For dinner: salmon. Not fish steaks cooked on a grill or fillets slapped on a broiler pan, but whole salmon buried in the ground with red-hot coals and two more hung on spits beside burning logs.
We're staying at the Mill Casino Hotel and experiencing a traditional Coquille Indian salmon bake. And while I enjoy the food and the warm, knowledgeable company, learning about tribal customs while sitting in what's essentially a far-off corner of a casino parking lot is confusing.
Which begs this question: is it better to learn about another culture -- in this case, our country's native population -- in a location geared specifically to tourists, when the alternative (for some travelers) may be to learn nothing about these tribes at all? Isn't a little knowledge better than none?
The bay splays out majestically behind us as the sun sets blue, pink, and gray. And while I struggle with the uncomfortable contradiction between the slot-filled casino and this sacred salmon ritual, I still welcome the chance to learn about tribal customs and foodways. Mill Casino Hotel, 3201 Tremont Avenue, North Bend, Oregon
(California is currently debating its own heated ballot initiatives over tribal casinos. This is an issue far more complex than I can discuss here, and I leave you all to your own opinions about whether casinos on tribal lands are ultimately boons or blights to their communities.)
After dinner, a movie...
...at the historic, refurbished Egyptian Theater, with its plush red seats, salty cheese popcorn, and impressive, thunderous Wurlitzer organ whose sound swells and vibrates through the cavernous space. I used the new (free) app Steller to make a little flipboard about the film. (Find me there if you download the app.) Don't worry: I'm not going to get all intense about The Breakfast Club. But it was great to re-experience such a classic 80s film in these landmark surroundings. The Egyptian Theater, 229 South Broadway, Coos Bay, Oregon.
The next day, we hike through Shore Acres State Park, which used to be an Indian allotment. Don Ivy, our guide for the morning and the gentleman holding the salmon bones in the top photo, leads us around. We're walking on trails maintained by prison crews, he informs us, over scrubby brush, beneath spruce. We pass bushes with salal berries and huckleberries, traditionally used to create dark purple dyes.
As we walk, we engage Don. He's been billed to us a Tribal Elder, but he's not comfortable with the title, partly because he's not that old, partly because it's too convenient, and gives a false impression, perhaps, that he speaks for the tribe. (He's a noted expert on tribal history and preservation, as well as on Southern Oregon, but he speaks for himself.)
Someone asks him how he feels about the hoo-ha over the Washington Redskins' naming controversy, and he replies that he doesn't give a shit. "Names are names," he says. "They don't change fundamental attitudes." I make a mental note to get better educated on the region's Native American history. (If you'd like to offer up book suggestions in the comments, please do. In the meantime, I found this excellent primer on the Coquille's own website.)
We reach Yoakam Point. After using a rope to scale down a slippery slope, we gather bull kelp from the water and watch the waves rush in and recede. Later, we traipse through the park's lush gardens. Shore Acres State Park, Coos Bay, Oregon
Next up: crabbing.
While I've been out on a salmon boat (in Alaska... have any of you been with me since then?), I'm a first-time crabber. After obtaining temporary shellfish licenses ($11.50) from Davy Jones Locker, a convenience store that also sells a massive amount of fried food, our guide Kat informs us, "You'll always see a tourist, a dog, and a person of questionable character at Davy Jones Locker."
The day turns cool and rainy. Lesson one when crabbing: bring a raincoat. Lesson two: do bicep curls before going out to sea. Once filled, the crab pots are heavy, and heaving them up and overboard with the aid of a long rope takes considerable strength. Set your bait (we used the frames and bones from salmon and rockfish), and toss your pots in the water when the tide is slack. Pull them up a bit later, when the crab will (ideally) have crawled into the baskets.
Finally, prepare to toss all the female crab and males under 5-3/5" back in the water, as keeping them is illegal. Keep those big boy-crabs, and if you don't know how to cook them, find someone who does.
We're lucky. We bring our catch to the chef-instructors at the Oregon Coast Culinary Institute, who prepare a seafood feast for the ages. Happily for you, the school also offers 3-course lunches ($10) and 4-course ($20) dinners to the public as part of its students' externship program. If you know you'll be in the area, sign up online. Oregon Coast Culinary Institute, 1988 Newmark Ave., Coos Bay, Oregon
This caps off my four part-series on this Travel Oregon-hosted trip. Thanks for following along.
If you end up going, keep in mind that Oregon is a huge state, and there's plenty more to explore.
You just have to know where to look.