We found it! Treasures hidden deep within the recesses of the Oregon Coast truly exist. We’ve all seen the classic movie filmed in Oregon, “The Goonies,” where a motley crew of awkward tweens follow clues to ancient pirate booty hidden deep in a sea cave only to discover what they truly treasure...each other. While we didn’t find any tall ships filled with dead pirates in the caves, they certainly would have fit and the memories will be something we all treasure for the remainder of our days. Many have enjoyed the beauty of the Oregon Coast, but few have ventured inside.
On this trip, we were filming an episode of Oregon Field Guide about exploring the caves by sea kayak with Andy Maser and his production team. A whitewater boater and some fellow Outdoor Research ambassadors stepped right up to volunteer alongside the pros from Alder Creek Kayak & Canoe. Their expertise comes in handy as Andy’s team works to capture some amazing shots for the episode.
The Oregon Coast’s rugged beauty is formed by immense forces deep within the earth. Long before we were around, Oregon’s geologic veins were coursing with hot magma and its surface was carved by rivers of lava flowing to the cold waters of the sea. As those rivers and lava tubes found water and cooled into rock, the Pacific Ocean’s relentless swell was already pounding and shaping the land being forced up by the tectonic plates colliding below. The wind and waves have carved out the softer rock leaving vast cavities and tunnels into the headlands and cliffs. Some of the caves leave little room to turn kayaks around and require timing the swell and tides to pass under the low ceilings, while others are sprawling expanses large enough to turn a school bus around in. Covering the walls of the caves are barnacles, star fish, anemones and sea urchins all ranging in colors from bright orange to deep dark purple and green. Birds fly over head, sea lions swim beneath and suddenly you can hear the cave itself breathing with each new wave. As the water fills the cave’s deep pockets and caverns it forces the air out in a low grumbling ‘WHOOOSH’ that goes right through you, even on small swell days. I know now why so many passing sailors believed sea monsters inhabited these caves. They feel truly alive.
It feels like this is not a place people are meant to go, yet we push on. Without leaving a trace, not even a footprint, we glide effortlessly deeper and deeper into the darkness. Our voices ricochet all around us as we explore the twists and turns. Looking back at the entrance, the once towering opening looks no larger than a mouse hole and is occasionally obscured completely by the peaks of the incoming waves. We creep along in the darkness scanning the walls with our headlamps and searching for a small light that begins to grow. Quickly it becomes clear; this isn’t a cave at all! Slipping out from under the massive cliffs above, we find ourselves on the other side of the headland, now able to see the next sandy surf beach stretching into the distance.
Tunnels and caves like these are only safe to enter when the sea is very calm. The Oregon coast can be a very dynamic and dangerous environment, so the right equipment, training, and experience are keys to success. With some good coaching, even the novice paddler can become a well trained sea kayaker ready to explore. We’re so close to home, yet this place feels like a world away from the rigors of city life we left behind. It reminds us of our childlike sense of exploration, which is only felt on adventures in places few have been. Paddling along the sea cliffs searching for that next amazing tunnel or multi-chamber labyrinth housing the occasional pirate ship keeps us feeling like kids exploring the world for the first time. We are shaped by our experiences and our adventure with only ourselves and our gear to rely on. The feeling is priceless, and I treasure it always.