Monday, December 12, 2016

Christmas in the City: The Grotto

Our story begins in a brush-snarled former quarry in the year 1923. Father Ambrose Mayer viewed the acreage with its 110-foot cliff and offered all the money he owned as a down payment. Supported by donations from near and far, he began the property's transformation. Brush was cleared, gardens were platted, and a large cave was carved into the cliffside. In 1924, the first Catholic mass was held at The Grotto, which Father Mayer built in honor of Mary, the mother of Jesus.

It would seem especially appropriate, then, to celebrate Christmas in this Garden; in fact, a centerpiece of the display is a beautiful life-sized nativity scene set in front of the namesake Grotto. Angels glow on the cliff above, and the entire lower garden is lit by over 500,000 lights placed by an army of volunteers.

Mittened and booted visitors wander through the light display and listen to carolers. The plaza area also offers puppet shows, live animals, and a gift shop. When the Northwest drizzle sets in, though, the place to be is in the 400-seat chapel. Renowned for its acoustics, this sanctuary hosts five concerts each evening of the Christmas season.

This display has been a Portland family tradition for decades, so plan on finding a crowd. The unassuming Northeast neighborhood doesn't seem to know what hit it, and the small parking lot fills quickly. Click here for a map, as well as directions, schedules, ticket prices, and general information. If the lot is full, look for parking in a nearby side street, or avoid the parking issue entirely by taking TriMet bus # 12 or 71. Please note that while the garden is accessible, the ground is uneven in places and most of the paths are lit only by Christmas lights.

While The Grotto is a Catholic shrine, everyone is welcome here. Don't hesitate to visit this beautiful garden at any time of the year. As Archbishop Alexander Christie declared at The Grotto's opening mass:

"Let this be a sanctuary of peace for all peoples of the earth, and surely in this day a sanctuary is needed. Torn with differences, strife, and grief, the world needs sanctuary where the human spirit can seek peace and consolation."

Merry Christmas!

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Christmas in the Valley: The Oregon Garden

As a rule, gardens aren't popular places to hang out after dark in December, especially in rainy western Oregon. The Oregon Garden near Silverton has found a solution to the muddy winter doldrums, however: Christmas in the Garden.

This garden is known for its creative plantings, its proximity to Frank Lloyd Wright's Gordon House, and its family- and pet-friendly grounds. While December evening visitors will find the Gordon House shut up tight, they will encounter ice skating, snowless tubing, and acres of colored lights. Vendors offer unique handcrafted gifts, the snack booth sells gluhwein (I did not make that up), and Santa Claus holds court inside a cozy garden shed. Families convene around blazing firepits and carolers spread Christmas joy.

An open tram runs continuously through the garden, whisking visitors to their destinations. While tram stops are easy to find, and while the weather may encourage sitting undercover for a few minutes, consider walking at least part of the way. The decorated areas are generously lit and easy to navigate; most paths are even stroller-friendly.

The garden can seem huge and mazelike, and it's even more so in low light. Click here for a map of the entire garden; be aware, however, that not all areas are lit for Christmas. Avoid the unlit parts, as it may be difficult to find your way, and besides, you won't see anything in the dark.

Coming in near the gift shop, watch for a brightly-lit square with glowing ball ornaments. Look uphill toward the resort building for an overview of the illuminated planting beds, all laid out in colorful plaid. Wander among the beds, or turn right and follow the lights to find the snowless tubing. The square is also a good spot to catch the tram.

Watch for a red and white lighted tunnel; stop at the information booth at its entrance and pick up a map. Once through the tunnel, you will find yourself in the marketplace, with booths, firepits, and the live music tent. Of course, all is brightly lit with Christmas lights. Enjoy a hot drink next to an outdoor heater, or pick up a pretzel to nibble. Follow a lighted pathway to the ice skating tent; skates are available to rent, as well as bobbies for beginners. The rink is crowded with families having fun and falling down, making it a perfect spot to get warm and people-watch even if you don't skate (please note that dogs are not allowed in the skating tent). Coming back through the candy-cane tunnel, walk over to the resort building for an overview of the garden lights. You can catch the tram here, or you can stroll downhill through a second lighted tunnel.

The website is full of useful information, including ticket prices, fees, hours, and frequently asked questions. Be sure to check out the schedule calendar, as many of the activities are only offered on certain evenings. Plan ahead so you won't be disappointed.

This is Oregon, so bundle up, bring boots for the kids, and put a raincoat on your pooch. You may have stars overhead, or good old Oregon drizzle, but Christmas is in the Garden. Head to the off-the-beaten-path town of Silverton and start a new family tradition.

