By Michael Kew
As shorelines around the world become more crowded, access to the bounty of the beach tightens. In Oregon, a government-mandated right to access surf has been in place since 1968. What happens when guns, gin and greedy landowners dispute safe passage to sacred sand?
“that guy? he’ll shoot you!”
He takes trespassing seriously. His brother’s even crazier,” Rick says with a laugh, referring to the men who regularly confront us when we cross an infamous swath of land which leads to one of our beloved Oregon surf breaks.
Grayly mustachioed and a bit bald, Rick (not his real name) is a general contractor. He’s tired; it’s been a long day at the jobsite. We lean against our car hoods in the potholed parking lot of a friendlier break. Light east wind cools our backs, and up the beach, near some rocks, the waves look fun: head-high lefts, glassy, shared by a crowd of three.
I had just confessed to him that I’d recently exited Highway 101 for the narrow dirt track normally blocked by a chicken-wire gate festooned with signs: Private Property, Private Road, No Trespassing, No Hunting, No Parking, No Beach Access, Keep Out. My nerves were shot. Thankfully, I was not.
“Want some?” I ask Rick, yanking the cork from my clear glass bottle of St. George Terroir gin. Along with whiskey, I’d had it shipped just over the state line. The gin isn’t sold in Oregon, and my online booze merchant won’t mail spirits to Oregon, so this was a minor case of smuggling, you might say.
“No thanks, man. Half a beer gets me drunk.”
A male gull lands on the sand, squawking at us.
On the day I confessed to Rick about, unlike most, the gate had been open. Slowly I drove onto the track, actually a muddy rut. Fifty yards in, paranoia and guilt sparked an eight-point U-turn amid tall Douglas firs. On a map, the track winds west to a few rocky points and coves backed by cliffs and dense forest, with a few homes amongst the trees. Walking to the beach from the north or south is impossible due to impassable headlands, even at minus tides. Except by long-distance paddling or boating in, or getting permission from the ornery landowner, there is no way to sit and wax one’s board on that surfy stretch of beach, despite it being public property.
“Maybe you can just parachute down there?” Rick had joked. “Or wear a wingsuit?”
“I couldn’t leave after surfing,” I had to explain.
“A jetpack? Could get up and out with one of those.”
It got me thinking about the term “The People’s Coast,” dubbed in 1913 by Democrat Oregon Governor Oswald West, a public-lands advocate. Short Sands Beach, in his eponymous state park, is one of Oregon’s most popular for surfing. West decided the 585 kilometres (363 miles) of beach between California and the Columbia River formed a public “highway” up to the high-tide line, also known as the “wet sand” zone. “No local selfish interest,” he said, “should be permitted, through politics or otherwise, to destroy or even impair this great birthright of our people.”
But a flaw hung high in that cool Pacific breeze. West had defined public domain as only up to the high-water mark. So, in the heady 1960s, after more than 50 years of public beach use, commercial developers began to rebel, claiming the “dry sand” zone — that is, unaffected by the highest of tides — belonged to adjacent landowners, who were entitled to rule their property down to the water’s edge, including fence-building for beach privatization, which actually happened in front of Cannon Beach’s Surfsand Resort.
Farewell to kite-flying and shell collecting and sandcastle building? Hello to House Bill 1601, a front-page-news bid to save all Oregon beaches for public recreational use. The bill was the big issue of 1967’s legislative session and, to this day, drew the greatest public response to any topic in Oregon’s 170-year legislative history.
On July 6, 1967, calling it “one of the most far-reaching measures of its kind enacted by any legislative body in the nation,” iconic Republican Oregon Governor Tom McCall signed the “Beach Bill” amid much pomp. Passing 57-3, it granted public free rein from the low-water mark to the vegetation line, which McCall, a fervid greenie, studied and deduced to be 16 feet above sea level. “Today, such things are nearly impossible to accomplish since coastal land has become so valuable,” Surfrider Foundation attorney Mark Massara recently told me. “Property owners are better organized and have more money to fight. Think about how desolate and unpopulated Oregon’s coast was in 1967 — the good ol’ days, for sure.”
Forty-eight years on, though, of the 23 US states that touch an ocean, Oregon still has the best legal policies for coastal access that don’t require a jetpack or parachute. And with no boat or paddleboard, here at twilight at this very public beach, I glance down at the bottle in my hand, wondering if I might never surf one particular fetch unless I make nice with its landowner.
Because I’d rather not get shot.
Hearing the thumping and sighing of the surf, realizing the air has cooled and daylight has waned, I can’t help but think: Maybe the guy likes gin?
Michael Kew has attended church just twice in his 39 years, but he finds daily salvation along the southern Oregon coast.