Christmas Tales: Wet enough to keep the whales happy

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The Independent Online
Oregon offers one of the richest holiday destinations in the English- speaking world: the great gorge of the Columbia river, skiing in the Cascades, bleak desert, and wetlands humming with birds. It's a perfect place, but not at Christmas, says Nick Clarke.

The propensity of Christmas to serve up disappointments ought to be a lesson learned young. But you forget. Or you prefer to hope, perversely, that next year the stocking really will be full of unimagined, unimaginable, delights. So it is with us and Oregon.

We fell in love with the place on first acquaintance some years ago, not least because we chanced upon a guest-house in the small township of Florence, whose owners became immediate friends. They invited us to house-sit for them two Christmases ago, and we accepted with alacrity. It rained, of course. In truth it rained rather too regularly for comfort, and we should have been warned. But when they offered to repeat their generosity last year, this time with the loan of a house on a bluff overlooking the Pacific, we agreed with barely a backward glance. It was a mistake, a gift horse whose mouth should have been more thoroughly inspected.

Bart was symptomatic of the way things went. We were driving through the hail one day - having stopped to look at a spectacular double rainbow - when Bart appeared in my rear-view mirror with blue and red lights blazing. Bart was the pride of the local sheriff's department, and he could feel a fine coming on. I was drenched within seconds of stepping out of the car, and when I put my hands in my pocket, Bart fingered his holster and told me to keep my hands where he could see them.

His moustache was apologetic, what the French call "en projet". Even a visitor in the rain could not be allowed to drive so recklessly. By the time he left, I was in possession of a sodden yellow ticket for fines totalling $330, and a saturated anorak. He clearly didn't know about rainbows.

We set off again on Route 101 into town, approaching from the north at an unnaturally sedate pace, and I started to see things I had not noticed before. Florence, described by its city fathers as "a diamond set among the pearls", has not escaped the recent depredations of the ribbon developers. Motels vie with each other for drabness and lack of appeal. The Motel Chateau, Moneysaver Motel, Americana: grey clapboard sheds and those blinking red signs in which some of the bulbs are always - well - on the blink.

All this cast a shadow over what we had come to think of as a place of ineffable and un-American charm. If you enter Florence from the south, for instance, you cross one of the graceful iron bridges conceived by out-of-work artists and engineers during the Depression. And the old road leads down to a main street still recognisable in the sepia photographs on sale in the antiques shops. On the way to our friends' guest-house - a perfectly restored Italianate villa - we passed the quaint quay on the Siuslaw river that was once at the vibrant heart of the lumber trade.

Yet, in the perpetual rain, this Florence now seemed no more than a mournful memento among the motels. I thought back nostalgically to the first day of our holiday.

Having flown to Seattle, and driven for three hours to Portland, Oregon's main city, we had enjoyed a blissful morning of winter sunshine. Portland is a place of understated self-confidence. It is clean, smart and mostly free from urban decay - perhaps with a tendency to smugness, like a child scrubbed unnaturally clean. It even has an urban transport system that works. We wandered contentedly, browsing in Powell's, one of the continent's most extensive second-hand book stores, and marvelling at cranky shops with their unusual selection of period clothes.

Late that day, as we left Portland for Florence 150 miles further south, it began to rain, the prelude to a period of epic weather. It was 19 December, and it was to rain, more or less continuously, for the next 13 days.

The house we had borrowed, an octagonal wooden construction shaped like a teepee, has a view across marshland and sand dunes to the sea. Elk are supposed to graze in the foreground (there is even a warning sign to this effect on the approach road), and whales to pass by in the ocean at the back of the scene. Someone, we were told, once found an inquisitive black bear rooting through the garden hedge.

What we in fact saw was the rain. The Pacific north west is known for the stuff: we understood that. But the previous year it had been more, well, intermittent. On Christmas Day itself, for instance, we had walked down Baker Beach in golden sunshine and blessed our good fortune.

This was going to be different. We were not too concerned when it rained on 20 and 21 December. We noted that back in Portland it was by now so cold that cars had frozen to the road, and that electricity cables had snapped like twigs, plunging half the city into darkness. We were lucky, we thought. In Florence it was wet, certainly, but quite mild.

By the 23rd, there really did seem to be a subtle alteration in the quality of the encircling gloom. We decided there might never be a better chance to fulfil one of my wife's main ambitions: to watch the whales on the southward leg of their great winter migration. Some 30,000 animals swim south in December and January each year to the Baja de California off the coast of Mexico, driven by twin requirements of warm weather and sex.

Phone calls to the nearby towns of Newport and Depoe Bay established that whale-watching trips might be possible, storms and customer demand permitting. With an anxious eye on the clouds stacked up offshore, biding their time, we reached Depoe Bay to discover that only one other hopeful was willing to brave the elements. Six people were needed to tempt the boat from its berth. This is, however, the land of free enterprise. We offered to buy up five seats on the cruiser to reach the required minimum.

It was worth it. Less than a mile from the shore we saw the first spumes - a series of five or six great spurts of expelled water before the whale dives again to continue its dogged progress. The trick is to spot the spume, chase over to the spot, and wait for it to reappear, hoping for a good view of the beast as it comes up for air. If you are really lucky, and the whales are in playful mood, they breech - arching out of the waves like dolphins. This time we had to content ourselves with spumes, silky grey backs and exhilarating flashes of tail fin.

On the way back into the tiny, treacherous port entrance, it started to rain again.

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day it rained incessantly. Our sole excursion was to the elk-viewing point near Reedsport. The elk don't like the rain, either. They lay clustered in disconsolate groups trying to pretend they were somewhere else.

All the Oregon rivers were now rising dangerously, the Siuslaw, the Umpqua and the rest. We had started to feature on national news bulletins. Roads were submerged or closed by rock slides, mudslips or both. Whole swaths of trees, their roots undermined, piled haphazardly on to highways. By Boxing Day, the 101 to Newport and Depoe Bay was impassable. We went to have a look at the damage - this being the most exciting outing still open to us.

On the 27th there was no let-up in the precipitation. We decided to call it a day. Forty-eight hours ahead of schedule, we said goodbye to our sympathetic friends, and - like the whales - headed south. It made no difference. We were pursued down the coast by the storms. By the time we reached San Francisco, the low-pressure area had swung south as well. Teams of television reporters in daft rainwear charted the inexorable rise of the Russian river, and the temporary drowning of the Sonoma valley. We stuck it out till New Year's Eve, when we ate sensationally at our favourite restaurant, and then waited an hour for a taxi. "It's always like this when it rains," the waitress remarked, unnecessarily.

Finally, on 1 January, we crawled to San Francisco airport through rain so heavy it was like driving in a blindfold. The only consolation came a few days later when we heard from our friends that we really had experienced a phenomenon: the wettest end to the wettest year in the history of the Oregon coast: 27 inches of the stuff in December alone.

We will return to Oregon. At almost any other time of the year it is a magical place. But we will never again risk the Pacific north west at Christmas time. That particular stocking still has a mouldy tangerine in the toe, and there is no reason to suppose that it will be different next time.

Nick Clarke presents `The World at One' on BBC Radio 4.

To rent the teepee (Moonset) or to stay in the villa (the Johnson House) call Ron Fraese on 001 541 997 8000. It is worth it at almost any other time of the year.