It’s Friday afternoon on the last weekday of the month, and I am looking forward to a weekend “coastal crawl” of more gorgeous beaches and more lighthouses to explore! I can’t leave until I finish my end of month reporting. I am burning up the keyboard, feeling like a drooling puppy who has been caged all week, and is about to be let off leash to run for 48 hours! Insert the word “LIGHTHOUSE!” for “SQUIRRELL!!”
Again, I have no reservations for the weekend, but I have come to love and appreciate the abundance of State Parks up and down this coastline that all seem to always have a “Vacancy” sign conveniently hanging from their entrance signs along Highway 101. I suspect I am becoming hopelessly spoiled by traveling the coastal road in the early season, before school lets out.
I decide on the Umpqua River State Park, since it is within walking distance of the Umpqua River Lighthouse. Whether planned or coincidental, I am greeted at the gate by the friendliest, hippest camp host I have ever met, Allan. We have a nice chat. He tells me there are two areas of the State Park – the parallel sites along the entry road, and a loop down by the lake. He tells me, “I recommend you stay up top with the big boys because it gets really noisy down by the lake where the kids are.” I later go for a walk around the lake, and I am grateful for his advice. When I get back, Allan is sitting outside watching his outdoor TV, so I stop by to thank him, as the loop below is teaming with kids, while I am surrounded by nothing but the chirping birds!
The sun is dropping fast, so I take off for the quarter mile hike toward the Umpqua River Lighthouse. I know it is closed, but I want to do some reconnaissance for the tour tomorrow morning, as well as see the prospects for a good sunset. The lighthouse is difficult to photograph, because unlike the others, it is surrounded by US Coast Guard barracks. This really gives me a great appreciation for the efforts of organizations like the Parks service, the historical preservation society and Oregon conservation groups to keep the coastline publicly owned and protected, otherwise I suspect there would be a Starbucks in the base of a high rise hotel adjacent to every lighthouse up and down the coast.
The sunset is a bust due to heavy marine layer, but there is one aspect of this lighthouse that hooks me in as the sun goes down. It has red glass over the Fresnel lens! Even though the sun is long gone and I am now freezing, I can’t take my eyes off the turning, twinkling red and white alternating beams of light. It is mesmerizing. I can’t wait for morning when I can return for the tour! I have to see what is happening up inside that big, beautiful beehive!
I wake up the next morning in the deep green surroundings of Umpqua River State Park, a giant hemlock tree drooping right outside my bedroom window, and tall pine trees so thick that I can’t see daylight through them. It’s chilly enough to sleep with the windows open, as long as I am under the down comforter. I can hear the ocean in the distance, and there is a lighthouse just a 10 minute walk away. I lie there trying to imagine a better life. I send my family an email titled “Bliss….”
Umpqua Light has a wonderful museum, the back room which is dedicated to the lighthouse. I start my visit there, where I also pay my $5 for the lighthouse tour (correct change only!) There is an entire display on the Fresnel lens for those of us who just can’t get enough. A display case contains pieces from the Cape Blanco Light that were vandalized in 1992 and replaced. The information board describes the lens as I couldn’t say better, “Looking beyond the damaged areas, it is plain to see the absolute beauty of the glass. Fresnel lenses are a marvel, really, a complex array of dazzling glass prisms and bull’s-eye lenses mounted in a gleaming brass framework….made in France in 1868.”
Finally, the bell sounds in the museum indicating it is time for the tour. This will be an “expanded” tour, as our very through tour guide, Volunteer David, takes us over to the overlook and tells of the history of the Umpqua River.
Note the “triangle” off shore, with the black dots in the center. That is a second jetty that was built for the purpose of redirecting the silt collecting in the mouth of the river. The black dots are floats with hanging oyster beds attached! They are called “Triangle Oysters,” because they are grown in the triangle. David tells us with a mix of 80% salt water and 20% fresh water, these local oysters are sweeter than average, and recommends a restaurant at the nearby Winchester Bay Marina where tastings are offered.
Finally, we are to the part of the tour I have been waiting for, at the top of the floating spiral staircase. One by one, the other seven people on my tour queue up to climb the final four rungs of the ladder to stick their head and shoulders up into the rotating lens. I wait until last, because I want as much time in there as he will allow me, without feeling like someone is waiting their turn.
I am almost embarrassed by the fact that I am quite emotional, even tearing up as I climb the ladder into the “beehive” of the massive Fresnel lens and watch the crimson prisms mounted in the gleaming brass frame rotate around like a carousel of glimmering, refracting light. The largest First Order lens has 616 hand-cut prisms, 24 bulls eyes. Real gold was used to make the red glass. The lens is over nine feet tall and six feet wide, and weighs two tons. It rotates on a carriage wheel.
In 1983, the carriage wheel failed, so an automated strobe was put up as a navigational aid. But the townspeople protested, so the carriage wheel was repaired, and the First Order lens was put back into service in 1985.
Standing there, I try to solidify the memory in my mind. I never want to forget what it feels like to stand on the ladder with the upper half of my body inside an optical orgy of light…hundreds of tiny rainbows dancing all around me, giving the illusion that I am taking a ride in a human-sized kaleidoscope…
To be continued…