Roll On


If we renamed a river, what would change?

The floating pier at river mile 123 is tipsy this early morning, though the wind is calm and the water glass. I step carefully, wary of a river’s tricks. They’re deceptive creatures – although perhaps I should say ‘mysterious.’ It’s not their fault we humans so often fail to read their complexities aright. This one in particular looks like a medium-sized lake on a quiet day, with a lake’s associations of peace and an easy pace. Launch a kayak from this pier, though, and you’ll feel its wild strength. There’s a current out there – at least one – and a tide, even so many miles from the ocean.

I know no other way to invoke this sleeping giant than Columbia, but mornings like this, the name tends to catch in my throat. It’s a beautiful word, as suited as any other, but its casual jingoism takes my breath away sometimes. Columbia, the personified United States, floating serenely westward in a cloud of Manifest Destiny. The name makes the river into a thrilling paean – as well as a single-sided history lesson. I feel the gooseflesh rise on my arms: two entirely opposite emotional responses in one involuntary shiver.

The massive waterway we call Columbia sends more water by volume into the Pacific Ocean than any other river on the continent. Its basic course was set millions of years ago, humans have built their lives around it for 10,000 years or more. Until the 1930s, it dropped toward the sea at a reckless careen, crashing down steep, rocky canyons. Today that wild ride has been tamed, both imaginatively and tangibly, through the power of the dam. There’s no telling how long that imposed serenity will last. At any rate, not forever.


Our single layer of naming is a moment in time, a flash in the pan. We don’t know the full catalog of human description our river has borne through the millennia, but I find it intriguing that the records we do have, from cultures present before our own, take one step back from the imposition of a name, in favor of something more like a title. Nch’i-Wàna, for example, or Wimahl: The Great River.

Robert Gray and the British Empire bestowed the name Columbia in 1792 (though the name as a reference to the land that became America is older.) With it, he changed the river’s nature. The change, of course, came not from him precisely, but from the subsequent imposition of new cultural values related to the word. The power of humans to name resonates cross-culturally. The founding myth of the Judeo-Christian world involves a pair of argumentative humans who spend their first days naming everything in sight. It’s an integral part of their dominion over all the earth.

So here I am on a winter Saturday just at sunrise, grateful for and uneasy over my casual ability to name this great presence, to stand on its banks and feel a sense of belonging, even ownership. In a mile or so, I’ll be on a National Wildlife Refuge, which is technically my property, held by my government in trust for all citizens.


Let’s shift focus. Easier by far to clear the mind and fix on the sound of a single mallard taking off. It claps the surface once, twice, three times, loud in the stillness of the morning, and flutes off busily at a 45-degree angle, working its wings at exhausting speed.

Next to the pier, the secretive river hints at hidden vehemence: tiny, wild eddies bump into the intruding structure, swirling off and under.

A stocky kingfisher swoops, but omits its distinctive, rattling call. I see these birds just as often at dawn as any other hour, but they always seem reluctant to break the quiet of an early morning.



I’ve been dallying on the floating dock, but the trail I’m meant to be walking starts just above – and it’s not precisely a trail, but the flattened top of the dike that divides the river from the town of Washougal, Washington.

The city’s name is thought to derive from a Chinook word meaning something like “rushing waters,” which was probably appropriate when the river ran free. Looking at those eddies, it doesn’t seem entirely wrong now. There’s another theory that the original name meant “small rocks and pebbles,” which I like because the word Washougal sounds like pebbles rolling and clicking in my mouth.

The first couple of miles cut a straight line between the industrial edges of the town and the wild fringes of the river. On one side: a lumber yard, a sewage treatment pond, the fallen-in ruins of something agricultural – maybe a turkey farming operation. On the other: chortling waterfowl, a couple of stone canoes cast to look like Lewis and Clark’s, a cottonwood chewed halfway through by a beaver.


It takes me a moment to remember that my imagined line is just that. The two sides I thought I saw are really a unified zone, an sort of industrial ecotone. None of its component parts contradict each other. Every time my mind makes that shift, it’s like unraveling an optical illusion.

The cottonwoods thin out as the dike arrows onto federal land. From here, the mist-veiled steeps of the Columbia Gorge rear up from the river in silvery morning stormlight.



A name changes everything – witness the rotting, abandoned turkey farm – and also nothing, long term. It creates lines in our heads and in our lives, shifts currents, and both causes and controls human disaster. It also has zero effect on the eternal continuity of such a vast and weighty presence as the river we call Columbia.

Until I spent a few hours on it in a kayak, the river had no meaning for me. I crossed it on freeway bridges, watched it recede as the plane took off. It was beautiful. It was big. Dragging my kayak out the shallow, sand-barred mouth of the Lake River from Vancouver (I hit the tide wrong) changed all that.

The confusingly named Lake is gentle and pleasant. A friend and I watched a river otter dive and play between our opposing bows, the two of us just floating, smiling, barely attending our drift.

