I didn’t want to go in, to be honest with you. Every cell in my body knew it would be bad. And it was—the lake water was just as frigid as I thought it would be, in spite of the day being warm and sunny. When the weather on the Oregon coast is that gorgeous, it’s kind of a sin not to go outside and enjoy it. But still, I could enjoy beautiful Coffenbury Lake without actually swimming, right?
Wrong. My thirteen-year-old son had already leapt from the dock five times, and was treading water, begging me to jump in. He’s not going to be thirteen forever, and it probably won’t be long before he prefers someone else’s company over mine. So, I stood on the edge of the dock, braced myself for the shock of cold, and jumped. As I plunged down eight feet, I held in a squeal when my foot brushed the slimy weeds at the bottom of the lake, and then launched myself toward the surface. At the top, my son was laughing, enjoying the look of misery on my face. That made me laugh too.
My other son wanted to snorkel, so we got out, grabbed our snorkels and fins, and jumped back in to join him. Visibility was limited to about five feet—deeper than that, everything was masked in dark green. We decided to leave the dock for shallow water where the visibility was better and the water was slightly warmer. There, we saw tiny fish and shells.
My waterbug son, the one who likes to jump off the dock, practiced diving below the surface to retrieve rocks and sticks. He has a mischievous sense of humor, and kept trying to grab my ankles from below to startle me. It didn’t work, but we played a fun game of underwater tag.
He’s a great swimmer. He’s been on a swim team for almost a year now, and has become much more skilled. He has always loved the water, however. When he was little, we had to watch him carefully around pools, because he had no fear about jumping in. He loves the ocean too. As frigid as it is (even colder than the lake), he never seems to feel the cold as he boogie boards or body surfs. He never seems to tire either, fighting the waves.
I love the water too, and I’d much rather swim in a cold lake with my son than sit on shore watching him have fun without me. Even if doing that means executing an undignified cannonball from the dock. Who cares if I don’t act my age? Dignity is overrated, and there was a bowl of soup waiting for me at home to help me warm up.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
One of the things I love about Astoria, Oregon, are the old houses. With its many Victorians and steep, hilly streets, Astoria reminds me of a smaller version of San Francisco. The most famous house in Astoria (besides the Goonies house) is the Flavel House. This Victorian mansion was built in 1884-1885 by Captain George Flavel, an important bar pilot on the Columbia River. Both the interior and exterior are gorgeous, and the house is worth a visit to see the architecture and learn about the history. It is rumored to be haunted by the captain, but the house is more interesting than creepy. Perhaps it would be more frightening if you were there alone, after dark.
There is another Flavel house in town, almost as famous as the captain’s. It was built by his son, George Conrad Flavel, who was also a captain. Built in 1901, the Colonial Revival-style house has wonderful views of the river and beautiful stained glass windows. After George Conrad Flavel’s death in 1923, his son Harry M. Flavel inherited the house, where he lived with his wife Florence and their two children, Mary Louise and Harry S. Flavel.
Although the second Flavel house is not rumored to be haunted, it has a dark history. At age 20, in 1947, the younger Harry allegedly attacked a neighbor with a hatchet. After that incident, Harry and his mother and sister were rarely seen in Astoria, becoming recluses in their own home. Years later, in 1983, Harry S. served time for stabbing a man. When he was released from prison after seven years, he and his family disappeared from Astoria. For twenty years, the house remained abandoned and derelict until the city of Astoria claimed the property. With signs of neglect and boarded up windows, the house certainly looked haunted, even if it’s not.
There is a happy ending to this story, however. In 2015, the house was sold to Greg Newenhof, co-owner of Astoria’s City Lumber Company. Since taking possession of the house, Mr. Newenhof has begun restoration, a long process to bring the house back to its former glory. In a partnership with the Clatsop County Historical Society, Mr. Newenhof recently opened his new home to the public, offering tours. Hundreds of people bought tickets. I was one of them—like the other visitors, I’d been interested in this house for years, and was so excited to finally be able to see the inside.
I wasn’t disappointed. The house has gorgeous historical details—paneled walls in the dining room, carved pillars in the sitting room, a beautiful fireplace in the living room, and marble sinks in each of the four bedrooms. My favorite room was the attic, because it still held some of the Flavel family’s belongings: an empty cradle, a tattered jacket, a drum, and old books.
