Reporting from Gresham
Oxbow Regional Park ranger Bill Doran is retiring this month after 36 years at the park. Doran has seen many changes at Oxbow, including the Sandy River exposing this forest buried by a 18th century eruption of Mount Hood.
It's the still moments that matter most, the Oxbow veteran says, the times when you sit tight and let nature happen instead of going out and seeking it.
"We'd tell staff, this is your bonus – you get to take a moment by the river or the Ancient Forest and just be for five minutes," says Bill Doran, who has had countless such moments in his decades at Oxbow.
He'll still have those moments, but not as many, and not as frequently. Doran, a senior ranger, is retiring 36 years after he first started at Oxbow Regional Park, east of Gresham.
He has no plans of saying goodbye for good, saying he'll still be around in between house projects or fishing trips to Eastern Oregon.
Metro ranger Bill Doran picks up a trashcan blown over by ever-present winter winds at Oxbow. Even on snowy days, Doran hikes into the park to make sure it's safe and orderly.
On a recent frosty morning, Doran talked about dialing down in the coming months, but also made clear he's not going away.
Doran mentions a suspected eagle eyrie. "I'm going back this spring to see if in fact it is," he says. "One of the naturalists spotted it. We suspected it (was there), but it took us four years for someone to spot it."
That something as large as an eagle's nest could remain hidden for years speaks volumes about Oxbow. Nestled in a canyon on the southwest bank of the Sandy River, Oxbow's boundaries include hundreds of acres of forests extending beyond the boat ramps, picnic areas and campgrounds most visitors are familiar with.
A living history
Doran has seen almost every inch of Oxbow, dating back to the 1970s, when the park was overrun by invasive Scotch broom, and staff began to actively manage what had been a chaotic operation.
The park's trails were haphazard, Doran said, and longtime visitors resented efforts to manage the park.
People would say "'I've been coming here all of my life and you can't tell me what to do,'" Doran said. That had to change.
At the time, Doran was relatively fresh out of classes at Portland Community College. He was always interested in nature, and came across the full-time job at Oxbow after working there as a temp one summer.
He's watched as animals have come and go, Douglas fir trees get massive only to be washed away by winter's rains. Doran speaks about the Sandy River with reverence, almost as if it's a supernatural force, and holds Mount Hood in similar esteem.
"What's exciting is that we're connected to that much energy," Doran says.
He got a glimpse of that power five years ago, when Little Sandy Dam was removed a few miles upstream, sending the remnants of Roslyn Lake surging down the Sandy River.
"I was right here, waiting for stuff to happen," Doran says from a boat ramp near the campground. "And it all happened so quickly. All those fines came down immediately, within hours and it was very cool to see those fines go by."
Days go by
Doran reports to Oxbow before 7 most mornings, even if the steep, winding road into the Sandy River Gorge is covered in ice or snow.
"I'm not going to miss coming down that hill in the dark while it's glittering with a little ice," Doran says. "I've had a few experiences on that hill that have been, if not death-defying, injury-defying."
Sometimes, Doran hikes in when the road is impassible – Oxbow's water system needs to be monitored for freeze damage, and anglers boating on the Sandy could still visit the park even if the road is closed.
"I have one of the few jobs in the county that on a frozen, snowy day, I've hiked into the park, and on the steeper slopes used bear and elk track to slow my descent," he says. "You can have those great moments… with wildlife when there aren't people in the park."
It's clear Doran appreciates those moments. But there are other times that take their toll. Summers, in particular, take a lot of energy from staffers.
"Some days it seems I'm invincible to whatever comes along. Those days when I'm not, I'll ask other people to step in, then I offer them the same on those days when they're not at the top," he says. "We're protecting people and the place – we're protecting the place from the people and the people from the place."
Nowhere is that more evident than near the campground, where ancient trees, buried by debris from a Mount Hood eruption more than 300 years ago, are slowly being unearthed. The newer trees on top of them come tumbling down when the Sandy River surges.
"These are shallow rooted trees in sand," Doran says. "It's a concern, and we're always watching out for that."
A last transition
Doran's seen his share of change at Oxbow. He was at the park when Multnomah County turned the park over to Metro in 1996. He's seen migratory birds come and go, including cormorants bobbing in the Sandy every winter then hanging out in conifers, their webbed feet looking almost comical on evergreen branches.
"The part I'm realizing now as I leave this place is the gratitude I have for seeing those cycles over time," he said.
Metro ranger Bill Doran hikes through the Ancient Forest at Oxbow Regional Park. Nearby, the park's first-ever confirmed bald eagle nest is perched high in a tree.
One of those cycles was clear last week, just off a narrow path through the Ancient Forest, only a few hundred feet from the park road.
Doran stops to look at the suspected eagle's nest. He sees an eagle flying overhead, toward the river. It wasn't long ago that bald eagles were decimated in the Willamette Valley, and they've only returned to Oxbow relatively recently.
But they've never confirmed that an eagle was nesting in the park. High up in a Douglas fir, maybe a quarter mile up a ridge from the trail, a mess of twigs and branches certainly looked like a nest, and a triangle-shaped silhouette looked auspiciously like a bird.
The massive tree swayed gracefully in the wind, 10 or more degrees in one direction, then 10 or more in the other.
And out soared an eagle.
"There we go. Confirmation. Son of a gun," Doran said. "Holy moly, that is so great. That was a gift. Very cool. Two of them!!
"So that's taking the moment, and just stop, wait and watch. Most of the time, you don't get those gems, but… oh great. Very cool."