The Columbia is powerful; it demands constant attention. Even on a windless blue day, the water is cold and runs strong, in nothing like a straight line. Eddies and cross-currents and all that sheer volume of deep water actually thrum beneath the shell of your flimsy boat. Travel is shockingly fast, and weather gets serious even faster.


Like nighttime walking in the woods, it’s an experience that thrills, in both senses of the verb. I want to repeat it. I also enjoy recalling it with both feet firmly on the dike. Floating on the surface, with more agency than a leaf but less than a bird or a fish, is the closest I’ve come to unnaming the great river, and maybe the closest to any kind of understanding.

From the bank, this calm day, the Columbia is a picture of smooth-featured, safely named serenity. I watch it, content, the memory of profound unsettlement dropping through my mind like a stone beneath the surface of the water.


The given name of this trail is simply the Columbia River Dike, or East Dike. Begin from either end: Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge, at the edge of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, or Steamboat Landing in Washougal. Both are immediately accessible off State Highway 14. The total mileage (there and back again) is about 6, and the elevation gain nearly non-existent. From Portland, it’s a 20-30 minute drive, depending. No fees to park.


Duck Lady

It smells like cat pee out here. It’s a gorgeous morning at Oaks Bottom – blackbirds bugling, rain receding, sunrise staining the clouds a cotton-candy pink. The ferris wheel at the neighboring amusement park stands poised, vaguely majestic in the early shadows, waiting its turn for the Saturday spotlight. You couldn’t ask for a lovelier dawning. That smell, though.


It will only intrude on your mornings this time of year. Indian Plum in full bloom is a phenomenon worth enjoying, but maybe not one you’d want to encounter on the regular. As an item of seasonal interest, it’s intriguing. Once you catch sight of the charming white flowers, gathered into tiny bouquets and daintily suspended from bare, whippy little branches, you’ll forgive the plant its odor. And you might catch the sweeter variant, with a top note like those sugary peach-flavored gummy candies.

Several sources attest that the sex of the plant (Indian Plums are dioecious) produces the differing odors. Female flowers smell like a present you give on Valentine’s Day. It’s the males that smell like tomcats. Any case, Indian Plum is more than just an unsettling nasal encounter – it’s one of the first signs of spring.

Male red-winged blackbirds are another – shouty little buggers that perch on the top of a nice tall cattail and advertise their intentions to the whole marsh. They’re known to be territorial, and their boundary-negotiation tactics are intense. I’m watching a pair of them face off, not three feet apart. They’re fluffing their red and yellow epaulets at each other, hurling their clarion calls like  ritual gauntlets, straight in the other bird’s face. All the excitement sets them waving about on their reed-tops, swaying dangerously close to each other, like they’re auditioning for a chase scene from Fury Road. They’re not quite acrobatic enough to get the call-back, but it’s a fine show, for a pair of smallish passerines.

Today marks the first hike on which I’ve – finally – remembered to bring my binoculars. As such, it’s my first experience of a new world. I watch those two blackbirds duke it out from what feels like about three feet away. It’s like being in a David Attenborough documentary.


But I can name red-winged blackbirds just fine with the naked eye. The depth of the difference doesn’t sink in until I spot something vaguely jay-shaped, perched at least 100 feet up. I draw my elbows in for stability, fix my eyes on the silhouette, and practice that smooth lift whereby experienced birders turn peering-from-afar into intimate acquaintance, without once looking away from the object of their interest. I will turn out not to be very good at this; I’ll lose a lot of birds. But beginner’s luck holds for now: suddenly in-focus and right there is a Western scrub jay, aphelocoma californica.

Before binoculars, “jay-shaped” would have been the beginning and the end of that encounter, a flicked glance, soon forgotten. As of today, I can access a new level of recognition. Instead of a category, it is in my power to discover a name. I drop the binoculars and nearly jump up and down, grinning like I just won a cash prize. (If I had, I might use it to purchase a neck-strap. Binoculars dislike impromptu mud-baths.)

The tiny optical device that produced this enormous effect magnifies 12x, with an objective lens diameter of 25mm. That last number especially is pretty small, and it means a comparatively dim display, particularly in foggy or low-light conditions.  But it’s a revelation to me. Before today, I could count on two hands the number of wild birds I’d seen up close and personal. I’ve far exceeded that now by 8am.

In case you can’t tell (you can), I’m new to birding. As a skill, as a hobby, as a body of knowledge and habit, it’s not a little overwhelming, and I’ve realized I need to do what I would with any new project: break it into pieces and begin with one thing. I’ll shift focus, sooner or later, and again, and the dots will connect over time. It’s a pleasure to be in no particular hurry.

It’s spying on the blackbirds that decides my initial emphasis. Below them in the marsh, a ripple announces a pair of small, richly costumed waterfowl emerging stage right. They’re ducks, I know that much, and their pattern is vaguely familiar. I focus the field glasses on them, while the name floats slowly upward, surfacing at last in Latin: Aix sponsa. I have to look it up. They’re wood ducks.

