The Fascinating History of the New River

At the end of a quiet road 10 miles south of Bandon is a hidden gem. Over 1000 acres of public land are nestled along a quietly flowing 8-mile long river with a few miles of hiking trails, a tranquil lake, seasonal boat access into the river, ocean views, and a visitors’ center with a knowledgeable host. Don’t let the peaceful surroundings fool you, though, the New River, and specifically the Storm Ranch unit, has a fascinating and, at times, exciting history.

The New River begins about 18 miles south of Bandon, near Floras Lake, and runs north, parallel to the Pacific Ocean, to where it enters the ocean about 6.5 miles south of Bandon. The river was created rather suddenly in 1890 during a big storm when sand blocked the outlet from Floras Lake. The water forced its way through a new channel and made its way north to the ocean. Legend has it that after the storm, a local rancher noticed it and exclaimed, “It’s a new river!” thereby naming the waterway. It effectively cuts off access to the ocean to all without a boat or swimming skills to cross the river.

Long before the creation and naming of the river, people known as Qua-to-mah (meaning “by the inside water” or “large lagoon”) made this area home for thousands of years. On high ground above a system of wetlands and lakes, artifacts dating back 8,000 years have been found in what was the site of their village. They lived in family houses of cedar planks and lived sustainably and peacefully, fishing, gathering plants and berries, and hunting.

In 1700, an earthquake struck, causing tsunamis and floods in the area. Settlers came to the south coast around the mid-1800s, and the New River area was described by Jack Kirkpatrick as a “vast floodplain.” As wetlands are not conducive to farming and grazing, the wetlands were drained, making way for cattle, farms, dairies, and cheese factories.

In 1945, one of the New River ranches was purchased by the Jack and Ruth Storm family who gave Storm Ranch its name. In addition to raising cattle and growing cranberries, Jack Storm made his living by charging fishermen $1-2 for access to fish for coho, Chinook salmon and steelhead trout in the river in front of his land.

The shadiest part of the history of the New River happened on New Years Eve in 1977 with one of the largest ever drug busts in Oregon. At the time, the 210-acre ranch was owned by a Santa Barbara man who had recently purchased it from the Storm Family a few months before the historic raid.

Local customs officials had become increasingly suspicious with several odd changes that happened at the ranch after Arthur Allen purchased it from the Storms in 1977. First, they noticed that Allen was able to quickly pay the $325,000 purchase price for the property. He also closed off the access road for the fishermen and used dogs to run ran off anyone who came to fish. Many Bandon residents, including a Bandon police officer, encountered a strange scene one day in town as several ducks, amphibious vehicles that act as boats in the water and trucks on land, passed through town on low boys.

Aerial photos were taken, and in them the Sheriff’s Office could see equipment that was brought to the ranch. When customs officials flew over in early December, they saw a semi-truck and tracks made by an amphibious vehicle. On December 29, a couple days before the raid, they saw a ship off shore using lights to signal people on the beach.

On New Years Eve, about 6 tons of marijuana valued at almost $17 million was seized while it was being offloaded onto the ducks from the Panamanian ship Cigale, and several crewmen were captured. The Coast Guard then attempted to board the ship. Two cutters, a C-130 aircraft, and two helicopters chased the Cigale until its crew tried to abandon and sink it.

When it was all said and done, 17 men were arrested, including the ranch’s new owner who was found hitchhiking on Highway 101 near Langlois a couple of days later. Besides the marijuana, vehicles used in the illegal operation and radio equipment were seized. The men arrested were accused of possession with intent to distribute marijuana in the Portland U.S. District Court. This was truly a joint effort, involving Coos County Sheriff Les Miller, his department, the Coast Guard, and federal agents.

Fortunately, the history of the area just gets better and better. After the dramatic drug bust, the ranch was owned by Ann and Nancy Wilson, the sisters who made up the classic rock band Heart. The sisters spent much of their childhood in the Seattle area, and Nancy attended university in Forest Grove and then Portland. They owned the land from 1980-1987 and trained purebred horses.

The ranch was then sold to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) which combined it with other purchases and designated the Storm Ranch area an Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) in 1991. The goal of the BLM is to protect the habitat and cultural sites from human disturbance and to promote recreation that doesn’t interfere with it. It is a haven for wildlife and serves to protect native plants, animals, fish, and birds. The endangered snowy plovers are present year-round, and certain parts are closed to the public from mid-March to mid-September while they are nesting. It is also the southernmost area for rufous hummingbirds and the northernmost for breeding Allen hummingbirds.

Storm Ranch is also a haven for outdoor enthusiasts. Approximately 3 miles hiking trails allow access to much of the variety of the area, including dense forest, native plants, ocean views, Muddy Lake, the site of an historic cranberry bog, and the New River itself. Canoers and kayakers can enjoy paddling in Muddy Lake and on the river, and although the river is closed for coho salmon fishing, it is open for catching Chinook, steelhead, and cutthroat trout, as long as the fishing is done from the riverbank or from a boat without a motor.

We here in Bandon are very happy for the New River, its recreation opportunities, its protection of the habitat of living things in the area, and its beauty, despite its shady past. In fact, perhaps the bit of intrigue and character makes it all the more interesting.

The Storm Ranch unit with all of its hiking trails and wildlife is located at the end of Croft Lake Lane, about 10 miles south of Bandon. Watch for the brown BLM sign on the right side of the road.

For a better look at the New River area, check out this BLM video.

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