American Sabbatical 037: 10/20/96

Sea Lions

10/22.. Sea lions

I have a confession to make. I’m a true believer in T-shirt magic. You can shape your day by what you wear. Consider yesterday. I wore my hot chili peppers on black T-shirt, again, hoping to keep my psyche warm in all this cold rain. OKOK, I’ve been trying the same trick for three days, and those peppers are getting a little strong. But it was bound to work sooner or later. Last night Terry, Carolyn, Peggy, and I went to a Chinese restaurant our friends frequent. We all have allergic sensitivities, but they assured us this was the place to get great food without repercussions. Well.. the waitress had trouble with her English, and our Chinese handsignals must have gone awry, because two of the dishes we got were SUPERHOT, and we all sat up real straight and sucked for air. That old T-shirt magic, you see.

As long as it was working I decided to go for broke. I had bought a new T at the anthro museum in Vancouver. A NWCoast motif called “Birth of the Light”, a stylized solar face in red, white, and blue on purple. The weatherman was prophesying another week of the dismals, but I was slipping into a little T-maj for some sun. Now I realize I’m conjuring against the entire karma of the Northwest.. but just a LITTLE sun?

The T-gods were listening. It had stopped drenching by the time we loaded up the Owl. It stayed gray and gloomy, of course, but we mumbled the ritual noises of gratitude, and headed south. West to the promised land, South to the sun.

Jim Clyman said that the party he started south with, from the Willamette to California, in early 1845, were a thoroughly disaffected bunch of hardcases. Always chasing a dream, they had learned they could face anything crossing the great American desert and the heartbreak mountains. Oregon, that agricultural paradise, was too tame for them. They were about star-chasing, and were off again for the Golden South: California, or the South Seas, or Mexico. We know the feeling. Thoroughly uprooted now, we find it hard to linger even in the company of old friends, but must be off about this quest after.. well.. after all.

We followed Clyman and his hardcases up the Willamette on Interstate-5, as far as Albany, before the highway hypno-drone sent us spinning down an off ramp. The Owl gets sleepy on the fourlane, and drinks more octane to stay awake. We get a little buzzy, ourselves. We debated which way to zig. Up into the Cascades to get closeups of the volcanics, or over the coastal range to sniff the brine? It has been snowing in the highcountry for more than a week now, and the ski slopes are open already, but another blowing storm onshore would be no joy either. Still.. I had on my magic T, and the O was calling.

We put aboard some mid-morning octane, with fresh muffins, in a college cafe in Corvallis, and started hillclimbing. Sometimes you have to take two or three wrong turns before you get on the right road.. the one to the heart of a place. We found ourselves weaving and bobbing through the Siuslaw National Forest, all by ourselves at 45mph. Forty-five is the dream pace on a winding road, rocking you into a muse. The jumble of junior mountains in this part of the coast range feel a lot like New England. The secondgrowth hardwoods along the road were casting their yellow leaves, and we drifted into a betwixt and between. Only to be jolted back to Oregon when a 200-foot fir jabbed up out of the background. From the endless suburb, through the emperor’s garden, we’d climbed up into a backwater like home. We got a full, unsolicited, wave from a local walking the shoulder. We were back into eye-contact country.

Over the divide we joined the Alsea river, and followed it to the salt. The fishing must be good on the Alsea, or everyone here is unemployed. Every turnout had a beater or a Bronco browsing in it, and the boys were doing that wand and feather ritual in the waistdeep.

The Owl had been boxing the compass around cloudwrapped heights, and we were thoroughly disoriented, when we flashed by the sign “Lobster Valley”. Maybe another Mainer got lost in these hills, and decided to stay. Probably backed into some hole with his claws snapping at any interlopers. We kept right on rolling downhill. Only to discover that the lower reaches of the Alsea are just as downhome as Bowdoinham. Where the tumbling river meets the tide, bluecollar bungalows line the high banks in rows. Each house has its own ramp and float, with a tin boat knocking against the bumpers.

Fernand Braudel in his opus on the Mediterranean distinguished between the cultures of the floodplain and those of the hills. Flatlanders and hillbillies, you might say. The pattern seems to hold in the Coastals. Gypo logging, hillbilly mule raising, backlot farming, a little corn, a little wheat, a few sheep, and a boat in the river. It would be interesting to know if the descendants of European hillcountry borderers are predominant in Lobster Valley. Modest houses, and trout for supper. A far cry from the harried pace of the Willamette Valley.

You can feel where the ocean pushes her way into the valley of the Alsea. The river broadens and slows. Standing waves roll under the floats. We roll down the windows, sniffing for the ammoniac. And spill out into tourist country. Wall-to-wall motels on the beach, big surf booming up a curtain of mist. We picked up fresh cheddarloaf at a bakery in Waldport, and hauled into the first picnic park to munch along the sands.

