Posted by: pilgrm34 | August 23, 2011

reflections on Columbia Slough

August 21, 2011

The air, though cool, holds a promise of heat. I dodge traffic down a side street and ride by my friend Susan walking her dog. Invited to ice tea on her porch, she peers at me with a puzzled expression as I talk rapidly about seeking the work I’m meant to do.

I find energy working on issues I feel strongly about and want to use all my promotion, graphic design, outreach and grassroots organizing skills to achieve what is important to me, particularly the preservation of Baltimore Woods, a 30-acre corridor in my neighborhood. As a volunteer I have worked unremittingly, obsessively, to promote it. I have loved organizing the Friends of Baltimore Woods and made good progress on grants and acquisitions. I would like to continue, but need a job.

She listens and offers thoughtful suggestions and lunch, but I must be on my way to Columbia Slough. She proffers a hard-boiled egg and cheese stick for the road, which I gladly accept along with water. I place them in my bicycle basket. Her kindness is a blessing.

I travel about a block to get to Portsmouth Avenue six blocks east of the Slough. My feet turn a few rotations as I sail downhill toward the water quality plant and the Slough just beyond. As I enter the property I feel a sense of freedom on paths that wind downhill around woods and meadows. The sights and cool air on my face are a delight. Biking offers a more intimate connection with the sun, wind and wildlife and it’s easier to observe, slow down or stop. Sometimes a barn swallow or dragonfly flies alongside keeping pace. I arrive at the Slough bridge over the barely moving backwater.  Feeling the sun’s heat as I scan for wildlife, I spot two Great Blue Herons hunting. I rest my elbows on the chest high rail and peer down. The water’s translucent, green-tinted shallowness displays the reddish-brown sediment bed, which is full of divots resembling mysterious sunken footprints. It’s a perfect predator bird’s eye view. In places the water depth is greater with darker channels. The sediment floor is exposed here and there, producing pocked mud islands. Small, speckled, hyper, but otherwise camouflaged brown plovers fan out on the new islands intent on finding food. In contrast, the Great Blues keep one wary eye on me even as they hunt. I notice they appear to track and likely have excellent long distance vision. If startled, the normally silent, slow birds turn hysterical and take to the air screaming. They are methodic, stealthy hunters taking a few steps, stopping, waiting, until a lightening beak spears a fish. I rarely see a catch, but a water plant employee on break says they catch quite a few, even big ones.

In the shallows just below, a school of small fish suddenly create a perfect spiral and just as quickly morph into a lively amoeba. The employee, Obbie, says the incoming and outgoing ocean tides can double water volume, cause backward flowing current and low water. The constant flux of fresh water makes the Slough a living, breathing entity, constantly changing volume, current and direction. The Columbia River once overflowed here too, refreshing the wetland regularly. The Slough is a remnant but its continual fluctuations remind us that such areas are not static even with our attempts at control. Once adjacent wetlands have been “improved” by a large golf course and drag race track, each peopled by men wearing strange outfits out for a few hours of diversion. I wonder at the 24 hour richness lost in exchange for a few hours a day. How can we hope to understand or appreciate the subtle gifts nature offers without preserving it and taking time to observe it.

I continue to the end of the dike trail until reaching the round bay just off the highway ramp. In the rising heat, Great Blues, Brants, Canadian geese and mallards rest on exposed logs. All but the herons are preening. Instead, the Great Blues, stock still, watch me. Others have sought deep shade near the opposite shore. Near them a Great Egret, its solid white against dark foliage, patiently takes several slow steps, stops and waits. A large bent-winged shadow on the water alerts all to an Osprey as he alights on a cottonwood top, his rust colors illumned from behind. He suddenly takes to the air, lifts and falls rapidly, hitting the water with a loud slap. Rising again at a low angle, he circumscribes the bay with empty talons uttering cries that start on a high note and descend only slightly. They create a haunting echo. Described as an “annoyed whistle” by my bird book, it is actually one of the most beautiful sounds in wilderness: a piercing series of calls each ending with a hint of echo. Nonetheless, he may well be annoyed. His cry continues from a treetop as motorcycles from the racetrack gun loudly around a curve on the other side of the dike. Now we’re both annoyed. I turn my bike and head back into a welcome breeze. At the bridge I note the water is far lower. A large mud island takes up one third of the width and evidences of civilization are engulfed in it. To my right, a mesh wastebasket, itself become trash, is three fourths submerged. Directly below, a shopping cart’s silt-covered skeleton lies dead and half buried, a symbol of expended consumption. To the left a traffic cone, no longer directing anyone to follow the rules, lies flat under shallow water camouflaged by silt and algae—the symbolic accouterments of civilization subsumed by the Slough. It could be a fitting prophesy of nature’s eventual triumph, I think, as I pedal slowly across the bridge.



  1. It’s interesting that you refer to the “water quality plant” instead of the “sewage treatment plant,” and that you had a good experience biking through there. Fifteen years ago the odors were nasty a mile away, and we developed a well used system of where to phone to report bad odors. Improvements cost millions of dollars, and are an example of neighborhood activism influencing government to change for the better. I compare that campaign with the campaign to reduce noise pollution from the auto and motorcycle racing at nearby Portland International Raceway (PIR.) Sewage odors don’t have rich, powerful, and energetic fans like noisy racers. I wish PIR could become a good neighbor like the “water quality plant.”

  2. It’s a point well taken. There are still bad smells for short periods but nothing like it used to be thanks to all the work of neighbors such as yourself. It’s amazing that I can now enjoy nature and even occasionally forget it’s a sewage treatment plant. In the not too distant past you couldn’t even approach the area…would curl your eyelashes!

    Now on to the racetrack!

  3. Meditative and poetic. Conveys a very clear appreciation of your experience. This is a voice in the wilderness that should be heard.

    • Thank you Caroline

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