I’m an avid hiker. I haven’t always been; though I have always considered myself outdoorsy. Having a narrow strip of forest in my back yard as a child was, without question, the greatest gift of my youth. It was a relatively small oak woodland, but to me at the time it was a magnificent refuge that I spent countless days exploring. That seemingly unsubstantial place is probably the most important piece of geography in terms of my personal development, and I always keep that in mind when engaged in dialogue about land use and conservation. Sometimes the places that are most important to protect are, at first glance, mundane.
So it is with the wetlands and forests around Baskett Butte.
In a state with so much grandeur, it’s easy to highlight the irreplaceable nature of places like the Columbia River Gorge, Crater Lake, or Hell’s Canyon. But these scenic wonders are not the source of the vitality and diversity of living things in the northwest. In order to maintain a healthy and vibrant ecosystem, we must protect some of the land that is (though less visually dazzling) fertile and accessible. We must resist the urge to plow or build upon every convenient tract of land, as other species find this space just as vital as we.
Baskett Slough is one such refuge, designed as a preserve for the oak forest and savanna that used to be so common in the Willamette Valley. It’s also a great place for a fall hike, and particularly great for young children.
Oregon’s oak savanna is disappearing. This is due, for the most part, to urban development and farming, but in an ironic twist, it’s human inaction that could deal the final blow to this ecological community. Oak savannas are not typically a “climax community” here; they were common throughout the Willamette Valley before the arrival of white settlers, but the thanks for that is owed to the native practice of prescribed burning. Once large scale development began, the settlers fought fires instead of encouraging them or simply allowing them to burn. This upset the balance that was required to keep oak savanna from being overrun by the far more common pine and fir forests.
Around Baskett Butte, the forest and grasslands are actively maintained through prescribed burns for the benefit of struggling regional wildlife. The area hosts several miles of trails that you can meander alone or with your family that will get you up close and personal with some beautiful species.
The slough is a refuge for many dozens of waterfowl which winter here. As such, the longest branch of the trail (a 3.2 mile there-and-back hike to Morgan Lake) is off limits from October 1 to March 31st. The portion of the trail that is open over the winter is less than a mile and a half long, but you don’t come here to break a sweat; you come to investigate, to take your time, and to get a taste of what the valley would have been like if you passed through 300 years ago.
Start your hike from the parking area just off of gravel Coville Road. The trail climbs gently through grassland and past some beautiful Oregon White Oak trees. Keep to the left at the first intersection and continue your ascent to the top of Mount Baldy. (Don’t let the term “mount” intimidate you, the summit of Baldy is a mere 414 feet, and you’re already above 300 ft. elevation.) You’ll pass into open grassland where you can see evidence of recent burns, as the soil beneath the golden grass is charred.
There is an observation area at the summit of Mount Baldy where, with a decent pair of binoculars, you can admire the thousands of birds wading in the slough. If you’re there in the late fall through early spring, you’re mostly looking at geese. Some of them are the common Canada Goose, but this is also the home of a rare subspecies called the dusky Canada goose. The duskies winter almost exclusively in the Willamette Valley, so Baskett Slough is absolutely vital to their survival.
From this vantage point I like to do something that’s common practice for me around these parts: imagine whether or not I would be safe from the great Missoula Floods at that elevation. As I said, Mount Baldy is at 414 feet, so the answer is maybe, but just barely.
Imagine sitting atop this grassy hill 17,ooo years ago as the flood waters from the breaking of the great ice dam in Montana covered the valley below. All that you see before you would have been completely inundated, with only the smooth silhouette of the coast range visible to the west, and the peaks of the Cascades to the east. The flood waters would surely be lapping at your feet, if they didn’t submerge this hill entirely. You’d be standing on one of only a few islands in the middle of Lake Allison, an ephemeral lake that rose and then receded dozens of times at the closing of the last ice age.
When you’re ready to continue your hike, return the way you came, keeping an eye to your left, as a not-completely-obvious fork in the trail will take you around the west side of Baskett Butte and into the oak forest.
As you pass through the tall grass along the forest edge, watch for pheasant, small snakes (the friendly kind), and small mammals. Once you pass into the trees, you’ll find sword ferns and creeping blackberry growing in the soft light that seeps through the oak canopy.
You’ll emerge from the forest along the other side of the butte and, if your timing is right, will almost surely be greeted by grazing deer staring warily in your direction. I’ve been to this spot numerous times, and have always seen a large family of deer here. There wonderful and will patiently pose for photos.
When you come to the next fork in the trail, if it’s after October 1st and before March 31st, take a right to return to your car along the outskirts of the woods. If it’s summertime, however, you’re welcome to make a left-hand turn and hike another mile and a half to Morgan Lake. There you can get a closer look at some of the birds that stay year-round. Great blue herons are common, and eagles are not unheard of.
The land here brings me back to my childhood, even though it’s thousands of miles away from where I grew up. I hope that it inspires a similarly meaningful connection for you when you get the chance to visit.