WINGED WONDERS OF THE WILLAMETTE VALLEY
If lawnmowers had feathers, they couldn't hold a candle to a hungry flock of Canada geese.
The big birds fly and soar then land to munch the grass across deep lush pastures at the Baskett Slough Wildlife Refuge near Dallas, Oregon.
Each November, it is a time and place for “goose song” according to refuge manager, John Gahr, who added that little else can be heard when the birds gather by the thousands.
“Well, there’s a bunch that’s for sure - we counted 23,000 last week on a fly-off. It is pretty cool to see all those birds lift off at first light – but you hardly hear anything else but the birds.”
It is a raucous, rowdy chorus that’s for sure, but you cannot blame the birds for doing what comes naturally when they arrive at Baskett Slough from far off arctic nesting grounds.
They have come to this U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service refuge for the habitat: wetlands and ponds and open grassy fields that are framed by crew-cut stubble fields and towering oak trees that grow across nearby rolling hills.
Baskett Slough is but one of three Willamette Valley wildlife refuges that was established in the 1960’s to protect this sort of habitat for “dusky” Canada Geese; a sub species of goose that’s in serious decline.
“It’s strictly for sanctuary,” noted Gahr. “It’s their winter home so they’re not being lifted off their feeding areas. Our goal is to keep them right here on the refuge, so they don’t venture so much out to surrounding private land.”
There have been recent improvements for the visitor too – including a platform where you can duck in during frequent rain storms – plus, there are spotting scopes to make the viewing easier for the people of all ages.
In addition, there are many information boards and kiosks that explain the life history of the geese and the background of the refuge system.
But don’t get too comfy as you enjoy the wildlife show! You’ll want to carve out some time for refuge stop number two that’s just thirty minutes to the east.
When you visit Ankeny Wildlife Refuge, I hope you’re lucky enough to cross paths with refuge system biologist, Molly Monroe.
She’s the person in charge of the goose counting across all of the valley refuges and she’s a fascinating person to meet.
She can explain each and every detail of the honker’s life story and why the refuges are so critical to their long-term survival.
She will often park and use binoculars to scan the flocks – she’s counting Dusky geese most of the time – many of them sport bright red collars around their necks.
The collars were attached many of the birds in Alaska during the molt period when geese are unable to fly.
“Duskys are a pretty good sized goose with a distinct chocolate color to their chest; a pretty uniformed dark bird overall.”
She added that Dusky Canada Geese – one of seven sub species that travel to or through Oregon - are in trouble: “I think this year’s number was just below 7,000 so they’re not doing very well as far as recruitment and survivability goes. In fact, their numbers are decreasing basically every year – so they’re kind of losing ground.”
That makes their time on the refuges more critical than ever.
If you come to hike the refuge grounds, you’ve several trails to choose from.
We enjoyed Molly’s favorite called “Pintail.” It’s a broad, wheel chair accessible wooden lane that winds through an oak and ash forest and keeps your feet out of the mud and marsh.
At the end of the trail you’ll enjoy a viewing blind that sports a large window that allows you to peer across a marsh and see plenty of ducks, geese and shorebirds – we even spied a rare peregrine falcon!
Overhead – a signal as a flight of ducks whistled as they winged their way past us; it was time for us to move on to refuge number three.
The 5,000-acre William Finley Wildlife Refuge offers miles of trails for the visitor to enjoy too. All of the trails have hidden surprises along the way – we watched an eagle rise from his roost and caused an eruption of feathers, goose song and absolute mayhem.
US Fish and Wildlife spokesperson, Sallie Gentry told me it’s everyday event – and the eagles are looking for an easy meal by taking the weak or injured goose or duck.
“Whether it’s driving through in your automobile and looking out on the fields covered in geese, or hiking one of our trails and just taking a leisurely Sunday stroll – bring your camera, bring your kids, it’s a great place.”
Each of the Willamette Valley Refuges is open every day to provide places where visitors can expect an escape from the city rush to enjoy the rush of wild wings.
In addition, there are many Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Areas that put on impressive wildlife shows when flocks of geese arrive – be sure to check out Sauvie Island Wildlife Area near Portland and Fern Ridge Wildlife Area near Eugene.
For more information about Oregon’s waterfowl.
OREGON OLIVE MILL
In the waning days of another Oregon wine grape season, vineyards show off colorful leafy leftovers that light up the hills near Dundee in Yamhill County.
