“I have never felt so awake, incredulous, or in touch with myself”: Part III of the Pacific Northwest Field Seminar

Oregon Sand Dunes

Retreating to the vans after our visit to the salmon hatchery, we peeled off layers of wet jeans and useless wool socks, letting the cars bear the brunt of the damp weather as we continued our travel south through hills and shoreline. By this point the rain had become a torrential downpour, though this didn’t stop us from visiting the community of Cannon Beach. If anything, we were forced to make the conscious decision to let loose and fly through the elements as we stepped out onto the wide stretch of sand, the waves rogue and white-capped to our right as we gazed upon the giant dark mass of Haystack Rock standing there completely immune to the water from sky and sea alike. We ran, we jumped; we fell over each other (and ourselves!) as we skipped between the incoming waves. We were seventeen college-aged children, accompanied by professors and staff that weren’t acting all that much older. It was the primal experience of nature at its finest.

This is not to say that anyone complained, however, when having arrived happily exhausted at Newport that night. We were awakened the next morning by the sun’s rays passing through our hotel windows and began our next day at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. We were greeted around every corner by the colors of sea life placed prominently on display, as well as the enthusiastic staff (“You must be the Mystic program – we look forward to your visit every year!”). My roommate Jess managed to find her way behind the scenes after a casual discussion with a member of husbandry, while Tenzin and I continued our tradition of fudge sampling at the gift shop.

Following lunch, we departed from the Aquarium and transitioned from glass to rock walls at the Sea Lion Caves. Our descent took us down from the top of the roadside cliff to a giant hollow inside of a cliff, where sea lions suction themselves to rocks and are subjected to the wrath of the occasional cumbrous wave. Once we returned to the surface of the earth, we enjoyed scenic views of freshwater lakes and the glacial carvings of the rocks on the horizon en route to our next destination, which was certainly one of the most memorable on our trip.

After passing several small towns advertising the sand dunes that run along 45% of the coastline in this state, we finally pulled over to explore them for ourselves. As Tenzin described it, “I’m beginning to understand what early explorers meant when they said they couldn’t put their discoveries into words.” Indeed, there was no form of language that could describe the sight that greeted us.

The dunes, much like the rest of this place, were vast—the size of small mountains. At the base, the world seems made up of sand, like a desert. At the top, you arrive with sinking shoes and burning legs to see mile after mile of forest fading into mountains on one side, and expanses of sand bordered by the distant glimmering Pacific on the other. Small copses of tree islands dot the terrain carved into geometric shapes by the wind that assaulted our face and penetrated our clothing and our mouths.

What’s more, the afternoon rain had halted and the sun tried its best to shine through the shield of clouds. We returned to the vans, shaking our sandy heads with awe. Our magnificent day ended as we reached our final destination in Coos Bay, where we arrived at the small complex of wood-shingled buildings known as the Oregon Institute of Marine Biology.

OIMB is nestled in between a sloping wall of forested cliff and the bay itself, decorated with docks containing trawlers, purse-seiners, gill-netters, and research vessel. We were stationed there for two days of steady sunlight and slightly warmer temperatures. During that time we visited tidal pools, where we were met with OIMB graduate students who showed us how to leap between the algae-covered rocks as we touched anemones, starfish, chitons, and hermit crabs. We then sought out a different source of marine diversity in the South Slough estuarine reserve, where habitat restoration of destroyed tidelands has been the focus since the 1970s. We strolled leisurely through the flat green grass of the marsh, experiencing for ourselves the benefits of man’s environmental approach to nature, before returning to OIMB for a poetry slam and Glenn Gordinier’s infamous tango session.

On our last day, we were given free time before our return to Portland to spend the night. I awoke early to run, only to be distracted by the splashing of a sea lion at the end of the dock as I stretched in the bright pink hue of the morning sunrise. After breakfast, Victoria, Jess, Nellie, Veronica, Zak, and Molly took advantage of these precious free hours to return to the place where the elements collide. On the Sunset Bay Trail we were immediately greeted with the vast expanse of the Pacific, the cliffs upon which we stood offering a generous view of the rocks of Simpson’s reef (hosting a colony of talkative sea lions) on the left side and the sheer, layered face of a cliff hiding the treasures around the corner to our right. At each bend we found a view worthy of a painting: sandy rocks molded into dune-like shapes, harbor seals standing out white against their dark brown perches as they performed various yoga poses, a lighthouse obscuring the view of the blue shades of mountain in the distance.

An entry in my journal reads: “I have never felt so awake, incredulous, or in touch with myself, as I sit here at the edge of the world.” I have also never felt so grateful for the perspective I gained from this trip. Like onboard the Corwith Cramer, not only did I form special relationships with my classmates based on this one shared experience, but I also was reminded of the seemingly supernatural power that nature has to soothe both body and restless mind.

To feel so small in this world of the Pacific Northwest was refreshing, a sentiment I hope to carry with me as I progress through the rest of the semester and beyond.

Fair winds,


Author: williamsmystic

A one semester interdisciplinary ocean and coastal studies program integrating marine science, maritime history, environmental policy, and literature of the sea.

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