Jay Pitman sat in his white pickup near the beach access road in Gearhart. It wasn’t even noon on a sunny Tuesday in May, and he’d already towed seven vehicles stuck in the sand.
Beach driving is allowed between Gearhart and Warrenton year-round. People take advantage of the opportunity nearly every day — and nearly every day people get themselves stuck.
When that happens, someone from the Sons of Beaches is usually there to haul them out. The off-road club, whose members predominately drive large pickup trucks, may sport an outlaw vibe. But they spend a lot of their time volunteering as Clatsop County's de facto beach patrol.
The sheriff's office and Oregon State Police both patrol the beach, but are not always available when drivers find themselves trapped in the sand. More and more, they rely on the Sons of Beaches to help out.
"A lot of our troopers have their phone numbers and we'll just call them and see if they're available," Oregon State Police Lt. Andrew Merila said.
Club members spend most of their time easing cars out of the soft sand near beach entrances — routine problems with few, if any, safety concerns. They have to be asked to help, Pitman said. They do not solicit payment for their services, but they do take tips.
The requests happen most often at beach approaches like Sunset and Del Rey and involve drivers who may not be familiar with beach driving, their car's capabilities or what to do when they get stuck.
In general, Merila recommends: "If you don't know what you're doing and you're not equipped to do it, just stay off the beach."
The Sons of Beaches also assist in more dramatic and urgent circumstances. When a man drove into the Necanicum River estuary between Seaside and Gearhart on Sunday, the Sons of Beaches got his car out of the water. They were also on the scene with emergency responders last year when a van and trailer got caught in the surf at Del Rey Beach.
These kinds of situations happen every few years, Gearhart Fire Chief Bill Eddy said. The culprits are often people who aren't paying attention to signs or tides or who, at the Necanicum, think they can drive across to Seaside and don't quite make it.
"Just not being very smart, let's just say," Eddy said.
A good time
Pitman started Sons of Beaches nearly a decade ago, hoping to rekindle an old Seaside four-wheel drive club. After hearing about the group's less-savory history, he chose to take his club in another, more community and family-oriented direction.
With the club's beach patrols, he wants to make sure visitors have a good time. Nothing ruins a day like getting stuck in the sand. Besides digging out vehicles, the Sons of Beaches also put out unattended fires, clean up illegal dumpsites on city and private forestlands and help maintain trails.
They "pay to play," Pitman said of the group's members, who love any opportunity to be out in their trucks.
Sons of Beaches has around 70 paying members, of whom around 20 to 25 are active and patrolling the beaches. Members go through training to make sure they can recover a vehicle and do it with the proper equipment. They must abide by a code of conduct. Three strikes and you're out.
"Anybody can go tear up stuff, blow up stuff and drink behind the wheel," Pitman said. "Not us."
Clatsop County beaches from Gearhart north to South Jetty are technically a highway, with a speed limit of 25 mph. Driving in dunes is not allowed. Rules of the road apply.
A driver who takes off and spins a vehicle in circles — making doughnuts or cookies, depending on your preferred baked good — runs the risk of a careless driving citation.
"It's not just a free-for-all out there," Merila said. "You have to obey the laws."
The rules are posted at beach entrances. "But people don't read them," he said.
And this is where some take issue with allowing beach driving at all.
Though driving on the beach has been a long and cherished tradition on the North Coast, critics say it damages coastal ecosystems and poses a danger to people and wildlife. Studies conducted on both coasts of the United States and internationally say vehicles can disturb migratory birds, exacerbate erosion and impact nesting birds and burrowing invertebrates.
In the states that allow beach driving, “fishermen, surfers and recreationalists alike rely on beach vehicle use to access isolated surf spots or to transport their beach gear,” the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit ocean advocacy group, noted in blog posts about beach driving in 2012. “What is gained in access often turns into losses for the environment.”
Despite the 25 mph speed limit, the beach “turns into a race track,” Gearhart nature photographer and former teacher Neal Maine told the Seaside Signal in 2016. Maine was concerned about how vehicles may scatter migratory birds. His comments came at a time when a group of homeowners in Surf Pines had written to the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department complaining about unsafe drivers on the beach.
“Reckless and careless driving abounds with cars and trucks spinning around on the sand, attempts to drive up the trailheads, driving in the sand dunes and driving through the tide pools,” they later told officials, including Clatsop County Sheriff Tom Bergin and U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, at a town hall meeting. “Many of these illegal activities go on year-round.”
Oregon's landmark Beach Bill, passed in 1967, ensured public access to the state’s beaches and has been instrumental in keeping areas open to beach driving.
Beaches at Nehalem Bay State Park and Fort Stevens State Park maintain seasonal restrictions tied to the nesting season for endangered western snowy plovers. The stretch of beach north of the Peter Iredale Shipwreck is closed to driving for most of the late spring and summer, but the roughly 10-mile section between Gearhart and Warrenton is open year-round.
There are pushes every few years to close Clatsop beaches to driving entirely, but Bergin says this would be a mistake. He referenced the Beach Bill and the importance of public access for everyone.
Access by car may be the only way young families, the elderly or the disabled are able to enjoy the beach, he said. He believes just a small percentage of drivers cause problems.
"I'm going to say 95 percent of the people, even higher, really do respect it down there," the sheriff said.
It is important to strike a balance between the protection of natural resources and allowing traditional recreational activities like beach driving, noted an ocean shore management plan published in 2005 by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. The two do not need to be at odds, the plan said.
“However,” it continued, “as the population of Oregon grows and more people come to the beach to recreate, conflicts between people and plants and wildlife will increase.”