One of the reasons I wanted to see this house is it served as inspiration in my novel, Sunset Empire. I imagined one of my characters, Phantom, living in the house with his mother. To tour the house, and look out the windows at the Columbia River as I imagined my characters doing, was absolutely thrilling. It will be exciting to see the evolution of this house as Mr. Newenhof restores it. I hope he hosts a second open house when the renovations are complete.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
Go Bag Contents:
1 Frying Pan
6 Rolls Toilet Paper (super important for pretense of civilization)
1 Pack Wet Wipes
1 Can Opener
1 First Aid Kit
2 Camp Forks (not just for roasting marshmallows)
4 Sets Plates, Cups, Utensils
3 Fire Starters*
4 Rain Ponchos
2 Swiss Army Knives*
3 Packs Dog Food
4 Mylar Rescue Blankets
1 LifeStraw Water Filter
12 Bottles Water
Dry Goods for 3 Days (note to self: don’t forget pop tarts and top ramen)
4 Missing Persons Posters (plus 1 for dog)
*Not for twelve-year-old boys to use unsupervised. Trust me on this.
Plan for 15 Minute Warning: Grab Go Bag, walk (quickly) to higher ground. Leave dog if necessary.
Plan for 30 Minute or More Warning: Load Go Bag and camping gear (tent, tarp, sleeping bags, flashlights, emergency radio, grill, shovels, etc.) into car, drive to higher ground. Take dog.
In the six years I’ve lived on the Oregon coast, I haven’t felt so much as a tremor. Reality isn’t based solely on my experiences though, and I’d be foolish to assume it does. Our area has a history of earthquakes, so it’s important to be prepared, especially living near a tsunami zone. Emergency management experts for the region say we’re overdue for the big one, an earthquake strong enough to shake the ground for five minutes, causing landslides and a 50-foot high tidal wave. The thought of that is enough to send me into fetal position. Even if the big one doesn’t happen in my lifetime, we’re still at risk for tidal waves originating from across the ocean. That happened in 2011, when there was 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Japan. Fortunately, the waves that reached our shores were small and did minimal damage, but debris from that natural disaster still washes up on our beaches, several years later.
My children regularly practice earthquake and tsunami drills at school, taking refuge under desks for the shaking and then filing out of the building in an orderly fashion to walk up a hill. They know they’ve got about 15 minutes, maybe less, to get to safety, assuming our bridges haven’t crumbled. We know where they’ll be if a quake happens during the school day, and we know where we’ll meet if a different scenario happens, say, they’re at home and I’m at work.
We put together a Go Bag, which is exactly what it sounds like—a bag filled with the essentials we’ll need in an emergency where we can’t stay in our house (earthquake, tsunami, zombie apocalypse, you get the idea). The thing weighs 50 pounds, and it would be tough to carry it alone, but we’ve tried it out and we can all tote it without falling over and kicking the air helplessly like a turtle on its back. If we have a longer warning, we’ve got a plan B, which involves packing more survival gear. We have to assume there will be power outages, and communication will be disrupted if cell towers go down. This is not too scary of an idea though, because every winter we face storms with gale force winds, and we’re used to living days without power.
The most disturbing thing about preparing our emergency kit was creating our own missing persons posters. It was a little like writing your own obituary—a morbid exercise. You have to list your height, weight, hair and eye color, and any identifying characteristics (like birthmarks or scars). That’s so you can be found alive and reunited with your loved ones, best case scenario, but also so your body can be identified if you don’t make it. Like I said, morbid.
Still, we have to assume that one of us could get separated, if somebody is in a different location when the quake hits. We even created a poster for the dog. In an ideal situation, if there can be an ideal in a terrible event like this, we’d have time to get our dog into her harness, or at least attach a leash to her collar, and calmly take her for a walk to our designated meeting point. Odds are, that won’t happen. As neurotic as Gryphon is, she’ll hide under one of our beds the second the shaking starts, and we’ll never be able to coax her out. In that case, we’re just going to have to leave her behind, as heartless as that sounds. We love her, but we can get a new dog. We can’t replace each other. Our piranha, by the way, is toast. The only way Gladiator gets to come along is if he’s dinner.
