Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Oregon Coast: Links in the Chain

Our voyage began at our coastal hideout just south of Lincoln City. In the damp pine-needled recesses next to the house, Hannah found an impossibly cute orange salamander, halfway through an earthworm lunch. Decaying tree matter to worm, worm to salamander, and maybe later, salamander to a bird happening by.

A few days later, after packing and repacking our bags and greasing and regreasing our chains, we were on the road.

The first thing we noticed were the mushrooms. Sprouting up in red, orange, yellow and white, these fungal gems also do the work of breaking down the organic matter that would soon bury the trees themselves if not kept in check.

Then we noticed more and more. The silence of our pedal-powered machines allows us to sneak up on birds fishing in the marshes, lakes and lagoons. We smell wood smoke and briny ocean mists between the darker scents of the forest.

There is also the ugly side: The trash on the shoulder, the parts of the highway that are slipping into the ocean, the clear cuts. We feel the road through the rubber of our tires and the steel of our frames. Every pitted surface, every chunk of loose gravel, every wet pile of pine needles.

With good weather and eager legs we made good time down to the California border. In that time, we bought one sandwich from a shop and stuck to our budget of $30 a day. We ate well - hot cereal loaded with nuts and dried fruit in the morning, thick lentil-quinoa stews, salad greens out of the bag, pancakes, eggs, potatoes, and a lot of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. My 20-pound bag of grains, lentils, nuts and dried items slowly grows lighter, until we find our way down to San Diego where a fresh supply awaits us (we packed up five boxes back in Eugene to be mailed to us along our route).

In Charleston, a small fishing town about six miles to the west of 101, we met our first farm. It was an oyster farm, and impossible to miss with the blindingly white mountains of discarded shells piled up outside the warehouse that serves as the farm's retail outlet. We hadn't planned it, but we couldn't resist a stop. Besides, Hannah needed to pee.
We entered the somewhat dingy front room and a short woman in a baseball cap emerged from the warehouse back rooms. She didn't seem to crave our conversation, but we questioned her anyway and learned that she is a Las Vegas transplant. She enjoys the fact that Oregonians do get outdoors once in a while. In addition to working in the warehouse shop, she gets to go out and harvest oysters from the field, wearing hip waders and carrying a huge mesh bag.

Oysters aren't native to the Oregon coast, and the cultivated population wouldn't survive unless "re-seeded" by the oyster farmers every year. It takes about 2 1/2 years for an oyster to mature, and they do so in large clusters attached to pylons that the oyster farmers set up in the bay. The rows of pylons do resemble a field, and they are all hand-harvested. It beats working in the fish packing plant, says our oyster lady.
After harvest, the oysters are brought to the warehouse, where between sales she works them apart with a hydraulic hammer. The oysters are then either shucked or sold with the shell on.

We bought a dozen, unshucked ($7) and our oyster dealer threw them in a mesh bag for us. I talked Hannah into attaching them to her pack, and off we rode to Bandon, the next town south.

Bandon held a highly anticipated stop: A farmers' market. But pulling in around 3 p.m., we were a bit disappointed. Potholders, candles, candy and greeting cards were plentiful, but we were starving and the one vendor with fresh vegetables was down to his last bunch of Swiss chard and tiny beets. We nabbed the chard ($2.75) and went out for sandwiches.

Ready to be done for the day, we got back on our bikes and headed toward our host, Nicole's house. Turns out she lives right next door to a cranberry farm. The Oregon coast is one of the biggest producers of cranberries and, like oysters, they grow in unusual beds. We laid our bikes down in the shoulder and scrambled up the side of one to peer down into it.

From growing up on this part of the coast, I know that a cranberry bog is just a huge depression, about the size of a basketball court, in which the cranberry vines grow without rows between them. To harvest the berries, the cranberry farmers flood the beds and drive a paddlewheeled harvester through. The berries float to the top and are then siphoned off and taken away for sorting.

Like the fishing industry, cranberry farming creates a boom-and-bust cycle for many involved. Cranberries fetch a high market price and the harvest can be lucrative. But the money never seems to stay in the community, doesn't create year-round jobs and many farmers see their bog as more of a cash cow than a piece of land to be cultivated and cared for.

I spent this Thanksgiving at my dad's house in Port Orford, thirty miles south of Bandon. For the first time, I read the back of the bag of the Ocean Spray cranberries we bought at the local Ray's Food Place. Place of origin: Massachusetts.

Oregon's cranberry harvest takes place in October and November, and one would think local cranberries would be easy to find on the coast. In Eugene, where the demand for local is strong, you can buy Oregon cranberries. But out here where the bogs are, the market for local berries isn't as large, and cranberry growers would probably rather sell the entire harvest to one distributor than to try to find local buyers.

We snapped a photo of the bog and continued on to Nicole's place. In her house, with panoramic views of the Coquille River estuary, we learned how to loosen the oysters' tightly clamped shells by putting them in the oven for a few minutes. Then we used screwdriver-like oyster shucking tools to pry them open. With a little hot sauce, they were gone in seconds, but the briny, sharp taste of them lingers in the memory.

Later, I read an article in the High Country News about troubles in the Oregon oyster industry. Ocean acidification caused by global warming is making it difficult for oysters to form their shells. Oregon oyster growers first noticed the problem back in 2007, and this year one hatchery barely filled a third of its orders for young oysters. Acidic ocean water is also affecting the tiny sea snails that feed salmon. When links in the food chain start disappearing, the whole system is in danger of flying off the gears and leaving all those who ride it stranded and hungry by the roadside.

After Bandon, we rode to Port Orford for a couple of days' rest. From there, it was only eighty miles to the California border, the redwoods, and farmers' markets with slightly more to offer. Weather permitting, we'll be in San Francisco by Christmas.

1 comment:

  1. Team Jones says we're so very proud of you two! Love your blog as well.