This Travel Writer Crabs . . . Sort Of
Travel writing takes time–a long time. When I first started working in the genre, I imagined it would be glamorous . . . me lounging on a Maui beach with my laptop and a Mai Tai, whipping out articles in between surfing lessons. Twelve years later, I know better.
Travel writing means struggling to hold onto the rope attached to a giant multicolored balloon while the pilot, filling it for an hour-long trip, blasts hot air toward your face. Travel writing means huddling in a tent on the Obsidian Trail as snow begins to fall on top of the half-raw pizza you and your husband are attempting to bake over a single-burner stove. Travel writing means freezing on a dock, hands covered in raw chicken slime, as you haul in crabs too small to eat while your six-year old threatens to plunge headfirst over the railing like she did last summer at Waldo Lake.
Travel writing is hours and hours of research and interviews and writing and revision and searching for just the right source, just the right word, just the right publication.
Travel writing is also great fun. Here’s my latest piece. Enjoy!
Visitors take the bait on Bandon crab dock
BANDON — Shivering on the dock, the target of bemused observation by several savvy fishermen, I clutch the loop of my 6-year-old’s life preserver as she hurls a crab ring into the frigid green waters of the Coquille River estuary. Never mind that the netted wire hoop sinks 2 feet from us, yards from the spot where the state Department of Fish and Wildlife volunteer assures us we’ll have better luck. We regard the yellow nylon line my husband has tied to the dock with elated smiles: “We’re crabbing!”
We have driven from Eugene to walk the beaches and get to know this small coastal town with its seagull-decorated archway that reads, “We hope you are enjoying Bandon.” We don’t expect to spend hours on the crabbing dock, waiting for Dungeness crab to discover a hunk of raw chicken lashed to our ring … but then, we don’t expect to meet Jay Chojnacki.
“Here’s how to tell the difference between a male and a female crab,” says Chojnacki, a retired firefighter who now works as an angling education instructor for Fish and Wildlife and who walks down to the dock several hours a day, four or five days a week, teaching vacationers how to catch crabs.
“I was a fishing guide for many years,” he says. “I’ve been on many vacations where you couldn’t find information, nowhere no how. The (Fish and Wildlife) instructors absolutely love the outdoors, and they just want to help people and kids learn.”
Attracted by his friendly enthusiasm and his prodigious mustache, children gather around him on the dock. My daughter, Maia, joins the group, standing at his elbow and ogling the crab upside-down in his hand.
“See how the end of this one is pointed, and this one’s more rounded?” Chojnacki says. He holds out the crabs for the kids to investigate. “That’s a male, and this is a female.”
Chojnacki grew up in Northern California with a mother whose cooking ran mostly to steak and potatoes. When he re-located up north, a couple of native Oregonians taught him about clamming and crabbing.
“Golly jeepers,” he says, “once I started getting it off the land fresh, it was pretty darned good.”
Now, he catches and cans enough fish to give surplus to friends at Christmas. “You can eat seven fish dinners a week here,” he says.
Some people on the crabbing dock on this March day don’t need Chojnacki’s assistance; a bachelor party of stocky men in Carhartt overalls hauls in rings and expertly measures its crabs. A Roseburg mother over with her husband and kids for the weekend clues me in about crabbing.
“To keep a crab, it’s got to be male and at least 5¾ inches across,” she explains. “We haven’t caught any yet today, but we usually do. We bottle up some sea water for the pot and cook them in our hotel room’s kitchenette.”
She says this casually, and I revere her. Such self-reliance seems to me almost unfathomable.
I’ve read Seattle author Langon Cook’s “Fat of the Land: Adventures of a 21st Century Forager,” and the more recent foraging memoir, “Closer to the Ground,” by Dylan Tomine of Bainbridge Island, Wash. The idea of pulling my dinner from the ocean intrigues me, but we are a family of hikers — not crabbers.
“You should try it.”
Our first morning in Bandon, we hike the bluffs on Coquille Point overlooking the offshore rocks of the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge, then climb down the long flight of stairs to the beach and explore for hours.
Hungry at 11 a.m., we find our way to the cheery, blue-painted Bandon Fish Market. As we wait for chowder and cod and chips at a high table overlooking the boardwalk, locals come in to buy fresh fish and compare notes about who’s caught what this morning.
