It started with a spectacular Sitka spruce. Because it possessed both male and female cones, Sue Gabriel referred to it affectionately as HeShe Bigtree.
Wanting to protect HeShe, Sue purchased the 32-acre forested parcel where the tree lived near her home in Neskowin in 2011. In doing so, she also protected a portion of both banks of Butte Creek—a stream with spawning coho salmon—the adjacent riparian corridor, and an upland forest.
Her next step was searching for an organization to which she could donate her beloved Qtopia, a portmanteau of her nickname Suzy-Q and the utopian life the land afforded. Her search led her to North Coast Land Conservancy.
In 2016, she donated the property to NCLC, and her generosity inspired her friends and neighbors, Jane and Jack Casey, to donate an adjacent 10-acre property in 2018. The creek runs through this grove of forest as well, and the entire three-part Butte Creek Habitat Reserve lies within 1.5 miles of the ocean shore.
Even after donating the land, Sue’s love and commitment to it never wavered, even until her passing earlier this spring. She ensured NCLC had enough financial support to provide perpetual stewardship of the land she donated. Additionally, she continued to steward the property herself for as long as she could, until her health required her to move to Salem at the end of 2020. She then passed the torch to Catherine Dunn, who works for The Nature Conservancy out of Lincoln City.
Catherine joined NCLC’s Site Steward program in 2019 to help with the stewardship of Butte Creek. Stewardship Director Melissa Reich introduced Catherine to the reserve several years ago, as Catherine was seeking volunteer opportunities through the organization.
“Melissa knew Sue and I would enjoy each other’s company, so she wanted to connect us,” Catherine says. “And she was right. I really do like Sue. She was good to be around.”
Sue Gabriel stands in front of a stump at Circle Creek Conservation Center.
Growing With the Land
Catherine and Sue made many visits to the reserve together during the two years they overlapped as Site Stewards. This allowed for a smooth transition, and Catherine was inspired by the relationship Sue had with the place.
“She walked it frequently. She’d watch individual plants grow and monitor their progress. She loved the creek and watching the creek change and watching the fish during coho spawn runs,” Catherine says. “It was just the constant interaction and presence with one place and being there and growing with it.”
Moreover, Catherine adds, “She treated everything like it was alive in a very careful and respectful way,” always positioning herself as “the least important creature in the space.”
Sue was on a first-name basis not only with HeShe but many of the other plants and creatures who inhabit the land. She named the gooseberry plant she loved Mama Goose, and all the slugs were named Esmerelda. She monitored the monthly rainfall, how the water was draining, and other natural occurrences and changes.
“She was a thoughtful and intentional person who was always learning and expanding her understanding of the world,” reads Sue’s obituary. “It was important to her to leave it a better place.”
Butte Creek Habitat Reserve.
An Admiration for ‘The Ordinary’
As the current Site Steward, Catherine has a similar approach.
“I very much enjoy quietly observing little things,” she says. “I like the opportunity to observe the natural world and feel like a part of it. I feel happiest and most alive when I’m outside.”
While she appreciates taking ambitious hikes, seeing epic landscapes, and meeting rare plants and wildlife, she also finds wonder in what some might see as ordinary, or places that wouldn’t be considered destinations.
“Really, it’s the small little things, the putting in your time and being there that I enjoy,” she says. Not to mention, in those “ordinary spots,” Catherine says, “you often have a chance to be alone. It’s just you and the land. There isn’t a trail. There isn’t anybody else.”
Since the reserve is in good condition, Catherine’s main tasks as Site Steward involve walking the boundaries, checking for changes or disturbances, occasionally pulling weeds, and documenting what she sees with photos so NCLC can stay abreast of the property’s condition.
“I’m so happy to be involved and get to visit that site,” she says.
She’s also developed an affinity for what drew Sue to the land in the first place.
“I do love HeShe a lot,” Catherine says. “It is a magnificent tree—the tree that has stories to tell.”
A group of Site Stewards visit NCLC’s Butte Creek Habitat Reserve in 2019, including Sue Gabriel (Butte Creek), Jeff Roehm (Neawanna and Circle Creek), Catherine Dunn (Butte Creek), Pat Wollner (Circle Creek), Jim Border (Sand Lake), and Pat Johns (Necanicum Estuary).