Picnic in Rain

and Spume
These Pacific beaches are comparatively barren of seawrack, by east coast standards. Few shells, less seaweed, scant signs of abyssal life. But the driftwood is immense, and the sands go on forever. With the low landward-running clouds and the surf-mist, the distant headlands fade into illusion. You feel you could walk to Baja.

We chose to drive, and do the ultimate tourist thing: stop at a roadside attraction. The Sea Lion Caves. Not without trepidation we plunked down $6 apiece alongside the stuffed sea-lions, and stepped through the gate to the brink of the cliffs.. here 335 feet high. Way down there the rollers were tumbling white and spuming against the vertical walls. You get into an elevator in the rock wall, and descend 280 feet to come out in a dimlit tunnel blasted through the solid rock.. filled with the guttural barking of sea lions. Going down the tunnel, it opens into a 60-foot diameter cave, one end of which is closed off with a chest-high cement barrier topped with cyclone fencing. Through the fence you look down into a huge sea-cavern, with massive rockpiles rising out of the breaking waves.. covered with sea lions. The whole otherworldly scene is lit by reflected sunlight shining in the western entrance. Opposite us a shimmer of light leads down a long tunnel to the southern entrance, a bright doorway in the distance. The top of the cavern is a weird landscape painted in green and red algae.

And the sea lions! I’ll let Peggy tell you about the animal magic of this place. But I can’t take the elevator back to the surface without reporting on another animal encounter which tells a volume about our level of absurdity. While we were entranced by the antics of the seabeasts in their realm, peering out of the shimmering gloom into the movie set, a young woman carrying a camera and what looked like a camera bag came up to the barrier, set down the bag, and began trying to photograph the sea lions. Flash was proscribed, and she asked us if her picture would come out. We demurred, and offered her the use of our binoculars. After we’d all filled our eyes, and recorded the magic cave in our heads, we went back to the elevator together. In the hallway, echoed with sea lion barking, the bag started yowling. It was a cat-bag. She’d brought her pet puss to see the lions. She let him out, on his leash, and addressed him in reassuring terms, as Jupiter. He mewed in tune with the wild chorus. O to howl in the deeps.. and not laugh out loud.

(Memo #34)

Oct. 22 - SEA LION CAVE, Oregon Coast

Who? private entrepreneurs

What? cave used by sea lions

Where? on and in a cliff on Oregon coast near Florence

When? since 1932

How? found good roadside cliff, cut 200 ft. elevator shaft down to sealion cave

Topics: marine mammals, sea caves, tourists & animals

Questions: What is the best way for tourists to view wildlife? Can animals be viewed in their natural setting without affecting the animal’s behavior?

In the Cave

The northwest coach of Oregon and Washington states is spectacular. We have walked on long low sandy dunes at Long Beach and narrow pebble beaches on the Olympic Peninsula with the great trees coming down to water’s edge. We have driven along shelves high on mountains and through groves of giant trees. Except for gulls, our contacts with animals have been with land animals; we’ve seen eagles and blacktailed deer and squirrels galore. Today we saw sea lions in an incredible setting, a huge sea cave deep within a cliff.

We drove around a sharp corner on the high narrow coastal road just north of Florence, Oregon. The ocean was several hundred feet below with great rollers coming in from Asia. The information building advertising SEA LIONS was at the cliff”s edge with a narrow parking lot between it and the road and more parking carved out of the mountain across the road. Inside there were souvenirs and snacks. We were told the entrance fee was $6. We almost didn’t pay. It’s hard to judge price and value when you travel. The fabulous Cleveland Art Museum was free, the Cody museums were $8 (but that gave you access to four museums for two days). I did not expect $12 to give us magic. It did.

View from above
We went down a flight of stairs inside, then outside and down a walk along the cliff with a wooden railing and gorgeous views of the coast north and the ocean far below. The walk ended abruptly under a small wooden canopy. There was an elevator door in the cliff.

The elevator came and we got in. The buttons were a simple arrow up or down. The indicators over the door told us feet descended. Over 200 feet in all. The elevator stopped and we were in another dimension. A corridor with rough stone walls angled gently downward. The low lighting and railings and displays were those of a hightech museum. We began to hear bellows. The corridor widened, we passed a case displaying a full sea lion skeleton, and we were in a subterranean room overlooking a huge sea cave. We looked through iron mesh from a sort of balcony shelf high in the cave. The cave floor was half water with waves rushing in. A jumble of rocks were on the land side and a huge separate boulder was in the middle with a jumble of sea lions on it perhaps fifty yards away from us. Two other sea lions were on the rocks nearer us. There was dim light from three sea entrances.

