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Oregon coast comes alive in winter

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OTTER ROCK, Ore. — From the warmth of the car, the storm looked bad enough. Blasts of wind rattled the doors every few seconds, and raindrops on the windshield sounded like fistfuls of pebbles hitting the glass.

Several hundred feet below, the fitful sea smashed again and again into the Devil's Punchbowl, a roofless cave carved out over millennia by storms just like this one.

"Ready?" I said, turning to my boyfriend. On the count of three, we forced open the car doors and stepped outside, gasping as the wind snatched our breath away.

"This is awesome! This is what I call the beach," he screamed over the pounding surf.

A few minutes later, drenched and exhilarated, we were headed to the next storm-watching hot spot — the Spouting Horns at Depoe Bay — where lava tubes deep in the rocks channel crashing waves into misty, 15-foot-tall geysers.

Rushing to the coast to watch winter storms has long been a peculiar pastime among Oregonians. Now it's catching on with tourists, who are showing up on Oregon's beaches months after summer vacationers have abandoned the coast.

"The numbers are picking up every year," said Carole Barkhurst, director of the Depoe Bay Chamber of Commerce. "I don't think people ever get bored with the ocean and how it changes. If you drive down Fourth Street in Portland, it looks like Fourth Street in Portland everyday. But the ocean never looks the same."

Local chambers of commerce routinely mention the coast's spectacular winter storms in brochures and on Internet sites.

Hotels offer winter-storm-watching packages titled "Romance of the Storm" and "Stormy Weather Getaway" that include fireplaces, in-room whirlpools and seaside balconies. Others offer reduced winter rates, special deals that include a second night at half-price or a third night free.

Barkhurst estimates that because of savvier marketing, the number of storm-watching visitors has increased 20 percent in the past two years. During a good winter, two or three storms sweep off the Pacific Ocean every week, satisfying nearly every storm-hungry visitor.

"The big waves and the surf are a powerful thing to watch," said Rebecah Morris, executive director of the Oregon Coast Visitors Association and the Central Oregon Coast Association. "It changes the color of the ocean — sometimes it'll be a blue-gray or a dark gray or a greenish color."

Morris, an avid surfer, has seen waves 30 feet high in Newport and driven through storms at Depoe Bay that tossed waves over a retaining wall and onto a major highway.

"I once watched a lightning storm over the ocean," she says. "You'd see the lightning come down and hit the water, and then you'd see the light come out from there, under the water.

"It was awesome."

With forested cliffs that tower over the sea, the rugged Oregon coast is beautiful any time of the year, from Astoria in the north to Brookings in the south.

Eleven lighthouses — some still functional — dot the coast from Pelican Bay to Tillamook Head. Memorials to those lost at sea stand prominently at roadside rest stops.

Small towns centered on fishing, crabbing and tourism are strung like beads along the 400-mile coastline, separated by a few dozen miles of the curving U.S. 101 that faithfully traces the sea.

Each stop has its own claim to fame — the smallest natural harbor in the world, the best whale-watching town on the Oregon coast, the best winter agating or home of the aquarium that once held Keiko, the killer whale star of the movie "Free Willy."

The Oregon coast takes on a moody personality during winter, when the rainy season arrives. The wind blows almost constantly, whipping up monster waves.

Tourists chilled and soaked from storm watching pack into the warmth of one of Mo's Seafood Restaurants, a clam-chowder-and-bread chain particular to coastal towns. The restaurants always overlook the water, and they are always full.

Families sit around heavy wooden tables and eat steaming chowder from a communal pot, dipping thick slices of sourdough bread as they watch through fogged, ceiling-high windows, while clouds gather and the wind shrieks past.

It's not just the foul weather that's attracting tourists to the Oregon coast during the winter.

Not long ago, the season's turbulent storms washed beautiful glass fishing floats onto Oregon's shores, softball-size, greenish-gray treasures that floated up to four years and thousands of miles from Japanese fishing nets.

Beach-combers looked forward to finding the delicate globes, but the Japanese have switched to more durable floats, and the past few years have yielded only one or two finds.

During the past three years, the void has been filled by something called the Glass Float Odyssey.

Each winter, a secret committee of "float fairies" hides locally made hand-blown glass balls along Lincoln City's seven miles of beach. Each of the exquisitely colored globes is autographed and numbered by one of four local artists.

Six or seven of the balls are hidden along the beach each day over a six-month period, and people search for them among rocks and debris.

The Glass Float Odyssey has increased winter tourism in Lincoln City as much as 35 percent, says Jennifer Sears, executive director Lincoln City Visitors and Convention Bureau.

"It's a big reason why we have so many tourists around here," says Alice Rudiger, a festival volunteer. "People are so excited when they find one. Some people come every weekend to search."