VIDA - Straight ahead, at the start of Marten Rapids on the McKenzie River, an overturned yellow raft bobs between a boulder and downed tree limbs. Attempting to avoid a similar fate, Paul Glowka, our guide, shouts instructions with urgency as he steers our raft into a narrow channel of roiling water on the left: "OK, crew, forward paddle. Crew, backward paddle. Back-ward pad-dle."
My short, flailing strokes make little impact. Bouncing on my seat as our raft bucks along the river, I am soaked, like the six other passengers who signed up for this adventure. Turning around, I see Glowka, a 6-foot-tall, 225-pound, part-time heavy-haul trucker put all his weight and experience into keeping our raft clear of the accident and other hidden dangers.
The 100-yard stretch of Class III rapids is the grand finale of a half-day white-water trip through lush forest that drapes the surrounding Cascade Mountains and drops to the river's edge. Bringing the raft safely back to Helfrich Landing on a pathway of pristine, deep-blue water, Glowka says, "There's a 50-50 factor where you either make it without flipping over or you don't." Whether rafting down the McKenzie for scenery or thrill-seeking, Glowka adds, "people underestimate the river."
Before I explored Eugene and the nearby outdoor playgrounds in the McKenzie River
Valley and along the Oregon coast, I had underestimated the city and the natural charm of the area. In previous visits to the Pacific Northwest, I had seen little reason to venture beyond the casual cosmopolitan cool of Portland. Being tossed about the McKenzie and coastal sand dunes, riding waves in a sea kayak, and running along Pre's Trail changed my thinking.
Located 100 miles south of Portland, Eugene (population 153,690) is a university town with an easy-going, alternative feel. The second-largest city in Oregon offers plenty of paths for cyclists and runners, the Willamette River for inner tubes and canoes, the outdoor Saturday Market for arts and crafts, and Hayward Field, a world-famous track-and-field stadium at the University of Oregon. The compact city center puts most attractions within easy reach by car, bike, or foot. Plus, with the Cascades and McKenzie River Valley less than a two-hour drive east and the coast less than two hours west, Eugene works as a convenient base for outdoor adventures.
On summer weekend mornings, Alton Baker Park is packed with cyclists, runners, in-line skaters, and walkers. Elite local distance runners speed past during workouts on the well-marked trails that trace the banks of the Willamette, stretching toward neighboring Springfield in one direction and downtown Eugene in the other. Cumulatively, the parks in Eugene and nearby communities offer the most extensive network of trails in the country. Within 400-acre Alton Baker Park, I easily find Pre's Trail looping in front of Autzen Stadium, where the university's football team plays. The wood-chip-covered path honors distance running legend Steve Prefontaine, a beloved symbol of the city's independent spirit and affinity for track and field.
After my run through the park, I make a pilgrimage to Pre's Rock on Skyline Boulevard. Beside the boulder on a blind curve where Prefontaine, 24, died in a car crash in 1975 is a memorial plaque with his picture surrounded by race numbers, medals, running shoes, and other memorabilia. When I pay my respects, the road is practically closed by others doing the same.
Not far from Pre's Rock, Hayward Field draws sellout crowds for track meets. It is the place where Prefontaine made his name and other running legends added to their renown. Eugene takes tremendous pride in its nickname, "Track Town USA," and its leadership in green living. It turned the US Olympic track and field trials in July into a 10-day sports festival complete with bicycle valet parking. US Olympic hopefuls will return for the 2012 trials.
Downtown Eugene is far from a bustling commercial draw, though the outdoor Saturday Market,
Winding my way to the coast along Route 126, I cannot escape the influence of the ubiquitous Nike swoosh. As I pull into Sand Dunes Frontier for an ATV ride across giant mountains of sand, I spot a sign that reads "Just Dune It." Helmet on and three safety instruction sessions later, I'm still not sure I'm ready to "dune it." When I ask about all the safety precautions, Sarah Duman, whose family handles the ATV riding business at the Frontier, says, "You'd be amazed at who doesn't listen. It's an extreme sport." With that final advisory, I'm tempted to head back up the road to Our Lady of the Dunes for some last-minute prayer.
Instead, I cautiously proceed down the access road to the dunes, hesitantly revving my quad only when needed. It is my first time on an ATV of any kind. I reach the entrance to the riding park and a vast sandscape unfolds before me. It is breathtaking. Soft, sparkling mounds of sand are set against the Pacific Ocean. Islands of trees and long, amber grasses form natural boundaries and break up what sometimes appears to be a desolate, sci-fi movie setting.
While fellow ATV riders speed past at full throttle, I stick to slower speeds and smaller dunes at first. I struggle to control the ATV as its wheels sink into the sand with every turn, and my riding prompts a few curious and concerned stares. I feel slightly better as I hear a teenager shout, "C'mon, Mom, c'mon, Dad, this way" and see one ATV speed into the distance while two hesitantly follow. Finally, emboldened for little reason, I gun it up a large hill. Short of momentum to reach the top, I become stuck, and wave my arms and await rescue by one of the workers who patrol the area. Before the end of my hourlong ride, I get stuck a couple more times, but I finish with a sense of accomplishment and take souvenir sand with me in my shorts, shoes, and sweatshirt.
For a less harrowing view of the dunes and coastal wildlife, I rent a sea kayak and paddle down the Siuslaw River toward the Pacific. I agree with guide Andy Small, who says kayaking allows "a more personal intimate outdoor experience," with seals and marine birds practically within reach. For me, it is a welcome change of pace from the frenzy of white-water rafting and dune riding.
Continuing up the coast on land, I stop at the world's largest sea cave for a look at a herd of sea lions. Or, more accurately, to be subjected to the animals' constant bellowing and unique, briny odor. Part education center, part kitschy roadside tourist attraction, Eugene-area residents tell me the Sea Lion Caves is one of those places you bring the kids once and check off your list.
Looking for something that is less of an assault on the senses, I make my way up Highway 101 to Heceta Head Lighthouse and watch the sunset. Situated on a picturesque, rocky outcropping, the lighthouse stands guard over rugged coastline. Its simple, unobtrusive beauty fits perfectly with this wide swath of Oregon where nature reigns.
Shira Springer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.