After spending three months living in the tiny coastal town of Neskowin, I have become ever more aware of the multitude of places in the northern portion of Oregon’s coastline beginning with the prefix ‘Ne-’. Curiosity in the meaning of these quickly took hold, and with some internet diving, I found out that the prefix likely denotes ‘place of’ and originates from the native Tillamook language. However, when looking up individual place names, the readily-available results seem less than accurate, as they came from predominantly non-academic, Euro-American sources, rather than indigenous ones. Eventually, I decided that to derive true meaning from these places, it would take visiting them in succession. I designed a driving route to hit as many as possible in one weekend, and headed out on the decided North Coast Name Tour.
The clouds are amazing this morning. Gray, ominous, yes, but to the west there is a soft blue on the horizon, beckoning me to get out while the getting’s good. I head north up the 101, gliding past wild seas, strikingly calm bays, evergreen forests, and dairy fields.
I continue north until I reach a town I’d honestly rather not be in. But a name brought me here. Actually, three names.
My first stop on the North Coast Name Tour is in the carnival town of Seaside. I’m here to look at the mouth of the Necanicum River, just downstream of its confluence with Neawanna and Neacoxie Creeks. From what I’ve read online, Necanicum may be derived from Ne-hay-ne-num, the name of a native village. In searching for the meaning of Neawanna and Neacoxie, I have come up short. So, I walk north on the main beach until I reach the river mouth. If I keep my peripherals out of it, it’s a lovely spot, as calm waters reaching a rough ocean usually are. But, when I glance to the sides of the liquid forms in front of me, I see the high-rises of Seaside and far too many things colored gray due to human influence rather than nature’s will. I must get away from this cement-land.
I head back the way I came on the 101, driving south. On the road again, my mind clears up quickly. My next stop is Oswald West State Park, a.k.a. Short Sands Beach, a.k.a. Smugglers Cove, a.k.a. the site where Necarney Creek touches the sea. Who the heck knows where the name Necarney came from though, because I sure didn’t find out. Following the trail from the parking lot to the beach, I am parallel to the creek. As the trail winds its way downhill and downstream, I notice huge pieces of downed logs crossing the water. Looking up, I can see where they came from—this forest is old, the trees still standing are as wide or wider than those that fell, and some are wider than I am tall.
I walk some more, do some non-‘Ne-‘ related activities (surf), then head back the way I came on the 101.
A short drive later, I reach my next stop: Neahkahnie Mountain. This is a spot I’ve been especially looking forward to. I haven’t been here in a couple of years, but still recall the epic view from the top, looking south towards Nehalem Bay. I park at the trailhead, and upon getting out of the car and tying my shoes, a wave of exhaustion not uncommon to one post-surf hits me. It is a strong wave. It will not be ignored. I decide to forget the over one-thousand-feet-of-
I’m a little bitter that I got so tired, because from what I’ve read, Neahkahnie has the most profound name of them all—the place of the creators. But when I reach the beach, I’m not disappointed. From here, instead of seeing a landscape below me, I see what must be the work of one creator or another above: sheer cliff sides reach up from the crashing ocean to steep evergreen slopes and the lighter green meadow at the top of the peak. In awe, I gleefully mark a mental check box, and then head back the way I came on the 101.
Soon enough, I’m driving over the Nehalem River, then alongside Nehalem Bay. Who needs to see such sights from above when one can so easily be parallel to them, taking roadside stops whenever it is called for? From what I’ve found, Nehalem means the place where people live. Maybe back in its inception this was so, but in today’s point of reference, the townships around here are small.
Ever south down the 101, my next stop is Nedonna Beach. I couldn’t find a meaning behind this name either, and though the view of the ocean from the Manhattan Beach State Park access point is as beautiful as any view of the ocean, I’m not particularly called to it and don’t stay long. I can still see the snow on the hilltops east of me, and it is a good reminder that this time of year the days are short and time spent outdoors must be prioritized. So, southwards it is, to Netarts.
Netarts may mean something along the lines of the place of the oysters, and with the Whiskey Creek shellfish farm still operating here, this seems reasonable enough. Whatever the meaning, it feels good to get off the 101 for a time. The tide is low as I drive past, revealing a mudflat island in the middle of the bay where dozens of seals are hauled out. I stop and admire them, as well as a number of different wintering waterfowl species. While it hasn’t truly rained all day, the clouds are looking as ominous as ever, and with about an hour until dusk, I decide not to linger too long here.
