Travels with Brian
Travel staffer Brian Cantwell, his wife and their two cats traversed the Oregon shore in a rented motorhome. Read their adventures here.
Spotlight on lighthouses (and how to pick 'em)
Posted by Brian Cantwell
Lighthouses are a major crowd-pleaser on the Oregon Coast, and if you can visit them all, more power to you (and you can fill out the stamps in your passport from the United States Lighthouse Society). Meanwhile, pssst -- don't tell the Million Member Fan Club of Heceta Head Lighthouse, but if you have time to visit only one, there are some good reasons to head for Cape Blanco.
That was our conclusion after touring both in the past couple days -- Heceta Head, near Florence, and Cape Blanco, north of Port Orford, two of five remaining operational, Coast Guard-licensed lighthouses on this coast.
Both have spectacular locations. Heceta might have a slight edge in terms of forested surroundings (see the photo with this blog's home-page intro) , but while Blanco may not have the trees, its cape -- a narrow neck of land flanked on both sides by dramatic seascapes stretching for miles -- is a stunner.
For touring purposes, Blanco wins for this reason: It's one of the few Coast Guard-licensed lighthouses that allows visitors up into the very top where you can actually touch the giant lens and look it in the eye, so to speak - though the huge multifaceted Fresnel lens resembles more the eye of a fly, if the fly had been the victim of a nuclear accident and grown 5,000 times its normal size.
It's hypnotizing to look straight into the flashing, electric light -- magnified to 1 million candlepower, as seen from 21 miles away -- that is used these days in place of the old lanterns that once burned lard, mineral oil or kerosene (requiring constant cleaning of the smoke-dirtied lens).
At Heceta, they stop you just below the lens level, though you still get to look up into the lens (and still pretty impressive). Heceta has some operational problems caused by moisture infiltration into the 1894-vintage light tower. Among other things, the mechanism rotating the light squeaks worse than the Tin Man on a bad day. Major repairs are expected in the next couple years, friendly tour guide Michael Hayes told us.
At Blanco's lighthouse, in service since 1870, volunteer docent Dolores Care, of Port Orford, said the big ships with fancy GPS and radar don't use the lighthouse for navigation anymore, "but our fishermen depend on it."
"One local fisherman says when he sees our light, he knows he's 15 minutes from home!"
The cape, the westernmost point of Oregon, sticks out like a hitchhiker's thumb into the Pacific and is legendary for its nasty weather, though it was pretty nice the day we visited.
"Hundred mile-per-hour winds are not uncommon here!" said another volunteer, Bill Krause, of Brookings, who moved to this coast last summer after retiring as a longtime school teacher in Concrete, Skagit County. "When I got here last November, I opened the car door, the wind caught it and my eyeglasses flew off and broke. I saved the lenses, but the frames were on their way to China!"
(As we drove into Port Orford later, a large highway sign along 101 warned, "Caution, High Winds Next 27 Miles When Flashing." For 27 miles? How often do you see that?)
To really realize the tough life of the folks who kept these lights shining to ease the task of miserable mariners, at the entry to the Blanco lighthouse don't miss a glance through some bound excerpts from old lightkeeper's journals, from the early days when they recorded the daily weather and events. For example:
Jan. 5, 1880: "Violent squalls and hail storms, a.m. - gale and rain, p.m. Wooden shutters and shingles torn from the dwelling."
Jan. 6, 1880: "Violent gale and rain - lost a portion of fence enclosing the yard around tower and dwelling."
Jan. 9, 1880: "Violent gale after 5 a.m., window broken."
Jan. 10, 1880: "West wind and squalls. Rain, hail and snow."
OK. So maybe stay away from Cape Blanco in January.
In Cape Blanco's favor, if you're visiting in summer: a beautiful, off-the-beaten-path state-park campground, including some tiny ocean-view rental cabins.
So, readers, pitch in: What's your favorite Oregon lighthouse? We still have a few more days on the coast.
Apr 18, 10 - 6:00 PM
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Apr 18, 10 - 10:01 AM
Campground hosts, lighthouses and pink flamingos
Apr 17, 10 - 11:30 AM
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Apr 17, 10 - 1:00 AM
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