"Gray whales are here now," said the blue-stenciled sign at the closed entrance booth to Ecola State Park, just north of Cannon Beach.
The sign lied. No whales in sight.There were winding roads with evergreens: some huge and fallen, some glowing, as if the furry yellow-green moss that coated their trunks was lighted from within. Deciduous trees with shaggy, dark-spotted trunks leaned over the road. Sea birds perched on the rocks offshore in the crashing surf.
But no whales.
No storms, either.
So much for Plan A and Plan B.
Plan A: Wintertime storm watching on the Oregon coast. It sounded like a good idea: Get a motel room with a view of the Pacific, build a fire in the fireplace, thrill to the power of the storms that lash towering waves against the craggy rocks.
In the absence of storms, resort to Plan B: Whale watching. From late November through February each year, gray whales migrate from their summer feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi seas to breeding and calving areas in Baja California lagoons.
I didn't have a Plan C. But that didn't matter. The Oregon coast in the off-season is beautiful and fascinating. Furthermore, it's cheaper and less crowded than in the summer. And what's a little rain?
Rain - 80 to 100 or more inches throughout the year - is a cold-season constant along this westernmost edge of the North American continent. So is wind, gusting up to 75, 85, even 100 miles per hour. Those winter storms, in fact, are mostly wind, though they sometimes flood the roads and bring down electric lines.
"In the winter, we get strong south winds," says John Dickson of the Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce. "It really shakes the house, wakes me up sometimes." But the wild weather is good for off-season tourism, luring visitors who enjoy a cozy midwinter getaway.
Indeed, Cannon Beach (population 1,280) is a favorite destination for travelers from Portland, Seattle and inland Oregon, he says.
"People are out on the beach - it doesn't matter what the weather," Dickson says. "They like to feel the salt air on their face. People think of it more as an adventure."
It's easy to see what he means. On a cold, rainy evening, the beach was nearly deserted. A flock of gulls stood with wet feet on the glistening sand. A couple of joggers sprinted into the wind past Haystack Rock, a stone monolith that resembles its namesake; the gulls ignored them. Spume blew off the translucent green waves; driftwood marked the reach of high tide.
The wind propelled me down the beach, along with the swirling sand. To the north, Tillamook Head - a rounded point of land - loomed dark, its base obscured by mist, its top draped in wisps of clouds. The glowering atmosphere made me long to be inside someplace cozy and snug; the soft yellow glow of lamplight in beachfront houses looked inviting.
As I walked back to the south, the sand swept toward me like something out of a movie ("Poltergeist"? "Ghostbusters"?) - a mad welcome to hell. I leaned into the wind, sometimes walking backward to keep the stinging sand out of my eyes. It wasn't a storm, but it was weather enough for a while. Soon I was back in my room at the Surfsand Resort, sipping a hot spiced cider in front of the fire as darkness gathered. The roar of surf outside was uninterrupted.
Dancing with the wind
The next morning, the tide was coming in. White surf frothed beyond a wet band of sand; a stripe of blue green darkened at the horizon, where it met a strip of steely blue.
With sunrise, the surf turned pink, as did the wet sand and the sky. A rainbow arched from Tillamook Head nearly to Haystack Rock. Dry sand blew over the darker, damp, packed sand near water's edge. It was a gentle start to a cold, drizzly day.
Ecola State Park, just outside Cannon Beach, was worth a visit anyway. Trees overlooking the ocean danced with the wind; trails beckoned to scenic overlooks and sickle-shaped beaches. Yes, the sign advertised gray whales. But the whales didn't bother to read it.
There's more whale watching down the coast; getting there is an adventure in itself. Along the winding U.S. 101, waves shatter against steep cliffs, providing spectacular views - where they're not obscured by overhanging trees.
Be forewarned; in the winter, road conditions may be less than ideal. Stop for a road crew cutting up a big fallen tree, and you'll be glad you weren't driving that stretch a bit earlier. Signs warn of "slides" (mud? rocks? houses?). Makes you want to speed on through, lingering as little as possible.
But any such danger pales beside the powerful effect of Oregon's rugged coastline. The invigorating wind, the might of unstoppable ocean, the changing moods of clouds and mist speak to the soul, whispering and shouting of profound connections and mysterious depths impossible to know.
If you go
Finding a whale: The main whale migration comes in late December and early January, when as many as 40 of the 45-foot mammals pass by every hour. March through May, they head back north.
What to wear: Whether you're storm watching, whale watching or beachcombing, it helps to be appropriately dressed. John Dickson of the Cannon Beach Chamber of Commerce recommends a layering of T-shirt, sweat shirt, sweater and wind-resistant jacket, wind pants, wool gloves or mittens, wading boots, maybe a fisherman's sou'wester hat. "I wear shoes that I don't care if I get wet," he says.
Warming up: If you're not properly attired (say, wearing sweats or jeans, easily pierced by the cold breeze), a seaside stroll can get chilly. Icefire Glassworks is a good place to warm up. At this combination glass shop/studio, you can watch the glass blower repeatedly heat and shape the glob of molten glass - a future vase, perhaps. On view are the flaming kiln, glass-blowing rods and that most important part of the artist's arsenal - a huge stack of compact discs.
Dining: A cup of clam chowder at Bill's Tavern will warm you up, too. If that's not to your taste, maybe pan-fried Pacific oysters at the Surfsand's Wayfarer restaurant will satisfy the urge for seafood. The Lazy Susan Cafe is a cozy spot for breakfast.
Art and shopping: If it's art you're after, try the Windridge Gallery, where Bill Voxman's black-and-white photographs (some of which are shown here) evoke the moods and might of nature. The Windridge is one of many galleries, craft shops and kite stores that offer an alternative to the ocean.
North coast towns: Cannon Beach, with its culture and quaint shingled cottages, is the artsiest town on the northern Oregon coast. Seaside, nine miles to the north, is more family-oriented, with big beachfront motels, franchise restaurants, and bumper cars and indoor miniature golf. To the south, Manzanita is smaller, with vacation rental homes and a few motels. Nehalem boasts a few antiques shops and galleries.
Lincoln City (population 6,280) may be too commercial for some tastes, but its numerous antique shops with reasonable prices seduce the shopper. And just down the road at Gleneden Beach is Salishan, a luxury resort known for its golf and fine dining.
General information: Portland Oregon Visitors Association, (800) 962-3700.