A juvenile raccoon takes refuge in a small storm-water pipe protruding from the slough’s banks.

Image: Mark Gamba

The Columbia Slough

ABOUT 20 YEARS AGO, when a handful of intrepid explorers began paddling the Columbia Slough, most people considered them 1) weird and 2) practically suicidal. At the time, the 18.7-mile slough, which runs roughly parallel to the Columbia River from near Gresham through North Portland, was no place for a boater. Its waters had become a dumping ground for urban offal: junked cars, rusted refrigerators, scores of tires, and shopping carts. All of it was lodged in the muck. Into the slough, too, went Portland’s sewage, which spilled, untreated, through 13 overflow pipes after a heavy rain. “There used to be rafts of algae that stunk to high heaven,” says Ry Thompson, a former environmental specialist for the Columbia Slough Team at the city’s Bureau of Environmental Services.

Thompson and I have just launched our canoe from a small dock at Whitaker Ponds, a public park where the nonprofit Columbia Slough Watershed Council also makes its headquarters. Before the group moved into the little white house there in 1996, the plot of land—located on a gritty part of NE 47th Avenue near the airport—was one of the slough’s many illegal dumping sites. But after volunteers hauled out the tires, cut back the blackberry vines, and replanted the banks, Whitaker Ponds became an oasis in miniature, home to bufflehead ducks, egrets, and Western painted turtles.

This middle stretch of the slough isn’t pretty, what with the parking lots ringed by razor wire, the warehouses visible through the trees, and the occasional plastic bag floating by. But I like how human-made artifacts butt up against the natural world in surreal ways: A goose eggshell bobs in the current alongside a golf ball lost by a player at Broadmoor Golf Club; a juvenile raccoon curls up in an old pipe.

“There’s one of the combined sewage overflows,” Thompson says, pointing to a pipe jutting from the bank. Once a point of exit for whatever Portlanders decided to flush, the overflows were shut down as part of the Big Pipe Project in 2000 (excepting a couple of spills since). That eliminated the brown plumes that gushed into the slough after a heavy rain, but the pipes remain as concrete reminders of the city’s less-than-green recent past.

raccoon
Image: Mark Gamba

A juvenile raccoon takes refuge in a small storm-water pipe protruding from the slough’s banks.

What is perhaps most striking about our paddle is the very existence of nature in such urban environs. It proves how much “wildness” a city can actually contain—not just in settings like Forest Park, but also in places like this, a strip of water coursing through a flatland ruled by boxy buildings. “Hear that fitz-pew sound? That’s a willow flycatcher,” says Thompson, noting that the slough provides habitat for neotropical migratory songbirds.

Not every segment of the slough is so industrial. Last July, I joined about 300 other paddlers for the annual Columbia Slough Regatta, in which the watershed council invites the public to explore a few miles of this hidden waterway. This year’s was held at the Big Four Corners region, the two miles or so that spill from the slough’s headwaters at Fairview Lake. That day, families in canoes, couples in kayaks, and local politicians dipped their paddles in waters where cottonwood and cedar trees line the banks and where sedges grow thick in the wetlands, providing nesting grounds for red-winged blackbirds.

“The waters in the Columbia Slough are so much cleaner than you think,” I heard a volunteer quip to a woman who’d asked how safe it really was. In fact, the watershed council likes to tout that the slough is cleaner than it’s been in more than 80 years. When I ask the council’s executive director, Jane Van Dyke, how that came to pass after decades of abuse, she pauses. “Well, there are so many reasons,” she says, before listing the Clean Water Act, the Big Pipe Project, the half million trees that have been replanted, and changing attitudes about the slough’s ecological value. This last point may be the most important one. The work to correct the damage here began in earnest only in the early 1990s. And as Thompson pointed out to me: “We still have a few decades to go.”