Blog: The Gorge Less Traveled
On the Washington shore of the Columbia River Gorge exists one of the last natural bottomlands in the gorge. No rail line or road embankment separates the land from the river at the 329-acre Pierce National Wildlife Refuge.
It’s a fairly pristine scene, but still one with a big human footprint. The Columbia Gorge—stunningly beautiful as it is-- is no untouched national park. On Pierce’s shores, fish wheels once scooped up salmon by the thousands. Dense forests have been cleared; the land has been grazed, diked and, more recently, fought over by developers and the town to the east, North Bonneville. The refuge’s banks are cut by the violent churning of water emerging from Bonneville Dam’s second powerhouse, just upstream.
But, thanks to one woman’s decision 34 years ago, the land has been returning to nature’s pace. A wildlife refuge since Lena Pierce donated it to the federal government in 1983, its creeks, forests and fields host migratory birds and are home to large mammals and amphibians. Hardy Creek, which drops in spectacular falls off Hamilton Mountain to the north, mellows out in the refuge. Its meandering course supports one of the last remaining runs of chum salmon on the Columbia, along with small runs of coho, steelhead and Chinook salmon.
The refuge’s wetlands are one of three Columbia Gorge sites that Oregon Zoo and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife use to release endangered western pond turtles. The goal: self-sustaining populations. Progress looks good.
It is a place humans aren’t permitted to go, unless…you help out. More about that later, but first, the backstory.
For the love of Canada geese, a refuge is born
On the last day of 1983, Lena Pierce donated 319 acres of her 337-acre Pierce Ranch, east of Beacon Rock, to ensure it would provide a permanent habitat to the Western Canada goose, birds that she and her deceased husband, Lawrence Pierce, had called “our children.”
The town of North Bonneville, just east of the Pierce’s land, laid claim to some of that acreage, and developers had thoughts of a riverfront subdivision with a moorage. But three years before the environmental protections of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area were put in place, Lena Pierce had found her own path to conservation.
Shortly after she donated the land, she told the Oregonian, “I’m an old lady and I see animals, and man wiping them off the face of the Earth. I believe —and my husband believed —the animals have as much right to this Earth as we do.”
Born in 1903 in Florence, Oregon, Lena married Lawrence Pierce in the 1920s. They both loved nature. “We fished, camped, and hunted rocks all our lives,” Lena said, late in life.
Lawrence started his career greasing delivery trucks in Portland’s Produce Row. Later, he sold tires and batteries to his customers, and in 1931 founded Pierce Trailer and Equipment Company at SE 9th and Yamhill. He invented and built the first articulated logging trailer, as well as garbage truck containers, dump truck containers, flat beds, crane carriers, and trailers for carrying bombs during WWII.
The company did well enough that Lawrence and Lena bought acreage and ran cattle on the Columbia’s south shore, near Portland. That land today is part of Portland International Airport.
In 1955, while traveling in the Columbia Gorge, the Pierces saw a for sale sign on land near Beacon Rock State Park. Logger and rancher Bill “Pappy” Woods had been running 80 head of cattle on the land. Then in their 50s, the Pierces bought the ranch for $300 an acre. Soon, Lawrence was spending more time there than at his company. They cut timber and opened more land to grazing, and eventually the land supported a herd of 300 Angus cattle.
The open, grazed fields caught the eye of a passing Canada goose. And then another one. The first year the Pierces counted 15 geese, but soon 1,000 or more stopped on their annual migration. (Unknown to the Pierces, the bird once threatened by loss of habitat was beginning to adapt splendidly to human-altered landscapes, so much so that they’re considered a pest in many locales.)
In 1962, Lawrence and Lena sold Pierce Pacific Company (now Pierce Pacific Manufacturing, headquartered in the Columbia bottomlands east of Portland’s airport). They moved full time to the ranch. In 1965 they built two new barns and a larger house, now used by the Fish and Wildlife Service.
Lawrence died in 1980, and Lena died in 1988, five years after donating the land to the government, and to the geese. In 1990, 11 more acres, including the Pierces’ home were added to the refuge.
As the antithesis to crowded gorge sites like Multnomah Falls or Dog Mountain, the refuge offers peace, birding, and spectacular views of Hamilton Mountain and the Oregon cliffs. But you have to work for them.
How to Volunteer
Fortunately, the work is fun, and satisfying. I was one of a group who volunteered in November 2016 cutting invasive Himalayan blackberry at the refuge. After a few hours, refuge steward Jared Strawderman gave us a tour of the property--see the slideshow below.
If you love the gorge, consider volunteering with Columbia Gorge Refuge Stewards, Jared’s employer. It's a great way to give back to a place so many of us enjoy. The stewards are citizen-volunteers who support three national wildlife refuges in the gorge: Pierce, Steigerwald Lake and Franz Lake.
At the stewards’ website, you can find a calendar of weekly scheduled volunteer parties at Steigerwald Lake, doing work like removing invasive species or planting native shrubs. It also shows guided bird walks at Pierce NWR.
If you want to volunteer at Pierce, get a group together and contact Jared.
Best places to see the refuge without volunteering
This refuge has no public access or visitor facilities. If you don’t want to volunteer, here are three great places to view it: (photos below)
The closest is from the east face of Beacon Rock itself. And going there is doubly appropriate because the name first suggested for Pierce NWR was Cheecheeyouptin National Wildlife Refuge, a variation of "Che-che-op-tin," the Cascade Indian name for Beacon Rock. It means “the navel of the world.”
At low water you can walk North Bonneville’s Discovery Trails to Strawberry Island (also known as Hamilton Island); from it walk west to its downstream tip and then wade out to Ives Island, which sits in the Columbia across from the refuge.
From the Oregon side, you can get a really broad perspective of the refuge, the river islands over shore, and the mountains whose landslides created them from the McCord Creek Trail.
Find more places to explore in the Columbia Gorge with my guidebook, Columbia Gorge Getaways. It’s available at all Portland and Columbia Gorge bookstores, and online.