Monday, October 20, 2014

Portland's Washington Park: The Hoyt Arboretum

I want to be a squirrel.

They spend the early part of fall stocking up on snacks. Then, when the weather turns ugly, they go to bed. They snooze until things improve; then they get up, look around, have a snack, and go back to bed. That, in my opinion, is the way to spend the winter.

Sadly, due to some fault in my DNA, I am a human and must stay awake during the winter. This involves such miseries as running errands in torrential downpours and scrubbing mildew off of the walls. When the weather turns ugly, we still have to go to work. Squirrels don't have these problems.

Ugly weather, at least in the western part of Oregon, often involves our infamous silverthaws, where a thick layer of ice forms on every possible surface. In the city, I have done the hokey pokey around swirls of downed power lines. In the country, I have had my truck stuck inside for days, unable to slide up our slanted driveway. Then comes the thaw. In the city, that means breaker-like waves of muddy slush thrown up by passing cars to drench pedestrians. In the country, it means mud. Lots of mud. Once things have warmed up and dried out, the squirrels wake and have a snack.

The real issue, though, is getting out and hitting a trail or two. In the Cascades, trails disappear under snow and downed trees. In the Valley, they turn to slippery mud. At the coast, some trails are actually under water during the winter. Experts tell us, though, that it is important for our health to spend time exercising outdoors. There is no substitute for natural light, which is said to ease seasonal depression and help keep our circadian rhythms on track. Mostly, though, we don't want to spend the winter turning to jello. With this in mind, as fall grinds its way into winter, we will be sharing some of our favorite year-round hikes.
Staghorn Sumac

One of our fall traditions in the Portland area is a visit to the Hoyt Arboretum. This is, in fact, just a lot of trees on a hillside, some of them sporting I.D. tags. In the fall, though, the Arboretum comes to life in a bounty of colors. The Visitor Center has a map of the different areas of the Arboretum, which is divided into species groups. Since different trees turn color and drop their leaves at different times, this hike could be done several times during the fall. Be sure to bring a camera.

There are twelve miles' worth of trails in the Arboretum alone, so it can be difficult to know where to start. The Overlook Trail runs from the Visitor Center, over the hill, and down toward the zoo. This trail leads to the maple and ash areas, which would be a good place to look for fall color. If it isn't raining, you will probably see people enjoying picnics. If the sun is out, families will be lying in the grass. The southern-facing hillside welcomes those of us who can't say goodbye to summer.

Another beautiful walk is the Redwood Trail, which leads to the larch and redwood trees. Now, on most days, larches do not cause me much excitement. If someone told me that I must go and look at a wonderful bunch of larches, I would avoid eye contact and back away slowly. This rule does not apply, however, in the autumn. These trees are deciduous conifers, meaning that they shed their needles in the fall. When the nights grow chilly, the larch grove turns every shade of gold. Also watch for the dawn redwoods, massive trees with bronze needles in the fall; the low-angled sun lights them up like a torch.

The Wildwood Trail passes by the north end of the Arboretum and heads toward the Japanese and Rose Gardens. I am always amazed at the roses that keep stubbornly blooming despite the weather. We have gotten some beautiful shots of rose blossoms and fall leaves. This area still smells like summer when summer is long gone.
Basin outside the Japanese Garden

From here, you can either return to your car the way you came or catch the bus back into town. Bring a snack. If you meet a squirrel, be sure to say goodnight.

About Hoyt Arboretum and Washington Park
The Arboretum is spread out on the hill between the Oregon Zoo and the Rose Garden. It is a short, pleasant drive with occasional parking areas.
The Visitor Center is centrally located, but be prepared for a maze of roads and trails. A map is very helpful. There is also a month-by-month guide supplied by the Hoyt Aboretum Friends which outlines seasonal highlights for the area.

With the many trails and small roads in this part of the park, it's easy to customize the length of your hike. Please note that, as tempting as it is, the Wildwood Trail is closed to bicycles.
Fall leaves in the Japanese Garden

The Rose Garden and Arboretum are free, but there is a fee to visit the Japanese Garden. It is well worth it, though, if you have about two hours to tour the garden.

