A Perfect Paddle On Netarts Bay
A clear sky plus brilliant sunshine add up to a March surprise on a recent weekend along the Oregon coast.
It was a perfect time to dive into new adventure on the quiet side of coastal life with Kayak Tillamook’s lead guide, Paul Peterson.
Peterson has been a skipper aboard large fishing boats from Oregon to Alaska, but these days he shows newcomers the perfect paddle strokes that will keep them safe.
Before we got our boat bottoms wet, he demonstrated the forward paddle stroke during our land based prep session: “So in it goes,” said Peterson, who reached forward with the paddle, “and then it’s a push-pull move inside that imaginary strike zone of baseball.”
Our small troop of paddlers prepped for a trip on Netarts Bay, a small Tillamook County estuary that may suit you just fine.
Marc Hinz co-owns and operates Kayak Tillamook with Peterson and he said that the business grew out of a college class five years ago. He added that kayaking tours “just happened” because he was in the right place at the right time and owned the right passion for water.
His business has grown to fill a recreation niche that was missing in the Tillamook coastal communities. He added that the twelve-foot long kayaks are akin to “beginner’s dream boats:”
“You need to know nothing about kayaking because the majority of our tours are built for beginners. If you have ever paddled a canoe, this kayak has similar stability; it’s a bit wider and more stable than ocean-going kayaks too.”
Once the half hour shore based session wrapped up, we dropped in at near-ebb tide at the Netarts Bay public marina to enjoy a winter’s day that was too nice to believe.
Tucked into the comfortable and stable kayak, I followed Peterson and Hinz’s lessons. Soon, I became the master of my boat as I caught on to the basic forward, backward and sweeper strokes.
We wore life jackets as Peterson guided us along the edge of the bay, (the beauty of the craft is that it can float and maneuver in just inches of water.)
Peterson carried proper safety gear that included a VHF radio and a first-aid kit, and he kept us a safe distance away from the estuary’s rough bar.
It is critical for newcomers to this sport to join experienced professionals like Peterson who know the water well, because conditions on the water can change in a heartbeat and inexperienced boaters can get into unexpected trouble.
Peterson also noted that boating regulations changed recently. Beginning in 2010, all non-motorized boats longer than 10-feet are required to have a ten-dollar Aquatic Invasive Species Permit. The money from the permit helps to develop and manage programs that keep non-native plants and animals out of Oregon’s waterways.
At 2700 acres, Netarts Bay is relatively small in size with no major rivers, but several small creeks that feed into it.
Peterson and Hinz agreed that the bay’s high water quality is largely due to its remoteness, small size and more:
“There is no industry on this bay,” noted Peterson. “So, there’s nothing polluting it and it’s all natural. In the wintertime when we have the heavy run-off in the wintertime you’ll see some turbidity, but primarily it’s a clean bay.
“Netarts Bay is one of the most pristine bays on the Oregon,” added Hinz. It is shallow throughout, no more than 15-feet deep and the water is so clear you can see right to the bottom. You can see Dungeness crabs crawling across the bottom of the bay, so visibility makes this a nice waterway to paddle and it is a very popular clamming destination too.”
Mila Le and John Vella traveled from their Portland home to join us for a day of paddling on Netarts Bay. It was just the second time each had tried kayaking recreation. Yet, each felt right at home in the cozy confines of their boats.
“I think most anyone can do it,” said Vella. “It’s amazing how easy and comfortable it feels. It’s pretty natural – as long as you remain calm when the little waves come up and splash you.”
Mila agreed that the wet suited her just fine too: “It’s about as close as you can get to the water without being in the water. It also feels really different from a typical motorboat where you are perched up and looking down into the water. In a kayak you’re so much closer to the water and I like that closeness.”
Kayak Tillamook’s tours reach across six Tillamook County estuaries for a total of 80 miles on bays, rivers, sloughs and backwater areas.
“That’s about 800 square miles of flat water paddling opportunities,” noted Hinz. “Most of which are tidal influenced - but we also have lakes – freshwater lakes and intimate little sloughs that wander up into coastal forests – there’s a lot for us to see and do in a kayak.”
There’s even more too! Hinz offered me a copy of the new Nehalem Estuary Water Trail Map, a hands-on guide produced and published by the Tillamook Estuaries Partnership.
The guide is free and available to kayakers and other boaters.