Nearly everyone knows a mallard, at least by sight. But until this moment, a crowd of ducks was just that: mallards and some other stuff. And now I know where to begin.


Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden is exactly what the name implies: the best place in Portland for a peaceful walk among shimmering waters and blooming ericaceous shrubs. What the name leaves out is the birds. The garden is built on a wetland peninsula, surrounded on three sides by a pretty, reed-fringed lake, the boundary between public garden and private golf course. Long before the rhodies bloom, the waterfowl come to winter. It’s a good season to have begun my quest with ducks.


They gather here, in colorful profusion, almost half of them waddling about on land at any given time. I suppose humans feed them to encourage their unwariness, though that’s quite against the rules.

There are several terms for a group of ducks on the ground (as opposed to ducks in flight, or ducks in the water.) My favorite is the archaic badelynge, though I’ve also heard team, raft, and brace. A brace conjures images of dead ducks ready to pluck and eat, a raft seems more appropriate to floating specimens, and a team sounds like the ducks are lining up for either their jerseys or their trust-fall exercises. As group nouns go, this one was better in Middle English.

It’s early yet, but there are other people – parents with their small, bundled little ones, mostly – and I’m trying to juggle field glasses, mobile, and guidebook without looking too obsessed. After a near fumble, I give in. Sitting cross-legged next to the lake, I let the ducks come to me, and with the wonder of Eve, I name them.

Wood duck: the male jewel-toned, and the female soft and brown with shimmering opal highlights. She wears rockstar white eyeliner; his is bright red to match his bill. Both have wonderful, exaggerated tufts behind their heads, jaunty and angular, like the hair on a cartoon character.


American wigeon: they of the beautiful black feathers, dramatically outlined in white. Aside from those, wigeons aren’t showy, although their neat blue bills are distinctively cute. While I watch, one opens his to emit three breathy whistles, exactly like a higher-pitched version of the standard squeaky-duck bath toy.


Scaup: I’m assuming it’s the Lesser version, purely on the strength of my field guide’s insistence that Greaters live mainly on the coasts. Looking at the pictures, I’m certain I couldn’t tell them apart if they floated side by side. Just Scaup will have to do. But how do you say it? Skowp? Skopp? I roll the odd sounds in my mouth, realize I’m speaking aloud – and keep going anyway. I’m learning a new language here.


All this while, I’ve been stationed near the garden’s entrance, just the right place to keep an eye on the rising tide of human visitors. When I move of in search of a quieter slice of shore, I expect to startle the crowd of mallards milling about on all sides, but they barely budge over. Instead, I find myself wading through an anatine pond, with spotted brown and iridescent green waves lapping my ankles.

I’m moving in slow-motion, my hands out to pacify the restless masses, or possibly to defend myself when they all take flight around my head. I feel like I’m accidentally impersonating St. Francis, and at the back of my mind, a picture forms that is certainly ridiculous to an adult observer. It’s something else to a small child on the bridge above, who points at me and declares: “Duck lady!”

I was already feeling a good deal of joy, but this moment crowns my day. In his voice, I hear the same awe I felt earlier when I pulled urgently at my husband’s hand and whispered “Look at the blackbirds!” (Though I needn’t have whispered. The blackbirds are used to shouting down everyone around them.) On the one hand, I guess I could be embarrassed. On the other, I’ve been naming things all morning as an act of recognition, and that kid just named me.


It’s Day One, but I’m willing to declare my quest a great success already. I have learned to distinguish three new species. I have watched wigeons dabbling in 12x detail at great length, thinking so easily of nothing else that I might as well have been meditating. I have resisted the brief urge to stroke a wood duck’s soft, brown, speckled back. I have walked among mallards and become, without noticing, a duck lady. Probably life holds greater pleasures, but just now, I need nothing else. I’ll ride this high all day.

I generally look forward to the future, but unless I’m going on vacation, the anticipation is rarely specific. I go to sleep looking forward to sleep; tomorrow will take care of itself. Tonight though, that won’t hold. I can’t wait to get up in the morning and go find some more ducks.


Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge is in SE Portland, Oregon. It can be accessed from Sellwood Riverfront Park, from the corner of 7th and Sellwood, or at Milwaukie Ave, just off McLoughlin. There is no fee for parking. The area is popular and often crowded by 10am or so on weekends. Walking is mostly easy and flat.

Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden is next to Reed College, also in SE Portland. It’s small, and doesn’t lack for admirers, but it’s such an intimately landscaped garden that it absorbs moderate crowds quite well. Walking is easy and flat. There is free parking right out front, but not much; you may need to park in the nearby neighborhood and walk in. Admission is free after Labor Day, through the month of February. In March, it’s currently $4 per person, after 10am, Friday through Monday. Rhodies start as early as February, but the real show is in April and May. Luckily, in winter, there are waterfowl.