Tri-Met Bus #63 takes a leisurely ramble up to the Rose Garden area from downtown Portland. Passing through the beautiful West Hills, it's a pleasant mini-tour in itself. If you can't take public transportation to the park, you will have to find a place for your car. Some weekends, this can be a challenge. There is now a parking fee in Washington Park, so be sure to note your parking spot number so you can pay at the booth. If you try to guess, you might mess up the machine. But that's another story...


Sunday, October 12, 2014

Champoeg State Park: Finding Oregon's Roots

One might ask why I am bothering to write about this park. Many Oregonians have been here already, as well as countless visitors from other states. Families from the Willamette Valley and beyond gather here in the summertime to picnic, ride their bikes, and play frisbee golf. They tie their boats to the dock and fish for hours.

But they are missing the best season at Champoeg. The time to visit Champoeg is during the fall, when the sunlight has the mellow softness of old wine and the leaves glow golden overhead and underfoot. The crowds have gone. Not only are wonderful campsites now freely available (unlike summertime, when they are booked far ahead), the fees drop on October first. Better yet, there may even be an unreserved yurt where campers can snuggle in and listen to autumn raindrops on the tent roof.

In 1843, pioneers met here to establish Oregon's first provisional government. In the following years, this wide, empty plain was settled by farm families. A riverside town grew up, but later washed away in a flood.

Today, the area retains its farm flavor. On the fringes of the campground and day use area, fields of grain are harvested. Sheep still graze. The warm smell of harvest time, so familiar to those settlers, still drifts over the plain. This is where I go to reconnect with my roots. I am a farmer's daughter, a lifelong Oregonian who grew up alongside a river. This feels like home.

The author on the public dock at Champoeg
We always bring our bikes. Paved paths wind throughout the park and continue on to Butteville Store. It's closed in the fall, but the ride is easy and family-friendly. Not much is left of Butteville, either, but it is something of a time capsule, with boys in bare feet fishing on the river bank and a sleepy Sunday-afternoon feel any day of the week.

Log Cabin Museum during relocation
The history continues at a compound of historic buildings. The Manson Barn is believed to predate the flood's destruction. It is an excellent example of skilled pioneer woodworking and is used during living history events. The adjacent  kitchen garden is planted with heirloom vegetables and herbs. A nearby compound of historic buildings has recently been joined by the old Log Cabin Museum, moved log-by-log from its former site on the eroding river bank.

If rain moves in, we head to nearby Aurora, originally settled as a Christian commune. Now it is a tidy little town, offering a wonderful history museum and a seemingly endless collection of antique shops. We could spend days there, exploring the museum and getting lost in Aurora Mills, an architectural salvage shop inside a building that appears to have been built long ago by a deranged grain dealer.

It has been many years since I moved away from our farm in the Valley. Perhaps that's why I don't feel like autumn has arrived until I have seen the Champoeg oak leaves fading to brown and walked alongside the harvested fields. I need to see the squirrels hoarding acorns. I need to see that the sheeps' wool is growing out for the winter. I need to come home, if only for a little while, before it is winter.


More About the Champoeg State Heritage Area

Historic Structures 
The museum and historic buildings at Champoeg are used for living history events and school field trips. They are sometimes open to the public, but hours vary. The kitchen garden, apple orchard, and grounds are usually open for exploration. The Friends of Historic Champoeg have an excellent website which details attractions and events, including contact information.

