Never turn your back to the ocean

Beach warning signs in Seaside.

When we first moved to the Oregon Coast, I was bewildered by what seemed to me a vacation-land attitude of “Enjoy at your own risk.” Seaside has a vast beach, but not many lifeguard stands. Warnings are minimal regarding ability levels on the hiking trails. Tide table charts are sold in gas stations and gift shops, but if you just pulled in from Oklahoma, the words “tide table,” never mind “rogue wave” or “sneaker wave” don’t hold much meaning for you. A friend who volunteered for years with the Haystack Rock Awareness Program told me she couldn’t get over how many people with young children playing in the highly changeable tide pools were clueless of their risk for being swept out.

I grew up on the New Jersey shore where there was no end of warnings and supervision. During the high season, when tourists flooded the town, water temps and wind conditions were posted daily. Lifeguard stands dotted the beach every couple of hundred yards. Signage everywhere prohibited the use of fireworks, legal or illegal; along steep slopes and potentially treacherous foot traffic areas, there was guard railing. At certain times of the year when the dune cliffs were at risk of collapsing, a surfeit of caution tape was all around. The attitude towards any kind of outdoor recreation, whether it be swimming, boating, hiking, cycling, fishing, clamming, even bird watching, you might say, was overtly protectionist.

Oregon is a much wilder and freer place than my native south Jersey. I’m pretty sure if you polled most Oregonians, they’d say the last thing they want is more protecting. Yet people are killed or injured on this coast every year, some of them deaths and injuries that, with more warnings, might have been avoided.

Last January, KOIN news reported a 46-year-old man visiting Lincoln City killed by a sneaker wave. Large sneaker waves have killed more than two dozen people along the Oregon coast since 1990. This year, so far, there have been a few hair-raising incidents. In January, the Coast Guard rescued a man stranded at high tide at Hug Point. Also in January, a kayaker from Tualatin, last seen near the estuary, tipped over and drowned. On July 3, a hiker stranded cliffside on Hug Point was dramatically rescued. In February, in two separate incidents, clam diggers who unwittingly turned their backs to the sea were swept out.

Signage at the Cove warns people to beware rip currents, sneaker waves, incoming tides, and to stay off the logs. Prohibited activities in the Cove include no fire building near the driftwood. You’re not allowed to feed the wildlife or disturb marine animals. I think that might be better spelled out to let people know that includes sand dollars. A sign says fireworks are prohibited but anyone living near the beach knows during the summer months, this rule is violated nightly. Once in awhile a “shark sighting” sign appears. In Gearhart, there are signs warning of elk.

Maybe as far as safety warnings go, this is enough.

Yet I can’t shake the feeling more care could be taken to protect visitors who think a day at the beach is pretty harmless. Meanwhile, stay safe, don’t undertake water or waterside adventures without a tide table, and whatever you do, never, ever, turn your back to the mighty ocean.

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