Refocus: Birding the Tualatin River Floodplain

Just yesterday, I converted. After a long slow burn of mounting interest, my road to Damascus moment arrived in full and feathered splendor. I may take awhile to reach a conclusion, but once decided, I’m all in. So this morning, before dawn, I went to get baptized. Two hours later, the sun is high and I am no less radiant with my new identity. I’m a full-fledged birder.


Or maybe not full. I’m probably still a fledgeling, in the sense that I understand a new world all around me, but I lack the knowledge necessary to interpret what I suddenly see and hear. I’m noticing those high seet seet calls from the middle reaches of the oaks, but I have no idea who they belong to, and I can’t get a sightline. In a grove of cedars on a slight rise this morning, I followed a distinctive call – familiar, yet I’ve never before asked who makes it – and finally located a jay-sized bird. He called, and I watched, and I tried to make connections: habitat, season, voice, markings. None of the former clicked, and the latter stayed invisible from below, with the new sun streaming into my eyes, and only shadows above. He flew away, and I am none the wiser.

Rather, I have no more knowledge than I did setting out this morning. But I may be something like wiser; at least I have learned a thing. I have learned how much I miss, all the time. I have discovered the existence of another layer.

I used to live down the street from the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a relatively new public access, a restored seasonal floodplain with a variety of interconnected habitats that attract hundreds of species once difficult to find in the area’s farms and suburbs. I walked its few miles of flat trail often – morning, noon, and evening – and I loved the wide open fields, the shimmering water and the sheltering woods, and the muddy Tualatin pumping quiet and sure through the heart of the whole thing.


I’ve since moved closer to Portland proper, and if I come back often enough to feel the seasonal continuity, still my visits are spaced out enough to note the changes. Today the primary change is in myself. It’s never taken me so long to walk two easy miles.

Once I strode, or I strolled, down these paths. I rarely stopped. I was looking around, to be sure, and confident of what I saw. Abruptly, my glance is different. Every feather flash intrigues, every sound. Where just last week I stood back to enjoy the full effect of an ever-changing masterpiece, now I step up close, collecting unsatisfied questions about the paint composition and brushstrokes.

I learn by doing, which means, in this situation, that I like to take notes, to field-identify. This morning, pre-dawn, accomplishing this while also watching and listening was an enormous, and humbling, amount of work. The sunrise activity of a wetland world I think of as ‘familiar’ overloaded my ability to absorb it. I missed something every time I looked down.

Trying to map this new awareness, and then to bring it together with the scents and the tree names and the plant cycles I usually notice, left me off balance and out of step, totally inadequate to the formerly simple task of paying attention on my morning walk. I noticed this when blind-sided by particularly rich cedar-scent, looking up just then to see the graceful drape of greenery all around.

Of course, I ought to have gone seeking either an unrecorded overview of the local birdlife, or a few specific details to note and photograph. What are the hawks up to in the mornings, for example? Or: which species of waterfowl are present? Like the rookie I am, I ran after everything at once.

I don’t mean to make this sound disappointing. There were frustrated moments, but mostly I floated from glory to glory, eyes alight and mouth perpetually forming a silent “oh!” I’m pleased to have been the first human, by at least an hour, to arrive. There’s nothing like an accidental audience to shove your unconscious childlike wonder right back into your self-conscious adult brain.


I couldn’t actually wait. When understanding dawned yesterday, it was not sunrise but mid-afternoon. This did not stop me from setting off immediately. First the library (birds on the printed page!) and then the Refuge.

A Saturday afternoon at the Tualatin River NWR is shockingly crowded, even in winter. This is my western American sense of space, I suppose, my inherited romantic myth of the uncharted wilderness. The Refuge is partially closed from October to May, to protect the breeding and feeding habitat of winter residents. The unfortunate side effect for me is that I’m trapped on the single out-and-back path with children.

They’re having a grand time, all of them – no whining or fighting to be heard. But they are, extremely, audible. I cannot tell if they are careless because unguided, or if their shouting and trampling and throwing of sticks into rivers is a sort of territory marking. I am trying to remember how this played out in my own, very woodsy, childhood. I recall an early injunction to “forest voices,” and a lot of sneaking about, crouching by rivers, reciting the names of plants. My ability to watch and wait was certainly instilled, not instinctive. But I must have shouted and thrown things, too. I spent so much of my outdoor time unsupervised, in company with cousins and friends; it seems inevitable I made plenty of noise. And I don’t remember it dulling my sense of natural wonder. Who is to say these children don’t also know how to observe and be quiet, waiting for a wren to rustle out of hiding? Not me, but I longed for silence all the same.

A distant, dismissable longing, vaguely like nostalgia, and I smiled with it. Enthusiasm is infectious, and what is the alternative? It would hardly do to trample their excitement, and with it, any nascent, invisible wonder. Anyway I can’t have expected much else. The birds were many, if unvaried – geese, everywhere. And the afternoon was beautiful: high, ruffled clouds leaking the low-slung winter sun. We walked together, adults and children chattering like waterfowl around me, in the sort of mellow, silver-gold light that makes it seem sunset all day.



