“I love how I feel after I hike. Sometimes if I haven’t hiked for a couple weeks, I notice the difference the most. I feel lighter, physically and emotionally. My worries seem farther away.”
– Bluebird (camper), age 10 –
A couple weeks ago, I wrote my first installment of two about a camp experience I led last month with my colleague and friend, Elvira (or Teacher Wren). On July 9th, accompanied by eight campers, we began a journey of what would eventually be the entire 30.25 miles of the Wildwood Trail, hiked with our very own feet. Over ten days on the trail, we learned how to navigate with a compass, read a map, assess the water quality of a creek, and identify a multitude of birds and native plants. Every day on the Wildwood was like stepping into a magical world, filled with wildlife encounters and an astounding richness of botanical diversity.
Forest Park, the setting of our camp, is a wonderfully unique place that deserves its own explanation. At 5,100 acres, it is the largest city park in a North American metropolitan area, which is a pretty incredible feat in my opinion. No other city in this dear continent of ours has access to such a shockingly wild forest area, within walking distance of commercial and residential spaces. There are dozens of miles of trails running through the park, including the 11 mile Leif Erikson Drive for mountain bikers, runners, and walkers and many other smaller connecting trails. But the big cahuna of trails in Forest Park is the 30.25 mile Wildwood Trail. It had always been a goal of mine to hike the entire trail, and Elvira’s as well, I believe. So we somewhat selfishly planned a camp that we knew we would enjoy and we hoped the campers would too. And we certainly weren’t disappointed. The vastness of Forest Park’s beauty was overwhelming at times, and I know we often felt as though we we walking through a magical forest world: swaths of sword fern understory, nurse logs centuries old and crumbling, the coolness of a trail shaded by tall conifers, maples, and alders, banana slugs at every turn, and creeks making their linear descent down to the Willamette were only a few of our constant companions for the group as we made our journey southward.
We were also cheerily accompanied by avian friends, who rarely showed their little bodies but made their presence known by singing or calling incessantly. In my previous post, I talked about two species’ songs in particular that I enjoyed (the Winter Wren and the Swainson’s Thrush) whose songs followed us along many bends in the trail. One time, during a sit spot, Elvira was experimenting with the Backyard Birdsong Guide that we had brought with us on our trip. She looped the song of the Winter Wren, the tinkling notes echoing around under the tree canopy, buzzing the leaves themselves. Soon enough, we heard a real Wren territorially claiming its spot in defiance of Teacher Wren. As she continued the electronic song, the real bird got more and more frustrated, until we saw its small brown body whiz into our camp location like a round, brown, fuzzy bullet. The Golden Snitch almost immediately came to mind. That Wren wasn’t going to let another one of its species sing in his area! It was wonderful hiking to the soundtrack of local birds. Though the Northern Pygmy Owl eluded us, we were able to solve a birdsong mystery. Throughout the week, we had been hearing a bird that sounded distinctly like a whistle of attention or “loowit!” After puzzling our brains for most of the second week, when we stopped at the Audubon Society for lunch on Thursday, we inquired at the front desk about our mystery bird. Without skipping a beat, the volunteer Marilyn gave us a perfect imitation of what we had heard. It was amazing. And we were able to finally name our friend the Pacific Slope Flycatcher.
As we hiked closer to the city, the forest began to look more familiar to me. Prior to our trip, I had hiked on the Wildwood Trail only as far North as the intersection of the Dogwood Trail. When we reached this point, our hearts started to sink with the sight of more and more ivy. Based on what we observed on the trail, we could hypothesize that predominance of ivy directly relates to the amount of people hiking on the trail. Prior to this, we had only seen one or two instances of ivy alongside the actual Wildwood (we saw more along Firelanes or side trails) and it was quite sobering to see it taking over entire ravines, making its snaking ascent up tree trunks, yearning for the sun. Why is English Ivy such a monster? Well, it is a strong vine that wraps itself around native trees to reach sun at the top of the canopy. In the process, it smothers trees and kills them. We saw quite a few downed logs covered in ivy. It also takes over ground cover, obliterating space were natives such as Sword Fern and Trillium can thrive. Places where English Ivy is allowed to grow and set down its incredibly strong and complicated root systems, the landscape becomes dominated by just one species, not the beautiful diversity we were used to on our trip. We instated a new rule in the group: for every thimbleberry or huckleberry eaten, each camper had to pull out one length of ivy and either crumple it into a ball in the middle of the trail so it wouldn’t re-root or we would pack large bundles out. I can see why Colin Meloy’s imagination ran wild to make ivy a bloodthirsty antagonist in his book.