I make my own place up at Cape Lookout State Park tonight. I can’t help but laugh to see the number of sprinter vans accompanying me. As I set up my tent, a pulse of pride passes through me to be what appears the only person not sleeping entirely indoors tonight. As the sun is setting, I have just enough time to take a stroll from the campground along Netarts spit. It’s almost as if I’ve come full circle, seeing the open ocean from this point that just a little bit ago I had gazed upon across another body of water.
When I return to camp, those ominous clouds finally flex their muscles. I avoid the deluge in my tent, and retreat into sleep as the drops fall down.
When I wake, I wonder if the snowline has dropped since yesterday. I can see my breath, and the outside of my sleeping bag feels chilly. I layer up before exiting my impermanent abode, and upon unzipping the tent fly find that such worries come to nil. It is a clear morning, with a beautiful sunrise in the midst, pink clouds above the hills to the east. After warming up with the classic camping oatmeal breakfast, I pack up and this time venture in a different direction than that which I came: east.
Well, to be fair, I head east, then I head south, and then more east on Blaine Road, where a brown road sign for the Upper Nestucca River Recreation Area beckons me on my ‘Ne-’ quest. Nestucca is another word I’ve come up short on in terms of meaning. But as the road I travel curves alongside it ever upwards, I soon forget that there is any other meaning but this movement I am so engulfed by. A little over an hour later, I reach my destination at a point where what I believe to be Nenamusa Falls is visible. Though this name is another mystery, I feel again at ease in the unknowing as gravity pulls the creek down a sheer cliff in front of me, directly into the droning Nestucca.
I watch. I listen. I eventually saddle up and head back the way I came on the 101: south.
My next stop lies within the same watershed: the Nestucca Bay National Wildlife Refuge, just south of Pacific City. At the lower viewpoint here, I can see what appears to be thousands of migratory birds in the flooded field below me and in the gray sky above. From what I gather reading the various, well-illustrated interpretive signs, the fields below are managed using cattle grazing to keep the grass at a length preferred by multiple species of geese that overwinter here. At the upper viewpoint, I can make out Pacific City’s Haystack Rock to the north, and even farther north, Cape Lookout. To the south is Cascade Head, and a preview to the next ‘Ne-’: Neskowin Beach.
To access this beach, I park in the State Park lot in town, then walk along Hawk Creek a ways, then through a neighborhood of what seems to be all empty vacation homes this time of year. I admire their various architectural features and am glad no people lie behind their walls and windows to see me peering in. Once I hit the sand, I feel less self-conscious. Though it is still a chilly day, the boots and socks come off and my hiking pants are rolled way up; I know what I plan to do would easily soak them all.
I walk south toward the sea stack Proposal Rock and the mouth of Neskowin Creek. I fully intend to cross it, but as I near closer and closer, I see a bald eagle on its shore, clearly in the middle of something important. I slow my pace to watch, and realize it is munching on something. I speed up my pace—could the eagle’s meal be what I hope it to be? Neskowin, as I have forgotten to mention, means the place of many fishes. This year has been awful in terms of salmon returns to coastal rivers, and the optimistic side of me can’t help but hope that this eagle (now scared off by my encroachment) found the carcass of one of the few to make it back. As I get closer, I see my hopes realized: a beautiful, red, wild, coho salmon, scavenged by the eagle, missing its heart but otherwise intact, lies on top of the sand. I whoop and holler to no one around me, laugh, photograph. What a place!
I linger a little longer, then I head back the way I came on the 101: south, to the next and last stop on the North Coast Name Tour.
Neotsu is my final destination. An enclave within the conglomerate of Lincoln City, Neotsu today exists as a neighborhood on the northernmost end of town, alongside the shore of presently known Devil’s Lake. On the ole interweb, Neotsu is said to mean the place of evil water, which makes the white naming of Devil’s Lake seem pretty logical. To visit Neotsu today, all I do is turn east off the 101 down the road of the same name, past blocks of more seemingly empty vacation homes, catching glimpses of the calm fresh water nearby. As I drive, I’m a little saddened that such a powerful name has been diluted by all these structures, a little overwhelmed at the course humanity has taken here. Yet, soon enough I find a pull-out, a one-car access point to the water, enough space for one to launch a kayak or canoe. Though I have no boat with me, I park and walk to the shore’s edge. On this water I see some of my favorite migratory birds: buffleheads. Whatever evil exits here certainly can’t be so bad if it allows these darling, dabbling ducks to persist in the same place.
I watch for who knows how long, then head back the way I came, perhaps with more questions than answers, but also with more sense of place.
By Ari Blatt