Contributed by Volunteer Site Steward Jeff Roehm
My connection to Circle Creek Conservation Center goes back a long way—actually back to the mid-1950s, when we kids who lived in town would find our way out to the Dahlia Dairy to play basketball with our friend Mike Rippet. Mike, who was a year younger than me, had a full-length basketball court in the loft of his Dad’s barn, the original barn here. There was a basket at each end with hay bales marking the out-of-bounds. Later, after I’d fledged, I fished for bluebacks up at the north end of the pasture on the Necanicum River when we came home to visit my Dad. I would park by the highway, wade the river, and walk along the same bank where I now pull up invasive weeds.
I started volunteering at Circle Creek in 2006, and with each year, I seem to have gotten more involved with stewardship here. Finally Melissa Reich, NCLC Stewardship Director, started sending me the annual reports since I was in so much of them. Now I’ve been the Site Steward for the past three years, and have been thinking I should write something about this place. But what? Then Katherine Lacaze, our Communications Coordinator, posted a lovely poem by Sir Walter Scott on our social media site. It brought up clear images of what had been on my mind, and I was ready to start writing. Here is the poem, written in 1814:
Hie away, hie away,
Over bank and over brae,
Where the copse wood is the greenest,
Where the fountains glisten sheenest,
Where the lady-fern grows strongest,
Where the morning dew lies longest,
Where the black-cock sweetest sips it,
Where the fairy latest trips it:
Hie to haunts right seldom seen,
Lovely, lonesome, cool, and green,
Over bank and over brae,
Hie away, hie away!
A bank tree on Circle Creek.
Circle Creek, Actually
North Coast Land Conservancy is filled with beautiful places that almost nobody ever sees. There’s the view of Klootchy Creek from the old bridge at our Necanicum Forest Reserve, or better yet, the Warren Arm of our Blind Slough property up above Astoria. To see those places, you’d probably need to join an NCLC work party. But even at our most public property, Circle Creek Conservation Center, a place busy with picnics, concerts and committee meetings, and where a bulletin board welcomes visitors to walk the trails, there are many places that are never seen.
Most people who come here don’t even notice the actual creek. It circles around to the east of the buildings, staying just out of sight. The trails we’ve created are set back from the creek, which is bordered by bushes and trees and flows well below the level of the floodplain. You can walk along the creek and, unless you’re standing near the bank, you can look right at it and not see it.
Circle Creek is what’s known as a yazoo stream, a term first used in the Ohio-Mississippi River valley. It refers to a stream that enters a floodplain but, because of the buildup of silt, can’t enter the main channel—in our case the Necanicum River. Floodplains are flat places, with a natural levee running along the river bank where the silt is deepest. It’s a gentle rise in the elevation of the plain—too small to catch our attention but keeping the water flowing out of, not into, the river. So a yazoo stream meanders slowly along the edge of the plain, picking up smaller streams as they flow down into the valley, and finally enters the main channel, usually at the very end. For Circle Creek this happens between the third and fourth holes of the Seaside Golf Course, about 200 yards from The Cove.
Awhile back I was sent a copy of a Baseline Inventory Report for Circle Creek Conservation Center that contained a description of the property. After all these years I was shocked to learn that of the 364 total acres, an estimated 200 acres was original Sitka spruce swamp and depression wetlands. In other words, what most people see as Circle Creek—an open dairy pasture being slowly reforested by staff and volunteers—is actually slightly less than half of the property. The rest is an incredibly rare and valuable Sitka spruce-alder forested wetland, deep, dark and mostly impenetrable by anyone. Our little creek, once it’s out of the “people zone,” takes a turn or two and then heads right into this magical mystery land.
Tall-Tale Telling Trees
If you volunteer at Circle Creek, or perhaps just wander a little off the path, you’ll get a chance to chip away at some of this mystery forest. The first things that you might notice are the trees; but perhaps not. I’m continually amazed at how a fabulous tree can stay hidden nearly in plain sight, sometimes for years, until one day there it is, a new friend just waiting for you to notice.
These trees are simply amazing.
If you stay near the creek you’ll soon notice trees that are really close to that steep and deep bank. Most are standing straight up with roots that have formed a large buttress nearly as thick as the trunk and that’s holding the tree in place. The creek has obviously moved in on the tree, formed it and shaped it to become part of the bank. These trees are actually providing structure to the flat, silted floodplain and are helping the creek figure out where to be. A few of the trees are beginning to do what you would expect, leaning out over the creek. But if you look closely, you’ll see that their journey to actually fall in that direction is going to take awhile—probably decades or more—to happen.
But by the creek or out in the wetland, falling down often does not stop the tree. Over and over you notice trees that have fallen to the forest floor, but have just kept on keeping on. They put up a branch, or branches, or just the top, that then becomes the “new” version of the tree.