Watch for a small, crimson-lit trail that strays off the beaten path. Here you will find the home of Krampus, a creature that visits naughty children in the days before Christmas to kidnap them and leave a lump of coal in their place. Thankfully Krampus made no appearance at this festive celebration.

Saturday, November 19, 2016

By the Mouth of the Quick Sand: Sandy River Delta Park

Motorists heading out of Portland on I-84 speed past a wide, open meadow backed by a lovely woodland. In this area of airports, asphalt, and industry, the sudden, incongruous pastoral scene is accented by a rustic wooden corral.

The freeway-flanked meadow was, indeed, a verdant pasture for many years. This area was also the site of an aluminum plant which changed the post-depression economic climate of the nearby towns of Troutdale and Gresham. Lewis and Clark explored here while camped at what is now Lewis and Clark State Park. Mt. Hood had erupted just a few years before, sending quantities of ashy sediment down the river and forming a delta at its confluence with the Columbia. Clark noted the sticky, coarse sediment of the river bottom in 1805, naming this the "Quick Sand River" (later shortened to "Sandy"). The silty sand of the delta provides a frequently changing maze of sandbars and small, braided waterways.

At the time of Lewis and Clark's visit the Sandy had two mouths, with an island tucked between the two channels and the Columbia. In the 1930s a dam was built across the upper channel in an effort to improve fish runs in the river. The channel filled with silt and Sundial Island became accessible to foot traffic. In 1941 the Alcoa Aluminum Plant was built. By the end of the 1900s, though, the business was in serious decline due to increasing energy costs and lawsuits over its fluoride emissions. Demolition of the plant began in 2003, followed by an environmental cleanup project.

For many years the meadows, forests, and marshes of the delta were known to locals as "Thousand Acres Dog Park." Acquired by the Forest Service in 1991, this park (now actually 1400 acres) has gradually been returned to its original appearance with the re-establishment of wetlands, removal of invasive plant species, and replanting of native plants. Now accessible by foot, wheelchair, bicycle, or horse, this wild place beside I-84 has again become an expansive home for birds and other wildlife. In 2013, the dam across the upper river channel was improve fish runs. A pilot channel through the accumulated silt introduced flowing water back into the old channel, and the river worked as rivers will. Three years later, the upper channel flows strongly, looking as though nothing had ever happened. Ducks, geese, and mergansers paddle the water that begins high on Mt. Hood and joins the Columbia on its way to the ocean.

Sandy River Delta is still a dog park enjoyed by multitudes of exuberant, leash-free canines. At the same time it is a haven for birds, who relish the return of marshes and natural meadow land; Northwest Birding provides a thorough list of birds sighted in the park. About a third of the park has been set aside for wildlife, and a rustic fence marks the boundary.

To find the park from I-84, take Exit 18 and turn north, following signs to the parking area. There is also a road along the Sandy River from Lewis and Clark State Park. Be aware of the leash-required zones; the Forest Service site has an excellent overview of the park, as well as an aerial photograph of the delta. The Friends of the Sandy River Delta have a very informative site that can answer any questions a visitor may have.

The large parking lot has room for horse trailers as well as hitching posts. Restrooms and picnic tables are provided among the cottonwoods. The picturesque old corral is tucked between the parking lot and I-84. Several trails lead toward the bird blind; the most direct route is the accessible Confluence Trail (please be courteous and keep dogs on leashes on this trail). The blind is artistic and modern-looking and definitely worth a visit, but visibility is limited by the slats, making photography and the use of binoculars cumbersome. It's worth noting that we saw countless birds on our last visit, but none from the blind.

To find a variety of songbirds, follow the Boundary and Meadow Trails through the fields. The Ranch Dike Trail leads through a cottonwood grove, and the Old Channel Trail wanders near the old/new upper river channel. Watch for access trails to the river, where ecstatic dogs pursue sticks flung into the water. The old 1000 Acres Road is still a lovely walk, but don't believe outdated maps; with the dam gone, there is no longer foot access to Sundial Island.

While this park offers a quick hike on your way out of Portland, we have spent many hours exploring the trails and bird watching. It's especially pretty in the fall, when the light is soft on the falling leaves. So take Exit 18. Spend a little time where Lewis and Clark explored a new delta and where workers smelted aluminum for World War II. Let your kids ride their bikes while your dogs run through the mud. Watch golden-crowned sparrows flit over the marshy grassland where nature is quickly healing herself alongside the freeway.

The ornamental yet unproductive bird blind.