It is the first in a series of water trail maps that will eventually detail all of the Tillamook estuaries including Netarts Bay.
If you wish to make Netarts Bay a longer stay, consider nearby Cape Lookout State Park, located a few miles from the bay.
Park manager Pate Marvin said that the parkland offers 225 sites including rental cabins and 13 yurts.
“You can walk to your hearts content on the beach, said Marvin. “Once you get away from the campground, a mile or two – you’re not going to see a whole lot of people as you hike Netarts Spit – even in the busy summer season – so you can really find peace and solitude and enjoy the outdoors.”
Le and Vella agreed that Netarts Bay is a special place and kayaking offers intimate moments where nature’s touch restores the soul:
“The mountains, the water – you can even hear the ocean in the distance,” noted Vella. “There’s so much variety and we’re so fortunate to be able to enjoy all of this anytime because it is so close to Portland.”
Le smiled and added “When you hit it just right, it’s awesome. Everyone should try it.”
A Snow Shoe Hike to Trillium Lake
Jeff and Emmi Nishimura love to play in the snow: it keeps them feeling young and active in winter – plus it’s a fun adventure to explore someplace new like the Trillium Lake Trail in the Mt Hood National Forest.
The couple recently discovered that snowshoes don’t slow them down but have opened up the outdoors to new adventures in the winter months.
Emmi noted, “They’re so easy to walk in, they’re not heavy at all and it’s really beautiful out here in the winter. I never knew it could be so much fun to hike in the snow – or rather, on top of the snow.”
They’re not alone – thousands of folks have discovered that Oregon’s winter landscape is inviting and easy to travel through with a pair of snowshoes strapped to their boots.
Drew and Emiko Hall decided to get away from it all on a day long adventure to Trillium Trail because it’s easy to reach just past Government Camp along State Highway 26.
“We love to hike but we’re not really into skiing or snowboarding,” noted Drew. “We figured get out here during the winter months. It’s the fresh air, the scenery, and fewer people out on the trails.”
His wife, Emiko, added, “ If you’re a true Oregonian, a little rain or winter mix won’t throw you off – just go do it.”
If you’ve never done it before – you might stop in and chat with an expert before you go – someone like Erin Harri at REI in Hillsboro.
Erin really knows snowshoes – she’s been enjoying the sport the past decade and said that the shoes you choose have come a long way over the years:
“Lightweight aluminum has made all the difference. Plus, the latest flexible plastics have made the uppers and the bindings fairly malleable and yet they withstand frigid temperatures.”
Harris advised that you look for a “one step” binding system that allows you simply step in and pull one strap to tighten your boot into the shoe.
A word about those boots – think waterproof! You will be in snow after all, so keep dry is critically important.
“If you are doing recreational light hiking, wear light hiking boots,” added Harri. “If you’re running and racing in your snow shoes, wear water proof running shoes. But above all, it’s critical to keep the water out.”
Clothing is critical too! Harri advised layering with synthetic-based clothing that wicks moisture away from your body – never wear cotton but wear a synthetic base layer, then an insulating layer of fleece or down and then top it off with a waterproof or windproof jacket.
“Layering is all the difference because you’re working up a sweat while you walk so as you get warmer, you can remove a layer, then add it back when you stop for a break.”
She added that many local outdoor stores – including REI offer snow shoe clinics that will teach you more about the shoe styles, proper fit, clothing options and places to go.
That brings us back to Trillium Lake – according to Harri it is one of the best beginner sites around:
“It’s a pretty good decline as you’re heading in (about two miles) so a bit of elevation on the way out but around the lake it is fairly flat and wide all the way around.”
If you are a beginner, allow a full day for your hike into Trillium Lake. Bring a lunch, energy food and lots of water – as aerobic as it is, you lose a lot of water – it is important to remain hydrated.
There are many places for newcomers to try beyond the Trillium Trail in the Mt Hood National Forest. Consider Frog Lake, White River Sno-Park and the Tilly Jane District at Cooper Spur on the north side of Mt Hood.
Something else to keep in mind – Harri noted that this winter has been called “weather fickle!” That is, the snow level has risen and fallen up thousands of feet each week, so check on the snow conditions and the weather forecast before you go.
