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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 loved. There’s probably no one who knows Forest Park better than Fred Nilsen. The park’s chief arborist for 22 years until his 2008 retirement, Nilsen can meander to almost any spot here and feel the familiarity someone else might feel reading the newspaper in his bathrobe at home. He speaks of vegetation the way others might speak of their children. When I strolled along Balch Creek with him last fall, he kind of mumbled to himself, taking account. “Now here’s poison oak,” he said. “That’s perfectly natural; it’s not invasive. And look at these ferns. They’re dry. This time of year, the forest is getting a little tired. We’re just about ready for beddy-by, aren’t we?”

Nilsen is 58 and sinewy fit, with a white beard and a wry grin. When he ran Forest Park, he exercised a loose-limbed generosity. He didn’t kick out the homeless; rather, he befriended them and cajoled them to minimize campfires. When he encountered mountain bikers on hiker-only trails, he drew them aside for an amiable chat.

The park still isn’t very regulated–the city just doesn’t have the funds. But somehow it works. You can find volunteers pulling ivy, organized by the Forest Park Conservancy, a nonprofit. Or you can run across droves of hikers on a busy path and feel at peace in the crowd. A happy and vaguely miraculous vibe prevails.

People are always trying to bestow their respects on Forest Park, which can make Nilsen ornery. As we hiked along, Nilsen stopped and complained, “Now, here’s a horse chestnut tree, of all things,” he said. “It was probably planted. Someone thought they were helping, and now look at this one here”–a small chestnut sapling. It soon became clear that Nilsen was preoccupied with a Platonic ideal: He wanted a pristine park, devoid of invasive species and vibrant with primeval Northwest plants: trillium, Solomon’s seal, Oregon grape. “What you want,” he said, “is an ecosystem that’s dense and robust–complex. But we live in a city. A dog goes off leash, the soil’s disturbed, and weeds come in. Someone builds a patio upstream, there’s erosion, and more disturbance.”

Inevitably, there are other frustrations swirling around Forest Park. Mountain bikers insist that they get no respect–that their 10-mile trail network should be augmented. Others worry that new housing developments will squeeze Forest Park’s elk onto such tiny islands of habitat that they won’t survive.

Such fears are not unreasonable: Forest Park will never be Yellowstone. But perhaps it’s the park’s very vulnerability that will save it. People love the place because it’s so improbable, this wilderness in the city; they marvel over how it is at once familiar and vast.

As Nilsen and I hiked, he told me that over the years he has walked more than 10,000 miles in the park. “But sometimes,” he said, “I’ll find myself in a part of the park I’ve never seen. It happened last winter, when I went out to meet maintenance crews. They told me, ‘Go over this rise, then into that little canyon,’ and suddenly, on the way there, I’d be in a new place, and I thought, ‘Wow, there’s more to learn, more to know about the land and what happens if people interact with it.”

We were hiking in a scarcely traveled part of Forest Park by now–bushwhacking our way through dry thickets of salmonberries. Nilsen stopped now and bent over. “I knew we were in wild ginger,” he said, plucking a leaf. “I could smell it.”

We got to a tiny pool of water and, strangely, I heard something splashing. I thought at first that it was a fish leaping, but as we approached I realized the splashing was regular–every five seconds or so. In the middle of nowhere, there was a little pipe sticking up, geysering springwater. Nilsen, too, was surprised. “It’s possible that I’ve never been right here before,” he said.

We crossed a dry creekbed and began walking uphill, along a remnant path. It was overgrown and it curlicued along on the hillside. Neither of us knew exactly where it was going.

“I like the sphagnum moss here,” Nilsen said. We pressed on, lost for a moment in the big woods.

Bill Donahue’s “Walking the Talk” appeared in August 2008.

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