Firmly locked into vestlike harnesses, hooked to twin cables suspended between poles a quarter-mile apart, the two young brothers soared high above a deep-green pond on the outskirts of this northwestern Oregon city.
This was not a true competition, but they made it one on the dual zip-line course. Heavier by three years, the 10-year-old cruised into a soft landing just ahead of his younger brother, who never surrendered the broad smile he had worn since David Larson had launched the pair on the last of eight cable runs at High Life Adventures.
Since opening in mid-May, the first commercial zip-line course on the Pacific Northwest coast has been a resounding success for Larson, along with his wife, Lancey, and several seasonal employees.
And it's just one of several new attractions for visitors to the north coast region of this state, including river adventures, new hotels and restaurants, and — with a proliferation of new brewing operations — an official North Coast Craft Beer Trail.
None of them, however, impressed me as much as the Larsons' family-friendly adventure park. Located just east of U.S. Highway 101 near Warrenton, the zip-lining operation was a year and a half in the making, inspired by a Hawaiian vacation in late 2010.
I have visited zip-line parks in several states, as well as Canada and Mexico, but High Life puts the others to shame in many ways. Not only does it begin and end right beside the operations center, so that no lengthy back-country Jeep travel is required, it is also an integral part of a wooded, 30-acre estate on which the Larsons have lived since 1990.
If you've never tested a zip-line, this is how it works: Visitors check in, pay admission ($99 for adults, $69 for youth at High Life), sign a hold-harmless agreement, and meet two guides who usher them into an orientation area. Here they are fitted for helmets, gloves and harnesses, introduced to zip-lining procedures and safety measures, then walked to the first of the steel cables, dubbed “Alder.”
It takes about two hours to traverse the course, traveling through trees and over water, from platform to platform. At each station, one by one, guides clip participants' harnesses to a pulley suspended from the cable. As the starting platform for each cable is always slightly higher than the finishing one, gravity quickly takes over.
High Life's longest rides, including the closing “Spruce” and “Willow” parallel cables, cross a seven-acre pond beside the Larsons' spacious log home. The lines were built by David Larson himself, the owner of a salvage logging and excavating business.
“When we zip-lined in Hawaii,” said Lancey Larson, “we realized that we had the perfect place to build one ourselves. So we attended a conference on challenge course technology in Boston, took some classes, came home and got to work.”
Development of the Larsons' property won't end with the zip lines, Lancey said. “We have big park plans,” she said. “We are now in the process of seeking permitting to use the pond for fishing, kayaking and stand-up paddling. And we're looking forward to catering family events, hopefully as early as next spring.”
On the water
High Life Adventures is less than a mile from Fort Clatsop, where the Lewis and Clark Expedition established a soggy refuge during the winter of 1805-06. Next to a modern replica of the tiny fort, the main visitors center for the multiple-site Lewis and Clark National Historical Park has a fine small museum with hikes guided by National Park Service rangers.
New this year are guided paddling excursions by canoe or kayak. Through Labor Day — and later in the season, depending upon interest — park rangers take groups of eight paddlers along the lush banks of the Lewis and Clark River. Tours begin at Netul Landing, a mile south of the visitors center (to which it is linked by trail) and follow the 1½-mile Lewis and Clark River Trail, where guides discuss the ecosystems and early 19th-century history.
Tours ($3) are offered Thursday through Monday, beginning anywhere between 8:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. — whenever the tide in these brackish waters is highest. Participants should inquire when they make reservations. Children 10 and older are welcome if accompanied by an adult. If you're lucky, you may see river otters.
On the other side of Astoria, in the West Mooring Basin seaward of the Astoria-Megler Bridge, Christopher Lloyd welcomes guests aboard his luxurious 40-foot yacht, the Christina Cousteau, for two- to four-hour ($95-$150) Columbia River Eco Tours.
As he cruises past the southern shore of the broad river, Lloyd describes the city's historic waterfront, then proceeds past the rafts of sea lions at Pier 39, a restored seafood cannery, and the Coast Guard station at Tongue Point. Then it circles back through national wildlife refuges and the Twilight Creek Eagle Sanctuary, where osprey and great blue herons share the waters with American bald eagles.
More river trips
Further down the Oregon Coast, Kayak Tillamook County is now offering family-friendly guided tours that couple inland coastal waterways with history, as narrated by volunteers from the Tillamook County Pioneer Museum.
Stretching from Cape Falcon to Cascade Head, Tillamook County boasts more than 800 miles of water trails across bays, estuaries and seaside lakes. The paddling group's new series of six “Treasure Map Tours” ($65), begun in June, follow early trade routes plied by Native Americans and early settlers. Ending in Hoquarten Slough, a Tillamook Bay tributary, they conclude at the city of Tillamook's historical museum.
Further south, near Florence, NorthWest EcoExcursions hosts guests in kayaks on the slow-moving, three-mile Siltcoos River Canoe Trail ($130). Extending through the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area from forest-fringed Siltcoos Lake to the Pacific Ocean, the narrow river meanders through shore pines and salal bushes that are home to a wide range of wildlife.
Participants keep their eyes open for beavers, otters, mink and raccoons along the river banks, as well as such diving birds as kingfishers. They portage around a small dam, then paddle a final stretch past an oceanside habitat for snowy plovers. Harbor seals lounge nearby.