Impressed, Maia chats up the woman who brings her a corn dog and fries. “Have you ever caught a crab?” Maia asks.
The woman nods. “Of course, honey. You should try it.” She points out the window at Tony’s Crab Shack down the street. “You can rent a ring right there. Tony’ll even cook them up for you.”
My husband, Jonathan, and I raise our eyebrows. Once a year, we splurge and buy crab to eat at home with butter sauce, choosing modest-sized shellfish on ice at Eugene’s Fisherman’s Market. Though we both fished as kids, we know nothing about crabbing.
“Another time,” I tell Maia. “It’s low tide; let’s go back to the beach.”
One of the features we love best about our coast is the way each stretch varies geographically. In Florence and Yachats, we can hike miles of unbroken sandy beach. Huge vertical rocks called sea stacks dominate Bandon’s beaches.
Early season crabbing
On this afternoon, we visit Face Rock with its haunting Native American legend about the ocean spirit, Seatka, who is said to have discovered Chief Siskiyou’s daughter swimming alone and turned her to stone along with the girl’s luckless felines.
“There’s her face,” I say. I point out the sea stack remarkably similar to a woman’s profile upturned, and to the imploring gray skies.
My daughter’s brow furrows with concern. “I always wear my life vest when I’m at the ocean,” she assures us, and turns north to study Cat and Kittens Rocks as the sun slides from behind the clouds.
Bandon’s weather, in spring, can change by the minute. For a while on the beach, we shed jackets, hats, shoes and socks, reveling in the sun’s warmth. Then, temperatures drop and talk turns from examining sea stars and anemones near Face Rock to foraging for hot chocolate and cappuccino.
Maia suggests hot drinks to go and another trip to the crabbing dock. On the way down, we grab a child-size life preserver from a kiosk with the sign, “Kids Don’t Float!” and head to the water.
Members of the bachelor party bear-hug the guest of honor — he has to catch a plane back to Boston — and return to their lawn chairs. The family from Roseburg hauls in its ring, examines the tiny crabs inside, and tosses them back in the water.
“It’s pretty early in the season,” says Chojnacki, as he appears at our side, a couple of Fish and Wildlife family fishing brochures under one arm. He explains that during the rainy season, fresh water comes down the river and chases crabs into the ocean.
“When the fresh water subsides, and at high tides when salt water starts coming in, they start filtering back to the estuary,” he says. “June to the end of September is the window, and then it depends on whether we get rain.”
A young woman near us interrupts the lesson with a shriek. We whip around, sure she’s fallen in. Instead, she holds up a crab and a plastic ruler. “Six inches!” she says. The two women with her applaud and take pictures as we all look on with envy.
“Maybe we should try crabbing,” I say. I think of the succulent sweet meat dripping melted butter. “It’s only mid-afternoon.”
Jonathan — skeptical of any food that takes longer to de-shell than to eat — nevertheless walks up to Tony’s while Maia and I talk with Chojnacki. He describes the twice-a-week angling classes he teaches at the glass-walled picnic building on the boardwalk and explains that if we get a group of families or a scouting group together, we can contact the agency in Salem and they’ll put out a call for a volunteer instructor to teach whatever we want to learn.
He’s teaching a basic five-hour fishing class for children in July.
“It’s how to tie knots and how to put a life preserver on, and then we get into identifying fish and tying hooks and identifying lures and all sorts of stuff,” Chojnacki says. “The last hour, I take the kids out fishing.”
Jonathan appears with a bucket and a netted ring on a long nylon rope. Inside the ring, Tony has speared on a hunk of chicken. “Never thought I’d see a man take a power drill to poultry,” my husband says. “But the thing was frozen solid.”
“Cast the ring way out,” Chojnacki instructs us. “There’s a good spot right off the end of the dock.”
We let Maia hurl the ring and pull it up again long before Chojnacki’s suggested half hour. Three tiny orange and white crabs scuttle around our shoes. We pick them up and drop them back into the water, then toss out our ring again. We are, in a word, hooked.
The process of crabbing offers surprising opportunities to bond with fellow foragers. Though the members of the bachelor party pack their chairs and buckets, they linger to look at the crabs we’ve hauled in and teach Maia how to pick one up without getting pinched. Chojnacki stays close by to answer our questions, and greets another family who appears at the dock with a crab ring, their faces full of the same bewilderment and excitement we’d felt an hour before.