We watched entranced. The two near sea lions roared and approached each other warily and feinted in what seemed like a test of dominance (between males?). One backed off and finally slid into the water and swam off. On the separate rock, sea lions slept. I began to see that there were pairs, mothers and much smaller pups. As we watched, we saw heads in the water as sea lions swam in from the ocean. Waves rolled in and lifted them up to where they could scramble onto the main rock. It took several tries and considerable skill. Mama got on on the second or third try, pulled herself laboriously up and them turned and gave what assistance she could with her flippers to her pup. It took him several more tries but finally they were both up. They approached the group, but the nearest mother was wary and aggressive. Her pup obviously wanted to play with new little one and there was a hilarious bit of bobbing and ducking as the two pups tried to get around their sparring mothers to play. The mothers, having done their ritual don’t-mess-with-me bit, cooled down and the pups played together. Most of the sea lions seemed asleep.

Sea lions live 20 to 24 years. The adults average 1500 lbs., pups are 40-50 lbs at birth. The bulls swim as much as 4000 miles a year. The stellar (northern) sea lion which we saw is “Eumetopias jubata”, a pinniped, the largest of the otariida (eared seals).

The sea lion cave is 125 feet high (about 12 stories) and is 2 acres in size. It was formed about 25 million years ago. The viewing area where we stood is 35 feet above sea level and 300 feet below the highway level. The cave has three outlets to the south, west, and north. The western one faces the open sea and it’s the sea lions’ gate. The northern entrance is entirely above water and now has a stairway and viewing platform to the sea. Our viewing balcony was actually part of the northern passage. The southern opening is a long tunnel from the sea into the cave. Through this channel in 1880 Captain William Cox brought a small boat and first saw the cave.

Sea Lion Heaven

What is the best situation in which to see wild animals? At the sea lion cave, the animals seemed unaware of the human spectators - we were told not to use flashes or talk. The crashing of waves and bellowing of sea lions was the dominant noise. The lights in the viewing area were low and there was natural light coming in from the three natural entrances. We were above the animals and could not approach them. I didn’t see any of the sea lions look our way or startle or freeze.

This was very different from the viewing situations in other places we’ve seen where animals act in a way that seemed unnatural and certainly not “wild”. At Yellowstone, the elk and buffalo were everywhere with cars and campers and flashing cameras galore. People would approach animals closely as singles or in groups, even with dogs! (We did find out that one of the people watching the sea lions with us had her cat in her tote bag!) Many of the violent encounters between tourists and animals occur when the people violate the animals’ space. In the sea lion cave the spectators were - wisely, I think - confined to a small area.

The sea lions’ cave is privately owned by several families who have managed the attraction since 1932. They obviously have thought the viewing situation through thoroughly. They want the sea lions to stay - obviously - and have provided the least intrusive viewing situation they can . The elevator was constructed in stages during the seasons when the sea lions are not in residence.

In the Dark

10/22.. continued.

The T-magic had worked. And when we stepped out of the elevator at the clifftop we were blinded by sunlight. Was this recapitulation of myth?

Once upon a time...

The heavens had been weeping for an age, and the great trees were throwing their limbs to the ground as they streamed with tears. The world was gray with sadness. Deep waters surged up the river valleys trying to hide from the howling winds offshore. The Great Cloud Being, Cumula, had lost her shining joy in the swallowing sea, and had come down to churn the waters in search of it.

But only the two-legged clown, who laughed at the drenching sorrow and thumbed his nose at the winds, could help find her silver treasure. For only he understood the language of the wild things who go beneath the waves and come cavorting up to the cliffs, the barking ones who might know what became of the lost brightness. And only he knew their secret place within the rock where they gather to tell lies, and choose their king.

So the two-legged fool made a bargain with the Great Cloud Being. He would go and ask the wild things of the deep if they knew of the shining joy, and bring news to Cumula, in exchange for one gift. The gift of cloudcalling. That he might wrap himself in mist and shadow at call, or dissolve a fog around him at will. The bargain was struck, and the two-legged clown entered into the secret ways, and descended into the seabeasts’ cavern.

“What do you want here with us?” the deep things barked. “Have you come to tell us the riverfish are running to sea? Have you come with your clever fingers to heal our wounds? What do you want with us?”

“No, it is too early for the riverfish to seek the deep waters,” the two-legged fool replied. “And, yes, I can lay hands on your wounds, if you wish. But I have come in search of your deepsea knowledge, for the whole world knows of your wisdom.”

Now the wild seabeasts are not wise at all, except in the breaking ways of waves, and the dodgings of fish. Their barkings and bellowings are mostly about who has the softest bit of sealedge, and who should be king, and "Junior get over here." But they are easily flattered. As soon as the two-legged clown had sung their praises, they began stretching out their long necks and looking down on each other, and started yapping and barking in an ecstasy of self-importance.

