That's right, "wondering" not "wandering," though Nehalem Bay has played a large part in my wanderings since I was a boy wondering about those fat Navy "blimps" floating quietly overhead seeking out enemy submarines during World War II.
The Indians were here first, of course; a Salish tribe in whose language Nehalem, unsurprisingly, means "place where people live", "ne" being prefix to other tribal locations: Necanicum, Neskowin, Netarts, Nestucca, and Neacoxie.
Looming over everything hereabouts is Neahkahnie Mountain ("precipice overlooking the ocean" in Salish), place of mystery and home to "Ekahni," the Indians' supreme god, whose massive profile remained after he sat too long and turned into stone.
And of course there is that mossy legend of Spanish sailors burying treasure on Neahkahnie many moons ago, though so far chunks of cryptically engraved beeswax have been the only clue to Spanish trespass. Nevertheless, people still clamber about on the mountain's steep slopes searching for loot from the Spanish Main.
Another speculation is that Chinese merchants had contact with the Nehalem Indians, evident through shards of pottery found on the bay's sand spit. Also, it is rumored a black Salish chief was descended from a sailor who deserted the HMS Peacock, a British sailing ship that went aground at the mouth of the Columbia River, giving it's name to Peacock Spit. Today Neahkahnie is best known for its view of Nehalem Bay and its valley, as well as an oceanscape so vast you feel Honolulu might be visible on a clear day.
Nehalem ("where the people live") was named for the Nehalem Indians, a clan of the Tillamook (or Killamook) Tribe. The Nehalem post office opened in 1870, and Nehalem was incorporated in 1899. The heart of the city runs one long block along Highway 101 with the Nehalem River right behind the shops.
The main road into Nehalem Bay is Highway 101. For the unhurried, there is twisty Hwy 53 south from Hwy 26 at Necanicum Junction, which takes you into Mohler, home of the Nehalem Bay Winery. Fishermen can head southwest on the lonelier Nehalem River Road from Hwy 26 at Elsie. Of course, you can also arrive by boat, private plane, surfboard, or by drifting ashore from a Chinese junk or Spanish galleon.
Arriving from the north via Hwy 101, you will skirt Neahkahnie Mountain, and catching your breath drop into a right turn leading downhill into Manzanita. This upscale, "Mother Goosey" resort community sits right next to a broad accessible beach (7 miles long) and has lots of cutesy places evolved from when the village was platted in 1912. Manzanita is Spanish (those guys again) for "little apple," or arctostaphylos tomentosa.
A quick spin through town offers the old reliable Sand Dune Pub, the self-explanatory Bikes & Boards and Big Wave Cafe, Syzygy (for clothing), and of course the Little Apple Grocery. The Manzanita post office was established in 1914, and among many new homes and motels you’'ll find a number of weather-worn older homes of Portland families who have been spending summers here for decades.
Just south of Manzanita is Nehalem Bay State Park, located almost idyllically on a broad sand spit dividing the ocean and Nehalem Bay. On the beach you'll find spectacular views up to Neahkahnie Mountain, romantic sunsets, a variety of birds and wild animals (including deer, elk, and coyotes), and most of all room to roam and serenity, except, of course, when planes are landing and taking off from the park's landing strip adjacent to its fly-in campsites.
In addition to fly-ins, the state park provides an impressive variety of sites: 265 electrical hookup sites (60-foot) for those great big RVs and trailers; 18 yurts, a horse camp with 17 sites (and corrals); a "hiker-biker camp", including bike and nature trails, playgrounds, showers, and other amenities of our state parks. Bring your binoculars.
Northwest Equine Outfitters operates a horse concession from the day-use area in the park during spring break and in the summer.
Bays and estuaries are considered "nurseries of the sea," and Nehalem Bay nurtures creatures great and small, slow and fast, cute and ugly, the latter including denizens, cod, greenlings, kelp fish, caught off the rocks of the Nehalem River Bar that are mighty good eating. As are the Dungeness crabs who creep about the bay's floor they share with bottom fish.
In the old days, there were two retired Navy chiefs who ran a rather loose ship on the bay named "George's Dock." As old chiefs often do, they drank whiskey from coffee cups throughout the day, giving little mind to those who rented their boats and crab pots for a $10 fee. Five hours was the set time, but if you came back a little late, say 10 hours, the chiefs might shrug and say, "To hell with it!" then offer you a drink. Today you can rent crab pots and boats from the Wheeler Marina, sans the whiskey, and crabs caught can also be cooked here for 25 cents each.
Salmon and steelhead fresh from the sea are, of course, the preferred catch of fishermen in the bay and farther up Nehalem River during spring and winter runs. Steelhead (trout which have gone to sea and returned) are a wily prey, and fishing in winter requires the dedication of an Inuit. In the fall, when the leaves are golden on the water, there are runs of feisty sea-run cutthroat trout, lovely, frolicsome creatures when hooked on a fly.
