Outdoor recreation has a unique place in the Northwest’s heart and history, but it hasn’t always been as we experience it today. Several moments throughout our history have shaped the way we do recreation—here are a few of the most important ones you might not know about.
1. May 13, 1967: Tom McCall Lands a Helicopter on the Beach
As every Oregonian knows, all of Oregon’s beaches are public property for surfers, kayakers, beach walkers, and golden retrievers. But it wasn’t always that way. It all came to a head one day in May 1967.
Public beaches in Oregon date to 1913, when an otherwise obscure Governor named Oswald West gave control of the coast to the Highway Department. But the 1913 law contained a loophole: it defined public beaches only from the low tide to high tide line. When William Hay, owner of the Surfsand Motel in Canon Beach, decided to press the issue by fencing off an area above high tide for his guests—which blocked the entire beach at high tide—the battle was on. McCall, a Republican less just installed in the Governor’s office, introduced a new beach bill that would bring public ownership up to the vegetation line.
A master of public opinion, McCall landed two helicopters on the beach with TV cameras rolling. Surveyors pounded in stakes to mark his proposed public ownership line and the opposition’s boundaries, literally drawing a line in the sand. It was a public relations coup. McCall signed the beach bill in July 1967, before he’d been in office six months.
2. May 18, 1980: Mount St. Helens Blows Its Top
If Northwesterners ever forget that we live among a range of living and shifting mountains, the day Mt. St. Helens blew from a 9,677-ft perfect cone to an 8,363-ft decapitated crater is a quick reminder. The eruption deposited ash in 11 states, reworked the landscape of the entire mountain, and created a living geological laboratory that advanced the study of volcanoes by leaps and bounds. Life has since returned to the blast zone, but the power of stratovolcanoes that hover behind Portland, Seattle, Vancouver, Bend, Salem, and Seattle has been crystal clear ever since.
3. November 11, 1981: Pacific Northwest Sea Kayaking is Born
On the first day of November 1981, Brian Henry, who’d been paddling since age 5, opened Ocean River Sports in Victoria’s Market Square. Sea kayaking was largely unheard of in the early 80s; the sport had just originated in Britain, and boats were hard to come by. To find a kayak that would go straight enough that he could tour the Salish Sea and Vancouver Island, Henry simply fixed a skeg onto a whitewater kayak. Ocean River Sports planted the first flag in the Northwest for sea kayaking. With an outdoor culture, lots of protected water, and a large waterfront population, the sport caught on. A few years later, Henry doubled down and started Current Designs Kayaks, which gave birth to what were soon simply called “northwest style kayaks”: large hatches for holding gear, long waterlines for touring, rudders for steering, the perfect design for the inland waters of the northwest.
4. February 26, 1983: Alan Watts Puts Up Chain Reaction
Alan Watts was a 19-year old local kid from the nearby farm town of Madras when he changed the climbing world forever without really meaning to. Climbing at the neighborhood crag of Smith Rock, he put up Chain Reaction on the iconic formation “Monkey Face”. The climb was a 5.12c, hard for its day. But Chain Reaction changed the sport in ways beyond mere difficulty. Chain Reaction is a stunningly photogenic overhang, and a climber dangling from Chain Reaction soon landed on the cover of Newsweek which catapulted the sport to new national prominence and put Smith Rock on the global climbing map. That accelerated the culture change in Central Oregon to an outdoor sports mecca. And it changed the very nature of climbing: Watts led the bolting of climbs on Smith’s welded tuff. In the process sport climbing became the dominant form of rock climbing for at least the three decades and counting.
5. May 12-16, 1986: Mount Hood Turns Deadly
Mount Hood, 60 miles from Portland and of the nation’s most accessible peaks, is often described as “Portland’s Playground”. The road up to the treelike makes the 11,235 foot summit is climbable in a day. Kids frolic in the snow on inner tubes and casual hikers can venture high on the slopes with little preparation. Accessibility turned into unspeakable tragedy when a late-season winter storm caught a climbing group from the Oregon Episcopal School high on the mountain. The storm raged relentlessly for three days, complicating rescue efforts. By the time it had abated, it had claimed 9 young lives and altered many more forever.
