urban naturalist

moss and lichen branch, Meldrum Bar Park nature trail

The best part of living down here on the southern outskirts of the Portland metro—outside of cheaper rent rooming with a friend—is walking access to the confluence of two rivers, the narrower Clackamas in its rocky bed dumping into the wider, deeper Willamette.* I usually go for a long walk along one or both rivers at least once a weekend and on weekday evenings when weather permits, a plan admittedly easier to embrace on warm, sunny days than cool, drizzly ones.

One evening a few weeks ago, my housemate and I walked across the McLoughlin highway into Meldrum Bar Park and down into the "nature preserve," which is far too small for a preserve but at least an attempt, along with the community garden, to balance out all the travel trailers, trucks, and motor boats, the baseball fields, the golf course, the dirt bike area (that looks like giant termite mounds), and the track for those whining remote-controlled cars, meaning boys and their toys. The best part of the natural area is a large pond tucked away from the engine noise of the river and overlooked by a scattering of homes perched above on one side, trees and the "preserve" on the other. We sat on a fallen log by the outlet and watched the first seasonal batch of goslings swimming away between their parents, and duck pairs that dive-bombed just over our heads as they braked to land in the pond. We heard frogs and bird calls from creatures we couldn't see, nestled in trees and bushes.

pond at Meldrum Bar Park

rotting log, Meldrum Bar Park

And then amid all the waterfowl I spotted the head of a mammal swimming towards the right-hand bank, making a V in the water. At first I figured it must be a nutria, a non-native species introduced to Oregon and Washington from South America in the 1930s-50s. But when we finally glimpsed the tail up out of the bank, it was broad and flat rather than rat-like, and the animal itself was quite large, meaning a native beaver (Castor canadensis). We watched the beaver, who completely ignored us, even though we were talking and pointing, swim back to the other side of the pond, dig around in the yellow flag iris lining the pond, and then heard it gnawing on something, maybe the iris, which, though lovely, is yet another invasive species imported from the Old World for gardens but now suffocating Northwest wetlands. That was only the second time in my life I've seen a beaver in the wild, the first time down in the southern Cascades near my hometown. So it was an especially good evening, the sun dropping behind us and the pale moon hovering above the trees.

invasive yellow flag iris, Meldrum Bar Park

The weekend prior was one of those rare, teasing previews of summer, with temperatures near 80 degrees, so I allowed myself to take a picnic blanket to public grassy spots and lie in the sun reading, three days in a row. My roommate and I even had an impromptu picnic one evening on the south bluff overlooking Clackamette Cove.

Clackamette Cove (March 2015)

Another evening, while walking home from Oregon City along the river, I spotted eight fat sea lions, two of which were floating in a circle on their backs with their flippers up, the others napping on a raft near the shore; a large rat on the embankment; and a poor dead mole also on its back but along the path by the Rivershore Motel, likely unearthed by a dog. Government officials claim the sea lions must be regularly "managed"—trapped, branded, culled, and transferred or "euthanized" according to some list, all Nazi-like—to protect endangered salmon and steelhead on their way up and over giant concrete damns to spawn in quiet mountain streams, ignoring the obvious truth that the sea lions wouldn't be coming so far upriver if their marine food sources were still plentiful.

The elephant seal in the room, so to speak, is commercial overfishing and ocean acidification caused by humans, the sea lions' rival and the more voracious predator of not just salmon but all tasty fish and crustaceans. As a side note, one can't walk along the Clackamas or Willamette riverbanks in spring without tripping over a fisherman (and yes, they're almost always men) standing up to his thighs in the chilly river or sitting in a lawn chair on the beach drinking beer, his line taut. Meanwhile, reports continue of massive starfish die-offs along the West coast caused by the ever-puzzling starfish wasting syndrome that turns those pretty, rock-hard purple and orange sea stars into goo. But as those who a) read global news and b) trust in the scientific method should know, the desertification of the oceans is well underway.

two sea lions, Oregon City (February 2015)

branded sea lions, Willamette River (February 2015)

When (or if) I am old, I will remember what was. On warm days, I can't think of a better way to end a workday than poking around down by the river. The feeling reminds me of childhood, heading outside after school or on summer break for a neighborhood adventure, roaming and exploring—think Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Trixie Belden, or even the Goonies—with a freedom kids no longer seem to have or maybe even want, glued as they are now to their game pads. This spring, we found a Corona bottle in the riverbank bushes with plants growing inside, a semi-natural terrarium. And along the same stretch of high bank we spotted the decomposed carcass of a mammal we couldn't identify, not wanting to poke around among its remains, the skull resting atop a matted cushion of brown and blonde fur, part of a small spine visible.