Eventually, cold to the bone, we pull in our net and leave without any crabs. We return to our room at the Table Rock Motel, rent a family friendly film for $1 and fall asleep, lulled by the ocean’s whisper.
“We’ll take our places”
The next morning, we return to Bandon Coffee Cafe for lattes and berry scones, then stroll over to the well-stocked Winter River Books.
Back outside, we stand a long time marveling at the giant plastic sculptures of a fish and seal — both comprised of trash that washed up on the beach. Washed Ashore, a nonprofit dedicated to “ocean awareness through art,” created the sculptures and offers community art workshops every Thursday and Saturday at Art 101.
Maia needs to run before our three-hour drive home, so we find the sprawling Bandon playground. I study the local teens who’ve congregated at the basketball court.
What must it feel like to grow up on the ocean, at ease with crabbing and clamming and fishing? I want my family to be that comfortable on the water.
“When we get back to Eugene,” I tell my husband, “I’m going to call Jay. Let’s get a group of friends together and see if he’ll do a workshop on crabbing.”
There’s a reason people’s eyes glow when they speak of Bandon. Chojnacki is a perfect example of the warm-hearted, helpful residents here. It’s a beautiful little town, full of fun outdoor opportunities for both families and child-free couples.
We end our visit at the Bandon Historical Society Museum. It consists of several small rooms packed with historical photos and objects ranging from military uniforms and an old-school desk to newspaper clippings about the 1936 fire that started in a patch of gorse and incinerated most of the town.
I study a photo of fishermen clad in yellow slickers and resolve to return to Bandon. We might be merely visitors, but come summer, we’ll take our places on the crabbing dock with the locals.
Where to sleep: Table Rock Motel offers clean, comfortable rooms 50 yards from beaches and a spectacular viewing area for the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. If weather turns blustery, rent a DVD from the lobby for $1. Rooms from $50. 840 Beach Loop Drive; 800-457-9141; tablerockmotel.com
Bandon Beach Motel sits on the bluffs overlooking Coquille Point, also steps away from the paved paths overlooking the Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Some rooms offer balconies or patios and fireplaces. Rooms from $75. 1090 Portland Ave S.W.; 866-945-0133; bandonbeachmotel.com.
Where to eat: Enjoy fish and chips, clam chowder in a sourdough bread bowl and Dungeness crab or bay shrimp salads at the Bandon Fish Market, on the boardwalk located beside the boat basin. 294 First Street S.E.; 541-347-4282; bandonfishmarket.com.
Just down the boardwalk, Tony’s Crab Shack and Seafood Grill serves up seafood pasta dishes, sandwiches, salads and “World’s Greatest Fish Tacos.” 155 First Street S.E.; 541-347-2875; tonyscrabshack.com.
Where to rent crab rings: Tony’s Crab Shack rents crab rings and sells shellfish licenses ($7; mandatory for people over 14). For $8 rent a ring and bucket for 24 hours. You can also rent fishing poles, clam shovels and boats. Owner Tony Roszkowski offers friendly advice on crabbing both in person and on his website and Facebook page. 155 First Street S.E.; 541-347-2875; tonyscrabshack.com.
Where to explore: Wander the paved paths overlooking Oregon Islands National Wildlife Refuge on Coquille Point and stop to read signage telling about the area’s natural and cultural history. Arrive in early morning or late afternoon to see puffins, murres and seals that gather on the giant offshore rocks. Staircases lead to the beach. Begin at 11th Street S.W. For more information, http://www.fws.gov/oregoncoast/oregonislands.
At Face Rock State Park, part of Bandon State Natural Area, you’ll find boulders festooned with anemones and sea stars, as well as a sign bearing the Native American legend of Face Rock and Cat and Kittens rocks. Take Beach Loop Road just south of town. 800-551-6949; oregonstateparks.org.
Bandon Historical Society Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday; $2 adults, kids free. 270 Fillmore Ave. S.E.; 541-347-2164; bandonhistoricalmuseum.org.
Classes: To arrange a free class on angling, crabbing or clamming, contact the state Department of Fish and Wildlife in Salem at 800-720-6339.