Scott Rowley doesn’t have to go far to check on the day’s surf. He lives in a little cabin in the woods of Seaside, Oregon, where slivers of blue ocean slip through the trees on clear days. But he traveled far to get here. After an adolescence spent chasing waves from Australia to Chile, the salt-and-pepper-goateed Kiwi (no, that’s not an Australian accent) landed in the Pacific Northwest. That was 27 years ago.
The Oregon coast doesn’t offer the most legendary of surf conditions, but it’s quiet and rugged, much like Rowley himself. It was here that Rowley found the space to establish his surfboard shaping business and a home base from which he could work, surf, or hit the road in his paint-chipped van to deliver boards and shoot the breeze with repeat customers. Rowley’s been all over the world, but it’s Oregon’s coast that keeps him grounded.
Rowley asked a lot of questions when he was young and hungry to learn the craft—still does, and still is, he tells GOOD. But today his boards are a staple of Pacific Northwest surf culture.
This culture is one that’s been expanding for years, thanks to the convergence of a scenically diverse coastline, a growing population of adventurous young people, and a groundbreaking (or, ground-preserving) piece of legislation penned 50 years ago.
Surfing is considered by many to be solely a summer sport, particularly in places like Oregon where the winter wind is cold and relentless. The surf culture here does ebb in the winter, but it also flows year round. And while some locals are reluctant to give up their quiet, cherished surf spots to the influx of young people moving to Portland and day-tripping to the coast, there’s a spirit of sharing here that prevails.
Rowley—along with every Oregon resident or visitor who has pulled a sweatshirt on over their swimsuit in the summer, hiked the Oregon Coast Trail in the fall, and yes, surfed in the winter—has two past Oregon governors to thank for making this sand and surf. Known as “The People’s Coast,” a distinction that is now in its 50th year, it is attracting more people than ever before. These two men set Oregon’s shoreline apart from every other coastal state in the country, with the foresight to preserve its long stretches of sand for anyone who is drawn to enjoy it.
“The ocean beach from the Columbia River on the north to the California state line of the south should be declared a state highway,” stated Governor Oswald West in his 1913 biennial message to the Oregon state legislature.
His proposed bill passed just two months later, securing the start of unique public access to the entire coast.
This spirit of public access was not common in a time when the Western United States was a place to acquire land. People had traveled dangerous distances over the Oregon Trail just decades prior to secure a plot of their own—a time when preservation meant staying alive, not protecting the environment.
But this legislation would ignite a growing community’s passion for the mossy rocks leading to pebbled beaches, the dunes, the flat expanses, and the seemingly endless diversity of shape and structure that make up the Oregon coast.
Still, the prospect of privatization loomed as landowners created physical boundaries around what they perceived to be their property—based on their interpretation of the amount of beach the state highway designation did and didn’t protect—thus blocking public access to sections of the beaches.
In 1967, Governor Tom McCall responded by passing the Oregon Beach Bill, which preserves all 362 miles of the Oregon coast for public use, expanding the “wet sand” distinction to include all sand from water to vegetation. Today, Oregon is one of only two states (Hawaii is the other) that protects public use all the way to the vegetation line.
Standing on a rocky outcrop at the convergence of the Columbia River and the Pacific Ocean, Rowley tucks his chin into his winter coat.
“Let’s get you a wet suit tomorrow.” Rowley’s offer is less of a question than a confirmation.
“The water can actually be warmer in the winter,” he says ,“if the wind and swell patterns are coming predominantly from the southwest. But if we have a long run of northwesterly storm systems bringing the water from Alaska then that’ll cool everything down.”
The wind, however, is decidedly not warmer in the winter.
“People talk about ice cream headaches,” he says, laughing into a puff of frozen breath. “Those are for real out here.”
But those willing to brave the winter air are rewarded with some of the best water conditions of the year. The surf is still fickle, but the swells are bigger and the crowds are thin or nonexistent.
I ask Rowley about Oregon’s surf scene. There’s a pervasive narrative that surfers in Seaside, one of the most popular surf towns, can be territorial—nasty, even.
“The surf scene’s been growing exponentially each year here. So there’s a fear of places becoming crowded,” he says. “But honestly, I’ve seen much worse behavior in California and Australia. You still recognize everyone here in the winter. In the summer, more people are showing up. That’s not a bad thing. I travel a lot—I’m often that person!”
The growth in popularity of surfing in places like Oregon is in large part thanks to wet suit technology. The water is always cold in Oregon, but now that people can morph into thick skinned seals with only a window exposing their face to the air, more people are game.
The topography of the Oregon Coast, with its cliff walls abutting the beach and its boulders projected from prehistoric volcanoes scattered about, means that only specific spots are just right for catching waves. Despite the access afforded by the Beach Bill, surfers are limited.
But it’s that same harsh, complicated terrain that makes people love it here, too. It’s the ability to stroll across early morning sand without seeing another human for miles in either direction that grabs vagabonds like Rowley and makes them stay. It gets them up every morning, not knowing if the elements will come together to make surfing possible, but checking religiously nonetheless. It’s this natural, seemingly secluded beauty that drags Portland surfers over the mountain pass to gamble on days that may leave them bobbing on flat water or catching the best surf of the season.
The next day, I experience the draw of winter surfing firsthand.
Rowley gets in first, parting the choppy water with his board. He has to wade out half a football field to reach waves that are only a couple feet high. But once he’s there, he effortlessly pops up and glides south along the shoreline, wiggling back and forth as the wave closes behind him, and eventually sinking down, so far away that all I see is a black blob that could be human or rock or seal.
When it’s my turn, I’m so focused on not choking on waves that I barely notice chilly water has snuck into my wet suit and surrounded my body, quickly warming to the temperature of my skin, and holding me in a comfortable, wet embrace. Rowley instructs me on the basics, and I pop up on my knees a few times—once actually making it to my feet for a moment. But it doesn’t take long for me to resign to the sand, where I watch Rowley enjoy his morning. I watch the fog tease the distant shapes of cliffs and houses. You don’t have to love surfing to love it here.
Back at the parking lot, another surfer has arrived and seems starstruck by Rowley. He shakes his hand vigorously. He’d almost purchased one of Scott’s boards just yesterday—and tells him he made the wrong decision and will be trading in the one he took for Scott’s model tomorrow. They exchange numbers and talk about his boards while I yank off wet gloves and boots.
More people will fill surf spots like this one come summer, as 362 miles of beaches full of surfers, hikers, fishermen, and beachcombers celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Beach Bill. But the anniversary will be an afterthought. It’s the surf, the sand, and the sky that people love here—even when that sky is full of clouds. The Beach Bill is something you might not think about until you visit other states and run into chain link fences separating private beaches from the public ones. Then you remember Oregon—its cold water and its jagged rocks—all yours to enjoy. Just don’t forget to share the waves.
All photos by the author.