A series of life decisions, chance opportunities, and occasional mishaps led photographer Richard Hallman to the rugged coastline of Oregon, and a small slice of absolute foiling paradise, stark in its contrast to the troubled world surrounding it…

Words & photos: Richard Hallman

As a kid I remember being glued to Sunday night TV as my parents went about their business. I don’t know if they purposely put on the National Geographic channel because it was something they were interested in, or because it was something that would be a good learning thing for my older brother and I.  I was fascinated by all things adventure whether it was sports, wildlife… you name it. I don’t think I ever blinked throughout viewing those programs and would often be singing myself to sleep with the theme song to Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom (Only Baby Boomers are gonna understand that reference). Anyway, I grew up on the southern tip of Lake Michigan and learned to surf and windsurf in high school, quickly garnering subscriptions to surfing, windsurfing and, yes, National Geographic magazine.

Fast forward and adventure is still alive and well, despite all the crazy things going on in the world. Take your pick between Covid, divisive politics, racism, fires etcetera etcetera to come in and rain on the good-old-fashioned human spirit. A world war was bearing down on Sir Ernest Shackleton’s bid to cross Antarctica from sea-to-sea via the South Pole when disaster struck and his ship Endurance became stuck in the pack ice, and the rest was history. Now it may seem like an extreme analogy, but the idea resonates in me.

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In 1993 I moved to Hood River to chase the windsurfing dream. To thrive in a small town I knew I would need a real job, so I went to nursing school and I became a trauma nurse at the Hood River Hospital and developed a schedule that allowed for lots of time off… hence travel opportunities. Trips to the Oregon coast were bi-weekly summer adventures and my lifelong obsession with photography was played out just like it had appeared on the Nat Geo channel and in my dreams.

New Year’s Day 2005, I quit my job as an ER Nurse and started shooting full time professionally, while at the same time I began shooting big wave surfing, starting with the inaugural 2005 Nelscott Reef Big Wave Tow Comp. The friendships created that day laid the foundation for me being named the official photographer for the event for the next 10 years, plus or minus a couple years. It was true adventure at its finest because, if you don’t already know it, the Oregon Coast is very rugged and Nelscott Reef is not at all forgiving. There is no calm harbor to jump in a boat with your latte and head out for a mellow day on the water. No, you have to negotiate the beach break to get out to the surf break which lies a half to three quarter mile offshore. Running the gauntlet through the beach break is the hairiest and most stress-filled activity you can think of. On top of that, it’s difficult to get any sleep the night before; anticipations are running high, starting with the riders’ meeting, looking around the room at all the big wave legends, but going back to the hotel room and being able to hear the surf through the windows and walls in your room makes for intermittent dozing and not deep restful sleep.

Over the years, we watched as the tow surfing started to take a back seat to old fashioned paddle-in surfing with riders walking their 10’ big wave guns down to the shore to be picked up by water safety and run out to the line up before each heat. At the same time, kiteboarding was a fledgling water sport, and after 30 years of windsurfing I decided to give kiteboarding a try. It took a few outings, but I was completely hooked. Things began to click, full time pro (ok, wannabe) photographer, amateur kiteboarder, and full-time funhog!

The decision to hang up the catheter and go full-time adventure pro is a decision I will never regret. I was talking with Robby Naish the other day. I asked him, “I know people like Kai Lenny looked up to you when he was a kid – who were your idols?” And his response surprised me. He said, “Well windsurfing was so new, we were blazing trails – I didn’t idolize anyone – I just went out and tried to figure this out and be the best.”  Wow, of course, windsurfing was so new – that makes total sense…

Ok, fast forward some more and Kai Lenny came to Nelscott just after Thanksgiving in 2017 for a perfect sunny swell. I’ve been shooting Kai since he was 13, and he was here trying out some new big wave foils. He got the opportunity to do just that after he spent the day paddling Nelscott Reef and getting probably the best barrel – paddle or otherwise – ever witnessed at ever witnessed there. He then proceeded to ride his foil till dark. I’m not sure if any of you have seen “Last Dance”, the Michael Jordan mini-series? Well, there are so many parallels. Both athletes are ridiculously committed to mastering their respected craft.

