The lure of the harbor town

Brave and beautiful, three classic fishing ports invite you to share their passion for the sea
MATTHEW JAFFE
It's low tide on Yaquina Bay, Oregon, on the afternoon before the annual blessing of the fleet. Great blue herons fish the shallow channels that flow through the mudflats, where clam diggers in knee-high rubber boots poke at the liquid earth. An osprey wheels overhead as a fishing boat glides under the 1936 Yaquina Bay Bridge, passes an 1871 lighthouse, and heads out into the open ocean trailed by the low moan of a foghorn.

Down the waterfront, crews scrub down decks and mend nets on a fleet of boats with names straight out of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row: Anona Kay, Miss Yvonne, and Pacific Hooker. Sea lions haul out beneath the Abbey Street Pier; crab traps, still redolent of the depths where they were deployed, sit in head-high stacks in front of a mural depicting Moby Dick wreaking mayhem on a whaling boat.

Watching all the activity are Newport's tourists, who, after gazing their fill at the harbor, window-shop along Bay Boulevard, then make a lunchtime stop at Mo's, famous for its clam chowder. These visitors are part of a tourist tradition that dates back to the 19th century. But the coverall-clad fishermen grabbing a late cup of coffee or picking up supplies at marine supply stores are a reminder that, above all else, this is a working community, forever connected to the sea.

Newport is one of the West's classic harbor towns. These are places where life plays out according to a set of rhythms dictated by the tides, the seasons, and the ebb and flow of commerce. In Newport and in such other Pacific harbor towns as Port Angeles, Washington, and Trinidad, California, the heart-stopping beauty of the coast and the grittier realities of industry coexist. Salmon, halibut, and Dungeness crabs still are caught by local boats, but many harbor towns are places in transition. The depletion of the bounty on which they have long depended along with more stringent regulations have forced sometimes difficult economic and social changes.