I left the house this morning at 0630. In the dark, through my closed windows, I heard – I’m not making this up – the year’s first robin song. That might sound like a good omen for my first intentional birdwatching expedition, but my relationship with the American robin has been a bit testy since moving to Oregon. To be precise: robins are fine. Except between the months of February and approximately May, when their cheerful pre-dawn lilting causes me to slam my windows shut and burrow beneath my pillow. It’s a lovely song, but it is loud. The rest of the year, spotting these large, pretty thrushes hopping about in shrubs and on lawns, I can’t help but give them the side-eye. It seems no accident that their genus name is Turdus. I imagine a frustrated 19th century taxonomist, grumping downstairs for a cup of tea at four in the morning. Might as well get to work, those turd thrushes won’t be shutting up for hours.

IMG_20160207_071105It’s often foggy in the sunken flatlands of the Tualatin River, but this morning the mist sat high already, drawing back. In the east, a sky the color of shell cupped the blue-shadowed base of Mt. Hood. Before I was out of the car, I saw my first bird: the sunrise silhouette of a hawk in the bare branches of a magnificent old oak.

The Refuge is furnished with a crunchy gravel main path and a pair of creaky bridges that make the traditional approach to birding near-impossible. I can place my feet as carefully as I like, but I’m still rattling the trail with every step. Stream crossings echo with the fanfare of a thunder god. I’ve winced often enough at my own blundering footsteps, and I expected worse results on a bird-specific walk. As far as I can tell, the birds couldn’t care less.

The great blue heron circling in to land in a tree-fringed pond made so much noise herself – long, hoarse cronnnks repeated at some volume for at least a minute – that I doubt she noticed me until I eased into a crouch by the water. She saw me then, swiveling her head, but her attention moved immediately to something else – frog? rival heron? – and something else again.

The GBH, as my family calls it, is a common bird, uncommonly beautiful. No more than 15 feet off, I looked a long time at this one’s fluttering white head-plumes, her elegant navy-streaked gray suit. I’ve watched a few long enough to see them stalk, spear, and swallow their prey, but this one hadn’t settled yet to hunting. She stood about in a distracted sort of way, cocking her head to one side and another, uttering small, introspective croaks. When I moved off, she didn’t startle.

The young oak savanna that first greets the Refuge visitor is another restoration project – a disappearing habitat once common in the Willamette Valley. In the mornings, it is chock-a-block with songbirds. They swirl and shout and flit and flutter too quickly to tag with such a prosaic thing as a name. I know a few – black-capped chickadee, dark-eyed junco – and even these moved too fast this morning to both name and observe.

Exactly one songbird stood still, and it made up for any frustration I felt about the rest. From the branch of an immature oak, a few feet away and low to the ground, came a song I had heard, jumbled up in the usual morning chorus – this time issued by a skilled soloist. I cannot imitate it in writing – one of the first things I’ve noticed about birding is how poorly humans transliterate avian voices. When I edged around to catch sight of the singer, I not only recognized him, I understood viscerally his scientific designation: Melospiza melodia.

The crowning glory of the Refuge is the wetland viewing platform. You reach it through a small oak and cedar woodland, still dim as the sun swells just below the horizon. Emerging on the other side, a vast expanse of tawny stubble and blue-brown marsh lies golden in the first low sun. It slants in, illuminating the stripped limbs of two tall old trees, the highest points around, long dead but still in use. One holds a dripping mess of sticks, the other a bald eagle: silent, watchful. On the margins, a hunting heron. All around, dabbling ducks too far away to identify, though I can hear their chuckling and splashing, their skidded landings and occasional outbursts. Red-winged blackbirds sing invisibly from the fringing reeds. They’re pushy and territorial, and their song reflects it: aggression flung outward in beautiful, crystalline shapes.



My favorite moments this morning came when the geese took flight. A few are a pleasure, to watch and to hear, but a great sweeping mass of them rising from the water and winging overhead brings something different: a glorious swell of feeling. It’s the moment in church when everyone joins on the chorus of a favorite hymn, the rising anticipation in the stands when the home team approaches the goal. It’s a lifting of the soul: no less.

That moment is when I realized what was happening out here, in here, on my birding baptism day. I walk because I need to, because it settles my body and gives my brain a project. Because I’ve come to enjoy the regular observation of morning and evening and midday, the scents and the sounds of each, and the way the sun moves over water and land. But I had entirely forgotten what it was like to begin walking for pleasure. Granted, I hiked from an early age. But the activity was not part of my identity until I moved to the Northwest, until I began to seek it out, to explore. So there was a first time, as an adult, when I learned how to see the natural world.

Exploration began with no purpose other than itself, but I did discover some. One is at heart a matter of competition, a challenge to do something I can name and rank. How many trails can I hike, how high or how long or how difficult? I’ve lost that one a bit lately, in favor of something else that was growing behind it the whole time. It’s a nebulous purpose created by simply doing: a series of habits of mind and methods of being, bodies of knowledge and a mental map I’ll be unfolding for a long time yet. It’s the anticipated pleasure of what to expect when I head out on a hike. Not what I’ll find, exactly; that’s always a gamble. But I know how to look. I like that.