Fast forward some more (yes… to take a script from comedian Jim Gaffigan looking at me thinking, “Is he going to EVER get to the point?”), well, I heard about this cool section of coast near Lincoln City, OR – the home of Nelscott Reef. It is only accessible by sea, i.e. jetski, boat, canoe… you get the picture. I was there eight years ago with Sensi Graves, badass kiteboarder, snowboarder, and she also has her own bikini line. Anyway, back then we had a great day filming stand-up paddling at this spot. Amazing, isolated surf breaks, caves, waterfalls, rainbows, unicorns… Did I say rainbows in front of caves? Yes, this is the most insane place. It may just be six to seven miles long, yet it’s plenty beautiful – right up there with any of the Nat Geo specials I used to watch. Unfortunately, I accidentally hit manual focus on the lens as I was putting my camera into my water housing. Therefore, yes, all the photos were out of focus because the lens was focusing only on things that were just under two feet away from me. In an extremely blurry way, I was able to see all the images, the composition was there, lighting was there, but they were all blurry… Damn it.

So now fast forward again to early August in the USA, filled with Covid, riots, no fires as yet… and I’m here with local big wave legend Ollie Richardson, helping my good Gorge friend Will Crumpacker as we plan to go back and finish what I started. Karma is so weird though. I never planned or wanted to wait eight years to go back and finish the job and get the stand-up photos of this pristine Oregon coastline. But, that’s how much time passed as we lined up all the particulars. Weather, riders, waverunners, support, and did I mention weather? The weather had to be specific, as we needed waves but they needed to be small and with a very light offshore wind or no wind at all, and we needed sunshine. So yes, it has taken eight years to have the stars align again. So the first thing I did was call Sensi, and she informs me she broke her wrist and could not make the photoshoot. Crap. So we made a plan B which included Will and a friend of his. We get on site and are loading up the gear and while we are out scouting the shots we want, well, we realize we have lost the paddle for the SUP. At this point I have to laugh because the whole point was to go back and get the SUP shots. And then the magic happened…

We hit the spot a couple times over a one-week period. The first day we went out and were greeted by a stiff northwest wind. Will proceeds to pump up his wing and we discuss camera angles. And he asks (because I told him to remind me), “Is your lens switched to auto focus?” I smirked back, “Yes, thank YOU.” So, in the middle of this mystical stretch is this rock formation with a couple cool little arches. And of course I wanted to line up shots in front of and through these natural arches. It was relatively quiet, with just the rustle of the wind and constant barking of the local sea lions. Localism was alive and well with these sea lions, we did our best to steer clear of them, but they still let us know we weren’t welcome. I also thought about another unseen local… I was thinking about how perfect this little section would be for the “man in the grey suit.” There were caves, waterfalls, and plenty of snacks around, and one of the caves had a waterfall over the opening that created a nice rainbow. I don’t know about you guys, but if I was a great white shark, I would pick that cave to be my hangout with my little rainbow draped down my front door. Anyway, Will was winging back and forth and by the looks of the huge smile on his face it seemed like he was thoroughly enjoying himself. We moved on to the next cove and noticed a perfect left peeling wave rolling all the way to the beach, with a waterfall at the end. Will hit the beach and spent some time there. I thought, “Man, this isn’t really the time to be hanging out looking for sand dollars, but whatever.” He came back out and said he was looking for my missing paddle. It seemed everyone else was worried about my paddle but me – so in that moment it made sense to just laugh it off.

It’s interesting to think about where we have come in the last 100 years. People that old have seen it all, they were alive during the infancy of the automobile. Let’s assume you were born in 1920. You would have been seven years old when the TV was invented, you would have been in your mid 70s when the internet came online. Surfing has been around for a long time but windsurfing (according to Wikipedia) was invented and put into use in 1965 (also the year I was born). So you would have been 45 when the first windsurfer, S. Newman Darby, glided back and forth across Pennsylvania’s portion of Chesapeake Bay. Moving on, between all the innovation, progression, and creativity – well, I could be here for a considerable amount of time talking about the marvels you had witnessed in the last 10-20 years. Anyway, that brings me back to that lost paddle. Between that first shoot eight years ago and today, so much has changed in the water sports world. Losing the paddle was just karma… that was then, this is now. Now being the foil and the wing…

The swell bumped up a notch and the wind was pretty calm for our next outing. Weather wise, we were just battling intermittent fog which drifted into these uninhabited bays and left me speechless as we had found our little slice of nirvana. Ollie was whipping Will into these pristine little waves and Will glided along, and at times he was all laid back, Gerry Lopez style. I battled not just fog in the sky but, because of the extremely cold water, I battled fog on the outer lens of my water housing. Sunset was approaching way too fast, yet here I was, a kid again, subconsciously laying on my stomach, head cradled in my hands, eyes wide with amazement. And it dawned on me, eight years ago this activity was not going on, the loss of the SUP paddle at this point seemed purposeful, because moving forward it conjured up a line from the movie Back to the Future, where Doc Brown says, “Roads? Where we’re going we don’t need roads…”   

2017, when Kai was in the neighborhood and Nelscott Reef did its thing…

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