Monday, January 6, 2020

A Winter Walk: Nestucca Bay Wildlife Refuge

South of Pacific City, near the tiny community of Oretown, a partially-forested hill rises above the confluence of the Nestucca and Little Nestucca Rivers. Historically known as Cannery Hill, this habitat-rich prominence is now part of the 1202-acre Nestucca Bay Wildlife Refuge.
We stopped at the refuge some years back, glanced at the (then-empty) pastureland and saw what could have been an amazing hilltop view (we assumed; the hill was fogged in). We drove away. But birds come and go at their own whims, fog doesn't stay forever, and we have since returned to the refuge. It is a beautiful, peaceful place, known for sightings of Aleutian cackling geese and silverspot butterflies, as well as less-rare creatures such as black-tailed deer and peregrine falcons. Shorebirds, amphibians, salmonids, migratory songbirds, and a variety of mammals call this place home (click here to download wildlife and bird-watching guides, as well as a birding checklist).

Today the refuge encompasses more than it did on that foggy afternoon. In 2013, nearly 200 acres were added: the Two Rivers Peninsula. As Cannery Hill descends northward toward the bay, it tapers to a forested point with a delightful view of the water. A visit to the peninsula offers lush coastal forest, history, birdwatching, tidelands, wildflowers, and fishing access at  Nestucca Bay. The trail's official length is 2.2 miles, but since it is shaped like a squashed figure-eight with trails leading off from either end, the route is what you make it. Much of the trail follows old roadbeds cut into the hillside; these have been connected with simple paths. Part of the peninsula was a Jesuit retreat for decades, up until its acquisition for the refuge. This hike will show you why. 

Walk into the dense woodland, thick with understory and masses of ferns.You will occasionally catch views over the Pacific and Nestucca Bay, as well as the rich pasturelands that spread eastward from the base of the hill. Songbirds flit among the bushes, while harriers, peregrine falcons, and bald eagles hunt overhead. The loudest sound you hear may well be the swish of the wind passing through the treetops; other than that, listen for the ocean's rumble and perhaps the calls of a few birds. Keep left to find a peaceful picnic area and fishing access in a small bayside clearing. Here you will also find a mysterious round installation (numerous attempts at discovering its original purpose have left us no wiser). Continue past a random piece of concrete and follow the trail briefly to find the tip of the peninsula. Here the two rivers converge and hurry toward the Pacific. Wide tidelands open out from here, offering habitat for shorebirds and salmon. Linger for a while to watch for wildlife, then consider taking a different trail back in order to look out over the Little Nestucca valley.

To find Cannery Hill, take Highway 101 south of Pacific City and turn west on Christensen Road, which lies just north of Oretown. The narrow, well-paved road passes through level pastureland; part of this belongs to the refuge, the rest is managed by local farmers to provide habitat for ducks and geese. Here is where the dusky Canada and Aleutian cackling geese forage. This bottomland is off-limits to humans and there are no convenient pull-outs, so drivers must continue less than half a mile up to the first parking area. Here you will find informational signage, restrooms, and excellent views of the pastures from the gazebo, especially for those who brought their binoculars.

It is recommended that visitors leave their cars here at the first viewpoint if they are able-bodied, as the next half-mile of road is even narrower (as well as unpaved) and parking at the second trailhead is limited. If you choose to walk, be alert for vehicles on the roadway; if you drive, watch for pedestrians and be prepared for the possibility of oncoming automobiles on the narrow road. 

Viewing platform (barely visible on the left) on Cannery Hill
At the second lot you will find views over the ocean and forests (weather permitting), as well as a paved, accessible pathway up to a platform high on Cannery Hill (please note that all pets must be left inside your vehicle while at the refuge). This pathway is a third of a mile long and has benches along the way for those who need to stop and rest. Climb the hill for views of Pacific City's Haystack Rock, the Little Nestucca Valley, Nestucca Spit, and Capes Lookout and Kiwanda. This open meadow offers a variety of wildflowers in the spring, as well as habitat for deer and the endangered Oregon silverspot butterfly. The aforementioned Two Rivers trailhead is located at the north end of the parking lot, across from the hillside path.

Lump of concrete from an installation of yesteryear
This is all well and good, you may say, but what about the cannery of Cannery Hill? Isn't that a rather odd name for a hill? There was, in fact, a salmon cannery, built beside the bay in 1887. Oretown's population swelled, and Anna Christensen (presumably of Christensen Road fame) provided lodging for some of the workers in her home on the hill. It seems that the cannery's success waxed and waned over the years under a few different owners, but eventually the enterprise was abandoned. The salmon runs had been depleted, and commercial fishing in the bay was banned. Nature heals herself if given a chance, though, and today recreational fishermen pursue coho, chinook, and many other species, while crabs and clams are sought in the southern parts of the bay. 

Walking through these woods on a winter day, one finds few reminders of human activity besides the trails and old roads. The rattling, leafless alders allow views of the surrounding land and water. Chestnut-backed chickadees survey hikers quizzically, as their ancestors probably viewed members of the Nestugga tribe pulling salmon from the bay, or workmen constructing a new cannery, or Jesuits meditating in the forest. And still the two rivers run together as they have for centuries, still the deer browse among the thickets, and still the chickadees go about their busyness among the winter skeletons of the sleeping forest.

Nestucca valley pastureland

Gazebo at first parking lot
Second parking lot at Cannery Hill
Hard-to-find map of the refuge's trails
Ferns overhanging the trail to the picnic area
Peek at the Pacific
View through the trees at the picnic area
Odd installment near picnic area
Another view. Abandoned well? Water fountain? Gateway to Narnia? Suggestions welcome!

