Wetlands wonder

Go boating and bird-watching just minutes from downtown Portland
Bonnie Henderson

On this spring afternoon, pelting rain had scared away most of those signed up for a guided paddle trip on north Portland's Smith and Bybee Lakes Wildlife Area. But by the time our flotilla of two kayaks and one canoe put in, the rain had quit, and the low-angled sun lent a golden sheen to Bybee Lake's unruffled surface. The western painted turtles were hiding from the cold, but violet-green and cliff swallows and great blue herons filled the sky. Mt. Saint Helens and Mt. Hood appeared in the east; in the middle distance, just beyond the lake's edge, giant shipping cranes idled, silently awaiting the next load of cars, stereos, or Hello Kitty dolls.

Surrounded by port terminals, warehouses, and other commercial development, Smith and Bybee Lakes Wildlife Area is an undeveloped gem in a city known for its urban wildlands. It's the largest protected fresh-water wetland in any American city. And it's perhaps 15 minutes from the center of Portland.

The easiest way to enjoy the lakes is on foot, but the best way is by canoe or kayak (see right). Either way, go soon. An old dam has been replaced by a new water-control structure that will allow the lakes' levels to fluctuate more naturally with the seasons, encouraging a diverse habitat for plants and animals. By late spring, the water may be too shallow for canoeing, and you'll have to wait until fall.

More changes are in the works. By spring 2005, Metro (the agency that manages the wildlife area) plans to have a new trailhead, canoe launch, and parking completed at Smith Lake. An environmental-education shelter and other improvements are planned as well. An unusual public art installation is already in place. Under an artist's direction, a helicopter was used to place five giant tree roots in the lakes. They provide new habitat for fish and fowl ― and more eye candy for urbanites seeking the solace of wild things.

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

From I-5, take the Marine Dr. exit west and follow N. Marine Dr. 2 1/2 miles to a parking lot on the left.

BY FOOT: Paved 3/4-mile Interlakes Trail loops out from a trailhead off N. Marine through woods to viewpoints at either lake. Metro occasionally offers free guided bird walks here.

BY BOAT: The put-in for canoes and kayaks (no motorboats are allowed) is in a slough off the trailhead described above. Paddle for 5 or 10 minutes until you're under a power line; veer left, do a short portage, and you're in Bybee Lake, which connects to Smith Lake without another portage. Explore on your own any day, or join a free guided trip, offered monthly (water level permitting) by members of Friends of Smith & Bybee Lakes; bring your own boat.

INFO: For a list of upcoming guided walks and paddles, check the GreenScene calendar or call Metro (503/797-1850). For information on paddle trips and a list of boat-rental shops, contact the Friends of Smith & Bybee Lakes.