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In Oregon, you, a board and a heap of sand

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Florence, Ore.

The polished board strapped to my feet feels fast and light. I shift my weight forward and launch myself down a 50-foot sand dune, through a wide curvy path bordered by spiky European beach grass.

Bend your knees, I was told. Point your lead arm in the direction you want to go. Can it be that easy?

It's a cloudy but warm summer afternoon along the central Oregon coast, and this is my third attempt at sandboarding. To the south, the nation's largest expanse of coastal dunes stretches to a horizon of honey-colored mounds, sprinkled with bunches of gold and green beach grass. To the west, white-crested waves lap on the beach. To the east, the Suislaw River cradles the town of Florence, home of the nation's first sandboarding park.

Surfing down the dune, I'm gaining speed and cruising at a nice clip, the wind blowing back my hair. I'm probably traveling less than 20 mph, but it's an adrenaline jolt nonetheless. As I reach the bottom of the hill a few seconds later, I shift my weight to my heels and, for the first time that day, come to a graceful stop.

Ah, sand. There are more dunes here than I can ride in a lifetime, but it would be fun to try.

SAND, SAND EVERYWHERE

A geological phenomenon made Oregon's central coast a paradise for sand sport enthusiasts, and that's the reason an estimated 2 million people each year lug sandboards and transport ATVs, motorcycles, quads and dune buggies to these parts.

The hub of this sand playground is Florence, once rated the nation's top retirement town. Now the streets rumble with trucks, RVs and trailers loaded with knobby-tired motorcycles, ATVs and dune buggies, nearly all plastered with a bumper sticker that reads: "Got Sand?" Whether it's on fat tires or waxed boards, sand is the attraction. And there's tons of it here.

Three rivers -- the Coos, the Umpqua and the Suislaw -- dump stream sediment into the ocean off a gently sloping sandstone terrace, stretching about 40 miles, from Coos Bay to the iconic Heceta Head lighthouse. Ocean currents and offshore winds toss the grains back onto the long, flat shelf, where it piles up in waves, bowls and flat plains. Author Frank Herbert visited this vastness of sand in 1953 and was inspired to write "Dune," his classic science fiction novel.

The winds, tides and currents that wash and rewash the sediment grind out what may be the softest and cleanest sand on the coast.

Just ask Lon Beale.

He came to Florence, a former logging community on the north end of Oregon's dunes, 10 years ago looking for the best sand on which to popularize sandboarding, a craze he hopes will surpass snowboarding and skateboarding.

Inside an old metal Quonset hut -- the headquarters for Beale's Sand Master Park -- he displays nearly 40 jars of sand from dunes around the world. Egypt, Saudi Arabia, China, Brazil, Peru. Beale and his employees have ridden almost every sand hill in the world. But the sand around Florence, he says, is among the best. Through a magnifying glass, he says, the grains look like tiny ball bearings.

Beale, a 50-year-old former high school teacher with brown hair and a closely trimmed mustache, looks more like a cop than a sandboarding pioneer. He started sandboarding in high school and began designing boards and organizing competitions in the early 1990s when he lived in California City. The owner of a parcel along the Florence coast heard about Beale and offered to lease him the Quonset hut and 40 acres of dunes. Beale, knowing the quality of Florence sand, agreed.

Last year, Beale's park drew 10,000 boarders, about 2,000 more than the previous year.

Global warming? No problem. Sand doesn't melt. The drier the conditions, the faster the sand, he says.

Still, he can't quite explain why he's not riding the crest of a sandboarding craze: "Everyone who tries it loves it."

ANOTHER KIND OF DUNE RIDE

To get a better sense of the size and scope of this giant sandbox, I hire Bob Callahan to take me on a buggy ride through the Oregon Dunes National Recreation Area and the adjoining Jessie M. Honeyman Memorial State Park.

Callahan works for Sand Dunes Frontier, one of two shops in Florence that rent ATVs, quads and buggies. Most of the 2 million annual visitors to the central Oregon coast see the dunes atop a sand-churning roadster like the paddle-wheeled buggy Callahan drives. A nursing home manager in town says his retirees like having the dune buggy rides and other activities nearby because it means more visits by their fun-loving grandkids.

Callahan has red, sun-baked skin and blue eyes, which he covers with a protective mask -- like a hockey goalie's face protector -- when he's behind the wheel.

"Some of these hills are steep so I'm going to have to do my business to get over them," he deadpans.

I hang on as Callahan red-lines his air-cooled VW engine and launches the buggy straight up the side of some of the nation's tallest dunes. The ride is a loud, sliding, sand-spewing roller coaster. Fountains of quartz and feldspar shoot from the fat tires. Tiny grains crunch between my teeth.

From 450 feet up, at the summit of Honeyman Dune, one of the nation's tallest dunes, a forest of olive-green shore pines stretches into the eastern horizon and the deep blue Pacific swells to the west.

BACK TO BASICS

"All you need is the board and a dune."

That's why 19-year-old Matt Walton, one of Beale's employees, says he loves sandboarding. I've joined Walton and Beale and a few others at a moderate-size dune for a mini-symposium on the sport, which begins with its sheer simplicity. It's a relatively inexpensive pastime, they explain. You can ride in shorts and a T-shirt. No padding or helmets are needed, and your bare feet fit into padded bindings.

The only drawback is that the dunes can't support a chairlift, so climbing stamina and meaty leg muscles are required. To reduce friction and increase speed, you also must wax the board before each ride.

After a few pointers from Josh Tenge, a two-time sandboarding champion and Beale employee, I'm shushing down the dune with relative ease. I wipe out a few times, flipping head over heels, but Beale smiles and says: "If it's not fast enough to hurt yourself, it's not fun."

It's an important lesson that becomes clear the next day when I join Tenge and his buddy Walton to scout out a "locals only" sandboarding area, overlooking nearby Clear Lake.

To get there, Tenge muscles his Toyota 4-Runner off U.S. 101 onto an unmarked road into what he says is a combination of private property and national parkland. We're near Clear Lake, a gorgeous body of water with pine trees on the eastern shore and a hilly stretch of dunes on the western banks.

On the drive in, Tenge says he's going to show me some extreme stunts. Tenge is an athletic 28-year-old sandboard and snowboard instructor who holds a world record in distance for back flipping nearly 45 feet on a sandboard.

He parks his truck at the foot of a dune and unloads a shovel and rake to build a ramp over a beach grass mound at the bottom of a steep incline.

After a few jumps, Tenge announces he's ready to try a back flip.

He climbs to the top of the incline, waxes his board and streaks downward. Just as his board catches air, he arches his back, throws his body into a backspin and flips, barely clearing the tips of the needle-tipped beach grass. He lands gracefully in the flat slopes below.

As he prepares for another back flip, I spot a long slope that drops into a huge sand bowl the size of a swimming pool.

One more ride, I think as I slip my feet into the board's bindings and shift my weight forward.

Bend your knees, I think. Point your lead arm forward, and remember -- if it's not fast enough to hurt yourself, it's not fun.

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