I knew the water would be cold, but I didn’t expect it would be that cold. The kind of cold that seeps through a wet suit right to your skin. The kind that makes you sure you’ll never be warm again and numbs you to the point where you can’t even think.
Incidentally, propelling yourself through shark-infested waters isn’t the best time to not be able to think.
“Maybe I should just call it while my brain is still functioning,” I wondered. Here I was, attempting to surf in the waves off of the coast of Oregon, having traded the comforts of the city for a lush, green landscape that felt a million miles away, and wasn’t that enough?
Sure, I wanted to catch a wave, stand up, and feel the crisp, salty air rush past my face as I rode to the shore. But I also really wanted to feel my toes again.
I grew up by the water. The sound of crashing waves is as familiar to me as my own breath. But as a southern California native, I can tell you this: The northern Oregon coast is a whole different animal.
That was the whole point of my adventure. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been traveling all over the country looking for thrilling, new experiences that can found just an hour or two outside of major cities. Being from LA, and having lived in major cities my entire life, I always appreciate the opportunity to step out of the office or off a set and be a part of nature. This month, I’ve had the chance to do so from Utah to Atlanta.
For the third stop on my whirlwind “microadventure” tour, I was at Indian Beach — a surf spot less than a two hour drive from Portland, Oregon — where thick, towering trees give way to the cold beauty of an isolated, rocky shore. And for the first time in a very long time, I was going to attempt to surf.
My host for this surfing adventure was Al Ciske. Al is this super laid back, funny, expert surfer who shapes boards in this quiet corner of paradise that he’s carved out. He’s the kind of guy who’s building a house basically piece by piece, by hand. He surfs every day, sometimes twice a day. He’s just always out in the water, always out in nature. But he didn’t always live like that. He used to work in the hustle and bustle of Portland. Then he realized he couldn’t be happy that way, couldn’t really make his art in a city. He just felt this connection and pull towards something deeper. So he left, bought a little plot of land, and started making surfboards the way he wanted to, in a place that inspired him. His boards are some of the nicest boards around. He shapes them for some of the top surfers in the world.
Long story short: If you’re going to learn to surf, then you want to do it with Al. The dude is the perfect teacher for a beginning surfer — super patient, wise, and really knowledgeable in the water. When he gets in the ocean, you can tell he is just a part of it. There’s that sense of flow that surfers talk about.
For our day together, Al wanted me to experience Indian Beach. It’s not the easiest place to learn. It’s stormy and the waves are unpredictable with a strong riptide, but it’s where he learned to surf, which was pretty cool.
As we pulled up to the beach and got out of the car, I realized I’d forgotten what it was like to step out into the chill. You know that feeling of really being in the cold, and not having any place for warmth or relief other than the inside of your car? At first, it throws you off. You want to escape it, but then your body acclimates and you start to appreciate the crisp, clean air and the quietness, the stillness. You feel the gentle warmth of the winter-weakened sun on your face. It’s refreshing.
A few minutes after we arrived, I felt the tension of the city slipping out of my muscles. Then I noticed the obvious shark warning sign posted for the waters.
I was about to get into the water, when I learned that within the past week, at that very beach, there’d been a shark attack. It made me more than a little nervous, so I asked Al for advice.
“If you see something floating in the water…” he started.
“I punch it in the nose, right?” I said, remembering a vague newscast or Shark Week fact from my past.
“No,” he said looking at me like I was crazy. “You should get out of the water.”
“Yeah, okay.” I laughed.
I haven’t done much surfing in my life. And certainly not in water like this, freezing cold with a ridiculous current.
“You just have to relax,” Al told me. “If you get caught in anything, just relax and let the water take you and you’ll be fine. Don’t try to fight against it because the water’s going to do its own thing.”
Relax, he said. A little easier said than done, considering how cold the water was. Which brings me back to the moment when I wanted to give up. It was so cold. I don’t think I’ve ever been in water that cold for any extended period of time.
“Maybe I should just call it,” I thought. “It’s too cold.”
But Al was great, he wouldn’t let me.
“Dude, you’re going to get up. I want you get up,” he said.
And then I caught a wave. It wasn’t great surf, but I got up, and cruised along the surface of the water. For just a moment, I relaxed, and the water moved with me. I felt it, that connection that Al had in the water — just trusting that the water will take you where you need to go. It was amazing.
I was just a couple of hours outside of Portland, but the trip refreshed me in ways I hadn’t expected. Just a day of having an adventure in the natural world, away from the office, made me feel like new. Aside from camping with my dad as a kid, I wouldn’t have considered myself so much of an “outdoorsman” before. But this trip was a great reminder that anyone can have an outdoor adventure. Remembering that even if you live in a city, you’re just a short drive away from an adventure is liberating.
That day, I surfed off the northern coast of Oregon. It was something I’d never done before, but now I’m itching to get back. It taught me that we all have the ability to get outside of our comfort zones and try something different. It doesn’t take much. Experiencing nature is cheap, and fun. And getting out in it will open your eyes to a whole new side of yourself if you only let it. You just have to ride the waves.