Hot Shot For A Cold Spell
The McKenzie River Scenic Byway may leave you slack jawed and spellbound. State Highway 126 is timeless transition on western approach into Oregon’s Cascade Mountains.
“It is scenic and it is beautiful,” noted local travel expert Meg Trendler.
“You are driving along the river and you get these glimpses of an absolutely crystal clear river all along the way and lots of greenery too.”
Like century old drawing cards along the way, Lane County’s covered bridges including “Goodpasture Covered Bridge;” at 165 feet it’s Oregon’s second longest and “Belknap Bridge,” a river cross-over since 1890.
“The bridges were generally made of wood back in the 20’s and 30’s but if you covered them the timbers would last twice or three times longer in Oregon’s wet weather.”
Wet may be what you’ll get when you reach the plunge pool world of Sahalie Falls and Koosah Falls – the trail is always open and easily reached along off the highway.
“The water just comes shooting out like a fire hydrant,” said Trendler with a smile. “It’s a huge wall of water any time of year and then there’s a great path you can walk from Sahalie to Koosah falls so it’s not even five minutes from your car to the falls.”
The McKenzie River Valley is a year round recreation destination and centerpiece for many is the McKenzie River National Recreation Trail.
The trail is 26 miles long and about half that distance is below the snow line, so you’ve good opportunities for hiking and biking anytime.
People have long enjoyed the McKenize River; often called Oregon’s first fishing and boating playground.
Local historian and owner of River’s Touch, Roger Fletcher, said that “drift-boating” was spawned on the McKenzie River; the birthplace for the “All Oregon Boat” with its unique style of riding atop the rapids.
“The McKenzie boats evolved in the 1920’s as fishing guides searched for boats with maneuverability and capacity... it made water previously inaccessible, accessible. Of course, that was a two edged sword…because as people discovered the opportunities, more and more people came to the river.”
When they came, many visitors also found a distinct way to warm up after a long day on the water.
Belknap Hot Springs has been a hot shot for a wintertime cold spell since the 1850’s and you can even see the water bubbling out of the ground.
It’s 200 degrees at the source, according to Marlene Watson the Belknap Resort Manager, who noted that at that temperature, you could cook an egg.
A series of underground pipes cool the water so by the time it reaches the nearby pool, it’s a warm and relaxing environment.
“We have family groups who get together here because it is so relaxing,” added Watson. They can swim, hike, read and relax and they love it.”
Belknap Hot Springs Resort offers full service accommodations including overnight camping for RV, tent or trailer – even rental cabins and a full service lodge.
Watson adds that the McKenzie River draws visitors back along a scenic drive that is “steady and serene.” “You hear the river go by and it’s just a wonderful place to get away and forget all your troubles – relax!”
Kirk Snyder is the President of the Mt Hood Snow Mobile Club, the state’s oldest chapter. He is a rider with decades of experience during the region’s harshest season.
Snyder said that it’s exciting and challenging to travel to a place that’s “snow special” and draws folks back for exciting adventures season after season.
“I get to see a different side of Oregon in winter and I really enjoy the back country. It’s not unusual for us to travel 50 miles or more on snow mobiles and not see another person all day. I consider this Oregon’s finest season.”
He said it’s the ease of access across thousands of miles of US Forest Service Roads in Oregon; roads that are designated “multiple-use” that draws many winter riders. It was one of the big reasons that he joined the club several years ago.
Snyder’s sons, Oskar and Niko, joined Kirk when they were old enough to ride. They each took a snow mobile safety course and a passed a required exam to earn their entry into the sport.
Snyder said that he insists that his kids – and the folks who ride with him – wear helmets and carry critical safety gear including extra food, clothing and fuel.
“Things happen, so you’ve got to be ready,” said Snyder. “We might spend the night in the snow, so you must be ready for the worst that Mother Nature serves up.”
The Mt Hood Snow Mobile Club is one of 26 statewide chapters within the Oregon State Snow Mobile Association. The club’s weekend rides begin at Skyline Road Sno-Park and can reach across the Cascades toward Mt Jefferson and the Santiam Basin.
“That’s what I like to do most of all,” admitted Oskar Snyder. “The long rides allow you to have fun all day with other people. Best part of this sport!”
Ryan and Susan Robinson said that each of them “fell in love” with snowmobiling after their first ride two years ago. It was the solitude that comes from travel into remote areas that drew them to the sport.