We’re not really okay with sacrificing the dog and the piranha, but we have to be. We also have to be okay with sacrificing everything else we’re forced to leave behind. I’d love to save family photos, but I just can’t. Maybe, if there’s time, I could grab one or two favorites, but they’ll take up precious room if we’re able to take our car, and there’s no room at all in the Go Bag. Forget about clothing, furniture, or my beloved books—all that is gone in a situation like this. I will grab my lap top if I can, since there are photos on that as well as my works in progress and other information that would be helpful in rebuilding our lives. It’s a sobering thought to look around me and realize all the material goods I depend on—let’s be honest, cling to for comfort—could be gone. But isn’t that going to be the case regardless? I’m not going to live forever, and I can’t take any of those things with me when I die. They’re only material things. What matters—the people I love—those are the things I can’t bear to leave behind.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
It’s easy to find excuses to avoid things. Case in point: exercise. I can find a hundred things to do instead of exercising. Start a load of laundry. Wash the dishes. Write a novel. I love to swim, but I’ve found excuses not to do it—the time it takes to drive to the recreation center, the increase in monthly fees.
Forget about running. I don’t run. Unless I’m being chased by a homicidal maniac wielding an ax, I don’t see the point. I’ll walk though, and I’ve found that pairing a treadmill with Netflix works to get me moving. It’s easier on my knees than running, so that’s a plus. I try to get in a couple of miles any day I have time, but sometimes I make excuses to avoid that too.
Before buying the treadmill, I could use rain as an excuse not to exercise. Now I can’t, but I sometimes use rain as an excuse for staying inside. I live on the beautiful Oregon coast, and we’ve got a number of trails meandering through forests or leading to beaches. I love hiking, so it’s a shame I haven’t gotten out every weekend to explore them all. I’m an Oregonian—rain is no excuse. If it were, we’d never get anything done.
Still, I have a bad habit of letting weekends slip away, sleeping in and doing mundane things I won’t care about in the long run. It’s easy to use the time doing things I can justify, like paying bills or finishing household chores. It’s just as easy to get lost surfing the internet. The rest of my family does the same thing, the four of us in our silos, on various devices, spending time in the same room without spending time with each other. All of us—me, my husband, and two sons—are introverted, so we’re comfortable having time to ourselves. We need that sometimes, to recharge from our busy weeks at work and school.
Last weekend we broke free from our bad habits. It was one of those glorious weekends when the sun was shining on the coast. I do love rain—without it the Pacific Northwest wouldn’t be green—but I love our sunny days. Summers on the Oregon coast are a dream. That’s why we have so many tourists, bumper to bumper on the highway. (And we appreciate them all, along with the money they invest in our economy.)
Since the weekend was so gorgeous, we decided to head to the beach. We unearthed our boogie boards from the garage, sorted through the sunscreen, trying to find a bottle that wasn’t expired, and pulled out our swimsuits and towels. We threw in a couple of shovels and buckets too, and then headed to Sunset Beach, one of our favorite places to play.
The boys wanted to build a driftwood fort, so that was first on our agenda. We scavenged the beach for logs big enough to use, yet small enough to carry (or drag), and got to work. A huge log had washed up near the dunes, so we built around that, excavating a bunker, and laying out logs and twigs to fashion a roof. We did a great job, creating a cozy spot to lounge and watch the waves.
After that, we grabbed our boards and caught some waves. We’re not cool enough to be surfers, but we love the ocean. (I keep saying we should at least take a surfing class. Maybe this will be the summer we do that.) The water was freezing. It was actually painful to wade in up to my waist, but I was willing to make the sacrifice for my boys. They won’t be twelve forever, and it won’t be long before they won’t want to spend time with me. They’ll be too busy hanging with friends, checking out girls. The clock is ticking, and I want to make the most of the time we have left.
After a whole lot of yelping and squealing, we finally got used to the cold. Translation: we were numb from the neck down, and having too much fun to care. Playing in the waves is not without risk. Besides the cold, there are riptides that could sweep us out to sea. There are hungry great whites that might nibble on us (unlikely) and sea nettles that could sting us (more likely, though maybe the cold will dull the pain). But there’s risk to everything, isn’t there? There’s risk crossing the street. Heck, there’s risk to eating dessert. If you use risk as an excuse to avoid doing things you love, you’ll never have any fun.