“Which of you noble creatures is now king?” asked the fool? And one huge scarred old warrior bellowed, “It is I, you landthing, what wisdom do you wish to hear?”

“Only a trifling thing, your highness. Merely a word about something a friend of mine lost in this great sea of yours.”

“Is it good to eat?” the king bellowed.

“Oh, no,” the clown replied. “It cannot be eaten at all. It is a shining brightness that used to play in the sky, but is now lost in the deep waters. Have you heard tell of such a thing?”

“And if I have,” barked the seabeast king, “what will you give me for such knowledge?” For all the wild things know only the law of tit for tat.

“I can give you word of Orca,” replied the two-legged one in a soft voice, and at once the cavern was filled with bellows of outrage and fear and argument. Above it the tremendous roar of the seabeast king cowed them into silence.

“We do not speak that name here,” he warned. “What have you to say about the evil blackfish?”

“Only that he can be seen afar from the headlands above. Perhaps someone such as I could sit upon those heights in the days when your children are learning to swim and blow into a great shell horn to warn you of his coming.”

At this the hubbub broke out anew among the barking beasts, and again the king had to roar them down.

“This would be a great return for such a little knowledge. It is no great secret of the deep where the brightness is hid. Why should you offer to save the lives of our children for such a trifling?”

“Because the one who searches for the brightness loves it like a child, as well, and will reward me in turn for the telling.”

“Tell him. Tell him.” The barking chorus cried. And the king bellowed, “I will.”

“The shining which fell from the sky,” he told the fool, “has been scattered on the floor of the great deep, and swallowed up by the hardbacked things which live there. You may find pieces of it inside the shells of those creatures.”

“Do you have any such creatures I could see?” asked the fool. And the seabeasts brought him a gigantic shell, whose brightness filled the whole cavern with a shining light.

“I will take this to the one who seeks,” he said, “and I won’t forget our bargain.”

And when the two-legged fool came out of the rent seacliff carrying the shining shell, its brightness shone into the sky, and the Great Cloud Being put away her sadness, and the whole world sighed for joy.

Or so I was told. Actually we have been surprised that the NWCoast mythos doesn’t seem to deify the great cloud passages, or the wondrous vegetation. Where are the cloud goddesses or the treebeings? The natives were fishermen and hunters, to be sure, so the animal spirits abound in their panoply. But how could they ignore the forces of nature or the astonishing verdant abundance? Maybe this thing about ignoring the rain is endemic to the turf.

Terry told us that the Indians called the Willamette “The Valley of Destruction.” Was this prophetic of the white invasion, or an aversion to the rampant fertility of the place? Maybe the luxuriant vegetation, as viewed by a hunting-fishing culture, was a kind of green evil. Isn’t it ironic that an agricultural people who came to such vegetable exuberance as a promised land were too advanced to worship the Greenmen and the Great Cloud Being?

Bare Bones

The T-magic only worked for a short spell. Before we were out of the high twisting vistas of the mountainous coast, and down into the valley of the Siuslaw, the clouds had returned, if not the rain. The mountainous shore is succeeded by 30 miles of dunes which protect a chain of lakes, and a parade of RV-parks and cheap motels. We swung out onto an overlook to admire the sequence of dunes and the increasing nastiness of the weather, and swung back onto the hot-top.

At Coos Bay
The Umpqua estuary cuts through the middle of the dunes at Reedsport, where International Paper fragrances the atmosphere, and dominates the town, and the Coos River dumps into the pacific at the south end of the dunes. Coos Bay is the only serious harbor south of the Columbia on the Oregon coast, and it disgorges timber products to the world. Container ships, bulk carriers, tugs with rafts of logs, mountains of chips and sawdust, mega-piles of hardwoods and softwoods, the sweet smell of sawn timber, and the blowing of ship’s horns met our passing. The Coos river is full of bungalows on barges, and rafts of timber, sorted and boomed together behind rows of pilings running into the stream.

We’d done enough running with the stream for another day, and we limped on to the less industrial harbor of Bandon, which is our present port in the storm.

Two strikes for GTE and the motels of Oregon. This is the second night in a row that we can’t make an e-mail connection thanks to junk hardware. Somebody must have gone around selling surplus GTE products to motels about 10 years least that’s when these motels rephoned, jack. What surprises us is the total lack of apology from motel owners. O, the hot water is only lukewarm, shrug. You want to use a phone? The concept of service is fading fast as we approach California. Of course the Oregonians blame everything on the Californians. Too many of them coming in, driving up prices. Sounds like Mainers talking about Massholes. If Californication is badacting, seems like it’s catching. Bryce’s road-rules of thumb: (1) If they’re laughing in the kitchen, the food will be good. (2) If the price seems high, the service will be bad. (3)If the phone says GTE, it won’t talk to your computer.

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