Nestucca River, Pacific City's Haystack Rock in the background
Confluence of Nestucca and Little Nestucca Rivers

Happy 2020, from our family to yours!

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Christmas by the River: Maddax Woods

In 1941, Virgil and Dorothy Maddax paddled a canoe on the Willamette River looking for just the right piece of property. Virgil, a commercial fisherman and boat builder, needed a waterside site where he could construct boats; Dorothy wanted a garden. They purchased a beautiful section of shoreline near a small island and Virgil began to build their house. By himself. With cement blocks that he formed by hand on the property. But when building had commenced Virgil was asked to build a boat, so the couple ended up living in a toolshed on the property until the house was completed.

Lights take the place of dormant flowers
in Dorothy's garden
Virgil was well-known for his boats, generally from 40 to 60 feet in length and most of them constructed of wood. Robust seagoing craft, these boats were mainly meant for hard-working fishermen, and to this day a quick online search will locate a number of them, still out there fishing and crabbing.

Dorothy was an accomplished gardener and prize-winning flower arranger. When not accompanying Virgil on his voyages, she maintained the grounds surrounding their home. She lived in the house that they had made until her death in 1999, several years after Virgil's passing. They left their beloved property to the city of West Linn so that others could visit this peaceful place beside the river.

Today, the cement-block house still stands above the river, and Dorothy's gardens are still blooming. It's hard to imagine a 40- or 60-foot boat in the modest yard, but this is, in fact, where Virgil's boat shop once stood, and there is hope of rebuilding it as an interpretative center. The crucial link, of course, is how Virgil got those boats down the bank and into the river; that puzzle is easily answered by a set of rails leading river-ward down a slope.

This seven-acre property is worth a visit any time of the year. While the house is not open to the public, it is a charming, sturdy building, and the blocks made onsite are clearly visible. Signage gives an extensive history of the property and its former owners. The park is a quiet place with picnic tables and a beautiful view of Goat Island, the second-largest blue heron rookery in the state; in fact, you might want to plan a visit during the first Sunday of the months of March through June for the Blue Heron Watch as the majestic birds return to their summer grounds to raise their families. During the summer and early fall the little beach near the end of the boat rails invites a picnic, and this whole stretch of the river is still popular with paddlers. To make a longer visit, consider exploring adjacent Burnside Park; click here for a hike that encompasses both parks. A wide, smooth trail connects them at a bridge over a small creek. Follow the path through mixed woodland to a small riverside meadow with a view of the Willamette and the tip of Goat Island.

But it's Christmas time, which means that it's time for the Lighting of Maddax Woods. Volunteers set up in mid-November, and the lights go on every evening until December 31. While this is a small park, and while the trails are not extensive, its quiet beauty makes it a perfect holiday destination. Lights run from the access road at the end of River Street, through Dorothy's garden, the river viewing area, and up the gravel pathway to the bridge into Burnside Park. Pick up a brochure and watch for the 50 woodland and river animals depicted by wooden cutouts. A boat made of lights harks back to Virgil's boatbuilding days. Consider coming before dusk to learn about the history of the property and view the Willamette, then wait for dark and the lighting of the lush Oregon woodland. This is a wonderful place to bring the kids (watch them beside the river, of course). On our recent visit we met with numerous delighted children, smiling parents, talkative groups of older folks, and young couples holding hands as they wandered together among the lights.

If you go: Please note that this is not an ordinary park. It is a home site in a quiet West Linn neighborhood, and as such it is not set up as a big tourist destination. Please be respectful; the neighbors don't want their driveways blocked any more than you do yours, and they don't need visitors' dogs running through their flowerbeds.

That being said, if you are unfamiliar with the area, it's easiest to access the park from the end of River Street. From I-205, take Exit 8 and drive toward West Linn on Highway 43/Willamette Drive. Turn right on Burns Street, swing left to stay on Burns Street, and then turn left onto River Street, which ends without much ceremony and with limited parking. You have arrived! Grab your flashlight and a camera and follow the lights! Do note that, while much of the park is accessible, some of the paths are not as wheelchair-friendly as others, so be cautious if you bring one. There is no fee to visit Maddax Woods.

This tranquil park is an unsung gem with a bit of something for everyone. The site is a part of  Oregon's history, hailing from a time when our country was coming out of the Great Depression and lives were being rebuilt. It's part of Oregon's fishing industry and our maritime roots. It is also home to a variety of wildlife, including deer, foxes, otters, and waterfowl; in fact, Dorothy and Virgil were passionate wildlife lovers and bought feed by the truckful for the resident ducks and geese. Wildflower lovers should visit in the springtime and take the hiking trails that explore the woods and Burnside Park. And of course, don't miss the lighting of the woods during the holiday season. Come visit the home where Dorothy and Virgil spent a lifetime together, the place they loved so much that they wanted to share it with everyone. Come see the Lighting of Maddax Woods.

Virgil and Dorothy welcome you!

Site of the boat shop, with signs detailing the whole Maddox story

Part of the railing system that Virgil used to transport his completed boats to the river

More of the railing system, Goat Island in the background

Great Blue Heron nests on Goat Island

Trail from Maddox Woods to Burnside Park

Scenic viewpoint in Burnside Park, shortly after you cross the bridge from Maddox Woods

Burnside Park

Beach at Burnside Park

Overview of the old boat shop, lighted version of the "Mar Azul" in the foreground

Lights take the place of dormant flowers in Dorothy's garden

Merry Christmas from the Cases, we'll see you in 2020!