The tragedy defied words. Thirty years later, it still does. The shockwave it sent through Oregon’s outdoor community was enormous. It spawned a new focus on climber safety high on the mountain: registration, mountain locator units and awareness of the fall line, where a lost climber in a whiteout can easily descend by the wrong route. Rescues were formalized. Climbers now avail themselves of more formal training. Mt. Hood is still a playground, but we treat it with caution and respect.
6. July 1, 1993: Saving the Uncut Gem
Canada Day, 1993 marked the largest act of civil disobedience in the nation’s history: the peak of the Clayoquot Sound protests that saved what has since become the premier wilderness destination on Vancouver Island. When Macmillan Blodel planned to log some of Clayoquot’s pristine watersheds, the Nuu-chah-nulth First Nation and a group of environmentalists started a peaceful protest that blocked logging roads. On July 1, 300 protesters were arrested, and one of the organizers was charged with 857 counts of criminal aiding and abetting.
But it worked. The protests focused national and international news coverage on Clayoquot Sound that the Canadian government couldn’t ignore. Logging plans were rolled back, and today Clayoquot is known for its beaches, forests, whales, hot springs, and ecotourism economy more than wood products. Two of the Clayoquot protest architects, Bonny Glambeck and Dan Lewis, still keep careful watch of Clayoquot Sound as the leaders of Clayoquot Action.
7. May 1, 1996: Portland Becomes a Bike Mecca
Portland wasn’t always a bike city. In the early 1990s, only 200 bicycles rode over the Hawthorne Bridge every day. Bicycling was for long rides in the country or adrenaline-pumping mountain bike rides, not the day-to-day getting around. Few people except the die-hards paid attention to the City Council’s low-profile vote to adopt the 1996 Bicycle Master Plan, which treated bicycling as a mode of transportation as well as recreation. The plan quadrupled the city’s network in bike-paths and bike-friendly streets up to 630 miles—the driving distance from Portland to the Olympic Peninsula and back. The plan’s goal was to “make the bicycle an integral part of daily life in Portland.” It clearly worked.
8: July 1998: The Vancouver Island Circumnavigation Race Begins
In the summer of 1998, Leon Somme, kayak coach and co-owner of Body Boat Blade in the San Juans, paddled from Orcas Island’s North Beach for his solo paddle around Vancouver Island. The 700 mile sea kayak journey is a serious undertaking, with tidal rapids and the rugged and exposed west coast, and even more so alone. Somme kayaked back to the same beach 28 days later. Hewho wasn’t trying to cover distance at any particular speed, claims his circumnavigation wasn’t even continuous. But intentional or not, he unleashed a focus on speed. Soon people were competing for the “speed record” around the island, and the trips are now measured down to hours and minutes. The current record is 12 days, 23 hours and 44 minutes, currently held by Russell Henry, the son of Brian Henry of Ocean River Sports. With a tongue-in-cheek reaction against the need for speed, Somme and his wife Shawna Franklin introduced the Jellyfish Award for the slowest continuous circumnavigation. They current hold the record at 44 days.
9. August 23, 1999: Big Drops
When Tao Berman kayaked 98-foot Johnstone Falls in the Canadian Rockies at age 19, he inaugurated two new frontiers in whitewater. The first was the age of running waterfalls. Soon everyone would be looking to run big drops (and shoot videos while doing it). New boat designs followed, with creekboats modified to land soft and resurface even more quickly. The second frontier was the age of whitewater self-promotion. Berman’s feat landed him on the pages of Sports Illustrated, and, temporarily, in the Guinness Book of World Records. His run of Johnstone coincided with the explosion of internet-based storytelling and affordable video technology. You Tube and GoPros were soon to follow. Berman parlayed is feats into an actual way to make running big water lucrative, producing videos for the Discovery Channel, securing sponsorship, and being one of the first to successfully combine big whitewater exploits with making a living at it.