But just across the way, at Red Ridge Farms near Dayton – there’s another harvest that is just hitting its stride.
If beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, Oregon’s latest olive crop is downright gorgeous to orchard owner Ken Durant and his son Paul Durant, who told me that there is special beauty in an olive tree:
“It’s not the most attractive tree in the world; a little gangly but it’s got its moments of sheer beauty.”
The bold entrepreneurs have planted 13,000 olive trees across 15 Oregon acres with varieties that sport exotic names like “Arbequina,” “Arbosana” and “Koroneiki.”
According to Paul Durant, the Oregon Olive Mill Manager, the family hopes to compliment the Oregon wine grape landscape with something new:
“It’s an oil yielding type of fruit, not like Mission variety olive that you might stick on your pinky finger or stuffed with garlic or placed on a stick in a martini – it’s just a different type of olive that is intended for oil.”
Paul added that the oil type olives require fewer chemicals than wine grapes, they are bird proof and the fruit is easily harvested.
However, there is one worry on everyone’s mind: Oregon’s cold, downright nasty winter weather – where the snow can pile high, last for weeks and take a toll on young fragile olive trees.
Still, Ken Durant ambitiously offers, “You cannot learn to swim in the shallow end.”
“Olives are being grown in Europe in climates that are very similar to what we have in western Oregon, including the hard winters. So, the secret for us is to have enough good fortune to build a significant root ball in each young tree (that takes about three years) so if we have a bad weather event we’ll recover.”
Paul Druant added, “The fact that my dad bought a state of the art olive mill and built a beautiful facility around it – you know, we’re in for the long haul.”
The milling process is impressive: totes are emptied of olives, stems and leaves are separated before the olives are tumbled into a mixer where blades blend the fruit into a paste.
Eventually, heat and centrifugal force separates solids and water and the result is gorgeous green oil that doesn’t get any fresher.
Last year, the Durant’s Oregon Olive Mill bottled 350 gallons of extra-virgin olive oil and they hope to grow even bigger this year.
The olive oil market is vast and offers plenty of room to grow. America's love affair with olive oil is pegged at 70 million gallons a year.
Penny Durant said that consumption level is for all of the right health reasons too.
“It’s a mono-saturate that is high in antioxidants and olive oil has wonderful flavor – a bit pungent, perhaps buttery and woody at the same time, but a fine compliment to food.”
The Oregon Olive Mill at Red Ridge Farms includes fine wines that are produced from the Durant Vineyards and offers olive oil tasting and more – you can spend the night in a fully furnished apartment that offers a stunning view to the surrounding hills.
Plus, the property is open to exploration so you can wander and watch and learn about a new enterprise that’s taking root in Oregon. There are several exciting Fall events including the Olio Nuova Festa (New Olive Oil Celebration) that are worth your time to visit.
A WHITEWASHED WONDER
In winter, except for surf and wind – the coast slows down – few distractions, fewer folks around and many people like it that way.
At the rocky headland called “Heceta,” – named for 18th century Spanish explorer Bruno Heceta, the landscape is marked a gleaming sentinel – a whitewashed wonder with a powerful light atop that can be seen for miles.
If you stop in at Heceta Head Lighthouse State Scenic Viewpoint, be sure to spend some time with the state park volunteers – people like Ruth Philippson – who can tell you much about the area:
“Oh, it’s a jewel to work here as a volunteer because there are so many people here from just down the way: Reedsport, Florence, Newport – people come here to visit their lighthouse. They have such a sense of pride and want to share their own stories about the light, the headland and the park. They play right in their own backyard and that’s very cool.”
After you enjoyed the stunning views, be sure to join one of the volunteers or perhaps park ranger like Clay Courtright who can guide you deep inside Heceta Head Lighthouse.
“All of the brick came from San Francisco – the whole tower – and what is so interesting is that there are actually two walls with an air gap between them. That was to allow the structure to breath and add strength to the design as well.”
Construction on Heceta Head Lighthouse began in 1892 and it was officially lit two years later.
But there were few roads and horse and wagons transported all of the supplies, equipment and bricks – that was a two day journey from Florence; the nearest port that’s but 5 miles away.
Three men crews were stationed at the remote site – but they were not alone, noted Courtright – for families accompanied the crews for a life of work and serious responsibility.
“Between the isolation and - especially prior to electricity – the hard labor, it was a tough life. Steady and serious people applied for a life of dedication in the service to all of the Oregon lighthouses in those days.