Birding is a new way to look. It’s another layer of observation and of knowledge, a series of habits and methods I don’t have. It’s unfamiliar, and it’s exciting, in the first-time-thrill way just walking a new trail was, before.

I hate not to know what I’m doing. This is a great personal weakness. It’s not often I encounter a skill I want to practice without a head start. Here I am, though. Practicing birdwatching instantly shows up the massive gaps in my knowledge. I know almost nothing about migratory patterns or breeding seasons or juvenile development. Flipping through my new Oregon bird guide, I encountered all kind of pictures with captions like “Heering gull, breeding plumage.” Apparently some birds have seasonal wardrobes. Now I have to learn double the patterns.

At a more basic level, I’m utterly unprepared even to start. Did you know you need a spotting scope or binoculars if you hope to positively identify any bird more than a few feet away? You probably did. I didn’t.

And yet I remain undeterred. Which is how I can tell this is a true conversion. It’s a little bit like falling in love, actually. It was coming on so gradually I didn’t notice, and then it just happened, and here I am with this thing that is suddenly important in my life and I just have to learn how it works.

So here we go. Am I going to become one of those crazy people who carries around a bird call and plans weekend getaways around seasonal migrations, who keeps field guides in the car and makes species lists and walks about with a huge pair of binoculars slung around her neck? I mean, maybe. That’s the exciting part: I have no idea where this leads.



The Atfalati Unit of the Tualatin River NWR (the part humans are allowed to access) is located on Highway 99W between Tualatin and Sherwood, Oregon. It’s open dawn to dusk every day. At present there is no fee to park, but a fee station has been constructed and its eventual use is part of the long-term plan. You can also get there on the bus. Walking along 99 is a chore, and not recommended. A very nice interpretive center opened in 2008, and has only improved since. It’s open every day except Mondays, 10am to 4pm. There’s a covered picnic area at the entrance, and the main trail provides very easy, flat, and comfortable walking on gravel. Additional trails open seasonally from May 1 to Sept 30.


Identified Species:

Spotted Towhee Pipilo maculatus

American Robin Turdus migratorius

Red-Tailed Hawk Buteo jamaicensis

Bald Eagle Haliaeetus leucocephalus

Black-Capped Chickadee Poecile attricapillus

Dark-Eyed Junco Junco hyemalis

Song Sparrow Melospiza melodia

Cackling Goose (?) Branta hutchinsii

Canada Goose Branta canadensis

Great-Horned Owl Bubo virginianus

Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias

Mallard Anas platyrhychos

Dispatches from the Middle of the Night

I woke myself mid-night from a dream I don’t remember, that was fast becoming a nightmare. I didn’t check, but I know the watch from the level of quiet: between 1 and 4 a.m. Awake and uneasy, shreds of dream still twining my thoughts, I considered what that hour is like from a tent pitched in the wild.

Writing about hiking – which is turning out to be writing about a lot of things – makes me nostalgic. Yesterday I stopped in the middle of a piece to text my father, to remind him of that time we had to cut short our backpack in the eastern Sierra because of early September snow. I wanted to talk about our next trip, too: there’s nothing planned, it’s been awhile. My hunger to sit on boulders and talk carefully about philosophy was suddenly too strong to bear alone.

Dad offered the information that a friend had suggested camping on the Channel Islands. (My father lives near Ventura, California.) He’d thought I should go too, since I’ve brought it up before. Every year or so, in fact – probably ad nauseum – since I spent a long weekend on Santa Cruz Island, doing archaeological survey for the National Park Service.

So I imagined, awake and alone, the presence of immense night around my single tent. The land quiet, the sea never so, the stars huge or veiled, depending. The throat-catching noise of some animal – mouse, fox, wild pig – or just the wind, and the way it takes my frightened heart a full minute to stop drumming.

It’s an experience I equally crave and quail from. When you’re there, it’s inescapable, which is possibly why my nightmare – I was trapped – recalled it so strongly. Alone in my tent, I never fail to wonder what the hell is wrong with me. Waking in the dawn, or sitting here in my library on a cool morning filled with the swish of cars and the patter of city rain, I feel both relief and longing.



My extended family camps for a week every summer in the coastal redwood forests of northern California. We use a State Park campground set along a beautiful green river, complete with flush toilets, hot showers, and plenty of other campers. Night there is different, and also the same.

Late in the evening, children are tucked up in sleeping bags, and adults are sipping their last glass of wine around a dying fire, thinking about final preparations for bed. This is the time I zip open the roof of my tent, and let the rhythms of settling night settle me, too.

