Port Orford is perched on the Pacific coast, less than ten miles from the westernmost point in Oregon. And while it’s only about 60 miles as the crow flies from the heavily-traveled I-5 corridor, getting there means a two-hour-plus drive over the Coast Range.
Its relative isolation is one reason tourism isn’t a well-developed industry in Port Orford. Another is the strong local desire to retain the town’s identity as a fishing village.
Now, economic pressures are fueling a new effort to foster tourism that’s consistent with Port Orford’s values.
Kayak guide Anthony Sigg helps Brad Davis and Sarah Carter pull their plastic kayak out of the surf and up onto the beach at the Port of Port Orford.
“It might take a little while to get your land legs back,” he laughs.
The couple from Atlanta are a little rubber-legged. They just got in from a two-hour paddle, exploring the rocks and coves off the Pacific coast, led by South Coast Tours.
After stripping off their wetsuits and getting back into dry clothing, Carter talks about her adventure.
“It was great! “ she says. “It was such a wonderful experience. I was a little nervous because I’ve never done anything like this before. And I’m so glad I did.”
Davis says they’ve been visiting family in Medford and wanted to see more of Oregon.
“We could have stayed in Portland all week, but we wanted to experience the Pacific Coast Highway drive and the things that come with it,” he says.
Dave Lacey, owner of South Coast Tours, hears this all the time.
“Yeah, it’s something different. Also, Oregon has this rugged reputation and I think people want to get out and experience it.”
Lacey and I are floating in our kayaks a few hundred feet offshore, looking back toward the rocky headland.
“This is Orford Head State Park,” he says. “There’s sea caves, arches, a myriad of seabirds, lots of harbor seals and in the summertime we’ll see gray whales.”
Lacey has been operating South Coast tours for six seasons, and he says there’s a growing interest in so-called “adventure tourism,” where visitors get out into nature and maybe work up a sweat. He’s says other outfitters are also starting to see Port Orford’s potential as an adventure travel destination.
“There’s a new adventure ride outfitter that’s just starting up now. So we’re going to have fat biking and mountain biking opportunities and street biking. It’s just in the beginning of what I think is going to be an awesome industry for Port Orford,” he says
But while tourism can bring badly-needed dollars into a small town, it can also bring noise, traffic, litter and crime. And it can lead to population growth, land development and escalating housing costs, all of which can threaten a town’s character. That concerns Port Orford City Councilmember Caroline Clancy..
“Most people who move to Port Orford move here because it is a small town where everyone knows each other as a community. It’s a small community.”
Clancy is wary of rapid development, which she fears will damage that sense of community. And she’s frustrated by the tendency of people to move to Port Orford, and immediately start changing it.
“A lot of newcomers come here and want the town to be more like the place that they left,” she says. “But the reason they came here to begin with is because it was a small little town.”
Clancy and people who share her concerns are sometimes referred to in Port Orford as the CAVE people; Citizens Against Virtually Everything. Clancy chuckles when I mention the term, but she thinks it’s an unfair criticism.
“I understand growth is going to come to Port Orford,” she says. “But I would like it done in a responsible, gradual fashion that fits in with Port Orford.”
Dave Lacey with South Coast Tours agrees there’s little local appetite for large, commercialized tourist attractions that would consume a lot of resources and detract from the fishing village feel of the town. He thinks adventure tourism businesses like his strike the right balance by appealing to visitors who have a lighter footprint.
“Typically mountain bikers and sea kayakers and those kind of folks who are out spending more time outdoors tend to be better stewards of the resource,” he says. “So I believe that by providing those sort of opportunities for those kinds of tourists you’ll get more of those people here.”
Outdoor recreation is one of the fastest-growing sectors of Oregon’s tourism industry, worth nearly $13 billion, according to the most recent study. Lacey believes that mellow, respectful tourists like his clients will pump badly-needed cash into Port Orford, while fitting in with the feel of the town, not changing it.