The fresnel (fre-nel) glass lens was shipped from England around the Horn and it needed constant care and cleaning – but it was the brightest, most powerful beam in its day and could be seen 21 miles out to sea.
“I have a lot of respect for the transition the men made here,” noted Courtright. “You see, in 1932 the bridge was completed to provide automobile traffic and then basic electricity came in. With the autos, you had people taking picnics up here on Sunday drives – a pulse of activity interacting with folks that the lighthouse keepers never had in the early days. I can only imagine what life was like and the struggles that occurred for the keepers.”
Nearby, Carl Washburne State Park offers visitors plenty of elbowroom to stretch out and play in a quiet and out of the way parkland. It offers 58 sites for RV’s or trailers, plus two yurts for folks who like to camp, but don’t own the gear.
Heceta Head Lighthouse is one of nine lighthouses managed by Oregon Department of State Parks, but it is the only site where a keeper’s cottage is still standing. The keeper’s cottage is a private bed and breakfast where you can enjoy a longer stay.
“Oh, it is very isolated, but people like it that way,” said Michelle Bursey.
Michelle is the co-owner of the Heceta Head Lighthouse Bed and Breakfast that offers 6 rooms – each one of the rooms offers wonderful views to the ocean, the forest or the nearby lighthouse.
“There aren’t any other residences around and yet, it’s on one of the most popular highways in the United States, so it’s nice that it’s preserved this way.”
The Queen Anne styled cottage offers a wonderful escape and an amazing seven-course breakfast – in fact, they even share their remarkable recipes in a new book about the place.
There are no phones or TV, but an inviting front porch with a spectacular ocean view that will keep you coming back for more visits.
“We have many guests who come to get away from it all – people who want to leave the hustle and bustle and enjoy the view – enjoy each other. It’s quite special that way”
CRABBING IN THE COLUMBIA RIVER ESTUARY
It is a time of seasonal change when the weather can “turn on a dime” from fair skies to wet, windy and downright crummy.
But on those wonderful “blue hole” days when the sun plays a peak-a-boo game with coastal visitors, Grant McOmie takes advantage of every opportunity for a new adventure.
He recently enjoyed a big payoff for his efforts as he learned the tactics and techniques for catching the Oregon seafood delicacy called Dungeness crab.
When you’re lucky enough to go fishing with a good friend who knows the water well, you’re sure to learn something new.
That’s especially true when the Columbia River us under your keel and carries you toward new adventure.
Steve Fick first explored the Columbia River estuary as a kid, so he knows his way around the vast waterway where the river meets the sea.
He and his longtime friend, Jim Dickson, intended to teach this greenhorn how to catch his supper from the sea.
For Fick, the first lesson is simple enough: always wear a PFD (Personal Flotation Device.) He insisted it’s a personal lesson in life and safety:
“You always wear it Grant, because if you fall overboard, particularly with heavy rain gear on, it’s very difficult to survive. The water is always cold and can sap your strength in a matter of minutes.”
We left the snug harbor at Hammond, Oregon and slowly motored the short distance downriver to an area just off Clatsop Beach.
Fick had prepared five large crab traps with varied baits – a strategy he often used so to “see what the crabs prefer.”
Sometimes he’ll use turkey legs, chicken wings, shad or salmon carcasses – even a can of tuna for crab bait. Anyone say, “lunchtime?”
“Oh yes, a can of tuna fish is perfect bait, exclaimed Fick. “All you do is perforate the can so that the scent comes out – you can also buy canned sardines or mackerel too – both work well. As long as they have a high oil content, it seems to fish well – the scent is what draws the crab into the pot.”
Each Oregon crabber must carry an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Shellfish License. Each crabber is allowed to use up to three crab traps.
We timed our trip to fish our traps the last hour of the incoming tide and through the high slack period, (that’s often the best crabbing time.)
Steve said it’s the safest time to crab in the estuary:
“There is no reason to be out here on the ebb tide – that’s the out-going tide.It can be the most dangerous part of the tide cycle and this river can change so fast. You just don’t take chances out here.”
Fick said that each trap should “soak” for 15-20 minutes – that allows enough time for the crabs to locate the bait and enter the trap.
Each crabber is allowed a dozen male crabs apiece, and in Oregon they must be five and three-quarters (5¾) inches across the back.
Females are protected to preserve the breeding population of crabs. A crab gauge or other measuring device is essential gear since some crabs miss the mark by only a hair’s length.
