I love this time of year. Cold and dreary it may be, but I like it far more than the hectic holiday season that precedes it.
For me, January is a month when solitude is easy, when the pace of life slows naturally, demanding little except to be part of it.
Cost: There is no admission fee, but donations are welcome.
How to get there: From Coos Bay, take the Cape Arago Highway nine miles to Charleston and turn left onto Seven Devils Road. After 4.3 miles, turn left on the South Slough Estuarine Research Reserve entrance road and go 0.2 miles to the interpretive center parking lot.
If you're coming from Bandon, drive north on Highway 101 and turn left onto West Beaver Hill Road, which becomes Seven Devils Road. Drive 8.2 miles to the interpretive center turnoff. This time the turn in to the entrance road will be on the right.
Trail hours: Although the interpretive center is open only from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., the trails are open from dawn to dusk.
Pets: You can walk dogs on a leash along every path but the North Creek Trail. Be sure to pick up any canine waste and pack it out, though.
Here at last is the restoration sought but never really found during yuletide. Once that ease is tasted, I can't help hungering for more.
You can find it here this time of year, but if you want to make it part of a weekend getaway, you only have to drive to the Oregon Coast where the South Slough National Estuarine Research Reserve will add an even deeper layer of quietness. The reserve, whose long name is itself enough to slow things down a bit, is an inviting tidal wetland less than 15 miles from Coos Bay, with miles of trails where on any given day you might not see another human being.
I was there in September before peak bird migration season, so it was even more serene than usual, but even then, I saw great blue herons, seagulls, white egrets and various waterfowl.
Although you may not see many animals as you walk the trails, the slough brims with them even in this cold season, because estuaries are among the world's most hospitable ecosystems to life. In the South Slough's waters Dungeness crabs, salmon, herring, clams, shrimp and oysters congregate. Forest fringes are a haven for large mammals such as black bears and cougars, not to mention smaller ones such as raccoons. And in the tidal channels are otters and beavers as well.
But even if you never see any wildlife, the estuary offers something that more than compensates for it — peacefulness. The tidal flats, salt marshes, tributaries, forests and sky are a fusion of land, water and air to soothe the soul.
The 4,800-acre reserve was established in 1974 as the first estuarine reserve in a growing national system. Managed by Oregon's Department of State Lands under the direction of the U.S. Department of Commerce and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, it features eight miles of trails in two sections — the main area that includes the South Slough Interpretive Center and the South End, which I didn't have time to visit.
Even if you stay in the main area as I did, there is more than enough to see in a full day's outing. But two or three days would be better if you really want to do it right, taking your time to stop and look long as you walk. With the time available, I didn't manage to take the reserve's newest pathway — the 2.5-mile North Creek Trail — but favored the ones closest to water instead.
Even so, I still had long hours of wandering in woods, beside shorelines and through marshes on pathways that, like the estuary itself, blend into each other. Here's a look at the main-area trails I explored and liked:
Ten-Minute Loop Trail: This short 0.2-mile oval begins and ends at the interpretive center, which is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays except state furlough days and holidays. The small center is worth a visit for a quick overview of the area's wildlife and to learn basics about the ecology of estuaries. A staff member is there to help with questions and to offer advice on the trails, which are shown on a map in the slough brochure.
Middle Creek Trail: This 0.5-mile route is mainly a connector pathway between the Ten-Minute Loop Trail and Hidden Creek Trail, a 1.2-mile path considered by some as the jewel of the reserve.
Hidden Creek Trail: This path follows Hidden Creek to a skunk cabbage boardwalk, which is a highlight for spring and early summer visitors who love the cabbages' lush greenery and yellow blooms. By September when I was there, they were limp and dying, but the trip down to them along the trail was still worth it.
You'll wind through alders, hemlocks and Port Orford cedar to a lush wetland. In the summer, this area is a berry heaven, with edible blue-skinned salal fruit, and red and evergreen huckleberries.
About a half-mile beyond the skunk cabbage is an observation platform surrounded by Sitka spruce and rhododendrons that gives a view of the salt marsh. There you will begin to see some of the slough's water-loving birds even though the marsh is interesting in itself because some plants there have evolved fascinating ways to survive in salt water.
Saltgrass excretes salt through its leaves and pickleweed stores fresh water in its leaves to diminish the salt's toxic effects.
Tunnel Trail: The Hidden Creek Trail flows into the 0.6-mile Tunnel Trail that lives up to its name as it wends through shadowy overhanging brush part of the way.
This path eventually takes you to the "sloughside pilings," remnants of a railroad line that formerly dropped logs into the slough to be transported to mills in Coos Bay. This trail dead-ends, so I'd turn around there and either head back generally the way you came, taking the Railroad Trail that runs parallel to the Tunnel Trail or taking the longer North Creek Trail I didn't have time to explore.
Railroad Trail: This 0.6-mile trail follows the grade of an old logging railroad passing by Rhodes Marsh, a large pool of water mirroring the luminous colors of sky like wet paint.
The Railroad Trail eventually heads back to a parking lot where you could take a short detour to the 0.3-mile Big Cedar Trail that leads past the aptly named tree back to the observation deck at the end of the Hidden Creek Trail. You can either retrace your steps here along Hidden Creek back toward the visitor center or return up the Big Cedar route to the parking lot and walk the reserve road back.
How long did the hikes along these trails take me? I can't say. All I know is that somewhere along the way I became completely unaware of time. I wandered, stopped, watched the birds, took some pictures, stared into the water's reflections, gazed at the sky.
What I do know is that I spent my most peaceful hours of a weeklong coast trip there, balanced in some incalculable way by that meld of forest, water and tidal shoreline. In that mirroring ecology, a sense of unity seemed not only possible, but likely — a zone of timeless clarity experienced so rarely. I can't wait to go back.
Steve Dieffenbacher is a Mail Tribune page designer/copy editor. You can reach him at 541-776-4498 or firstname.lastname@example.org.