Stay and eat
Notable among new lodgings on the Oregon Coast is McMenamins' Gearhart Hotel, which opened May 11 in the charming seaside village just north of Seaside. Eighteen rooms with private baths have been installed in the third story of the historic, Cape Cod-style Kelly House, atop the Sand Trap Pub — offering three meals daily — and the Gearhart Golf Links pro shop, which serves a well-groomed 18-hole golf course.
The first of three prior hotels on this site was built in 1890, followed by the golf course. But 40 years had passed since Gearhart Hotel No. 3 was razed. The new property incorporates the whimsical art that has become a signature of the Portland-based McMenamins group.
Just down the coast, the newly opened Seaside Brewing Co. — first brewpub in the vacation town — has taken over the former Seaside city hall and jail at the southwest corner of Broadway and U.S. Highway 101. On my recent visit, the ever-changing list of Oregon craft brews featured selections from four Central Oregon breweries, more than were offered from Portland. Its own first release is scheduled later this summer.
The brewery welcomes both dogs and children, with these caveats: “Dogs are allowed on two of our outside patios, as long as they are not exhibiting any signs of intoxication. Dogs are not allowed to wear monogrammed or bedazzled sweaters of any kind as flashing sequins enrage seagulls and create a safety hazard. Kids may not ride, paint, shave, lecture or bite dogs.”
In fact, children may be more easily entertained at the Seaside Aquarium, which is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2012 with the addition of two new harbor seal pups.
Nine miles south of Seaside, the artsy community of Cannon Beach is talking about two new restaurants. Chef John Newman, already well-known for the French-Italian farmhouse cuisine he serves at Newman's at 988 in Cannon Beach, has added Fishes Sushi & Japanese Cuisine in the former JP's Restaurant. Meanwhile, Ryan and Stephanie Snyder opened the Lumberyard Rotisserie and Grill serving an “Epic Burger” — 5 inches tall, a half-pound of meat topped with tropical fruit, Jamaican spices and Tillamook Cheese on a brioche bun.
McMenamins Sand Trap, Seaside Brewing and the Lumberyard are three of the 11 locations that appear on the North Coast Craft Brew Trail, a marketing scheme not unlike the Bend Ale Trail, spread along the 25 miles between Astoria and Cannon Beach.
Also listed on the Craft Brew Trail are four Astoria beer producers — Rogue Ales, Fort George Brewery, Astoria Brewing and the West Dog Cafe and Brewery. The brew trail also features a quartet of eateries in Seaside — the Wine and Beer Haus, Dundee's Bar & Grill, the Twisted Fish Steakhouse and the U Street Pub & Eatery.
The Astoria Brewing Co. (formerly Pacific Rim Brewing), which has made beers for the Wet Dog Cafe since 1997, has a brand-new location on Marine Drive. Andrew & Steve's Chart Room opened in May with six taps and pub-style food service. The brewery's Tap Room with a viewing area and beer-tasting room is projected to open this fall.
Further down the coast, the Pelican Pub & Brewery, overlooking Cape Kiwanda in Pacific City, is well-known — but not so the Rusty Truck Brewing Co. at Roadhouse 101 in Lincoln City. Established in April of last year, the small-batch, hands-on brewery already serves 12 unique beers such as Back Seat Wheat and Fender Bender Amber.
Cannon Beach now also has a distillery, where owner Mike Selberg makes vodka, gin, rum and whiskey in a still that he calls “Bernie.” The Cannon Beach Distillery is just getting off the ground, but Selberg finds time to serve half-ounce samples of Dorymen's Light Rum and other spirits on weekend afternoons.
Whales and bikes
One of the most exciting new ventures on the coast is in tiny Depoe Bay, the self-described “whale-watching capital” of the Northwest. Even as the Oregon State Parks' Whale Watching Center, on the north side of the Highway 101 bridge, has vastly reduced its exhibit space during a renovation that may take years, a new facility has sprung up on the south side of the bridge.
Marine biologist Carrie Newell, who for years has taken small groups of visitors in her rubber-sided Zodiac boat to study resident whales on Whale Research Eco-Excursions, established the Whale, Sea Life & Shark Museum in late May.
Newell knows the individual physical traits and personalities of nearly every whale traveling the Oregon Coast. Her museum features a collection of everything from photos to shark jaws and a giant clam shell. But I am most impressed with its small theater, which shows movies about marine research — including one film, narrated by Pierce Brosnan, in which Newell is featured with Jean-Michel Cousteau.
If you're bicycling the coast, Bike Newport is a worthy oasis; I wish that Elliott and Daniella Crowder's shop had been there three years ago when I rode through on two wheels. The pair, formerly Grants Pass restaurateurs, have expanded their full-service bike store with a lounge for touring cyclists, including a shower, laundry and computer area.
And a day's ride north, in Lincoln City, free bicycle repair kits are being made available in several locations, including the police department, the chamber of commerce and the Siletz Bay Lodge.
Lincoln City's Coho Oceanfront Lodge, meanwhile, is pulling out all the stops to attract families. Newly renovated, the Coho now has bunk rooms for kids along with several special offers. The Kids Beach Package ($25) includes two kites, a beach ball, a towel, toys, snacks and unlimited DVD rentals. The Beach Bonfire Package ($49) throws in firewood and roasting sticks along with hot dogs and all the makings for s'mores, plus a beach mat and bag.
Zip-line harnesses are not required.