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North Oregon Coast Beach Reveals Ancient Ghost Forest Again

Published 2007 - see the latest on ghost forests

(Arch Cape, Oregon) – The mysterious chunks of wood have shown up periodically over the last few decades, sticking out of the sand like doomed creatures trying to make their last, desperate escape from a dreadful fate beneath the rest of the world. They make momentary impressions on passersby, who have no clue to the real meaning of these muted witnesses to an age long before white settlers. They are unintentional memorials to the grand forest that once stood here, now reduced to twisted, tortured shapes that scream silently from another epoch. (Side story: where to find other ghost forests along the Oregon coast, including Cannon Beach, Oceanside, Pacific City, Cape Lookout, Depoe Bay, Yachats, Waldport and Newport,i?)

The little village of Arch Cape, on the north Oregon coast, is the latest place where some weird remnants of pre-Euro history are showing themselves again. Ancient forests – nicknamed “ghost forests” because of their gloomy look and their age – periodically appear on parts of the coast, the most famous and regularly seen of which are the prehistoric stumps at Neskowin.

But in Arch Cape, they’re a real rarity, and likely much older than many of those that show up sometimes on the coast. Some are twisted, ragged structures that jut out of the sand in a dramatic manner. Others are tiny objects with just the tips visible. At other times, they’re long slabs of something brown; occasionally so soft and flaky their texture is a bit like cooked fish, and it’s easy to scrape off chunks of them.

Wild wave action reveals these things all across the Oregon coast, as it scours the beaches of sand and takes away layers of sand. The deeper you go, the further you’re going back in time.

“We’ve got a really weird winter around here,” said resident Bob Shaw, whose parents own Shaw’s Oceanfront B&B in Arch Cape. “They show up in winters, when the waves wash away the sand and leave a lot of rocks. Then they disappeared. But they came back a couple months ago. You should’ve seen them then. They were all over the place, and you could see a lot more of them.”

That kind of sand movement is unusual for the spring, as normally winter storms bring that kind of action. This year, some areas of the coast were so heavily scoured the sand levels were as much as ten feet lower than usual.

Roger Hart is a geologist with the State of Oregon based in Newport, and is considered the foremost authority on these stumps of mystery. He’s studied them extensively over the years, and a decade ago came up with the main theories about their origin – theories that came into wide acceptance. But he later retracted those findings. Many of those in the geologist community still cling to his old theories and haven’t caught up yet.

He says these stumps are almost 4,000 years old.

“Curt Peterson and I published a radiocarbon on a sample taken from the Arch Cape stumps in 1998,” Hart said. “The age is 3,660 with an error of 70. This means these trees died at that time, were buried in sand, and have been preserved under a cover of sand until now. From the photos it appears that the stumps are more extensively exposed now than in 1998.”

Regular tourists, on the other hand, have no clue what to make of it, and often don’t even notice them. But when they do, Shaw says they’re puzzled. “They don’t know what it is,” Shaw said. “They just kind of look at them.”

This sort of wave action revealed similar stumps in Newport this winter – also about 4,000 years old – as well as remnants of a forest in the Hug Point (near Cannon Beach) area that could well be a whopping 80,000 years old.

Originally, one of Hart’s main theories was that many of the stumps showing up in the El Nino years of the 90’s were the result of a massive earthquake some 300 years ago that suddenly and violently dropped the ground some 25 feet or more, inundating these forests in sediment, sand, sea and water, thus preserving them.

Slab of ancient forest peeking out in the sand

Since then, Hart has retracted those findings and put forth that the Newport stumps and others were in fact more around 4,000 years old, and sand levels gradually rose to engulf and then preserve them, rather than the violent quake he theorized earlier.

“In my opinion, exposure of stumps are evidence that sand is being progressively being lost from the southern ends of littoral cells on the Oregon coast,” Hart said.

Indeed, the Arch Cape stumps are found at the bottom of Ocean View Road, about a quarter mile from the southern headland. A littoral cell is the tract of sand between headlands or major outcroppings. The littoral cell where Arch Cape sits begins at that southern headland, and runs all the way through Hug Point and Cannon Beach, until the headlands of Ecola State Park.

Tom Horning, a well reknowned geologist on the north Oregon coast, looked into the Hug Point ghost forest this winter. He believes those are about 80,000 years old, dating back to the Pleistocene era. His initial thought was that the Arch Cape ghost forest was also about the same age, partially because Arch Cape and Hug Point are just a few miles apart.

“I have seen the Arch Cape stumps in the past,” Horning said. “They are buried in clays and silts with spruce cones that the trees were dropping at their time of life. Also, there are cedar stumps.

“I have been told that a forester, now deceased, who lived at Arch Cape, identified redwood cones from the same layers. If redwoods were growing here, that adds weight to the Pleistocene stump origin, because none grows here now.”

Horning also addressed how these 4,000-year-old stumps got where they are today.

“They represent a stand of forest trees that moved out onto the old beach when the land lifted up somewhat or the seas dropped, forcing the shoreline to retreat westward,” Horning said. “Now that it is coming in, the surf has exposed the stumps of the trees once again. This latter hypothesis seems to work down in the central coast."

Right now, the Arch Cape stumps are disappearing quickly as the weather turns nicer and the wave action lessens. Shaw led a small tour of the area and pointed out how much of one structure was visible before. Now, it’s just a patch of flat brown mystery material lying in the sand.

“This whole area was covered with these things,” Shaw said. “It was really spectacular.” Oregon Coast Lodgings for this - Where to eat - Maps and Virtual Tours (Side story: where to find other ghost forests along the Oregon coast, including Cannon Beach, Oceanside, Pacific City, Cape Lookout, Depoe Bay, Yachats, Waldport and Newport,i?)

Below: more ghost forests from Seal Rock and Newport

Ghost forest stump at Seal Rock, Oregon

Ghost forest stump at Seal Rock, Oregon

Ghost forest stump at Newport, Oregon

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