Many people avoid visiting the Oregon Coast until well into April or May. And for good reason. Just a week ago, snow was whitening the mountains in Southern Oregon, rain dampening the valleys.
Even this week's forecast of 60-degree temperatures in Jackson County isn't any guarantee of an early spring.
WHAT: The Umpqua Discovery Center Museum, 409 Riverfront Way, Reedsport.
HOURS: Oct. 15-March 14, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday; March 15-Oct. 14, 9:30-5 p.m. Monday-Saturday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday. The center is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's Day.
TICKETS: $8 for adults; $4 for children ages 5 to 16; children younger than 5 get in free.
HOW TO GET THERE: The quickest way to Reedsport is to go on I-5 north past Roseburg and then take Highway 38 west at Sutherlin. Highway 38 will take you directly to Reedsport. The turn to Riverfront Way and the Discovery Center will be on the right. Look for the totem pole. You can't miss it.
PLACES TO STAY: The town's Best Western motel is the most convenient place to stay. There also are some vacation rentals in the area that you can find via a Web search.
OTHER ATTRACTIONS IN THE AREA: Although Reedsport is not right on the ocean, the sea is not far away. Winchester Bay with its excellent salmon fishing and 65-foot-tall Umpqua River Lighthouse is just to the south. And a few miles east of Reedsport along Highway 38 is the Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area where a herd of about 100 Roosevelt elk roam 1,040 acres of protected forest and pasture. And of course, up Highway 101 to the north are the dunes, but that's another story.
So why head toward the state's beaches, since any venture there is fraught with the possibility of clear skies turning gray and stormy?
Well, if you're like me, you're getting the itch to hit the road at this point in the winter — and some inclement weather is bearable if you can find things to do indoors when it hits. People I know who head to the coast this time of year often go to Gold Beach or Bandon, or farther up Highway 101 to Coos Bay and its cluster of state parks — Cape Arago, Sunset Bay and Shore Acres — or even farther north to Florence, with its charming portside downtown and proximity to the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area.
But between Coos Bay and Florence is Reedsport, which many people ignore partly because it's not right on the ocean and because it seems nondescript at first glance, which for me is part of its appeal.
There is an interesting Old Town of area of Reedsport off the main highway for people who'll take the time to explore a little. But even better is the Umpqua Discovery Center, an interactive museum that's the town's best tourist attraction.
The museum — which offers an educational look at fauna and flora of the area, the region's Native American history, the experiences of early explorers and the development of tidewater towns — is a great fit for families any time of year, but is an even better option in unpredictable weather.
Its most dazzling feature is the array of realistic murals by artist Peggy O'Neal that gives visitors total immersion in coastal life.
You feel as if you are walking in actual landscapes inhabited by elk, bears, cougars, raccoons, deer, foxes, beavers, geese and ducks in their natural surroundings.
The paintings manage to be both luminous and intimate, with preserved replicas of live plants and wildflowers incorporated into the walls of the museum's walkways while panels alongside identify what they are.
One side of the center is devoted completely to nature, with many enticements for the kids such as a slide that takes them into a bear den and images of elflike people here and there, with one called Barky featured along the way offering sage advice along with botanical and biological tidbits. Part of the experience is a steady stream of sounds — from growling mountain lions and a bugling bull elk, to the musical calling of birds.
The other side of the center focuses on cultural exhibits, starting with a history of the Native Americans in the area, progressing to the age of exploration, then to life after the region was settled by Anglo-Americans and towns were built.
In one Native American scene, the replica of a plank house combines a background painting with three-dimensional construction, so that you seem to be looking in on a family around its campfire with animal skins hanging in the foreground. The mother and her children from the Kuuich tribe warm themselves by the fire in the background painting as you hear a recording of a woman's voice telling a story. In another scene Indians are seen fishing as a sweep of river and mountains recedes behind them.
Unfortunately, when explorers first came into the area, things did not go well. Fifteen members of Jedediah Smith's party, which was looking to expand the fur trade to the area, were killed in a dispute with a high-ranking tribesman. Only Smith and two others escaped. The white newcomers prevailed in the end, however, eventually divesting the Indians of their homeland and way of life.
This period of frontier settlement is depicted in a large room made to represent a generalized tidewater town. The most impressive three-dimensional element in it is a reconstruction of a wharf complete with barrels along the edge seeming to blend seamlessly into a painting of a sailing ship at sunset on the right, which slowly morphs into a river scene on the left, with a river steamer just offshore. At a small landing, a woman in the painting stands holding a bag, with some real bags at her feet.
In a small upstairs area back from the wharf is a replica of a town with a mannequin of a boy getting a haircut from his grandfather while the boy's father sits nearby with a newspaper. A recorded casual conversation between the father and old man tells the history of the area, with the boy interjecting every so often with family anecdotes.
In this part of the museum, there also is a small schoolhouse and displays with a brief history of logging in the area, once one of its primary industries.
The museum also includes a weather station exhibit, with interesting information about forecasting and the region's rainfall, which ranges from 50 to 70 inches a year.
The center, much like the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center near Baker City on the east side of the state, or Ashland's ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum was intiated by the community and is sustained by it.
For visitors who are willing to put in some time, it's like being outside on an interesting, leisurely walk with plenty of stops, so that hours pass before you realize it. Whichever section you visit first, end your tour by looking long at the final painting in the nature section.
There, muralist O'Neal leaves you with a coastal vision to lighten any winter-laden heart. The painting re-creates many of the animals depicted in the nature section earlier as if they were walking through clouds at sunset in an atmospheric panorama of the Pacific Ocean.
Even if you step outside the museum to face a day of rain and wind, this luminous seascape will stay with you as a consolation.
Steve Dieffenbacher is a Mail Tribune page designer/copy editor. You can reach him at 541-776-4498 or firstname.lastname@example.org