Living in the city alongside a major wildlife preserve is a rare treat and a unique opportunity. Aaron Campbell knows this, and wants to make sure everyone else does, too. That's why he's started leading free weekly nature tours through Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge.
"People who have lived in Portland for the majority of their lives, or even just have vacation homes here, and come visit â€“ a lot of them didn't know that this spot was right here in front of them," Campbell said. "It's really a little secret hideaway, close to home!"
Campbell, who calls himself the Nature Nerd, is a trained zoologist who has worked in outdoor settings for 23 years. His jobs have included studying wild birds, leading wetlands tours, and teaching "nature journaling" classes. He lives in Sellwood, and works as an educational biologist for Jackson Bottom Wildlife Preserve in Hillsboro. His wealth of knowledge about plants and animals within Oaks Bottom, and his love for them, becomes evident as soon as his tour begins.
On a sunny Sunday in early March, a dozen people from across the Portland area gathered at Sellwood Park to embark upon this experience. The group strolled down the hill to Oaks Bottom and then meandered along the trail until Campbell stopped to point out interesting natural features: An owl's nest here, the Oregon State Plant there. He explained how the south end of the wildlife refuge was rescued from its early use a garbage dump, and how the northern part was made from the removed dirt when Interstate 405 was carved through Downtown Portland.
As the tour worked its way into a tree-dense area, Campbell's focus shifted to the many types of habitat found in the refuge. He discussed resident birds, mushrooms, trees, insects, mammals, and berries. He pointed out invasive species as well as native ones. Throughout the two-hour walk Campbell answered participants' questions, including a question about identifying dangerous plants like poison oak.
Toward the end of the hike he paused the group along the Springwater Trail to indicate a pair of bald eagles soaring overhead. Then he pointed out the daring high-dives of Anna's Hummingbirds, trying to impress their potential mates.
Meredith Beau had arrived from the Pearl District for this tour, and brought along two of her friends. She appreciated Campbell's depth of knowledge and engaging style. "I think he was fantastic," she exclaimed. "He was able to make his enthusiasm for biology infectious!" John Fitzgerald, a local realtor, said he enjoyed the tour so much that he's planning to invite his clients, so they can get a sense of Inner Southeast's natural beauty.
These "Nature Nerd Expeditions" are advertised mostly with flyers posted at local parks and in businesses around the Sellwood area. Campbell has recently started announcing them on his Facebook, Instagram, and NextDoor social media accounts as well. Attendance varies, but he likes to restrict the participants to six or fewer people. All ages are welcome, and there is no fee. The flyers note a suggested donation of $5.
Campbell also puts together tours for individuals and small groups on other days of the week, upon request. For these walks he focuses on participants' specific interests â€“ such as bird watching, photography, medicinal plants, regional history, and mushroom identification.
The idea for these tours began in 2021 as a reaction to the pandemic. Campbell wanted to share the bounty of Oaks Bottom with his neighbors, because it brought him so much solace throughout the COVID-19 lockdowns. "Everyone in this time was struggling, whether it be financially, mentally, or whatever, so I really just wanted to make this place as accessible as possible," he explained. "If you can learn about a cool animal that's living in your neighborhood, that really kind of opens your perspective. Understanding that we share this planet with so many other living things is a really good experience for anyone."
Campbell's current weekly Oaks Bottom tour begins at 4:30 p.m. each Sunday afternoon, launching from the refuge's south entrance at upper Sellwood Park. He plans to continue through autumn, rain or shine, but he recommends checking in, as start times will shift throughout the season to correspond with sunset, when more wildlife is active. He also is starting up a tour in Westmoreland Park called the "Monday Marvel Walk".
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.