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Whale watch on wheels. Cyclists on Oregon's coast keep one eye on the road, one eye out to sea

`THERE'S a blow!'' my husband called. ``That makes five!'' I answered. We were standing on the breakwater where the Umpqua River empties into the Pacific Ocean, counting gray whales that had entered the river's mouth. Perhaps they were sightseeing on their way north from the calving and breeding lagoons off Baja California.

We had expected to see some gray whales as they migrated along the coast, but we hadn't expected to see them in such numbers or so close. In eight days of cycling along the Oregon Coast Bicycle Route, we were getting quite adept at keeping one eye on the road and one eye out to sea, looking for whales. Usually we saw only the ``blow,'' the cloud of water vapor from the whale's breathing, but sometimes we saw flippers and flukes as the whales rolled or the splash when they breached.

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We knew that traffic can be heavy on US 101, which the coastal bike route follows, but we also knew that the offshore rock formations, spectacular headlands, wide sandy beaches, and views of seals, sea lions, and whales made it well worthwhile. A short vacation in April gave us the opportunity to try the route without the summer tourist traffic. The cool, risky weather was more than compensated for by the superb close-up views of migrating whales and the uncrowded parks and beaches.

We began our trip at the Amtrak station in Longview, Wash. In one week we leisurely biked along the Columbia River to Astoria, Ore., where the Columbia meets the Pacific Ocean, then followed the coastal route south to Coos Bay, heading toward the California border. We returned to our starting point by Greyhound bus.

For centuries the Columbia has had a fearful reputation among mariners because the entrance is often obscured by fog so typical of this coast. Once navigators find the entrance, they risk running aground on the shifting bar at the river's mouth. We studied the charts on display at the maritime museum in Astoria showing the shipwrecks on this part of the coast. Then at Fort Stevens State Park we took advantage of a low tide to clamber over the remains of the rusted hull of the Peter Iredale, a four-masted schooner wrecked in 1906.

At Seaside, we delayed our whale watching for a lesson in razor clamming. ``Look for a dimple, and then put your gun right over it and push down,'' explained the gray-haired woman dressed in a nylon windbreaker, jeans, and rubber boots. All down the broad sand beach people were tapping the firm surface of the sand with their shovels or clam guns and then digging.

``Here's one,'' exclaimed the woman, as she placed one end of the hollow pipe over a dimple and pushed. Turning the handle, she pulled up a core of damp sand, which she emptied onto the beach. She crumbled one end of the core and extracted a long, narrow razor clam.

Like many other clam diggers, the woman was a retiree. As regular as the spring migration of gray whales heading north for the summer, the parallel migration of retirees travels slowly northward in their RVs on US 101.

There were some stretches of the coast with beach access or a viewpoint every half mile. Heaps of sea lions lay snoozing in the sun at the Strawberry Hill Wayside. One fat fellow, looking like a giant grub, raised his head and stared intently at us as we crawled over the rocks. Satisfied, he went back to sleep. Only the pups were active, sliding off the rocks into the water, and diving and splashing in their games.

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One day as we watched two whales, we saw them ``spy-hop,'' leap straight up out of the water, with only their tails still submerged. They were so close we could see the patches of barnacles mottling their grayish-brown skin. Our view from shore was as good as the whale-watchers usually have, who go out on charter boats from Depoe Bay.

The ranger at Cape Lookout said, ``I've finished getting the hiker-biker campgrounds ready for the season. You'll see the sign for them just past the picnic area.'' The secluded camping area was away from the RV generators, the portable TVs, and the barking dogs of the regular campground, and only a narrow fringe of trees separated it from the beach. Being so far from the main camping area had one drawback - it was also a long way from the hot showers. But the idyllic setting was worth it.

Providing special campsites is just one way Oregon takes care of cyclists. Assuming that most cyclists will travel from north to south to take advantage of the prevailing wind, they've tried to provide a good shoulder on the southbound lane, even if it means skimping on the northbound shoulder. Also helpful is the flashing sign at the mouth of each tunnel on the route. It warns motorists to slow to 30 m.p.h., because there are bicycles in the tunnel. The sign is activated by a button the cyclist pushes as he enters the tunnel.

On the last day of our vacation, we watched, through the bus windows, the whole route run backward, like a familiar film being rewound at a furious pace. We had a glimpse of the sea, of the white spire of the Heceta Head Lighthouse, the dune buggies on the sand dunes at Honeyman, and numerous state park signs against a blur of green trees. We passed a cyclist pedaling south, his head turned toward the ocean. We knew he was whale-watching from the seat of his bike.

Practical information

For a map of the Oregon Coast Bicycle Route, contact the State of Oregon Economic Development Department, Tourism Division, 595 Cottage St. N.E., Salem, OR, 97310. Or, call 1-800-547-7842 (from outside Oregon), or 1-800-233-3306 (inside Oregon).

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