We have a lot of fun in the waves. It’s thrilling to see the perfect wave rolling in, and then to catch it in just the right spot so it carries you to shore. I love feeling the pull of the tide going out, right before a really big wave forms. I love the rush of speeding along, harnessing the power of the water. What I love most is hearing my sons shout with joy when they catch a good wave, laughing until their boards bottom out on the sand, and then scrambling to their feet, hurrying back to catch the next wave. These are the days they’ll always remember. These are the days made for living, and I don’t want to waste a single one.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
The mouth of the Columbia River is a dangerous place. The bar is so deadly, it’s been dubbed the Graveyard of the Pacific. Hundreds of ships have wrecked at the Columbia Bar, thanks to the fire hose force of the river mixing with tumultuous ocean waves. Add in gale force winds and constantly shifting sand bars, and you can see why this part of the world is so wild.
It’s wild in other ways too. Orcas frequent the mouth of the river, feasting on salmon. Great White sharks cruise the coastline, hunting seals. Humpback whales have been spotted 14 miles inland, near the Astoria-Megler bridge. This towering green bridge spans the four-mile-wide river, connecting Oregon to Washington. The Columbia River is also rumored to be home to a sea monster.
Colossal Claude has been described as being about 40 feet long, including an eight-foot-long neck. Its body is said to be round, ending in a tail. The beast’s head has been alternately described as looking like a maned camel, or having an “evil, snaky look.” Some people believe the creature resembles a plesiosaur, comparing it to the Loch Ness Monster.
One of the first reported sightings of the monster was in 1934, by the crew of the Columbia River Lightship, a floating lighthouse. As the story goes, the crew observed the animal for some time using binoculars. They wanted to take a lifeboat out to get a better look at the creature, but officers denied the request out of worry the beast would capsize the small boat.
Three years later, another crew reported seeing the creature. Skipper Charles E. Graham on the commercial fishing trawler Viv provided a hauntingly similar description to what the crew of the lightship had reported. Around the same time, about 150 miles down the Oregon coast, near a rocky area known as the Devil’s Churn (south of Yachats), a couple reported seeing a similar animal.
In 1939, the crew of the Argo, another fishing vessel, got a close encounter near the mouth of the Columbia when the creature reared up over ten feet above the water. It watched them calmly as it took a twenty-pound halibut of the ship’s lines and ate it. According to the ship’s captain, Chris Andersen, the creature’s “head was like a camel’s. His fur was coarse and gray. He had glassy eyes and a bent snout.”
The description of Claude having fur makes me wonder if the creature could be some kind of long-necked seal (assuming it actually exists). The waters of the Columbia and the Pacific are frigid, but marine mammals thrive here. Our river is teeming with fish and both seals and sea lions make their homes in the river and along the coastline.
The water is much too cold for a marine reptile, but the idea of a plesiosaur on the Oregon coast is not that outlandish. In 2003, paleontologists discovered a plesiosaur skull near Mitchell, Oregon. This 25-foot-long reptile lived about 80 to 90 million years ago. Called the “Tiger of the Cretaceous Seas,” it was a top predator and a powerful swimmer. There’s a deep trench at the mouth of the Columbia. It is possible a similar creature could have survived and remained hidden, except for rare sightings?
Here’s something else to consider. Colossal Claude isn’t the only sea monster in the Pacific Northwest. There’s also Caddy (short for Cadborosaurus), a sea serpent allegedly living in Cadboro Bay in Greater Victoria, British Columbia. Then there’s the Ogopogo, a similar creature in Okanagan Lake in British Columbia. Both Caddy and Ogopogo are described as having horse-like heads and long necks. There have been over 300 reported sightings of Caddy, and the creature is often described as having anterior and posterior flippers. Interestingly, a Caddy-like creature has been found within the legends of indigenous people throughout the Pacific Northwest, from Vancouver to Alaska. The Inuit people put a picture of the creature on their canoes to keep it away.
