Moments that Changed Outdoor Recreation in the Northwest Forever

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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.

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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.

©istockphoto/LifesizeImages7. 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.©istockphoto/WestWindGraphics

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.