Poems by Sharon A. Murphy

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Fern Ridge

by Sharon A. Murphy

From Canary April/May 2009

Several years before I was born, my father bought five acres of land. The land is twelve miles west of Eugene and less than a half mile east of Fern Ridge Reservoir. The name Fern Ridge immediately evokes images of the gentle rolling hills, tall grasses, horses in pastures and a reservoir full of precious water kept in reserve for use throughout the year. From the property the lake is just a short hike across open fields and an old hazelnut orchard that sits kitty-corner from the neighbor’s fence.

In 1960 the land was cheap; the five acres cost only $4,000, a bargain. At the time the land was impossible to get to by car, with no road, paved or unpaved. Even on foot we had to cross some 35 acres to get to it from Fir Butte Road. Back then, no houses were built in the area yet, but some lands were marked with ‘No Trespassing’ or ‘No Hunting’ signs, others barbed wire. Even as a little girl of three or four, I remember my father and two older brothers lifting the posts so I could crawl under to get to “the pond.”

Constructed in the early 1940s, the dam at the confluence of the Long Tom River and Coyote Creek created the Fern Ridge Reservoir. The Fern Ridge area was settled along the Applegate Trail that skirts the western edge of the Willamette River Valley.

Dad told me about the first settlers in the ridgeline area who came to Oregon via the Applegate trails starting in 1843. The ridges were used as landmarks to help guide the early settlers when they reached the southern Willamette valley. Early settlers secured their plots and worked quickly to establish farms. The open land of the ridgeline area lent itself well to farming and ranching, plentiful with birds and animals to hunt.

Historic aerial photos from 1936 and surveys from the 1850s and 1940s show a meandering network of channels in this area surrounded by oak and ash bottomland forest. The headwaters of various creeks, the Willow, Amazon, Russell, and Spencer Creek, all originate in the ridgeline area. Smaller drainages such as Inman Creek and the West Fork and Middle Fork of Coyote Creek also feed into the reservoir. Clearings of oak savanna and wet prairie were scattered throughout the area as well. Species that likely thrived here include Western pond turtle, red-legged frog, Oregon chub (fish), Western meadowlark and the acorn woodpecker, all now endangered in the area.

While the reservoir is about 9,000 acres, the Army Corps of Engineers administers a total of 12,700 acres within the Fern Ridge area. The lake is drained in winter to “low pool” to allow for flood control, the southeast shore designated a wildlife refuge in 1979. Visible structures here include standing timber, reeds and grass, rocks from the dam, and a few stumps. The key here is to find what you can't see. You can walk for miles in areas that are underwater in the spring and summer months. An old roadbed, ditches, and many more stumps than you think give the birds and animals perches and hiding places.

The resulting marsh and wildlife refuge hosts tree frogs, newts, osprey, rare purple martins (in spring), black-tailed deer, red foxes, beaver, muskrats, minks, pond turtles, and great blue herons. Extensive wetlands provide unique habitats for a variety of wildlife. Cereal grains and forage crops are planted on lands surrounding the lake to provide for wintering waterfowl populations.

The wildlife area is closed to the public January–March 15 for the protection of wintering birds. There are some 250 species found here, including tundra swans, northern harriers, Canada geese, mergansers, and peregrine falcons. Perhaps the most eye-catching are the egrets because of their white plumage and large size.

Every season Dad would take us out there to look for birds, hike and explore. In spring we could walk from our property to northern sections of the park where woodland trails gave access to the reservoir shore where many birds feed in the beach grass. One of my earliest memories is of walking through fields to the edge of the lake with my father. Together we identified every tree and flower and named and admired every bird that sang. As I grew older we made a game out of our discoveries: two points for each different bird, five for each different animal, and ten if it was one neither of us had seen before. My interest grew into a passion for bird watching. Dad and I continued to exchange notes and accumulate points over the years, until he passed away when I was 17. I still keep a little bird on my nightstand that reminds me of those times. And one of the last notes from my brother Michael before he died in 1991 was a note about the Canadian geese. 

Once I had dreams of developing the land and building a house on it, but now I have dreams of restoring the old field on the property to native prairie. The neighbor’s land will be restored to a mixture of bottomland hardwood forest along the creek and oak savanna and wet prairie in the areas between the creeks. Some have plans to reconnect historic Coyote Creek to its original confluence with the Long Tom River. This will allow cutthroat trout and other native fish to access the historic channel from the river, a move these fish must make when either stream flows or water temperature become too high in the lower Long Tom River. 

By early April the reservoir is filled to “full pool,” and during the summer months the reservoir is maintained with a surface area approximately five miles wide and five and a half miles long with a shoreline length of 32 miles.  Beginning in early October the water level slowly recedes to expose a wide mud flat around the perimeter of the reservoir.  Water levels fluctuate considerably during the winter months based upon the intensity and duration of the winter rains. 

Waterfowl counts have been conducted regularly at Fern Ridge during the winter since 1989. Years after they’re both gone, my father and brother would be pleased to know the birds are finally being counted. Peak counts each winter fluctuate between 15,000 and 27,000 birds. This number excludes 18,000 to 20,000 Canada geese and 1,200 to 1,500 tundra swans that roost on the lake during the night and fly out to the surrounding fields at daybreak. Though Fern Ridge is not on the ocean, it supports a breeding colony of 20-30 pairs of black terns. And it’s a significant stopping place for some shorebirds, especially in the fall, and regularly (during migration) holds more than 100 individual shorebirds at one time.

The cool rains of October signal the season for native species; it’s the month for swarms of migrants passing through and wintering birds arriving. There were many reports of nighttime flights of Swainson’s thrushes, calling out to each other as they passed overhead and loud enough to wake the human residents below. Occasionally other twitters and chirps were heard, indicating other species with them.

A short walk from the property near Fern Ridge Lake is a pioneer cemetery aptly named ‘Oakhill’ covering two sides of a small knoll within sight of the Fern Ridge Reservoir. It has become a resting place for many of the early pioneers who came out West via the Oregon Trail. Both my father and brother are now buried there. At the crest of the hill bordering the gravel drive and under a huge Pacific madrone tree sit the two markers for part of my family. After 150 years, signs of age and erosion are particularly evident on the north-facing grave markers. One day in rain and windy weather I found a marker with a tender, still decipherable, inscription:

When musing sorrow weeps the past
And mourns the present pain
How sweet to think of peace at last
And think of death as gain.

After a quiet walk through the cemetery rows, I leave another piece of paper under a rock between my family graves that simply says, “42 points: white pelicans today.”


Bird Source:  Audubon Society of Lane County



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