What do you think? Does Colossal Claude exist? I don’t know if it does, but I have a feeling there are still a few mysteries lurking under the surface of the Columbia River.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
Urban legends never cease to interest me. There are the old standbys you’ve probably heard before, like the killer who escapes from prison and has a hook for a hand. Or the one about the girl who is driving on a lonely road one dark night when someone starts tailgating her, flashing their car’s high beams. When she finally gets home and runs into her house to escape the weirdo following her, she finds out the guy driving the car wasn’t a psycho after all, but actually saved her life. Because there was a man in her backseat, you see, a man with a knife. Every time the man was about to stab her, the hero flashed his high beams and the man ducked back down behind the driver’s seat. These stories get passed down from a friend of a friend of a friend, and they must be true, because they happened to somebody’s cousin or aunt.
Here’s one you might not have heard before. On the northern Oregon coast, where the Oregon Coast Highway meets the Sunset Highway (the junction of the 101 and 26), there lives a legend. “Lives” might not be accurate, because no one knows if the Bandage Man is alive or dead. Perhaps he’s undead.
As the story goes, one night a young Cannon Beach couple went out for a drive in pickup truck and parked in the forest near the junction. They weren’t paying a lot of attention to what was going on outside the vehicle because they were busy doing the kinds of things teenagers do in parked cars. You know, gaze at the stars. (Teenagers are really fond of astronomy.) Anyway, all of a sudden, the truck jounced a little, like someone had climbed into the bed of the truck. Then, BAM! Somebody banged on the back window.
The young couple turned to see a crazy man wrapped in bandages, slamming his fists against the window of the truck, trying to get in. So they did what any sane person would do. They freaked out. Then they drove off, back to the city of Cannon Beach. By the time the boyfriend got to the girlfriend’s house to see her safely home, the bandaged man had vanished. But when the boyfriend peeked into the bed of his truck, he found a piece of gauze much like the man’s bloody wrappings. And it stank like death.
So what is the Bandage Man? A reanimated mummy? Unlikely. A ghost? Maybe. Some people say it’s the ghost of a logger who was horribly burned and wrapped in bandages before he died. If you drive in that area at night, he might just hitch a ride, and you’ll find out who—or what—he really is.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016
You see sasquatch everywhere in the Pacific Northwest (as an icon, at least). On the Oregon coast, we’ve got Bigfoot’s Steakhouse, and the Elderberry Inn on the Sunset Highway sports the silhouette of a sasquatch next to a giant frying pan. Camp 18, another restaurant along the same highway, is known for its logging museum and carved sculptures. Among these are two sasquatch statues.
A fellow author who has written about sasquatch once told me the area around Camp 18 is a sasquatch hotspot, with a number of sightings having been reported over the years. I can understand why—halfway between Portland and the coast, the restaurant sits in the middle of a vast forest in the Coast Range.
As you drive along the highway, you can see swathes of open land, where timber has been harvested. For the most part, however, the mountains are still pristine, some areas seemingly impassable because they are so overgrown with trees and vegetation. It’s easy to imagine large animals thriving unseen in these wild places.
I have never seen bigfoot in those woods (or anywhere else), but I think it’s possible a large animal could exist in a place like that and be seen only rarely. Bears, wolves, and mountain lions live in our forests, but I’ve never seen any of those animals up close, though I’ve been hiking trails on the coast for nearly five years. I have seen plenty of elk, deer, and raccoons, but no sasquatch.
It seems other people have seen something though. If you go to OregonBigfoot.com and search by county, you can read about alleged sightings and get a clear idea about where they occurred. I don’t know how many, if any, of the reports are credible, but I’ll give you this: it is eerie to read about sightings occurring in places I’ve hiked.
Evidence about sasquatch has never been accepted by the scientific community, but I’m fascinated by the legends, especially those from indigenous people. Native Americans in the Pacific Northwest have acknowledged sasquatch’s existence for centuries. Skookum, a word referring to spirits, was also used to describe sasquatch. There are stories about Basket Woman, a cannibal ogress who kidnapped children and put them in her basket. I don’t know how hairy she was, but it’s interesting that she was a giant. And, of course, there is Ape Canyon at Mount St. Helens, where a number of sasquatch sightings have been reported.
I don’t know if sasquatch exists, but I would like to think it does. I love the idea that there are still puzzles to be solved, that, in spite of all our technological advances and global exploration, mysteries remain.
© Melissa Eskue Ousley 2016