Champoeg State Park
The state operates a day-use area and a very popular campground. Champoeg's history is explained in an interpretive center, which is open almost every day. Information is available on their website, OSP Champoeg Heritage Area . There is a day-use fee for non-campers.
Biking Near Champoeg 
The area here is known as French Prairie, which gives a hint as to its terrain. The flat-to-gently-rolling landscape makes for fun peddling. The ride from Newberg is less than nine pastoral miles. Bike enthusiasts who live in the Salem area can take advantage of the Willamette Valley Scenic Bikeway and make a longer trip. It's also possible to travel up the west side of the river, which would include a ride on the Wheatland Ferry. Champoeg State Park has a nice hiker/biker camp tucked under the oaks near a grassy meadow (see photo, above). Please be aware that many roads in the valley were not designed with bicyclists in mind. Shoulders can be narrow in some places, and motorists do not always expect to round a corner and find bicycles. Enjoy the ride, but stay aware and alert!

Update: Spring 2015


New facilities at Champoeg make it an even more attractive destination for bicyclists. The hiker/biker camp now features two wooden shelters, plus a stack of small, critter-proof lockers, each containing an electrical outlet for charging electronics. Cyclists will also find a repair area with a stand and a selection of tools connected by cables. The shelters and chargers are for campers, but the repair stand is available to anyone biking in the park. We hope to see more of these bike-friendly upgrades in Oregon parks!

New covered bike repair stand (seat on one side, workbench on the other, rack and tools on near end, pump at far end)

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Paddling Beaver Creek: Peaceful Water

Our photographer, paddling under the South Beaver Creek Road bridge. Photo by Sally.

On the Water

The wind drops abruptly and the sky opens. My kayak slips silently among thousands of raindrops. The distant grumble of the ocean is drowned by the music of rain on the still creek. A marsh wren dangles from a sedge stem, quizzically eyeing this soggy middle-aged mom in a skinny plastic boat. I can't stop smiling.

This is just one of countless Beaver Creeks. It is where we learned to canoe, our small son ineffectually wielding his little paddle; he now takes the stern with his powerful J-stroke. Whether in canoes or kayaks, we always paddle quietly and alertly, as this beautiful area is a refuge for a wide variety of wildlife.

The resident otters often appear, as well as muskrats, nutria, deer, mink, and sometimes even beavers. I watch the skies for ospreys, kingfishers, great blue herons, egrets, and marsh hawks. Sometimes I catch a quick glimpse of a pied-billed grebe just before it submerges. 

Part of this marsh was once home to a herd of cattle. They would watch us in mild bovine surprise as we paddled through their field. Now the cows have moved on to drier pastures and the area is owned by Oregon State Parks, officially designated as the Beaver Creek State Natural Area. The creek is friendly water, easy to access and easy to paddle.

I head back downstream and notice a smooth path down the center of the creek. It appears as though I have left a trail, but I know that it is just a trick of the breeze. The water is always moving, making its leisurely way to the sea. This is different water now; it doesn't remember. I will remember. At the boat ramp I meet Vinny, a visitor from New York. He helps me load my boat. I turn onto Highway 101 in the pouring rain. I am still smiling.


More About Beaver Creek

The Beaver Creek State Natural Area consists of approximately 375 acres of marshland and fields. It is located south of Newport, Oregon, near Ona Beach and Brian Booth State Parks. Instead of turning west into the Ona Beach parking lot , turn east onto Beaver Creek Road. The boat ramp is immediately on your right. There is a vault toilet and parking here.

It is a short, pleasant paddle to the beach, but the real joy is the journey upstream. The area is only mildly affected by tides, so the creek can be paddled any time. Wind is a factor during the summer months; save a little extra energy for the paddle back. Morning paddles usually have less wind and will reward early risers with more wildlife sightings. The current is usually not a factor except during the late winter and early spring.

The State Parks Department offers guided tours during the summer months, meeting at South Beach Campground. It is easy enough to go by yourself, though. Bring your own boat (or rent one) and put in at the boat ramp. There is currently no fee. Be aware that jet skis are prohibited, but not other motorized craft. These rarely appear, though, due to the many snags in this wandering creek.

You may want to visit the official Visitor's Center, which is located just up the road. Continue on Beaver Creek Road to a Y, where you will turn left onto North Beaver Creek Road. The Center is just ahead on your right.
The author watches for grebes. Photo by Austen.