“Wow! We’ve seen 147 Trillium! Look at how prickly that Oregon Grape is! Can I try tasting this Indian Plum leaf? Look at how gnarled that Douglas Fir bark is! Did you know that it’s illegal to pick a Trillium? Hey! That’s the call of the Winter Wren! That’s an awesome bandit costume you made!”
Hmmm…what is the source of all this nature-loving banter, do you ask? What is the cause of such excitement about Northwest natural history lore? I’m letting you in on a slice of a week I spent with a roving bunch of 3rd, 4th, and 5th grade students immersed in the adventure that is Colin Meloy’s Wildwood Chronicles. Sound familiar? Well yes, I’m at it again. After leading a 2-week hike last summer along the Wildwood Trail with day campers from Portland Parks and Recreation’s day camp,I couldn’t get enough. So I jumped at the opportunity to create an experiential class at my school based on Colin Meloy’s imaginary world that comes alive so tangibly in our Portland landscape. What’s better than a story complete with bandits camouflaging into the forest, talking coyotes in 19th century army costumes, vicious baby-kidnapping Corvids, humans riding giant Golden Eagles, and communing with a giant tree? And the fact that the book is set in Portland? Even better! Wish you’d been part of our adventure? Well, luckily for you, I will let you in on a bit of the fun we had traversing the Impassible Wilderness (Forest Park) and all we found there.
We began our week by exploring St. Johns, a neighborhood in Portland tucked high into the North Portland peninsula. Wildwood‘s main character, Prue, lives here, which prompted our visit. In his book, Meloy immediately immerses readers in Prue’s place and we aimed at doing the same. We walked half-way across the St. Johns bridge, peering hesitantly over its edge into Cathedral Park and the murky Willamette below. The Railroad Bridge and Sauvie Island lay unattainable to the North and South and we squinted into the long-awaited Spring sun. The suspension cables bounced us up and down as we walked alongside large trucks, which whizzed by on their Highway 30 route. As we walked, we learned about the bridge’s destiny as a black and yellow painted icon, but luckily they ended up painting it green on St. Patrick’s day. We learned about bridge-building accidents (for people like Slim Skauge) which resulted in large settlements. And we stared high into the cathedral-like spires, marveling at their impossible height.
After a quick stop at the library, where Prue borrows Sibley’s Guide to Birds of North America, we enjoyed a well-deserved recess at St Johns City Park, where we jeered back at taunting crows, glad that no one was going to be kidnapped and taken into the Impassible Wilderness that day.
Day Two called for a drizzly, but appropriate, first venture into the Impassible Wilderness. We started the day in the woods behind our school, in a search for the best bandit costumes. Duly outfitted, we took a short bus ride down Burnside and then slipped relatively unnoticed into the woods. Once on the Wildwood Trail, destination Pittock Mansion, we were immediately greeted with a quiet forest alive with bird song and bright green trees. It must have been the ivy crowns, muddy faces, and bows and arrows, but I must say that we blended in well. Once at the top, we enjoyed the city-wide view from the Governor’s Mansion and continued honing our bandit skills of camouflage and stealth. All the while, a soft drizzle covered our grey city and we felt the magic of the Wood beginning to take its hold on us.
On Day Three, we visited the Avian Principality (the Audubon Society of Portland), hoping for a ride on a Golden Eagle, but to no avail. We were graced with a tour of the surrounding forest as well as the Wildlife Care Center. We saw newts, learned about a bevy of native plants, and enjoyed the freshness of a squishy, sun-lit forest after a night and morning of rain.
Our last day concluded the week with a grand adventure in North Wood. Excited to use their new knowledge from the week, all twelve students took to the Linnton Trail, which climbs into the Impassible Wilderness North of St. Johns, with great zeal. We were accompanied by our guide, Lucy, who leads Discovery Hikes for Forest Park Conservancy. We hiked alongside Linnton Creek, which was our active musical accompaniment as we climbed the ridge step by step. We all drank in the green of the forest, which had been enlivened by a rainy week. The forest had suddenly seemed to come alive with a new magic after our week immersed in Meloy’s interpretation of our hometown forest. Had we been graced with Woods magic on the last day, deserving of seeing Forest Park sparkle after such a fruitful week of nature learning? Well, it certainly seemed so.
The sun was upon us that morning to make the Trillium, Indian Plum, Oregon Grape, Duck’s Foot, Oxalis, Licorice Fern, and Douglas Fir, among other new favorite plants, come alive with even more greens and whites and yellows and reds than we had seen before. The students practically ran up the trail, so heightened was their excitement. I surely didn’t blame them, as we were graced with 147 Trillium sightings and just from the trail at that! After we did our part as ivy slayers with the Forest Park Conservancy, we headed back to school on a nature high. As the parents arrived to the classroom at the end of the day, we greeted them with cups of our homemade Licorice Fern root, Oregon Grape root, Indian Plum leaf tea and nature journals full of found treasures and interesting new scientific information. It seems to be that I can’t stay away from the magic of Wildwood for too long. Stay tuned for more of my wild adventures in Forest Park in the future. Until then, I encourage you to hit the woods yourself!