Oregon City boat dock (February 2015)

High Rocks midden, Clackamas River (April 2015)

Sometimes we'll take plastic bags down to the river and collect garbage—thanks to humans, there's always trash underfoot, despite SOLVE's ongoing river cleanup efforts—broken fishing line, beer bottles, beer cans, bottle caps, fishing lures, black bags of dog poop, plastic straws, fast-food wrappers, even once the strewn pink fabric petals off a bouquet of fake flowers. We usually attract curious glances from passersby on these impromptu garbage days, people who think we're either homeless, poking around in trash, or drug addicts digging for cans. But mainly we just walk around the trails, often with cameras for documentation, to see differently in the intersection of human and machine.

Session bottlecap, Willamette River

tiny school of fish, Willamette River

Willamette goslings

One evening in April, the roommate and I watched a sea lion fishing for dinner under the McLoughlin Bridge. Mostly it stayed underwater, circling in a large loop and only coming up for quick breaths. I've seen more wild creatures down here in Clackamas County—hawks, beaver, sea lions, fish, geese, ducks, herons, crawfish, coyote**—than when I lived in the northern, more urban Multnomah County, which almost makes up for having been priced so far south. At least it feels new and different, and for a nomad at heart, that's the most one can ask for.

tiny dragonfly, Meldrum Bar Park

I returned to the Meldrum Bar pond one evening last weekend, around the same time as before, and sat for an hour on the same log but saw no beaver, only geese and goslings and ducks and ducklings, a red-winged blackbird chasing a crow off a hanging bird feeder on the bluff, and cottonwood fluff coating the pond and drifting against the edges of the trails like snow. Sitting with the wild birds and frogs and the sound of flowing water is holy church for an atheist like myself for whom there is nothing else, no heaven, no hell, no escape hatch—only this Earth in a universe whose depth and breadth and machinations none can fathom.

wild roses, Meldrum Bar Park

And so previewing the fate of the biosphere—our planetary home—as detailed in Elizabeth Kolbert's Pulitzer Prize-winning Sixth Extinction this week during my bus reading has stoked a sad, cold rage fit for a crusade. But a crusade on whom? All of humanity are to blame, the people who throw their soda cups and beer cans and plastic on the ground in public parks, as well as those who support fracking, Arctic drilling, single-family homes, and the personal automobile.

boat trouble, Meldrum Bar Park boat launch

falling cottonwood fluff, Meldrum Bar Park

I don't care anymore on the macro level that we are killing off our own species by mucking up the atmosphere and acidifying the oceans, something like turning on the car engine while closing the garage door, a willful suicide—good riddance to the top mammalian predator so competent in rapidly shifting Earth's climate and therefore its eventual geology. But though life will go on, in some form or another, it angers me—and should anger any rational human—that we are taking so many other species out with us. Kolbert, in fact, says certain scientists predict the rise of giant rats after humans' demise, a logical conclusion since rats have historically followed humans everywhere, feeding on our discards. So that will be the world we leave behind, a world best suited for rats? Good-bye elephants, good-bye rhinos, good-bye sea lions, good-bye beavers, good-bye salmon, good-bye frogs, good-bye (many) birds. (Will the children of tomorrow even notice the animals are gone?) Hello, rats—like that fat one I saw on the embankment in Oregon City scuttling into the big pipe.

downy feathers, Willamette riverbank

*FYI, for Oregon transplants, the river and its lush valley are pronounced Wil-LA-met, accent on the second syllable, not Wil-la-METTE, because in the mid-1800s some idiots in local government decided to gentrify the spelling of the local native name, Wallamet. And, by the way, the state name is also pronounced OR-uh-gun, not Or-ee-gone—the accent on the first syllable, making the last two vowels schwa. It's the same reason we don't call Michigan "Mish-ee-gone." Just think of the word lemon or human or any other word than ends with the -on or -an suffixes. I grew up in southern Oregon and one of my ancestors was among the first hops growers in the Willamette Valley in the mid-1800s, so overhearing tourists on public transportation mispronounce Oregon and Willamette drives me nuts—although I do agree that local pronunciations for the Portland streets Glisan (glee-sun, though glisten is historically accurate), Couch (cooch), and Yeon (yee-ahn) are less than intuitive.

**Since this post was written, I've also seen a big blue heron hanging out on the old railway pilings at Clackamette Cove; an osprey diving into the Clackamas River; wild bunnies blocking walking trails and then bounding into the brush; two turkey vultures dominating a salmon carcass on the Willamette riverbank while seagulls and crows looked on; more upturned dead moles; and a whole family of nutria.


  1. Anonymous17/5/15 17:55

    Amazing photos to go with a sad story. Thanks, Brooke. --Carol

    1. Thanks for reading, Carol. And you know how humans have instinctual fears built in of spiders and snakes? Well, rats are the worst ones for me, even cute little mice—it's those long thin tails. Yuck, ick, eek. Ah, the irony.




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