Thursday, March 7, 2019

A Stop Along the Way: Talking Water Gardens

Out at the edge of Albany, on an old lumber mill site beside the train tracks, there is a series of wastewater settling ponds. We recommend that you visit them. Bring the family. Take lots of pictures. And if you find that suggestion a bit confusing, then you haven't heard about Talking Water Gardens.

Conceived as a way to naturally filter wastewater from the local treatment plant and a specialty metals manufacturer, this 37-acre constructed wetland now provides habitat for moisture-loving plants and a variety of wildlife, including over 100 species of birds. The water released into the ponds has already been treated; its journey through Talking Water provides further cooling, filtration, and aeration before it is released into the Willamette River.

Because it was engineered to be welcoming for humans as well as wildlife, this wetland makes an excellent rainy-season stop. Over two miles of mud-free walking trails wind among the pools; wheelchair users will find this an unusually friendly spot for exploration and photography, since many of the paths are accessible and most are level. Children enjoy watching the numerous ducks who call these pools home (but please don't feed them!), and leashed pets are permitted, as well.

The gardens are located at 577 Waverly Drive NE, which sounds simple enough, but it's one of those places that's easy to find if you know where it is. From SE Salem Avenue/Old Salem Road NE, turn north on Davidson, then turn right (east) on Front Avenue and curve left onto Waverly Drive, which leads to a parking area for both Talking Water and Simpson Park. The garden is free and open to the public every day from sunrise to sunset.

As you approach the gardens from the parking lot you will hear the sound of the main waterfall: talking water. This is one of several falls where water is aerated as it drops from one level to the next. Follow the trails to find a total of nine ponds and marshes. Points of interest include the remains of an old log pond from the lumbermill days as well as some small, lovely oak groves. Be sure to see the "weeping wall," formerly a section of the mill's loading dock. Water at the top of the wall trickles into a long, beautifully-planted pool below. The entire garden is a study in combining the natural with the man-made; this moist area beside the Willamette has hosted wildlife for millennia, and nature has been quick to return. At the same time, well-groomed pathways, wooden footbridges, carefully chosen plants, and artistically-placed stones give it the feel of a public garden.

Keep an eye out for the many species of birds who frequent this wetland. On our recent visit we observed a variety of ducks, including buffleheads, cinnamon teal, widgeons, and mallards. We also saw grebes, coots, Canada geese, and cormorants on the many ponds. A golden eagle watched from a treetop, and redwing blackbirds flitted between the bushes. Tiny marsh wrens dangled from reeds, watching us with curious eyes.
First Lake

If you're in a mood for more hiking, take the Simpson Park Trail from the same parking lot. There are a few picnic tables here, as well as access to First Lake (it is possible to hand-launch a small boat or pontoon from the simple put-in, and there are reports of bass being caught here early in the season). This trail is a muddy, primitive contrast to the neat gravel paths of Talking Water. It runs for over a mile between the Willamette River and First and Second Lakes, which are actually lovely, peaceful oxbows of the Willamette. There are a few viewpoints where one can spy the river and occasional views of the lakes; otherwise, this is mostly a walk in the woods, frequented by runners and their dogs as well as a few homeless people.

As a "stop along the way," Talking Water is not a wilderness experience; in fact, it's downright industrial, with the railroad track running alongside and I-5 just a short distance away. That being said, the beautiful, surprisingly tranquil gardens are an example of what can be done with planning and cooperation in partnership with nature.

Above and below the weeping wall

Ducks enjoying the garden

Cinnamon Teal


View from the top of the "Talking Waters"

Willamette River from the Simpson Park Trail

First Lake from the Simpson Park Trail


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