Jim and I pulled in the last of the five traps. “Oh, man look at that, I screamed. “It’s mother load and I think they’re all legal.”
Steve showed me how to safely hold each crab so not to get pinched.
“Watch me Grant – see how I place my thumb on the underside and my other four fingers across the back. You can hold it safely and not get pinched. This is a dandy crab. That’s great!”
Within a half hour, we had landed and checked each of our traps and we were fortunate to retain 18 legal Dungeness crabs; plenty to go around for our small but hearty crew.
As much fun as it was to catch these crabs, the best part was yet to come when Steve motored back to the dock in Astoria and we carried our crustaceans up to his shop to learn the proper way to cook our crabs.
Fick dropped a pound of salt into ten gallons of boiling water and then placed each crab into the pot. The crabs must cook approximately twenty minutes.
While we waited, I chatted with Oregon Fish and Wildlife Shellfish Manager, Matt Hunter.
He explained that the crabbing in the Columbia River estuary had been exceptional this year.
“We’re seeing darn near a limit per person and when we don’t see a limit it’s because of weather or that people just don’t want their dozen crabs.”
The reason for this year’s remarkable catch rate?
“Well, the crabs molted in early summer so they’re coming off the molt and they’re hungry and looking for food. At this time of year there’s plenty of food: baitfish die offs, natural salmon spawning events so there is plenty of available to them.”
As we chilled our catch on ice, I asked Fick what he enjoyed most about the adventure that’s just off his front door step:
“Oh, it’s simple and everyone can be involved in it. It’s easy to catch a dozen crabs per person with lots of action for kids. And – you never really know until you pull the pot up what you got…you know and that is fun!”
TIP OF THE WEEK-CRAB RECIPES
It is a lot of fun and continues in the kitchen where Steve shares three of his favorite Dungeness crab recipes.
“You can do a lot of different things with crab meat t – you can make a chowder, fritters, salads – sandwiches – so many different things. You can mix it with fettuccine, other seafood, so it’s very versatile.”
Recipe number one was new to me and called a “Stuffed Crab Sandwich”
Steve mixed one cup of grated swiss cheese with two cups of crab and added one teaspoon each of Worcestershire sauce and lemon pepper before he mixed in on cup of mayo and half a cup of sliced olives.
The mixture was then stuffed into each half of a hollowed-out sandwich roll.
Steve then spread a generous amount of grated Parmesan cheese across the top of each roll and slid the tray of sandwiches into a 375-degree oven for seven to ten minutes.
“This is a filling dinner,” he noted. “You need to be in the mood for something rich and robust – it works well on a cold winter’s night.”
While we waited on the sandwiches, it was time for recipe number two that Steve called the “Fick Crab Cakes.”
Steve began with a pound of crab meat – he added one egg, one cup of Panko, one cup of mayo and a couple of teaspoons of mustard – a generous cup of diced onions and a tablespoon of seafood seasoning followed and the ingredients were mixed and formed into small cakes.
The cakes were placed in a fry pan with a quarter inch of hot peanut oil with Steve’s words of caution:
“You don’t want to overcook these or you’ll get pieces of crab cardboard and that doesn’t taste too great.”
Fick’s recipe number three is called “Crab Louie Salad” and it is one of his favorite because he can make it as elaborate or as simple as he likes.
He insists, never ever hold back on the crab. He used it atop a bed of sliced lettuce and then again atop all of the ingredients.
Salad fixings include onions, cucumbers, celery, sliced olives, tomatoes, a sliced egg and a cup of shredded cheddar cheese.
“It’s a light meal,” he noted. “But it can be a heavier meal if you want it to be with the ingredients – especially the cheese.”
Our seafood feast was topped off too – with a glass of Oregon white wine (Fick prefers Pinot Grigio) and a local microbrew. The table was set for a couple of kings who volunteered as official “Getaway Food Tasters:” Jim Shores and Birt Hansen.
Each was eager to sample our efforts and offered their reviews:
“Excellent, excellent, excellent and what surprised me was so many ways to fix it,” said Shores. “The taste is something you don’t get in upper Minnesota where I come from, so let me say that and I love Oregon crab.”
Birt nodded in agreement and then with a chuckle he offered, “This all looks outstanding for Jim and me, but what are you guys going to eat? There won’t be any left over for you.”
It was a perfect way to round out a Dungeness crabbing adventure and then bring the day’s activity full circle: from the estuary to the dining table.