Reflection of firelight on the understory of tan oak. Tall straight redwoods reaching into a darkling canopy: trunks as big as Manifest Destiny, as old as Protestantism. Fir branches snap in the fire, late voices murmur and shush each other. Humanity fades, and the river reclaims the night.

Invariably, I wake to its mid-night rushing. The fog has rolled back, if it’s early enough, and stars peer through my mesh walls. If I’m very lucky, the moon is near to full, pearlescent with promise. I watch as long as I can, and then I zip myself out and fumble for my sandals – because of course, I have to pee.

Since childhood, I’ve made it a game to walk invisibly through the forest at night. I am not invisible, of course; watching wildlife surely scoff at my efforts to be silent. But I step consciously, breathe lightly, and count myself lucky when I reach the cinderblock bathroom without hearing anything but my heartbeat. Unless the moon is dark, I use no artificial light.

It’s a tense journey, always: what if I cross paths with a bear? Even a raccoon would startle me. I know, because I once gasped at a cooler I mistook for one. While everything else sleeps, fears wake in deep nighttime. More than once, I’ve exited my tent out of desperate need alone, convinced I was about to walk through occupied territory.

And more than once, I’ve stepped back into the night, and instead of heading straight home, made a slow circuit of the campground. Why? Not because I did not fear, that’s certain. Because I was spellbound: the moon was full, or the fog was rolling in above the redwoods, the night breeze rising and falling. Or because I was afraid, and I needed to feel it.

Strolling a mostly-paved, densely populated campground loop in the slumberous dark is not the same as walking into the midnight wilderness on Santa Cruz Island without a light. For one thing, I would not do the latter. Campground walks allow me to ride my surging adrenaline, and come to terms with it, without the deeper danger of losing my way. I feel alone out there, but I have only to shout, and I will not be.

As a child, I used to cross the river after darkfall with my cousin. (In summer there’s a footbridge.) We’d wobble across the murmuring current, and walk into the deep hush of an old-growth redwood grove, where only the deer and the flying squirrels may make camp. Of course, that hush is full of creakings and flutterings, and without a light beneath the stars, your vision works only in faintest grayscale. I remember few particulars of these expeditions. The feeling of unspeakable awe, of personal challenge – and of having each other’s backs if something went wrong – was the real point.


I looked deeply into the night, when I was younger. Grown, I have only once ventured across the river to see in gray and in fear and trembling. With each year, it is more difficult to convince myself that my midnight circumambulations are worth making. I cannot tell if I have lost or gained by this. I stay warmer, that’s for sure.

Home, awake in the darkest hours after a bad dream, I know only an echo of all this that enters my memory. All the same, the loneliness, even with my husband sleeping beside me, runs deep. Sometimes I rise, pad camp-quiet to my library, and watch the moon, lights off. I wonder, and I am afraid. Sometimes I make the necessary trip only, and snuggle back under covers, even if I cannot fall asleep.

Night is lived on the fulcrum between the weight of awe and the reflexive push toward comfort. Member of a diurnal and gregarious species, any human knows the feeling. Awake at night, we alone populate the known world, and hold back the unseen.

Infinite Sunshine

This blue sky actually hurts. Adjectives aren’t helpful right now: I say things like wide, empty, piercingly…blue. I’m hiking with my mother, who declares it “severe clear.” I have to ask.

“Haven’t you ever heard your father say that?” My father is a retired Naval aviator; I’ve picked up a number of linguistic oddities from him, but not this one. I learn later it’s a sky blue to infinity, free of clouds, perfect for flying. And that’s about the size of this big bowl of sky over Wildwood. I’m about to fall into it and fly away.


‘Wildwood’ is an odd name for this Southern California sweep of desert ridge and stony canyon, the dividing wedge of undeveloped land between two prosperous suburban communities. It’s wild enough, but of woods there are few: sycamores and oaks down in the canyon, invisible until you make the descent. The shape of the place runs right to left in my mind: upslope, ridge, downslope, valley, canyon.

From the main entrance, your first sight is the wide open valley: suspended between rocky promontories and rippling with wild grasses. I saw it for the first time around fourteen, fresh from about my tenth reading of Clan of the Cave Bear. Its sweep and scale translated themselves in my mind as prehistoric. No matter how many people in brightly-patterned fitness gear fill the main trail by late morning, that first meeting is imprinted. Every time I crest the first hill from the parking lot, it’s like pausing on the edge of a time warp.


The park – it’s technically Wildwood Regional Park – is big enough that I tend to visit different sections over several days. First, I want to climb. The ridge is called Mount Clef; the distinctively shaped outcropping at its far west end is Lizard Rock. Either makes a fine lookout. I come here to survey the bones of the Conejo articulated on all sides, wrapped in their green winter skin.

This year so far the rains have failed, and we ascend on crumbling khaki tracks through scrubby chaparral – mostly grey; sweetly, sagely scented. Our most verdant companion is the Opuntia cactus. (Think of the kind that bears prickly pears.) It’s a common sight, and one I love: the flat spiky paddles a particular peridot green that pops against blue.


