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A surfer heads in after a morning surf session on the Southern Oregon coast in January. Photo by Andy Atkinson

Endless Winter

BROOKINGS — After slicing through the Pacific surf just off the mouth of the storm-fueled Chetco River last Sunday, Noah Bruce says he knows exactly why the crowds on the beach will watch him but never join him.  

"The cold weather and lack of women," Bruce says. "Most surfers are going to go someplace warm and tropical with some thongs jumping around.

"There's no need to be here," he says.

But Bruce and a handful of other weathered, rugged, neoprene-wearing souls are here on the Southern Oregon coast riding the January waves off the beach at the Port of Brookings-Harbor, which is more likely to host whale-watchers or storm-chasers this time of year.

The Oregon Coast surfing community is well known as a closed crowd, where public requests about the best tucked-away spots are met with an if-I-tell-you-then-I-have-to-kill-you tone.

"Hey, man," says Bruce, 44. "I'm not going to talk about surf spots."

But secrecy isn't an issue when Bruce surfs the waves off Sporthaven Beach in front of the motel, restaurant and RV park at the port.

"It's kind of a tradition for the visitors and locals to go down and watch the surfers," says Bruce, 44.

Sporthaven Beach is a common locale for Bruce's Endless Winter, in large part because this beach immediately south of the mouth of the Chetco River points south, which is normally alee in winter.

"It's probably the most protected spot from the wind," Bruce says. "The wind is what destroys most of the surf out here."

Surging surf has a tendency to alter surfing conditions, so surfers have to scout out new locations when former hotspots lose their break. The surf at Sporthaven Beach is constantly evolving thanks largely to the force of the Chetco during and after storms, Bruce says.

High river water carries gravel that the river deposits in the waters off Sporthaven Beach, and those deposits regularly change where the best surf will be found, often near the Chetco mouth's south jetty, smack dab in front of tourists and locals walking atop the jetty.

That means Bruce and other Sporthaven riders occasionally find poor water clarity and even debris.

However, they have figured out a way to use the Chetco to their advantage, particularly when facing the specter of having to paddle through roiling waves to get to the better waves farther offshore.

"Even when it's high and out of control, we can jump in the river and use it like an escalator to get out there," Bruce says.

Surfing the Oregon Coast is something of an escalation of its own for Bruce, who grew up in Ashland as a water rat, wakeboarding and snowboarding but rarely venturing over to the ocean. When he moved to Brookings at age 20, he quickly gravitated toward what became his new avocation.

"It was just a natural progression for me," he says.

Bruce usually steps away once or twice a week from his jobs as a real estate agent and construction contractor to ride the waves as a way to relieve stress and get the endorphins cooking.

Bruce wears a neoprene wetsuit that's 5 millimeters thick in the chest to protect his torso from the cold of water that's in the upper 40s, with thinner plied neoprene on his arms and legs to allow for better movement.

Footies and hoods are a must. In Maui, that might be the equivalent of walking to school in a snowsuit, but it's the only way to make winter boarding viable.

"Three hours is about the max before everything's frozen," Bruce says. "Then you get out, thaw out a few hours and go at it again."

He often surfs alone, but recognizes it's always better to have a surf buddy, because "if anything stupid happens, you have someone there to call it in," he says.

Bruce says he has seen a handful of sharks and orcas milling about while he's on the water, but "no bumps."

But Bruce has had a few of those uh-oh moments when he senses he's in danger, the kind of weird mojo that surfers around the world experience when they feel a water denizen much bigger than them lurking nearby.

"That's when I call it quits," he says.

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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