Ryan added that getting started was easy for them too. He advised others to consider renting a snow mobile for a day to find out if it’s a good fit.
“Just one sled for one day will allow you to find out if you like it, if the family likes the snow, the weather and whether they enjoy riding around together.”
Susan added, “We fell in love with it from the get-go and met some nice people in the Mt Hood Club. That was a big plus for us because they helped show us the way.”
The Robinsons made the sport a family event when their sons, Dylan and Trevor, joined them last year. Like the Snyder’s, each youngster went thru a safety class and passed a test before they could begin riding with the family.
“Snowmobiling is amazing,” said Dylan. “There’s no other feeling quite like the pure adrenalin rush of riding across fresh snow.”
According to Snyder, there are hundreds of miles of trails in the Mt Hood National Forest. For the most part, they are multiple use trails (the club grooms many of them each week) so they’re open to cross country skiers, dog sled teams and snow shoeing too.
“When you ride a snow mobile, you've great responsibilities to obey the ‘rules of the road,” cautioned Snyder. “That means when you meet others; especially non-motorized recreationists, you slow down and move to the right and give them ample room.”
Kirk added that it’s a remarkable experience to tour Oregon in winter, but riders are vigilant too – the ever-changing weather demands a rider’s respect.
“There’s nothing like this – and I want to see more folks consider trying it too – our club is a fine way to start – we encourage beginners to contact us, show up on the weekends and we’ll make sure they have a good time.”
Cascades Raptor Center
There’s goose ‘song’ in the air – have you heard the excited sound? It’s hard to miss as the flocks seem seem to shout: “We’re here – in Oregon - at last!”
It’s especially loud and strong at places like William Finley National Wildlife Refuge near Corvallis along the Homer Campbell Memorial Boardwalk.
“The refuge is a magnet for wildlife we’ll have thousands upon thousands of ducks and geese and swans here within the next few months,” noted US Fish and Wildlife Biologist, Molly Monroe.
The 1700 feet of elevated, wheelchair accessible boardwalk leads to an observation blind and it is a fine choice to duck in and escape foul weather because there’s so much wildlife here.
“We’re kind of a little known secret right now,” added Sallie Gentry, spokesperson for US Fish and Wildlife. “But I think we’re going to become more well-known.”
Fast on the tail feathers of the abundant waterfowl flocks are the raptors – the hundreds of hawks and eagles that pass through or winter over in Oregon.
You’ll want to stop in and winter awhile at the Cascades Raptor Center near Eugene. It’s a wildlife rehabilitation clinic that helps the sick and injured birds of prey.
Scores of birds, most of them seldom seen so close, like a red-tailed hawk, a barn owl, a white tailed kyte, arrive at the Center each winter thanks to well-intentioned folks who often recover the hurt birds in the field.
“I wanted to create a nature center that helped raptors,” said the Center’s Director, Louise Shimmel. “My goal for the past thirty years has been to have representatives from each northwest species of raptors for the public to see and learn from and now we’re very close to that goal.”
In fact, the Cascades Raptor Center has been in operation since 1990 as a wildlife hospital and education site. You can see and learn about 34 different raptor species across the three acre site.
Shimmel says education about raptors has made a big difference to our understanding and appreciation of the birds.
“Absolutely! Raptors have had a huge perception shift from vermin and bounties to majestic and beautiful! Back in the 1950’s, there were bounties on hawks and eagles and today we understand the value of the predator-prey cycle.
Still – thoughtless injuries persist! Shimmel showed off a Swainson’s Hawk that was shot by a poacher. Its pelvis shattered, the young raptor will never fly again. So, it has become an ambassador of sorts – in schools and at the Center - teaching people more about raptors.
Volunteer Dan Gleason said that the Cascades Raptor Center is a fine place to visit and learn what the varied raptors look like before heading out to see them in the wild.
“That’s one way – to see them up close and then go out and see them in their natural habitat. That helps folks understand what they see especially since you can see them up close here.
Gleason added that bald eagles are a favorite for many birders because the big birds are more common – even abundant in some parts of Oregon and because they are easy to spot – especially sporting the tell-tale white head and tail feathers that mark a mature bald eagle.
“We have reached a point in the Willamette Valley – particularly throughout Lane County where people see bald eagles more often than other raptor species. We really get a big influx of the birds moving thru here in the winter.”
