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The Wild Edge: Exploring Portland’s Forest Park

When urban trails blend with raw wilderness, the sum is much greater than the parts.

The park is still wild. In the early 1800s, when the Chinook Indians roamed through the Tualatin Hills hunting for deer and gathering berries, a traveler might come to the top of a ridge and see an elk–or perhaps a cougar or a black bear–silhouetted in the fog. You still can today. Forest Park is the easternmost sliver of a wildlife corridor that stretches on, virtually uninterrupted, some 80 miles to the coast. Neighbors lining the western edge of the park report that in winter a 90-head herd of elk often cuts through the woods, intent on foraging amid nearby gardens and fruit trees. Les Blaize, who’s lived for 30 years in a ramshackle cottage surrounded on three sides by the park, recently saw a bobcat while sitting out on his deck. “It chased a squirrel up a tree,” he said. “It was like lightning–three times as big as a house cat, and twice as fast.”
What makes such sightings exquisite is that Forest Park’s habitat is always under siege. Portland is growing–and growing cities are inherently at odds with nature. In the past dozen years, thousands of people have moved into Forest Heights, a maze of new houses just uphill from the park. And now developers plan to erect a city for 10,000 more–North Bethany–two miles from the park’s boundary.

Blaize’s home, which he calls Hillbilly Heights, is set amid the maze of new houses, and one afternoon I visited him. Blaize is scruffy and gnomelike with a wooly beard. He threw on some old hiking boots and we strolled through his various outbuildings–a woodshed, a barn, a cluttered office–and along a disappearing dirt road deep in the shady woods, until we saw the harsh glare of sunlight and climbed up onto a cul-de-sac. “This is what they call ‘The Street of Dreams,’” Blaize hissed, invoking a trademarked realtors’ slogan. “Five- to 8,000-square-foot McMansions with three-car garages. These people aren’t supposed to cut down trees lining the park. It’s illegal, but hey, they’re just a chainsaw away from a million-dollar view.”
Blaize gestured. “Look, that guy there bulldozed his property,” he said. He was grouchy, yes, but he was also a remnant, one of the fine wild things in the park, besieged yet surviving. And he spoke of the animals there with love. “I have fox squirrels and gray squirrels who visit,” he said. “They come all the time, and we’ve seen a lot more deer recently; they come for the flowers. And there are more coyotes than normal. I hear them at night. All of a sudden, you’ll hear this death rattle–the coyotes hunting down prey. You’ll hear a struggle, and then total silence. I like hearing all that. I like the sound of the woods.”

The park is home. In 2004, a Vietnam vet–he was referred to in the local press simply as “Frank”–was discovered after living in Forest Park for four years with his daughter on his sprawling creekside settlement. “Ruth,” then 12, educated herself mainly by reading old encyclopedias and Golden Books. The pair walked a new route each time they hiked out, to avoid beating a path that others might see. They had a tilled vegetable garden and a rope swing, and until police kicked them out, it was as if they were Alaskan bush hermits who just happened to shuffle down into town every so often for lunch at the soup kitchen.

And they had neighbors. One man’s been camping in Forest Park for three decades. I’d heard rumors of him, and I’d seen thin plumes of smoke rising up from the hillside where he lives. But I’d never seen him.

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