You also see trees that have started out as a single tree and then decided to become two trees. This happens when the tree loses its top, either by having it break off or sometimes becoming infected by Sitka spruce weevils, which kills the leader: the very top of the tree. This is usually not serious unless you’re growing Christmas trees, as the tree just finds another branch to become the new top and keeps on growing. But sometimes it puts up two leaders. It’s almost always just two. Then they grow into two trunks, more or less exactly the same size—twin trees as it were, joined together by a single trunk somewhere near the bottom. I feel a real kinship with these twin trees, which are a lot more common than you might guess.
A great example of all this tree-shaping is a tree that recently got my attention. It’s close in. You can actually see it from our barn area. A few hundred feet past the bridge over Circle Creek and just off the trail that leads out to the raised walkway, this tree waits to be found. It’s a very large twin tree growing straight and tall that’s about 18 feet in circumference. I haven’t actually measured it properly, since almost half of the trunk sits out over Circle Creek and forms the bank. The creek itself, as usual, is nearly invisible. Since the tree has been growing out in the open, the branches that form the canopy come all the way to the ground making this my new favorite wolf tree.
Finally, there’s the tree that falls victim to something like root-rot fungus, or the dreaded butt-rot, or maybe just a really big wind, and comes crashing down. It has become what we call woody debris, a nurse log for a bunch of new nature, or maybe a new footbridge over the creek, and life goes on. Even so, whatever finally happens to any of these trees, the carbon they’ve taken from the atmosphere to make themselves will be here in this forest a long time. Wetlands are by far the best-ever land form on the planet when it comes to keeping carbon from going back into the atmosphere through aerobic respiration. There just isn’t enough oxygen in the soggy soil to make this happen very quickly.
A Walk into the Unknown
As I’ve written, much of Circle Creek Reserve is simply off the chart for most of us. I’ve tiptoed in there a few times for various reasons, but my first real treks into the unknown came just recently when I was looking for invasive weeds. Two years ago, after clearing the familiar part of the creek of policeman’s helmet (Impatiens glandulifera), I decided to check downstream into the forested wetland. After all, this is the part of the reserve that has the highest priority to protect, and it’s downstream from these floating seeds. In this area, you’re much more likely to see an elk than another person, and I was pretty sure nobody had ever been in there looking for policeman’s helmet.
The next summer and again this year, I’ve returned to the pool. However, this year I kept on going much deeper into the swamp, looking for and not finding any policeman’s helmet anywhere; not at the pool nor along the creek anywhere in the swamp. Finally it came to me. In the first place, there wasn’t any policeman’s helmet here. But also, I kept getting what I would call disoriented; not exactly lost but just not knowing which direction I needed to walk.
Once you lose sight of the creek (easy to do) there’s lots of swampy brush and trees and no landmarks or trails at all. Finally I found myself one-on-one with a very large bull elk, a good, safe distance away and looking a little surprised to see me. It was time to start back to civilization, wherever that might be.
When I filed my report with Melissa Reich, she asked if I could schedule a time to guide her out to the pool. What a good idea. So on a sunny day in August, we did a survey of the west bank of Circle Creek. To do this, we would walk out the path that’s on the west side of the creek until we reached the end of our re-forested west pasture at a place we call “the avulsion.” This is an area where part of the Necanicum River flows into Circle Creek during winter floods. Then we would follow elk trails along the creek until we reached an old treatment area that had been established several years ago for another invasive plant called yellow archangel. From this site downstream we would mostly be in new territory for Melissa.
This was actually a very productive survey, with plenty of important observations and treatments along the way. But after we found and dug up that last single sprout of yellow archangel from our old treatment site and walked on into the forest, it seemed like we both knew that from here on, we could look but we were very unlikely to find any more problems. We could relax and just enjoy the hike. This was nature, pure and simple.
When our creek is out in the familiar part of the reserve, it’s really not much to look at. As I’ve said, it runs slowly through a deep channel and is easy to overlook. When you do notice it, the creek seems out of place, surrounded by land that doesn’t seem quite right and needing our help. But here in the forest, that’s not the case at all. Circle Creek has been in this forested wetland since its beginning, and it shows. It’s the center of everything you see, often stopping you with its quiet beauty, and asking you to just be in the moment.
In the center of the promontory was a perfect story-telling tree. It was already a pretty good-sized Sitka spruce when it fell over, and then just kept on growing, pointing its leader to the sky and becoming its new version, the focal point of this spot. Behind us was a large, old snag that was eroded away and nursing several new trees. Surrounding the pool were large alders and spruces reflecting mirror images onto the still water.
After testing Boneyard Creek with our boots and taking some photos for our report, we walked back to dry land and just enjoyed being here. For me, and I think for all of us, the best part of working in land conservation is that you sometimes get to be in a place like this. As we stood and looked out over the pool, I could imagine hearing the trees whispering:
“Hie to haunts right seldom seen,
Lovely, lonesome, cool and green,
Over bank and over brae,
Hie away, hie away.”
The pool at Boneyard Creek.