community guide to Eugene and beyond

Oregon Coast Glass Floats

A treasure hunt of global proportions: Florence merchants plant glass balls to entice visitors to become beachcombers


March 23, 2004

By Winston Ross

© The Register-GuardThe Register-Guard


FLORENCE - Peggy and Jim Monahan were looking for something.


Combing the dunes above the North Jetty, poking a stick into the sand, parting the strands of beachgrass, looking.


A lost wallet? Keys? No, it was treasure the Florence couple sought, that only the sharpest - or luckiest - of hunters can find.


The coveted item is a softball-size glass float, the same kind Japanese fishermen historically used to keep their nets afloat, long considered a good find for the ardent beachcomber. But in recent years, the hobby has morphed into an all-out event, and a lure for tourists who otherwise fear the coast's reputation for nasty weather during the winter months.


Lincoln City started a Festival of Glass in 2000, the brainchild of local artist Bryan Duncan, who has since moved to Washington state. A year later, the Merchants of Old Town in Florence decided to sponsor its own festival.


Jim and Peggy Monahan of Florence work their way along the dunes near Heceta Beach in Florence looking for custom-made glass floats.


Florence artist Jason Trebolo crafted this glass globe, one of 450 hidden at the beach this year in an effort to attract visitors during the off season.


Jim Price combs the foredune near Heceta Beach looking for the hidden glass treasures.


The premise is simple: Selected artists design the floats in a variety of styles and turn them over to the merchants, who dispatch volunteers to hide them along two stretches of beach - south of the South Jetty and north of the North Jetty. Then, anyone is welcome to hunt for these works of art. Finder's keepers.


"The purpose is to bring people to the coast during what's normally the down season," said Gayle Sisson, owner of the Grape Leaf in Florence and president of the Merchants of Old Town. "And it gets locals out spending time on the beach."


This year, the bounty doubled, from about 200 floats to 450. That's because the merchants won a Lane County tourism grant, which added $8,000 to the festival's coffers.


Also, the group solicited donations from the town's businesses, the idea being they all benefit from visitors who hear about the festival and flock to Florence to try their hand at float-hunting.


"I look and never find," Peggy Monahan said as her three golden retrievers circled the sand around her. "But it gives you something to do when you're down here."


Chimed in Jim: "It's like an Easter egg hunt - for adults."


Indeed, from the day after Christmas until Easter Sunday, the volunteers strategically lay about two dozen floats each week, keeping a watchful eye out for more fervent float-seekers - who have a tendency to spy.


Three to five times a week, Ray Bray guesses, he and wife, Dee, scout the beaches for floats.


"For us, it's exercise," Bray says. "We go along with a stick, poking little holes in the sand and through the grass. I've been doing it for three years, and I have yet to find one.


"I've been giving Gayle a heck of a ration, he adds. "I go in and tell her, 'I know you guys aren't really hiding anything out there. I've done this over 100 times, I'm sure, in the last three years, walking three or four miles at a time."


This year, there was an alternative to walking, however. The owners of Central Coast Watersports decided to add an aquatic element to the festival, dumping 10 floats encased in mesh bags and 6-pound weights into the Siuslaw River on Saturday.


Thirty divers ventured into the water and found all 10 of them the same day, shop owner Joe Henry said.


Those who join the ranks of the lucky are asked to register their float, Sisson said, so that the merchants can prove that the festival does indeed foster tourism. Of the 120 floats registered so far this year, about a third were found by people from out of the area, she said.


"I hear from so many people," Sisson said. "They love it, because it gets them out on the beach, even when the weather's nasty. It's an event that crosses all age barriers."


Even if they come up empty-handed.


"The trouble is," Jim Monahan offered, "you're not going to find one if you're looking for it."