Graham Oaks: a phoenix rising
I arrive early at Graham Oaks Nature Park on the eastern edge of Wilsonville. I try not to be disappointed that regional fires are making the sunrise views hazy and I hit the trail, determined to explore parts of the park I've not previously seen.
As I walk through the open savanna, the sun streams over the top of the grasses where young white oak saplings pop up like children playing hide and seek. Stretched out before me are large expanses of grasses, shrubs and Oregon white oak trees of various sizes.
According to Metro, the regional governmental agency that owns the park, the site was once homesteaded by the daughter and son-in-law of John Graham, who started a mail steamboat on the Willamette River and the ferry that would later give Grahams Ferry Road its name. His daughter Lily and her husband, Marion Young, grew hops, filberts and other crops on the property.
Previously, oak savannas were managed by native tribes using fire to keep fast-growning fir trees from overshadowing the oaks that provided a valuable food source.
By the 1950s, the land was sold to the State of Oregon and on the hill above the former farm a large mental hospital, Dammasch, was built. Over the years the State considered siting a landfill on the future park property — which had been gradually cleared of most of its native vegetation and most of its natural creeks diverted — and later, a prison.
As I walk the main trail — passing so many runners older than me that I start to feel like a middle-aged slacker — I marvel at the cooler heads that prevailed to make this site a park. Graham Oaks has only been "finished" for seven years but restoration work is always ongoing. The 250-acre park has several ecosystems, from wetlands to riparian forest to grass savannas and stands of native oak.
I reflect on aerial photos I've seen of the site before it was reclaimed and look around me now, trying to visualize it as a feature-less patch of dirt waiting for a spring planting.
Cory Eldridge, communications specialist with Metro, sends me an email after my hike, telling me the park is mostly in maintenance mode but did get a substantial planting of western red cedar, alders, snowberies and other plants last winter.
"In the northwest oak stand, we have strategically cut down trees that compete with the Oregon white oaks, which will help them thrive and create the oak savannah habitat that was once common in the Willamette Valley," he said.
I stop frequently during my walk, eventually breaking out the fancy filters on my camera phone to try and capture the beauty of my surroundings that my regular camera does not seem to see. I look forward to taking the Coyote Way trail through the most wooded part of the park, as this is one part of Graham Oaks I've not yet seen. Even so, I'm amazed to see cedars and ferns and hear the burble of creeks so close to the more arid grasslands. There's a mild drone of noise from construction in Villebois but I console myself with the fact that there is a strip of forest between me and civilization.
When I emerge back into the savanna and the full strength of summer's morning sun, the crickets are all awake, attempting to drown out all other sounds in the universe. I take my time getting back to my car, stopping to read all the interpretive signage along the way and pledging to get back the park this winter, a season that promises to reveal more surprises.