego, the Oregon coast is an entirely different animal.
This stretch of the Pacific Northwest is characterized by harsh weather and rugged monoliths that poke out of the water like fossilized dinosaurs, paused in motion.
The constant rain makes everything green, slick and beautiful. Beyond the coast, you can hike, rock climb, snowboard, and explore a new trail or park every day of the year, and still feel like you’re only scratching the surface. Because of this, Portland is a hub for outdoor enthusiasts and weirdos who like the rain.
I love it here.
But the Oregon coast is serious.
It’s a deep stretch of the Pacific that captures a lot of swell and funnels it into some incredible setups. There are too many unnamed nooks with solid, top-quality waves that people don’t surf (yet). This winter, my weekends were plagued by days where I simply didn’t have the equipment, the fitness, or the scones to head out and braves 15 foot walls of grey ice. I mind-surfed the hell out of it, if that counts for anything.
It also happens to be located on the Pacific Ring of Fire. There are tsunami evacuation route signs dotted along the narrow highways, which give you a nice apocalyptic reminder of the danger that lurks beyond the rips, the sharks, and the freezing water.
Whilst driving here, between stopping to admire another empty lineup, you’re always creating a roadmap to higher ground, making sure everyone knows what to do if the Big One strikes.
Seaside Cove is about a kilometer down the road from Oregon’s best point, Seaside Point, a punchy left that unloads across a shallow reef. It’s intense, hollow, and incredibly localized. To a point of a lunacy.
This is yet another small distance that represents a big change.
A few people have told me different horror stories that range from having their tires slashed to witnessing fistfights in the water, to seeing deranged locals casting headless chickens into the water to scare people away.
I experienced a taste of this when I asked a group of guys watching the point what the tide was doing, and was told that it was none of my fucking business.
I knew the tide was dropping; I just wanted to make conversation.
With the exception of the incident at the point, surfers in Northern Oregon are incredibly friendly, helpful, and forthcoming. There’s a growing surf community in Portland, along with a handful of board shapers and surf shops. I think it’s accepted that everyone willing to brave the conditions deserves respect. The vibe in the water is friendly and chilled, so long as you remember your manners.
Anyways, this morning I arrived at the Short Sands parking lot just after 7 and was relieved not to be the first car there.
To get to the beach, you take a 10 minute hike through an old growth forest. It’s a mesmerizing little trek, marked by mushrooms the size of couch cousins growing on tree trunks as large as houses. The forest trail ends where the sand begins, creating a natural amphitheatre of pine trees around the bay.
There were already a handful of people out and others getting ready on the beach.
There are three main peaks; a left that runs off the south wall, a split-peak in the middle, and a right-hand point that hugs the north on the north side of the bay. It’s the most popular spot around here and almost-always fun.
This particular was a fun, but challenging 4-5 feet. It had been massive all week and although the swell had dropped, there was still plenty of energy in the water. The long paddle out was a mini-marathon and every duck dive felt like getting slapped by a frozen salmon fillet.
After an hour, I came in for a bit of brekkie and was invited to stand around a fire someone had started on the beach.
I managed 3 sessions before my arms and legs stopped cooperating. Packing up and leaving to drive back home is always a bitter-sweet point in the day, but part of what makes this coastline so special is its remoteness.
I never did figure out what was missing. It was probably nothing.
I always want to be a thousand places at the same time, so it always feels like I’m missing something.
I often miss the simplicity of a session at Humewood, parking at Saddles and running down the rocky steps behind Happy Valley. Or pulling up at the harbor above Fence, and paddling out to 20 faces I know by name. Or shooting the shit with people at Pipe, while trying to figure out if a drive to the reserve is worth it.
Those are nice things to think about.
The waves I get here and memories are what sustain from week to week when I’m missing the ocean. And the same thing applies to P.E. and St. Francis (where my folks live full-time now), when I go home for visits.
No matter what you’re doing, time is always precious.