“As Prue walked, she cast her eyes about her; no one she knew had ever ventured here before. So soon in her journey she felt like the first explorer of some alien world … [She] stopped and leaned against a fir tree, taking in her verdant surroundings. As far as the eye could see, it was green. As many shades of green as Prue could imagine were draped across the landscape: the electric emerald of the ferns and the sallow olive of the drooping lichen and the stately gray-green of the fir branches. The sun was rising higher in the sky, and it streamed through the gaps of the dense wood. ‘Wow,’ said Curtis, between gasps for breath, ‘the kids at school are not going to believe this'” (43-45).
from Wildwood, by Colin Meloy. Illustrated by Carson Ellis.
And hence begins a similar adventure into the same wild land: 8 campers, 2 instructors, 1 assistant, arriving at NW Newberry Road at 9:45 am. A 5,000 acre wilderness lays before them. A 30+ mile trail below their feet. Their legs are fresh, muscles loose and ready for a day of walking. As they step onto the trail from the road, they notice an almost instant change in temperature- cool to cooler, a slight breeze whipping in their hair and setting the leaves and needles on their twigs swaying gently. The ground is soft beneath their feet, crunching lightly with each step as their boots strain the constitution of dry, brittle pine needles. After walking for few feet, they all look quietly about them to make sure they aren’t seen by other trail-goers. Seeing no one, they venture off trail. They use Leave No Trace ethics as they walk carefully between living plants, making sure they aren’t squished as they go. Eventually, they find a flat, less vegetated area to sit down in a circle for their opening daily smudge ceremony and circle, learning names and sharing visions for the week. The adventure has begun.
Two weeks ago, my colleague Elvira and I began a journey we had been planning since February: to bring a group of the most experienced campers from Portland Parks’ Summer Nature Day Camp, kids aged 10-13, to Forest Park for the purpose of hiking the entire Wildwood Trail (30.25 miles) over two weeks. What follows are highlights of our experience, which will be covered over two consecutive blog post this week and next week. Each morning, we divvied up roles amongst the group members: A Scout to find our smudge and lunch spots, a Timekeeper to keep us on track, a Bird Brain to alert us of bird sightings and songs, a Navigator to hold our map and alert us of passing mileage markers, A Scribe to note birds we noticed and to make a log of trail conditions for Portland Parks trails staff, a WAM (Water Appreciation Moment) person to remind us to drink and pee, and an LNT monitor to make sure we didn’t leave behind trash or step on live plants.
Every day, we walked about 3-4 miles through our verdant surroundings; crossing small creeks (some dry), looking skyward into high Douglas Fir branches and low-hanging Maples, and oggling at Shelf Fungus growing on trees alongside the trail. Some Vine Maple branches we passed hung like sloped ceilings over the trail and Bananna Slugs were common at every turn. We took the time to warn each other of Bananna Slug crossings and bonding with the slimy creatures, saying, “Watch out for Delilah on the trail!,” “Don’t step on Gertrude!,” or “George is making his way across- watch out!” The topography of Forest Park was fairly consistent throughout our hike: linear creeks (or creek beds) headed straight downhill every mile or so, set inside deep ravines that sloped dramatically. The Wildwood Trail is conveniently set in this hilly landscape, winding in and out of the ravines over a pretty steady elevation. Trees surrounded us at every view, the bright sky above seemingly very far away beyond the green canopy. As we walked, I couldn’t help but think how eerily historic the forest seemed. I felt like a Lewis and Clark-era explorer, blazing a trail through the wilderness, climbing the Tualatin Mountains to reach the westward ocean. As the week progressed, I began to really sink into the continuity of the trail: its almost monotonous green, its rising and falling, its cacophonous birdsong, its timeless feel of peace and tranquility.
I can’t imagine that young people thru hiking the Wildwood Trail is wildly common in Portland, mostly because of the long distance and the accessibility factor for families of the Northern trail heads off Skyline Boulevard. The only public write-up I remember reading (which inspired me to thru-hike the trail!) was on Laura Foster’s walking Portland blog, where she hiked the entire Wildwood trail over 3 days with her daughter. Thru-running the entire trail is somewhat common, as marathoners are seemingly ubiquitous here, but our camp experience seemed like quite the pioneered territory, with structured activities and experienced guides leading the group.
In addition to learning how to navigate with a compass, read a map, assess the water quality of a creek, and identify a multitude of native plants, the group was continually learning how to identify local birds by sound. This was one of the highlights of the trip for me; it was a skill I needed to practice quite a bit and with the thick leaf-cover obscuring birds’ singing places, we often had to rely on our ears and the Backyard Birdsong Guide to Birds of Western North America in order to know which avian friends we were hangin’ with. My two favorite songs, which we consistently heard throughout our trip, were the Winter Wren and the Swainson’s Thrush. The Winter Wren‘s song is seemingly endless, complex, and variant, made of constantly rising and falling 64th notes or something else inconceivably intricate. The Swainson’s Thrush song is ethereal, rising in a spiraling upward note. It often sounded like a grand echo, bouncing off the hard wood of the surrounding trees. Amazing. Click on the links I have provided for each bird to take a listen for yourself!
A daily companion on our hike was Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis’s book, Wildwood. Set in Forest Park itself with 12-year-old Port-Land Prue and Curtis as its protagonists, it depicts Forest Park as an Impassable Wilderness, a dangerous land that has not been seen by those who live across the river from it. Just a few pages into the book, however, we discover this is not the case. The Impassible Wilderness is filled with countless wonders- beautiful trees and ravines, talking animals, and humans living harmoniously (most of the time) with humans. As we walked the trail and crossed those ravines, I could almost see the coyote-bandit battles playing out before my eyes. In the spirit of the magical world of Wildwood, Elvira and I tried to bring the forest alive for our campers. We found sit spots each morning, which meant finding a place away from the trail and other campers to center ourselves and become more aware in nature. We listened, we drew, we wrote, and we sat, immersing it all.
We also pulled ivy throughout our journey. If you have read Colin and Carson’s book (which I encourage you to do if you haven’t!), ivy plays a big part in the evil that transpires in Wildwood. Though we didn’t see much ivy alongside the Wildwood Trail itself until the second week, we found plenty of side trails to struggle with the seemingly all-resilient vine. Luckily we found creative ways to have fun with the depressing battle against invasive species.
So, I leave you, until next week, with an excerpt from my trail journal:
We’ve reached a more verdant, quiet part of the trail. Less people today. The woods are thicker, the trails more winding, the terrain a bit steeper. Sometimes you just have to stop, really stop, and sit on a mossy log, surrounded by glades of ferns and tall, sloping Maple trees, boughs extending over the tree. Sometimes you really just have to stop, stop and look, stop and breathe, stop and feel, stop and smell, stop and listen. Sometimes you have to really just stop and be able to thank. To feel the layers of dead leaves below your feet, remnants of years’ worth of regenerating trees. Today I feel like celebrating, for the swaths, acres upon acres of land beyond this trail that I will never walk or see. For gnarled trees fused together, remnants of time gone by, of years of wisdom that came before me, reminding me of all I have left to observe and learn. For this, I am grateful.
Note: Part 2 of my Wildwood Adventure write-up can be found here. Read all about it!