For some weeks now, I’ve been longing for a walk in the country. Portland offers interesting urban hikes, nearby towns and suburbs add their own riverside paths and pleasant neighborhoods, and if you seek seclusion or adventure, actual wilderness is reasonably close. But waking early on a cool gray Saturday, I’m determined to indulge my desire for a category less obviously accessible to the Portland-area walker – rural land.
I want to set my steps in the sort of place where the connection between humans and land is most immediate – and most conflicted. I’ve been thinking a great deal lately about this relationship; any conclusions I’ve drawn so far are only a starting point. More will crystallize, and probably shift, over time and experience. There’s no hurry. Opinions, as a way of understanding complex ideas, are both inevitable and overrated. For now, I just want to walk.
I have a vague, mostly literary idea of what it means to walk (or live) “in the country.” I picture crops growing in fields with old-timer oak trees at the edges, occasional livestock, hedgerows with paths between, homes without immediate neighbors. Plenty of this sort of landscape actually exists in my area; it’s a matter of locating public rights of way.
Between April and October, a trail called Oak Island opens up for general use on Sauvie Island. The trail description I browsed last night contains the magic words: “out in the country.” Much of Sauvie is in fact privately owned farmland, enjoyable only from the road, but this particular pedestrian path loops through grassland and forest. The flat peninsula that hosts it is managed by the Oregon Department of Fish & Wildlife, apparently with both waterfowl conservation and waterfowl hunting as the goal. That latter is why it’s closed half the year, to anyone without a hunting license.
In fact, the trail is not only for pedestrians. At least part of it is a road – the one used to patrol the wildlife management area. I find disused roads either intensely creepy – if they’re paved – or, as in this case, ideal. This tarless lane’s undeniably picturesque wheel-ruts are overgrown with supple spring-green grass. It’s the kind that ripples leisurely n a passing breeze, the kind that reveals rabbits nibbling low-growing clover, hurrying out of our way at the last possible minute. Some deep part of me thrills to this road, firing simultaneously the signal flares for comfort and adventure. An incompatible pair, but there they are. What if you could have both at once?
No other human voices reach us, but are far from alone out here. Songbirds are the most obvious company, shouting and fluttering in plain view, and I cannot keep up with them. There are so many I can name now, because I am learning how to look and to listen. Even so, I know I’m missing half of the players and most of the game. It never works to look and listen everywhere at once, but I can’t help the attempt.
Even my partial reckoning astonishes. A pair of quail scurry down the left track, curlicue topknots frantically dipping. Towhees start a furious squabble in a tangle of blackberry vines. Swallow-like birds that I tentatively identify as purple martins are zipping and diving above the lake. A pair of medium-sized passerines flutter up from the grass to dance around each other in midair. They are yellow-black and yellow-brown, blurring into a single ecstatic spiral and gone into the trees. Are they orioles? I’ve never seen an oriole. In the oak-bounded meadow to our right, a pair of mourning doves toss their melancholy song back and forth, tree to tree. My mother has told me this is the sound of her earliest memories.
There’s another surprise: cows. When I pictured livestock, I imagined them behind a fence, part of the scenery. At the trailhead, our car rumbles right up next to about 20 of them, spread out and munching on those long, sweet grasses. Every one of them looks up, expressions ranging from curious to wary to bored, and suddenly we are the novelty on display.
Trail signs are unclear, and a false start dumps us into what appears purely to be pastureland, the trail petering out and a further dozen cows glancing up in dull surprise. Returning, we find the original herd has wandered between us and the car. I’ve thought to go back and consult the hiking guide I left there, but it seems inadvisable to place ourselves in the midst of what I can only think of as megafauna. I lack the knowledge that might allow me to comfortably share the road.
Sharing the road with cows has never even occurred to me; I am unprepared. A farmer friend tells me later we needn’t have hesitated; female and juvenile cows are phlegmatic creatures. “You could hunt them with hammer.”
Domesticated they may be, but their wild ancestors were fierce. I can’t imagine I’d feel easy meeting a herd of aurochs – considerably larger, wilier, and more aggressive than today’s massively altered domestic cattle. Philosophically, I’m saddened by the aurochs’ extinction in the 17th century, which guarantees I’ll never chance an encounter. Personally, secretly, I’m relieved. I haven’t got a hammer on me, anyway.
Oak Island’s distant aurochs descendants eye us sideways, and a pair of them exchange vocalizations we’ve been conditioned to understand as “moooo.” These two make it sound derisive: “mehhhh.” I suppose it’s useful to be reminded how much of a city person I actually am.
Oak Island is open to walkers from mid-April through the first of October. The trail is a loop, no more than 3 miles, with a few offshoots and some confusing variants. Follow the one that looks like a road, and you’ll come out back at your car after a lovely flat stroll between Sturgeon and Steelman Lakes. To park on Sauvie, you’ll need an ODFW parking permit, available in daily or annual forms online or at the Cracker Barrel grocery, located immediately on the left as you cross the bridge onto the island.