Monday, August 25, 2008

Crossing the Sandbar is a Rite of Passage

“Do you folks want to cross the sandbar?” asked the Captain of Fish Tales II. He nudged us toward an answer. “You really should go across it. Around these parts of Oregon, it’s a rite of passage to cross the sand bar at the mouth of the Siuslaw River into the Pacific Ocean,” he said.

Ed and I both answered “Yes” without consulting each other. Of course, we wanted to cross the sand bar into the Pacific Ocean aboard Captain Greg Helmer’s boat.

We had seen the Pacific Ocean view when we walked along the North Jetty Recreation Area in Florence, Oregon. We had dipped our toes in the icy cold ripple of waves on Heceta Beach. And, we had enjoyed vistas of the Siuslaw River from points along Rhododendron Drive. Now, we wanted to be on the water.

Ed would make this happen. He visited the harbor area in Florence and made inquiries that led him to Greg. It was a deal, we’d meet Greg at his boat which was docked in the Port of Siuslaw for a 10 AM Saturday guided boat ride.

Under a blue sky and calm air, Ed and I were Greg’s only paying passengers. Greg gave us a safety briefing that made it clear we would follow his directions without question in an emergency. Assured there’d be no mutiny, Greg offered us cushioned bench seats on the upper deck. He took the wheel behind us and casually began telling us about points of interest as he maneuvered Fish Tales II from the dock.

We were on the Siuslaw River, a waterway popular with sports fishermen and crabbers. We floated past Old Town Florence where restaurants, shops and galleries invite tourists spend their vacation money.

As we approached the Siuslaw River Bridge, Greg explained that it replaced ferry service across the river when it was built in 1936. I noticed the decorative towers which reminded me of my favorite building, the Cathedral of Learning at the University of Pittsburgh. I hadn’t realized that this was a draw bridge until we passed under the span on our return to the harbor. Greg had dropped his outriggers at outward angles to meet the height limitation of the bridge. He told me that taller boats need to give a two hour notice in order to have the draw span open.

Just past the bridge, magnificent sand dunes rose high along one side of the river. Million-dollar mansions set on tenuous sandy hillsides on the other riverside. Curious porpoises came to the water surface as the boat chugged through their water playground. A few seals lounged on the sandy beach. Folks waved from the crabbing pier. Seagulls circled scavenging for food.

Our captain motored slowly down the river. When the dunes and riverbanks gave way to the rocky walls of the North and South Jetty, Greg asked us to wear ocean sturdy life preservers. They were bulky orange vests that when fastened held our heads awkwardly. I felt like I was wearing a medical neck brace. I could not look down let alone hold the camera properly to take aim. “You have to wear these,” Greg apologized. “We are about cross the sandbar.” He radioed our position to the U.S. Coast Guard and requested clearance to move from the river to the ocean. “Go ahead Fish Tales,” is all I remember hearing the Coast Guard reply.

The roll of the ocean picked up the boat and dropped it in the trough again and again. Greg grew quiet and so did I. The push of the ocean rocked the boat. The sway forced me to stay in my seat. We approached a large buoy. Three sea lions resting on the base of the buoy dove into the water away from our vessel.

Greg expertly rounded the ocean buoy and faced the boat in the direction back to the river. We did it! We crossed the sandbar! Now, we could head back. There’d be no badge, no ceremony, just the joy of the experience on being on the water, crossing the invisible bar with Captain Greg.

August 23, 2008

Fish Tales Guide & Charter Service, LLC
Greg Helmer, Captain


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