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. 

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)

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