An Ode to the Tides

They influence nearly every aspect of life on Oregon’s North Coast.
Michael H. Kew, Guest Author
September 19, 2017

Spend a day on Oregon’s North Coast and you’ll see the beach shrink and grow at least once. From the early days when the beach served as a public highway through to the modern adventurers paddling tidally influenced rivers, tides define not only the rhythm of the Pacific but also the daily life of humming coastal cities. Here’s how this mysterious force of nature influences virtually everything you’ll experience on your next North Coast getaway.


Ocean Rhythms

Every 24 hours, Oregon beaches host two high tides and two low tides, about six hours between each. Tides are very long waves (bulges) of water slowly moving across the Pacific, separated by hundreds of miles, driven by the gravitational pull of the sun and moon. When the peak (crest) of the wave meets the shore, it is called high tide, when the beach is at its narrowest. Low tide corresponds with the wave’s lowest point (trough), when the beach is widest and generally best for seaside activities.

The beachfront is not the only zone affected by tides. Their ebb and flow also directly influences coastal rivers and estuaries and deltas, as well as harbors, channels and bays. This affects water depth and currents.


The People’s Coast

Tides have played a central role in the development of the Coast. Before Oregon’s section of U.S. Route 101 was finished in 1936, the exposed, low-tide beach was the fastest public link between isolated towns like Arch Cape to Cannon Beach and Seaside to Astoria and Warrenton. It was dubbed “the People’s Coast” in 1913 by Oregon Governor Oswald West, who said the 363 miles of beach between California and the Columbia River formed a public highway up to the high-tide line, also called the “wet sand” zone.

Back then, the few roads on the North Coast were mostly muddy ruts, including the era’s main route between Astoria and Tillamook. Flat, low-tide beaches were preferred. In the 1910s and ‘20s, plied by horse-drawn stagecoaches, wagons and eventually Ford Model Ts, the hard-packed sand allowed for the exchange of goods and services and nurtured commerce between otherwise isolated towns. Today, besides at Hug Point, there is scant evidence of that original sand highway, and cars are mostly banned from driving on shore. North Coast beaches long ago traded vehicle traffic for recreation; 2017 marked a half-century of public beach access.


Tidally Influenced

With this free access comes a wealth of places and reasons to explore. Daylight minus tides (0 feet and lower) offer great opportunities for razor clamming, especially around Seaside and Fort Stevens State Park in Warrenton (the season typically runs from October 1 through July 15 but check with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife for updates). Near Fort Stevens, on Clatsop Spit, low tide lets you walk up to the remains of the Peter Iredale shipwreck. Minus tides are also prime time for tide-pooling, with such popular spots around Cannon Beach as Haystack Rock, Ecola and Oswald West state parks.

Since North Coast beaches change daily, even hourly, you never know what you’re going to find on them. Typically, two hours after high tide is the best time to start exploring since a freshly “washed” beach has potential for new and exciting things to find. This is also a great time to build sandcastles. For items like shells, sand dollars, glass floats, agates, fossils and odd pieces of driftwood, low tides can be great for beachcombing, but make sure you know when the tide will be filling in and narrowing the beach. (Fossils found can be taken home but cannot be commercially sold without a permit.)

Lower tides are preferred for athletic activities like beach jogging or fat-tire biking. In the rivers, bays and estuaries where there are submerged sandbars and rocks, high tides provide enough cushion (water depth) for safe stand-up paddling (SUPing) and exploring in your raft or kayak on the Necanicum Estuary in Seaside. For those with experience, ocean kayaking and the thrill of paddling from the mouth of the Necanicum Estuary into the surf is a thrill. Speaking of surf, tides have a dramatic affect on North Coast waves; generally, low tide going high is best for all surfing areas.


Safety Notes

Anytime you are dealing with tides, safety precautions are paramount — always heed the old adage: Never turn your back on the ocean. Sneaker waves, drift logs and rip currents are real threats, especially during pushing tides, when you can easily be caught off guard and even stranded. Considering North Coast’s cool ocean temperatures, you’ll want to stay dry. To avoid being stranded, take caution to avoid hiking around headlands during high tide, as passageways that were once wide could suddenly be inundated with water.

Along with online tide tables, you can often find free or cheap tide booklets in marinas, hardware and sporting goods stores, gas stations and visitor centers. Of course, for all your tidal excursions, check the weather forecast before heading out to ensure utmost comfort and safety. It’s always a good idea to wear layers — on the North Coast, a bright, pleasant day can turn gray and windy, and fog can quickly put a damper on things. Apply sunscreen to all exposed skin, wear a hat, and don waterproof shoes or boots — especially if you’re going tide-pooling.

Most important of all: Know the tides, stay dry and have fun.