Seaside Treasure Hunt

Jon Jensen
Each year, collectors comb Oregon's beaches and galleries for prized glass floats.

There was something about the little pile of driftwood, high on the beach, that just didn't look right to Tracey Eno, a Marylander visiting the northern Oregon coast. "I poked a stick in, the debris fell away, and here was this green and white glass ball," she says. It turned out to be the first of six glass floats she and her partner would find on the beaches around Lincoln City during the area's annual glass-float festival, Finders Keepers.

The idea for it all hatched in 1997 at the home of artist and part-time Waldport, Oregon, resident Bryan Duncan. Bryan was sitting on his deck, pondering how he might mark the coming turn of the millennium with an art project―something serendipitous and beautiful. At that moment, as he tells it, his wife walked up and mused, "Nobody finds glass floats anymore." (Years ago the floats used by Japanese fishermen to buoy their nets routinely rolled onto Oregon and Washington beaches after storms. But with the advent of plastic floats they became more rare.)

Suddenly, Bryan had an idea: to place 2,000 glass floats, no two alike, on the beach in the year 2000 for anyone to find. Now in its eighth season, Finders Keepers stretches from mid-October to Memorial Day. Dozens of glassblowers produce enough floats to match the year―2,007 in 2007. Every day during the season, volunteers place choice floats in surprise locations on the beach (beyond the reach of the tide), in a nest of driftwood, behind a rock, or out in the open.

They're round and they're glass, but any resemblance to traditional Japanese fishermen's floats ends there. Asian originals were often created in muted shades of green and blue. In contrast, this year's artist-blown floats sparkle with color. They're smooth or textured, transparent or translucent, like small planets from another universe.

If you don't uncover glass floats on a beach walk, you can still take them home, though not for free. Many galleries along this coast, in Lincoln City and beyond, now sell one-of-a-kind floats priced from about $20 to $100 or more. Some galleries are attached to glass-blowing studios, such as Pyromania in Newport, where you can watch craftsmen at work and even have a float blown to your specifications.

At Lincoln City's Jennifer L. Sears Glass Art Studio, or "the foundry," as locals call it, you can blow your own float with help from an expert. For $65, you can step out of the spectators' gallery and into the hot shop, pull a mass of molten glass out of the furnace, and in 20 minutes create a glass float or paperweight with your own hands and breath.

As for Bryan Duncan, he still produces glass floats every year. Some are for sale in what he calls Oldtown Gallery. That's the front half of his friend Bill Ternyila's beach house at the end of Mill Road in Waldport, about 40 miles south of Lincoln City. (The neon sign says OPEN, but if you want to buy a float, you'll have to walk across the street to the Dock of the Bay marina and ask Bill to unlock the gallery.) Bryan makes a few dozen floats for parade awards during Waldport's Beachcomber Days in June. But he saves about 20 favorites to drop into the surf or scatter on the beach north and south of Alsea Bay between Christmas and New Year's. "It's my Prozac," says Bryan, who sometimes sticks around, hidden, to watch the delight on the faces of the finders-keepers. "There's almost a bounce in their step," he says. "It makes me feel good, too."

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