A cold winter chill may dampen, but never drown, my spirit for adventure along Oregon roadways that are less traveled; especially when I’ve so much wild company to show the way before I drop in at Sauvie Island Wildlife Area just off State Highway 30.
It’s an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife site that caters to visitors, according to Assistant Manager Dan Marvin – both those with feathers and those without: “We have become very popular and the largest part of our visitor-use is non-hunting: people who just come out and look for wildlife. This is quite the resource for that.”
The route between Portland and Astoria may not be the fastest, but that’s alright with me because I can pull off and watch the “B-52’s of the waterfowl world” at Trojan Pond near Rainier, Oregon. The pond and adjacent nature park is owned by Portland General Electric and is open to visitors seasonally. The pull-out at the pond is open anytime.
The pond is where Tundra Swans seem to fill the sky on six-foot wingspans before gliding in for a well-deserved break. Tundra Swans have wintered at this pond for decades, and their bright white feathers are an impressive contrast against the otherwise drab backdrop of water and surrounding forest. The big birds really do light up the scene!
Swans mate for life, and each winter they arrive from sub-Arctic homes in Oregon with their families, including young-of-the-year birds called “signets” that are mottled in black and gray feathers, as though covered in soot.
A little more than four miles past Rainier, just after you cross over Beaver Creek, dive off State Highway 30 onto Beaver Falls Road, where waterfall wanderings take over along a lane that provides two falls for the price of one stop.
‘Upper’ Beaver Falls is easy enough to find; it’s mere steps from your car on the left side of this drive. Note the swift-flowing, cascading rapid just above the main falls that drops 11 feet over basalt rock. There’s a deep pool below the falls that is a popular swimming hole on warmer days, but on a January afternoon is filled with snowflakes under a grey shaded sky.
When you make this short jaunt on Beaver Falls Road keep in mind that the narrow, winding roadway was once the main state highway that was built more than a century ago. It is one of the last remaining sections of the Old Columbia River Highway and boasts five restored old bridges and two beautiful waterfalls.
Realignment of Highway 30 occurred decades ago, and now Beaver Falls Road is a quiet, out of the way and barely noted lane — but perhaps that’s not so bad.
Continue your drive less than two miles further and watch for a chain link fence on the left hand side of the roadway. Lower Beaver Falls is spectacular; at nearly 50 feet tall, it drops like a curtain across rugged basalt rock. A word about safety is important: a tall chain link fence separates the roadway from the steep-walled cliff and the creek flows far below. There’s a narrow pathway that skirts the fence for one hundred yards. This is not for young children or folks afraid of heights and clearly, caution is critical. Trek at your own risk.
Soon, we’re back to the highway where the best is yet to come. 11 miles east of Astoria, Burnside Road is on your right, where the Twilight Eagle Sanctuary offers more than 100 acres of protected wetlands and forest that spread like an apron in front of the roadway.
Local photographer Neal Maine loves this place, and he has the photos to prove it. He told me that “Paradise isn’t a place, but a place you decide to know about.” He admitted that he has certainly learned all about this corner of Oregon. “There isn’t anything out there that I don’t enjoy! If it flies or tweets or makes a sound – everything’s in there – from elk to hummingbirds,” he said.
Maine was instrumental in securing the Twilight Sanctuary more than twenty years ago. He called it a community-based effort to buy and protect habitat that provides an important nesting site for bald eagles as well as wetlands for other birds. “The vista here is outstanding – maybe one of the best in the lower river. There’s always something going on with lots of ducks and geese, egrets and blue herons are always cruising by. You can kind of count on owning it at least for a few minutes; it doesn’t draw a crowd,” he said.
Highway 30, The Lower Columbia River byway, requires you slow down and savor places that are off the beaten path and offer so much so close to Portland.
About the Author: Grant McOmie
Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.