Make the McKenzie Connection!

Haystack Rock was once a tempting target for daredevil climbers

Offbeat Oregon History

One could think of late June and early July of 1968 in Cannon Beach as the Summer of the Dead Baby Birds.

On June 28, at the height of the nesting season, a 23-year-old man from Portland had scrambled up the side of Haystack Rock, the iconic intertidal sometimes-island that towers nearly 200 feet over the beach and sea by Cannon Beach and gotten stuck at the top.

It wasn’t common for people to climb the rock, but it wasn’t exactly unheard of either. The problem was, that it was a very difficult and dangerous climb, especially on the descent. So, only two kinds of climbers attempted it: Highly skilled mountaineers, who were up to its challenges; and rank amateurs, who were too ignorant and inexperienced to recognize how much more difficult it was going to be to get down than it would be to go up. Everyone else, noticing what a bag of snakes the descent would be, turned around at the base.

The result was that a significant percentage of climbers who tackled Haystack Rock ended up needing to be rescued by a helicopter. And the process of rescuing a stranded climber from the top of Haystack Rock with a helicopter was, to put it mildly, hard on the local wildlife.

The first climbers to tackle the rock, so far as is known, were three experienced German Alpine climbers in 1929.

In the mid-1930s, local lifeguard Earl Hardy took to climbing it somewhat regularly, actually going so far as to cut handholds in the rock with a hammer and cold chisel.

Others tried. Some failed. People got hurt. For the most part, locals figured it wasn’t a big deal. Most of them felt that if some daredevil idiot tried to climb the rock and got hurt, that was unfortunate; but society is not a nursery school, and government should not be in the business of deciding what people are allowed to do based on whether it thinks they are competent enough to not hurt themselves.

So the shows went on, and nothing much changed.

That is, until 1953, when several aspirants took it on, and for the first time, their failures caused substantial problems for others.

A trio of Portland climbers were the first to tackle it that season, apparently successfully.

But then two other young men, Portlander Sherwood Willits, and Iowan Jim Curtis, took the rock on with considerably less success. They got to the top and back down, all right, but on the descent found themselves stuck at the seaward end of the big rock, and it was high tide and would be until the following morning.

Curtis solved this problem by jumping into the sea, intending to swim ashore through the breakers. He ended up stranded on one of The Needles, just south of the rock, and had to be rescued by a squad of three Navy “frogmen,” who managed to get the poor fellow back to dry land; but by the time they got back to shore, rescuers and rescuee alike were badly bruised and cut by being dashed against the rocks.

Willits, rather sensibly, opted to resign himself to a miserable night on the rock and wait for the next morning’s low tide; but, luckily for him, someone had noticed all the nesting birds he’d disturbed, and the Coast Guard spotted him and rescued him with a helicopter.

Ah, the helicopter. Here we come to the core of the problem with climbing the rock, and the immediate cause of all the dead baby birds.

Helicopters, invented in the form we know today just before World War II and popularized just afterward, were still very new in 1953. Just five years before, this elevator-in-the-sky method of rescue had not been available to idiots who climbed dangerous rocks and didn’t think they could make it down. So, any idiots who did so ended up having to do the best they could, since there was no alternative.

Well, now there was. But the 1953 season made it clear that this wasn’t an unmitigated miracle.

Helicopters, of course, basically fly by hanging on a propeller. They have to continually push their weight in air, plus a little more, downward to stay aloft. In 1953, when the little bubble-canopy Bell 47 was the most common “copter,” that was already a good bit of air. By 1968, when the Coast Guard was flying full-sized jet-turbine-powered Sikorsky HH-60s as its ambulances in the sky, it was an enormous amount.

So when young Richard O. Willis, standing atop Haystack Rock at the height of the nesting season in 1968, signaled his distress to the watching Beach Patrol, he was essentially summoning a hurricane to his rescue.

That hurricane soon arrived, in the form of U.S. Coast Guard Lt. Alexander Klimshuk’s rescue chopper.

“I went down slowly so the birds could get out of the way, but I wasn’t going to hover 100 feet above the rock just to save a ... cormorant,” Klimshuk told Portland Oregonian reporter Jim Kadera. “We are in sympathy with birds, or else we wouldn’t fly. We don’t like to disturb birds, but we aren’t going to tell a guy to climb off a rock by himself just to save birds. One human life is worth more to us than all the birds on the coast.”

And so Willis got his ride back to dry land ... and all over Haystack Rock and the surrounding sea and sand, hundreds of hatchling cormorants, tufted puffins, gulls, and other seabirds rained down out of the sky, blown out of their nests by the prop wash. Resident Jack Bentley told reporter Kadera more than 100 dead baby birds washed ashore the next day — and that’s just the ones that were found.

BY THE TIME this happened, Haystack Rock had, the previous year, been designated a bird sanctuary. There had been a certain amount of controversy over this, locally, because it happened in the context of a noticeable clamping-down by authorities on what you might call freedom of beach use. There was a small but growing movement to exclude cars from the beach, for one thing (until 1985 it was legal to drive on the beach at Cannon Beach). The Beach Bill, passed the previous year, enjoyed widespread support, but those who opposed it mostly saw it in the context of a rolling back of property rights.

The Department of the Interior hadn’t specified that nobody was allowed to enter the bird sanctuary — after all, birdwatchers were a big part of why there were bird sanctuaries, and if the birdwatchers couldn’t come to watch birds, they might withdraw their support.

But there was a sense that when the visitors’ activities disturbed the birds, that was crossing the line. And when the visitors caused an entire generation of baby chicks to wash up dead on the beach, that was more than most residents were willing to tolerate for the sake of personal liberty. Fine, they thought; be an idiot, get yourself killed; but if in the process you make every other beach user miserable for several days and damage the local wildlife population, your idiocy is no longer just your problem.

Reading the local newspaper coverage of this cataclysmic rescue, it’s very clear that letting Willis go free without so much as a traffic ticket stuck in the craw of the local authorities. After picking him up from the top of the rock, Klimshuk took him straight to jail, where the authorities pondered whether they could charge him with anything. The conclusion was that they could not — he’d invaded a bird sanctuary, but that wasn’t against the law.

Not yet, it wasn’t.

So one week after the rescue, Haystack Rock was sporting a brand-new “Do Not Enter” sign. And when, less than a month after that, a Portland teenager scrambled to the top of the rock on a dare, he was greeted at the bottom with a nice big ticket, which the local cops were no doubt very pleased to present to him. Justice told the police he’d seen the sign — he’d practically had to step on it to climb the rock — but claimed not to have realized that “do not enter” also meant “do not enter and climb the rock.”

A month or two after that, in October 1968, Oregon State University professor of pyrotechnics Ralph Reed was asked to blast away the ledge from which climbers started their attempts. This was done — although it took two tries. And the rock has been almost entirely unmolested since.

Today, it’s part of the Oregon Islands Wildlife Sanctuary — as are all the rocks and islands off the Oregon Coast, except for Tillamook Rock, site of the Tillamook Rock Lighthouse — and it’s illegal to set foot on them, or even to fly a drone within 2,000 feet of them.

(Sources: Facebook page of Cannon Beach History Center and Museum,; “Blasting of Haystack Rock Brings Men Chilly Interval,” an article by Emma Edwards published in the Oct. 10, 1968, issue of the Seaside Signal; archives of Portland Oregonian: June-Oct. 1968)

Finn J.D. John teaches at Oregon State University and writes about odd tidbits of Oregon history. His book, Heroes and Rascals of Old Oregon was recently published by Ouragan House Publishers. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.


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