The trail we’ve chosen barely pauses before dropping over to the northern side of the ridge, and we follow its nearly flat course for perhaps a mile. Views of the well-settled – and well-heeled – Santa Rosa Valley fall away to our left, with sharp-peaked, snowless mountains behind. We leave the main path to climb back over the ridge, descend between white stucco homes and wind along the base of a blasted brown butte, full in the mid-morning sun. We should have brought more water; I’m grateful for my hat. The butte trail ascends gradually, culminating in a pass that, like the valley below it, seems high and epic and wild, in spite of the enormous human population barely out of sight.


I visit my ‘home’ in Southern California no more than once – if I’m lucky, twice – each year. I don’t come primarily to explore; I carry a list in my head of experiences I need to repeat. Wildwood for me is a place to enjoy, but it’s also a ritual.

Which means tomorrow I’ll be back, and we’ll visit the canyon instead. It can’t be too deep, but like the rest of this place, its topography seems more extreme than a map would show. Hidden from direct light until midday, the canyon is a different world from the sunswept uplands.

The north fork of the Arroyo Conejo waters this secretive world year-round. It’s a talkative creek, even in a rainless season. For most of its length, oak trees cluster around the banks, distinctive for their rumpled grey skin and small spiny evergreen leaves of dark and glossy hue. I cannot tell if they are live oaks (Quercus agrifolia), canyon oaks (Quercus chrysolepis), or something else – perhaps a hybrid. Beneath them, the shade is deep and pleasant – on a winter morning, almost cold.


Arroyo Conejo has its moment in the sun, too. As the canyon narrows, the big trees retreat, and a series of pools sparkles its way westward, a favorite foraging ground for local waterfowl. The trail that parallels this starkly pretty section is a good one for lingering, if you’re alone, but there’s a further payoff: the glassy pull of the creek taughtens suddenly, then slides down a 70-foot cleft in the wrinkled rock.

The pool at the base of Paradise Falls may be shallow and brown and fringed with algae, or deep and blue as the sea. In my memory, it most often shows itself as black, a round flake of obsidian dropped among grey boulders, pensively watched by branching sycamores. It’s an odd place; I can never decide if I like it. But I always return.

Indeed, I return to Wildwood in particular, and coastal Southern California in general, out of the kind of desire that carries a hint of compulsion. Fledging, I left this arid landscape as soon as my circumstances allowed, craving forests, rain, surroundings ever-green. I dislike heat; my pale skin shies from the sun. I fought with this land when I lived here, a frustrated teenager in exile from the cool northern forests of her heart’s home.

I struggle with instincts and rarely recognize gut feelings; my perceptions build in slow layers, my intuition a limestone cave instead of a flashing stream. Landscape is no exception. I tend toward deep connections, but I do not always see them forming. I left warm, dry, sunsteeped Ventura County for greener, rainier pastures. It’s in my periodic returns that I first felt the tug of belonging.


Today, I acknowledge love for this sharp, sun-soaked contrast of cactus green and desert brown, set against the severe clear blue of sky or sea. It’s the same thing I feel for the mist-wreathed ridges of conifers that define my Pacific Northwest. The two landscapes cannot coexist; I cannot claim both as my dwelling. Yet I will continue to claim them both as my home.

What if I cannot fly south one winter? Or ever again? If I cannot migrate there, does a loved landscape fade? What will I lose, or gain by that? The devotee of several such places, I’ve chased these questions all my life, and all I’ve learned is that I cannot answer them.

Better to ask: What do I love? With whom can I share it? Answers easy for some, a struggle for me. Finding them is a way of living, not a quest I can check off the list. Certainty is a rare gift, but these – not the least of things – I know will guide me well. I love Wildwood. Here it is: I hope you find joy in it, too.



Wildwood Regional Park can be accessed from the main (intersection of Avenida de los Arboles and Big Sky Drive) or any of several smaller entrances in the city of Thousand Oaks, or by climbing Mount Clef ridge from Camarillo’s Santa Rosa Valley. It’s a short side-trip if you’re traveling US 101. There is no fee for use or parking.

The park has many miles of trails; if you live nearby or if you’re staying in the area, it rewards multiple visits. Spring means wildflowers in the valley; winter usually brings a brief and glorious green flourish beginning in January or February. If you only have one day, try a moderate loop that visits both Lizard Rock and Paradise Falls in under 5 miles. You can pick up a basic map from a kiosk at the main entrance. 

It can be very warm here, though some nice coastal breezes do wind their way up into the canyon. Even on cooler days, the sun is relentless. Carry water, and wear a hat and plenty of sunscreen. I got heat exhaustion once climbing the Lizard with none of that essential gear; it’s unpleasant, so don’t do it. It can also be very cold here on early winter mornings, so don’t be shy about sticking some gloves in your pack.

Bring a picnic if you’re staying a few hours. Several shady spots on the canyon floor have tables scattered among the oaks, and one (Hogeman’s Hollow) even has decent toilets.