Clear Creek was running high and fast on a recent afternoon, splashing against the branches and winter debris caught against a log and surging downward to carve out a deep pool.
Log jams like this, whether the product of a winter storm or a busy beaver, play an important role in healthy woodland streams. While it looked naturally messy, this particular log jam was special. Designed by experts, put in place by chainsaw, heavy equipment and thick cables, its purpose was to protect and restore threatened salmon runs and native fish habitat.
"We're trying to work with nature to rebuild the habitat that was here," said Brian Vaughn, a senior natural resources scientist at Metro.
Clear Creek Canyon Natural Area was one of the first sites purchased by Metro for its Natural Areas Program. With the help of two bond measures, the Natural Areas Program has added about 14,000 acres in Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties over the last 17 years.
Although Clear Creek is still a work in progress, it is well along in reaching the goals established by the Metro Council when it created the Natural Areas Program: safeguard water quality, protect fish and wildlife habitat and ensure that future generations have access to nature.
The Clear Creek Natural Area was one of the first greenspaces purchased as part of a $135 million bond measure approved by voters in 1995. It features one of the few remaining wet prairies in the Willamette Valley.
Metro purchased a handful of privately owned properties around Clear Creek Canyon with funds from the initial bond. Money from the 2006 bond expanded the site to its current 586 acres.
Wide, deep Clear Creek cuts through a gorge near Carver on its way to the Clackamas River. Rainbow trout swim here, as does endangered fall Chinook and coho salmon, steelhead and the threatened coastal cutthroat trout. Clear Creek boasts the most abundant salmon population on the lower Clackamas River basin and the last significant run of late-run coho salmon in the lower Columbia River basin.
The land beside the creek is equally rich. Elk, coyotes and cougars forage and hunt here. A confusion of pointed prints on a muddy bank identify a well-used deer crossing. A brown salamander scrambles under a mossy log.
Above the steep canyon walls, the forest of alder, big leaf maples and Douglas fir opens to a wide expanse of winter-browned fields. A few trees dot the meadows, and seasonal streams and puddles glisten under gray sky.
Clear Creek's uplands feature wet and dry prairies and Oregon white oak savannah, habitats that have been all but wiped out by development in the Willamette Valley.
The rare habitat was slated to become a golf course and housing developments. But the acres once used for hay now grow a different crop.
"This is a field of almost solid camas and lupine," Vaughn said. "In the spring, it's all blue."
The land is undergoing a slow return to its natural state. Thousands of native shrubs and trees were planted in the woodland and edges of the prairie, while selective logging will open an old Christmas tree planting so that it can mature into a healthy fir forest. About 50,000 bare-root trees and shrubs are being planted this winter to shade the creek.
Metro joined with Oregon Wildlife, the Clackamas River Basin Council and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, combining resources to make stream improvements that would benefit fish. The work included improving stream complexity with deep pools and side channels, adding large pieces of wood and re-establishing native plants along the stream banks.
"We focused in on restoring processes that would benefit native fish in the long term," Vaughn said. "We're not just putting in logs and digging pools."
Using an excavator, crews transported massive logs to the creek and strategically placed them so the current carved out pools and helped create small side channels, where migrating fish can safely rest.
In the next few years, Metro leaders will consider whether Clear Creek should be open to the public. Possible uses range from remaining a habitat preserve to being developed into a full nature park, with an interpretive center, classrooms and trails, like Metro's Cooper Mountain in Beaverton and Mount Talbert near Happy Valley.
In the meantime, a house on the upper property is rented, and students from nearby Springwater Environmental School use the natural area for scientific study. On nice days, neighbors might walk the old road down to the creek.
"The neighbors all know we're here," Vaughn said with a smile. "They see 60 acres of wildflowers and they have to stop."