Nehalem itself, located on the Nehalem River, is small, even for a town on the Coast. It's evident that Mother Goose has been active here as well. There is a nice block of freshly restored shops and a historic grocery store, as well as the Bayway Tavern,
Foxgloves for gifts, and Breezie's Boutique for casual cotton clothes. The town is known for its many antique stores, including the Nehalem Antique Mall, where you can find (among other things) pottery, art glass, Depression glass, furniture, vintage toys, and vintage books. Evidence of new and trendy is Currents, an upscale restaurant overlooking the river, and some new bed-and-breakfast establishments. Along the river are many docks, boathouses, and boat ramps.
South of Nehalem you'll find Wheeler, which sits on Nehalem Bay. In the early 1900s, the town served as a portal to the navigable waters of the bay, and was the spot from which trains departed inland loaded with lumber and seafood. The hustle and bustle of lumber mills and fish packing plants are gone, but the historic buildings and tranquil charm of Wheeler remains. Nowhere is that charm more evident than the Old Wheeler Hotel. A stay in this restored 1920s hotel is sure to take visitors back to that era with hardwood floors or vintage style carpeting, quilt bedding, and an antique tub.
A visit to a few stores will reinforce this town's quirky charm. Simple Herbal Apothecary and Liquor Store is stocked with herbal remedies, teas, lotions, soaps, and oils, and just also happens to be a liquor store, where as they say, "If the herbal remedy doesn’t take, you can drink your problem away!" Another must-stop is the Wheeler Station, an enormous antique store chock-full of rare and interesting finds. From the Wheeler on the Bay Lodge and Marina, you can take an eco-cruise with Captain Paul Jones.
On the roof of the old Wheeler Inn tavern there was once a male mannequin pushing a female mannequin in a wheelbarrow, but that is gone now. Hwy 53 to the coast is another memory lane, referred to by my stepfather, as he struggled our '38 Plymouth along its labyrinthine way, as "that damned back road your mother likes to take to the beach!"
Just before Mohler, however, the road evens out between extensive pastures of cows. Mohler is named for A.L. Mohler, once president of the Union Pacific Railroad, and is home to the popular Mohler Market Place and the Nehalem Bay Winery, a Swiss-style chalet (formerly a creamery) on a little hill off to the left.
The winery features nice grape wines as well as a selection of other fruit and berry wines, including a very popular blackberry wine. Helga, my companion and taster, described both red and white grape varieties as smooth, sturdy, and with a "nice nose." The labels are nice too, and one reveals a winery annex in Depoe Bay since 1999. Owner is Ray Shackelford, a Vietnam veteran who spends much of his time and money on charity work in the U.S. and Southeast Asia, including an orphanage in Cambodia. The winery hosts a number of popular musical events, including reggae, blues, and bluegrass. Nehalem Bay Winery is available for weddings, picnics, private parties, tours, and is co-sponsor (with Pacific Seafood) of the Wheeler Crab Festival in Wheeler Waterfront Park. On July 4th you’ll find live music and a "free all-American barbecue" following the Independence Day Parade in Manzanita.
To wrap up any visit to Nehalem Bay, one should travel a few miles south on Hwy 101 to visit "Karla's Smokehouse," venerable purveyor of fine smoked fish and seafood salted with plenty of attitude by its owner, the indomitable Karla.
Below: The village of Manzanita is off Hwy 101 and sits next to a 7-mile long stretch of beach.
Above and Below: The charming town of Wheeler came into being in the early 1900s with the completion of a rail link between the coast and points east.
The Nehalem A Tillamook County Water Trail
Since winter 2004, a group of local citizens, the Tillamook County Water Trail Committee, has met around a shared vision of developing a recreational water trail system throughout Tillamook County that encompasses the area's abundant rivers, sloughs, and bays. The idea of the water trail is simple: If people are coming to the area to paddle, then let's provide them with information so their experience, and ours, is a good one.
The Nehalem is a natural to be first in line for the county's water trails. Superior recreational paddling opportunities exist for every skill level from novice to advanced whitewater. The Nehalem River traverses lush forests, rocky gorges, and continues past grassy meadows to its estuary. The wildlife is as diverse as the terrain. Eagles, elk, salmon, seabirds, and songbirds are regulars along the lower 30-mile stretch of the river.
A 24-page water trail guide highlights these points, and also contains color photographs and maps. It covers paddling experiences and information from Nehalem Bay upriver to Henry Rierson Spruce Run County Park. Content also covers public access, navigation, safety, local weather, and tide conditions, encouragement of resource stewardship, as well as wildlife awareness and historical interpretation. The Nehalem guide/map is a vital portion of the entire water trail project, and is scheduled to be completed and available for public use this fall. (503-322-2222; www.tbnep.org)