Out Our Back Door By Tom Baake
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Explore ‘Urban Waterways’ Of Oregon’s South Coast
By Tom Baake
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Kayakers check out Coalbank Slough in the Coos Bay Estuary.

This winter’s unseasonable stretches of sunny skies and calm, windless weather led me out onto our local waterways on several occasions, and with the exception of abundant birdlife, I had everything pretty much to myself.

Indeed, except during salmon season, our rivers and estuaries don’t get much use, for recreation at least. Which is unfortunate, because they’re immediately and endlessly fascinating.

I particularly get a kick out of what I call our urban waterways. This is different from “a river runs through it.” It’s more a matter of the tide slipping in and out every six hours or so, and the fun that can be had with that.

The ultimate trip involves launching a vessel on the last hour or so of an incoming tide to take you up-channel, then riding it back when the tide changes. It’s like a hike that’s all downhill!

One of the most obvious, accessible yet overlooked of these inlets of the Coos Bay Estuary is Coalbank Slough. You can catch glimpses of it from dozens of places in town – it’s even bridged by US 101 in the Bunker Hill district of Coos Bay. Despite being lined for a ways along one side with some industrial businesses, it’s instantaneously scenic once you’re down at water level, with big old firs and cedars growing right down to the edge on one side. A surprisingly peaceful ribbon of the natural world that seems far from the busy city.

As for the name Coalbank, this waterway served coal mines in the Libby district in days of yore. Coal was brought down-channel and stored in large bunkers – hence the name Bunker Hill – before being loaded onto ships and taken to San Francisco.

Most people would be surprised to hear there’s even a boat ramp into Coalbank Slough, although it’s getting kind of weedy and invaded by blackberry vines. To find it from US 101 at the south end of Coos Bay, go 2 blocks east of the Coalbank Slough bridge and turn south on Harriet Rd. In 2 blocks turn west on Coal Bank Ln. and follow it 0.3 mile to its intersection with Broadway Rd. The boat ramp is along the channel bank, just past the “Dead End” sign.

It’s also possible to launch from the sandy shoreline of Coalbank Slough beneath the US 101 overpass. Also, from the Eastside boat ramp, launch and go south directly across the channel to enter Coalbank Slough.

Another fun urban waterway is Reedsport’s Schofield Creek. It enters the mighty Umpqua River not far from Old Town, and flows up (or down, depending on the tide) behind homes, businesses and the town’s main shopping center, then slips beneath a US 101 bridge and goes by more homes before entering a beautiful and vast undeveloped area interlaced with wetlands. The main stem narrows, negotiating downed trees and limbs before finally encountering an impassable tree across the waterway. At which time – more or less – if you’ve timed it correctly -- the tide will have changed and you can get carried back down-channel with only minimal paddling, at least as far as the Umpqua, at which point a bit more effort is required to return to the Rainbow Plaza boat ramp, as you will now be going against the tide.

The against-tidal section may some day be unnecessary, as the city of Reedsport has a recreation plan that includes a paddler put-in farther upchannel.

The Umpqua and adjacent Smith River in the vicinity of Reedsport offer several other potential waterway treks in what’s called the Bolon Island Tideways.

Boat ramps and put-in/take out spots for paddlers can be found at the aforementioned Rainbow Plaza area, as well as on Bolon Island just north of town, and up Smith River Rd. just north of Bolon Island, and in Gardiner 2 miles farther along on US 101.

In addition to fun loops through channels around islands, you can even land on the largest, known as Steamboat, for a bit of exploring. You might even discover the “secret passage” through Bolon Island!

These are just a few of the waterway opportunities along Oregon’s South Coast, and they beckon all year round. Perhaps best of all, you don’t have to travel far – they’re right out our back door . . .

(Shopper columnist Tom Baake is author of regional guidebooks.)

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