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The Ross Island Bridge over the Willamette River.Bridge over Johnson Creek, below main Springwater Corridor.
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Trail of the Month: August 2007
Portland's Springwater Corridor

On a sunny May morning, Brendan Finn set off on his daily five-mile commute downtown on the Springwater Corridor in Portland, Ore. He rode northward from his apartment in the Sellwood neighborhood into Oaks Bottom Wildlife Refuge—a 163-acre wooded, marshy preserve—and quickly spied an osprey circling overhead, not far from a row of utility poles where these raptors keep a number of large nests. Finn gave his customary nod of respect to this winged predator, his favorite, when he saw the osprey suddenly swoop toward the water. "He was doing this nosedive, boom, into the water," he says, "then boom, he comes out with a fish."

Moments later the osprey settled 100 yards ahead of him on a low telephone pole. Finn clumsily pedaled toward it, wide-eyed. "I'm thinking, 'I'm gonna get to see him devouring this fish!'" he says. "All the sudden, as I come right up to him, he starts flying right over my head, and I'm trying not to crash because I'm looking directly up at him. He's flying 10 feet above my head when he releases the fish, and it falls down and hits me on the shoulder and then hits my back wheel"—and, improbably, clips the quick release and dislodges his rear wheel.

Finn, goose-bumped all over, stumbled off the trail. He regrouped long enough to take a picture of the fish with his camera phone before continuing to work—completely invigorated, he says, though with a slimy fishy stink on his bike jacket as a badge of honor. It took him the rest of the morning to burn off the adrenaline rush.

As Chief of Staff for City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, Finn's office oversees Portland's Parks and Recreation Department, and he's directly involved in trail management and development. "This is why we do it," he says. "For people to get exposed to that kind of wildlife in an urban environment really inspires us to complete our efforts. It's such an incredible feeling."

Visitors shouldn't expect to dodge fish-missiles on the Springwater (osprey, it turns out, very seldom relinquish a hard-caught meal), but they can certainly anticipate close sightings of a great variety of birds, including bald eagles, peregrine falcons and blue herons. Oaks Bottom alone invites more than 200 species of songbirds, waterfowl and birds of prey as seasonal or permanent guests. So it's no surprise that Portland is home to the largest chapter of the Audubon Society, at 10,000 members, in the country. While the Springwater isn't the only local attraction for these birders, the trail does offer reliable enticements for wildlife lovers.

"We get a lot of calls from people along the Springwater Corridor telling us what they've seen," says Bob Sallinger, conservation director for the Audubon Society of Portland. "Even in the grayest, rainiest months of the year, there are still plenty of birds. It's a place where you almost can't miss seeing something amazingly cool."

Only a three-mile rail-with-trail segment of the 21.5-mile Springwater Corridor actually parallels Oaks Bottom, but the rest of the trail offers equal charms for bikers, birders and outdoors enthusiasts. The full pathway runs south from the Eastbank Esplanade at SE Ivon St. on the Willamette River to Sellwood, where it hooks east and follows the Johnson Creek Valley. From there it passes several other urban green spaces, including the Tideman Johnson Nature Park, Beggers-tick Wildlife Refuge, Leach Botanical Garden and Powell Butte Nature Park—where, if you're keen for a detour, you can reach the top of the lava dome to see the eastern horizon wear Mt. Hood like a white crown.

At the Clackamas County line past Gresham, the otherwise-paved trail becomes a hard-packed soil and rock mix. These final few miles of countryside until the trail's terminus in Boring, however, rather suit the surface as they tour goat farms, horse-happy pastureland and tree nurseries. Indeed this rural stretch highlights the incredible diversity of the Springwater: a commuter beltway with the personality of a nature trail; an urban greenway with the feel and chirping hum of a national park. No matter its use, whether for visual or practical appeal, the Springwater attracts a growing number of visitors each year and makes active transportation a memorable pleasure.

"That was one special commute," Finn recalls of his bird-bombing, just across the Willamette from I-5 and bumper-to-bumper traffic. "I doubt many people have that kind of experience on their way to work. You can't beat it."


Trail Facts

Name: Springwater Corridor

Trail Web site: Portland Parks and Recreation

Length: 21.5 miles

Counties: Clackamas and Multnomah

Start Point/ End Point: SE Ivon Street in Portland to SE Dee Street in Boring

Surface type: Pavement and dirt

Uses: Hiking, cycling, inline skating, limited equestrian use and wheelchair accessible

Difficulty: Easy to moderate

Recent Developments: During the last year, the city completed three bridges along a half-mile section of the trail after it hooks east from the Willamette River. The first bridge, which crosses Johnson Creek, has built-in balconies for travelers to pull off the main path, take a break or look for salmon in the water below. The middle bridge, painted a bright fluorescent orange, spans a busy four-lane highway—you can't miss it. "When it's wintertime and gray and wet," jokes Gregg Everhart, a landscape architect and senior planner with Portland's parks department, "it shows up really well." The final bridge crosses a major active Union Pacific Railway, topping off a $5 million construction effort that has vastly enhanced the Springwater's overall continuity. The only remaining on-street interruption is a zig-zaggy 0.9-mile trek around Sellwood.

Parking: For the trailhead at SE Ivon and 4th streets, visit the City of Portland Office of Transportation online for pedestrian maps and parking guidelines.

For the trailhead at Boring, the Springwater runs into SE Dee Street between SW School Avenue and Highway 212/Richey Road. This starting point, however, is not as suitable for road cycling or wheelchairs.

Nearby Attractions: If you aren't in a particular hurry, you may wish to start a little north of the Willamette trailhead and ride or walk across the historical Steel Bridge, which has passageways for trains, vehicles and pedestrians. It's also a double-lift bridge to allow larger boats to pass on the river below. Everhart says you can occasionally catch a boat, a train, cars, walkers, joggers, cyclists and airplanes all passing at the same moment—a real treat for transportation buffs.

To step off the trail a little deeper into the wildlife, try one of the many hands-on Ladybug Nature Walks offered through Portland Parks and Recreation—run weekly for parents with kids through August, September and October. Or perhaps sign up for a guided tour of other local parks through Portland's Green Walks (free, suitable for adults and families, on Saturday mornings through October). If you happen to get hungry or thirsty or develop a bike-seat hankering for a little shopping, then look for the Springwater's crossing with 82nd Avenue a few miles out from the Willamette, where you'll find easy off-trail access to a number of dining options.

Two of the Springwater's three newest bridges near the Sellwood neighborhood.

Finn's famous fish missile, moments after it belted him.

Is this osprey looking for you?

The Springwater's rail-with-trail segment along the Willamette River.

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