June 11, 2007.
On this chilly summer morning, I headed out towards the beach in the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area. This 6.5 mile loop looked straightforward enough–that statement should set up red flags in my brain.
I walked steadily through the forest and to the start of the sand dunes. Here I removed my shoes and tied them to my pack. The cold sand flowing between my toes felt great. I stopped occasionally to look and listen for birds, until I realized how voracious the mosquitoes were. My bug dope rested safely in the car, much to my dismay. Soon, the trail led to a sign describing snowy plover breeding areas and warned hikers to stay on the designated path. This is just about where I lost the actual trail (I think) and strayed onto one of the many herd paths in the area. The place looked like an elephant herd trampled every which way through the brush. I discovered my mistake when the trail deposited me in a section bordered by a meandering flowing stream and sharp bluffs. Oops.
I wandered along the foredunes along worn tread, trying not to make any new tracks. The type of vegetation that grows in this habitat is thick, densely woven together, and often covered in thorns and sharp edges. My bare ankles were getting scratched raw from the grass blades rubbing against them. I looked hopelessly at the shore from the top of the sandy bluffs, just high enough that I didn’t want to jump down.
Eventually I made my way down to the beach. The wind was blowing quite strongly here, and with the cool temperatures and moisture-laden air, I was cold. I came here to escape the 100 degree heat in the city. And now I’m wishing I brought a fleece…
The beach is off limits to motorized vehicles for a short stretch. Beyond that, I saw a bunch of ATVs packed with fishing gear and some folks standing along the shoreline battling waves in search of fish. I wonder what they were trying to catch. At least they were dressed properly! I quickly walked along, stopping briefly to try and identify the gulls and other small birds populating this sandy habitat. I spied a trail sign on the dunes, wondering if it was the right one, and ducked left among the beach grass to follow the trail inland.
Just a few ups and downs later I found myself atop a tall hill overlooking Threemile Lake. Yes! I had found the correct trail and I was rewarded with absolutely gorgeous views of this deserted, elongated lake. I plunge-stepped down the steep side of the dune to the lake’s shore to look for critters and take pictures. I followed some herd paths that explored the marshy area behind the lake for a few minutes, hearing snakes disappear into the brush and feeling the constant prick of mosquito proboscises (awkward word, I know). I returned back up the hill and traced the trail back into the forest. I kept seeing all these dandelion-looking flowers growing in the dunes. I wondered what types of adaptations would allow plants to grow in such a seemingly variable and hostile environment. I nicknamed these flowers “sandelions” and continued on my way.
As the sand turned to needles and soil, I decided to keep walking barefoot. The hike was really mellow, which means I was looking for a way to challenge myself and keep things interesting. 2.5 miles of rolling, forested hills sounded pretty boring. Besides, the earth beneath my feet felt good. It’s a completely different experience, walking without shoes. People constantly put up barriers between themselves and nature, even hikers: sun protection, wind layers, insect repellant, stiff-soled boots… All of these things have their place, but every now and again it is beneficial to reconnect with the thing you set out in the woods to enjoy. I found myself walking differently, noticing more about my surroundings, and taking a slower pace. Counting slugs kept me entertained. I heard more birds, observed more types of plants. Every now and again I had to remove some obstacle embedded in the soft pads of my feet, but the experience was totally worth it. Near the end of my bare-footed journey, I entered a quick section where dunes were threatening to re-take the forest. Trees started to become buried in slanted piles of sand. The ground squeaked beneath my feet as I traversed the massive piles and I wondered if sand could avalanche…
The Oregon Dunes is a special place. I have only explored a small portion of the 40 miles of coastline it encompasses. This hike is highly recommended for everyone–it can be simplified into an out-and-back, you can get sidetracked by the soft dunes or the huge lake, catch an ATV ride at the beach, or take your shoes off and throw caution to the wind. There’s something for every personality.