We were finally able to get our ivy lust out of our systems when we visited Pittock Mansion on Thursday of the second week. The seat of Southwood’s power in Colin’s book, we took a few moments to admire the historic building that surveys Portland from a dizzying height in its dignified red-brick manner. Then we took a deep breath and plunged into the ivy-infested area just downslope from the Mansion. We spent 45 minute hacking and pulling away at thick roots that tangled themselves around each other and seemed to be endless in length. We made the slightest dent before we left that day, but our sore arms made us feel a little more vindicated.
The last day proved to be an epic summation of our trip, as we touched milemarker “0,” but we were also able to spend a slightly misty morning in the forested area of the trail below Pittock Mansion with our friends Colin Meloy and Carson Ellis. Wearing their new nametags (Salal and Fern), they told us stories of their Forest Park. Once upon a time, Colin and Carson were hiking through the forest, blazing a trail to Leif Erikson. Ferns came waist high on their right and left. Seeing the next ridge just up ahead, their hearts beat faster in anticipation of a shortcut. Until their toes came to rest at the edge of an impossibly deep ravine.
There was no way they would be able to cross this Long Gap. Many months later, their imaginations ran wild, and a vintage bridge was constructed over the ravine. On Leif Erikson Drive, between Springville Road and the Hardesty Trail, there is an old stone foundation of a house, a remnant of when people began building houses along the road in the early 1900s. This was before surveyers found out that the ascent of the Tualatin Mountains wasn’t the best place to begin construction of housing developments. Leif Erikson Drive remains, a memory of logging and perspective development of the area, and this stone foundation remains as well. It is now fully constructed in Wildwood, as the Ancient’s Grove, with toppled columns and all as the remnants of the ancient society that used to inhabit Wildwood. Colin and Carson entertained us with stories like this, further fleshing out their most pivotal character: Forest Park itself.
One of the last group conversations we had on the trip was an evaluation of our use of Screen Time (computer, Internet, TV) vs. Green Time (time in nature). How often do we engage in these activities? And when we do, what do we do? Which is more valuable? Most campers agreed that Screen Time was important, in moderation. Time on the Internet can help expand our minds; there is a whole world of information available to us at our fingertips. Our curiosities about certain topics can be indulged with the click of a finger. But we also discussed that our brains can get clouded during screen time. Mine is a bit clouded right now writing this post and I will be going outside to visit Laurelhurst Park right after this. One camper expressed screen time well: “Screen Time is not really physically helping you but it helps you learn lots of interesting things. We don’t need screens- we just want them.” On the subject of Green Time, we breathed more deeply. We talked about our favorite green places, whether they be Mt. Tabor, Forest Park, or our own blocks. We agreed that Green Time is better for our physical and emotional health. One camper said, “If I don’t go outside at least once per day, I get cooped up. I walk to and from school which is fun.” Not every child has the luxury of walking to school, but we can all make an effort to see some green every day. Forest Park is one of the places we can do this, if our soul is really craving tall trees, ferns as far as the eye can see, or a soundtrack of native birdsong. But even a few minutes sitting in grass nearby our homes, watching an insect climbing up a green stalk, will relieve the knots of stress in our lives. Follow the advice of one of our Wildwood campers:
“Your mind will be at peace.”
You can read about Elvira (Teacher Wren)’s Wildwood Trail experience on her blog here.
The Portland Tribune also profiled Forest Park recently in an article about a Bio Blitz that happened in the park this past May. In true citizen science form, Portlanders surveyed the Park for data on wildlife diversity for 24 hours. Read about it here.