One of the best places to spot a bald eagle or two or three is the nearby Fern Ridge Wildlife Area that’s managed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
It is made up of more than 5000 acres of wetlands, ponds and sloughs and upland areas according to Kevin Roth, the wildlife area’s Assistant Manager.
“We are a fine place to start --- not just to view the waterfowl that use the wetlands and ponds but the raptors too. Our number one goal is to provide food, water, sanctuary for wintering birds and at times we’re like a magnet. You will see several species in just one visit.”
Gleason added that his best tip to spot birds of prey is to simply “drive around.”
“Especially the back roads of farmland - stop and look often too – especially scan the trees – chances are you will see an eagle or a hawk – they are that common and without leaves on the trees, easier to spot this time of year.”
The Cascades Raptor Center is also a perfect place to begin your raptor watching adventures. The center offers “handler talks” each Saturday and Sunday at 1pm sharp. It’s a great chance to get a close up view of many raptor species and the handler will teach you much about the species too.
You can also find additional places to watche for waterfowl and raptors at the new ODFW Wildlife Viewing Map. It’s a fine resource for locating the best wildlife viewing sites across Oregon.
Fernhill Restorative Gardens
A community’s health can be measured by its wealth of wild places… and in Western Washington County discover what’s been a bit of an outdoor secret where the quiet life is prized by its wildness.
If you’re lucky you may cross paths with wildlife photographer Steve Halpern. He travels this way each week and he takes a deep breath and savor a place that’s meant for the quiet times.
“In order to do bird photography, you have to have an extraordinary tolerance for frustration,” said the longtime photographer. “You have to have high patience, be willing to endure perhaps cold and heat and bugs and remember that none of that shows up in the picture.”
What does show up in Halpern’s wonderful bird photographs are moments of wildness that are set in a place you’ve likely never seen or heard much about called Fernhill Wetlands near Forest Grove, Oregon.
“Part of it is learning bird behavior so you can get close without startling the bird you can get a nice picture of the subject in its natural habitat without it being alarmed.”
You may find it surprising that so much wildness – nearly 800-acres – is just thirty minutes west of Portland. Once considered a ‘wasteland,’ the local community thought there had to be a better way and began to change the scene over twenty years ago.
The restoration and preservation efforts paid off – today, it’s a place where eagles have a home and raise their young and where thousands of waterfowl gather each winter.
Halpern calls Fernhill Wetlands a “birder’s paradise” and it’s largely unknown.
‘I think it’s an amazing thing, not just for the wildlife, but for the city of Forest Grove and for Washington County to have a world class wetland. This is as good and as wonderful a wetland as you could hope for and it’s really in our own backyards.”
This week, that fine place just off our backyards got even better!
The landowner, Clean Water Services, embarked on a $12 million project last year to enhance the Fernhill Wetlands property with a more natural job of cleaning wastewater.
Three acres of the site – and there’s much more on the way – have been transformed into Fernhill Gardens; a site marked by massive boulders, huge trees and nearly 60,000 wetland shrubs and plants.
The practical goal of the project is to cool treated wastewater at an affordable price before it flows into the nearby Tualatin River.
Project Manager, John Dummer, said that a project of this scale has never been built before:
“The process of naturalizing or bringing water back to nature is one of the things we wanted to evoke in this restorative garden. We want this to be a place where people can come, experience nature but also provide a purpose of cleaning and cooling the water – hence, all of the vegetation.”
The garden is a place that people will certainly want to visit – crowned by two massive wooden bridges that invite and entice visitors down the trail.
Water Resources Manager, Jared Kinnear, added: “It’s a win-win for the water, win-win for the habitat and really, offers amenities for the people too.
Local people like Debby de Carlo (a member of the local Friends of Fernhill Wetlands) agreed that the new garden will be a valuable asset to the community and to the wildlife that live here.
“This place is like a silver lining in Oregon’s rainy winters,” said De Carlo. “You see more variety of ducks here in the winter and when I’m out in a natural place like this, I forget about myself. It’s almost like a meditation to be out here surrounded by wildness.”
Halpern agreed and said that as more folks discover Fernhill, more people will come to appreciate what it offers: “It’s a place where our national bird has successfully come back from the brink of extinction. That’s really a remarkable thing and it’s good to know there’s still something wild out here.”