Reed College Canyon

Canyon Resources

The Reed College Canyon Brief

by Jimmy Y-Ming Huang '97

The following article was written by Jimmy Huang, a student at Reed College. Copyright ©1997 Reed College

This article is being published as a historical reference. Some information may no longer be current.

Despite the accessibility of the Reed College Canyon, only a minority of Reed students and faculty are knowledgeable of this ecosystem. Over the college's eighty-year history, only nine theses involved the canyon. In Caitlin Cray's thesis, she acknowledged the lack of "documentation, recent or historical, which would permit comparison of" the canyon's current state to its condition from any time in the past (Cray, 1987). All of that is about to change with the new Natural Science curriculum. Before experiments can be carried out, one must have a good background of the canyon's general location with respect to the other major Portland streams, the canyon's fascinating history, and some of the studies that have been done with the canyon.

The water that feeds Reed Lake comes from underground. This ground water emerges from the Portland Terraces at the east end of the campus. Composed of silt deposits eroded during the Pleistocene flooding, the Portland Terraces make up "the largest physiographic sub-unit in the East Portland area" (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Portland District, 1992). Permeable sand and gravel underlie the 100-square-mile terraces. Although precipitation is fairly abundant, most of it percolates down to the ground water body and leaves the area by underground migration. At places on the terraces, the precipitation is held at the surface in ponds by relatively impermeable soil and leaves the area by evaporation rather than as surface runoff. Springs issue at the foot of steep terrace scarps. Those near Sellwood discharge to the lower reaches of Johnson Creek. These springs are the outflow of ground water which occurs at depths beneath the higher terraces. A large proportion of the summer water that flows into Johnson Creek is provided by this aquifer through Crystal Spring Creek (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Portland District, 1992). The watershed's drainage system creates enough quality water for year-round fisheries on the lower portion of the Johnson Creek (Johnson Creek Basin Protection Plan, 1992). Because of the springs' depth underground, rain and runoff do not affect them (Leonard, 1990).

Recognized as an urban wildlife habitat, the wetland area where the springs emerge is being protected in its present wild state. After the springs surface, the clear water swiftly travels through the wetland. Running over rocky beds, the streams converge and follow the southern side of the canyon, with marshy areas spreading out toward either bank (Cray, 1987). Although a trail exists for anyone who wants to take a stroll in the canyon, it is not wide enough for cars to exploit (Reed College Campus Facilities Master Plan, 1989). The reactor used to disturb this area by pumping canyon water for cooling purposes. This heat-exchange pipe system, however, has just been rerouted in the summer of 1994 due to the corroding effect the canyon water has on the pipes. Another source of disturbance comes from the Portland pipeline; this pipe enters from the north of the canyon, runs across the marsh, and exits through the south of the canyon (Reed College Campus Facilities Master Plan, 1989). According to Townsend Angell, Reed's physical plant director, the city of Portland uses it to transport water.

The stream then opens into a wide, shallow lake; the shallowness and clarity of the water shows a very thick layer of fine silt masking the lake's bottom. The water moves very slowly in this part of the canyon. After the water passes through the out-flow grate near the dam, it re-emerges to the north of the outdoor swimming pool. This area is officially known as the picnic area (Reed College Campus Facilities Master Plan, 1989).

The picnic area extends from the swimming pool to the theater. Although not frequently used for picnics, this is a greatly valued resource in the College community. According to the college's master plan, the picnic area has been damaged by vehicles and mowing in the past. Approved in 1989, the plan seems optimistic in preventing vehicle access to this area in the future. The dam area provides a direct and convenient vehicular link between the north side of the canyon and the south side of the canyon (Reed College Campus Facilities Master Plan, 1989).

The west lower canyon has been seriously damaged in the past (Reed College Campus Facilities Master Plan, 1989). While the eastern half is marshy with abundant macrophytes, the west end opens up into deeper area clear of macrophytes. The area has a deep accumulation of silt and organic matter which is over a meter in depth in some areas (Haws, 1985). Hundreds of seedlings have been planted in an effort to restore it to a densely wooded natural refuge. Narrow trails admit hikers on foot, but all other access is actively discouraged. Unfortunately the land under the theater is so trampled and deplete of nutrients that little plant life can be expected to survive there (Reed College Campus Facilities Master Plan, 1989).

After its re-emergence in the picnic area, the water runs as a swift and clear creek. Before it leaves Reed, the water irrigates a farmer's crops. The stream then enters Crystal Springs Creek. Once it joins with the Crystal Springs Creek, a rather broad lake, bordered by Eastmoreland golf course and railroad tracks, is formed. It flows 2 kilometers in a small canal through a bowling green and residential areas before joining with Johnson Creek in Milwaukee. One kilometer past their convergence, the unified stream empties into the Willamette River (Haws, 1985).

Composed of an upland, a palustrine, and a riverine area, the 60-acre Reed College Canyon provides relatively high-quality habitat. On a 100-point scale (100 being best), the Johnson Creek Basin Protection Plan ranked it 83; the quality of all the sites evaluated ranged from 18 to 83. The actual lake takes up four acres of the canyon area. The canyon possesses a mixture of deciduous and coniferous riparian vegetation. While large Grand Fir, Western Red Cedar, Douglas-Fir, Bigleaf Maple, and Red Alder form the overstory canopy, Elderberry, spirea, and willow form a shrub layer immediately adjacent to parts of the creek. With an abundance of structural vegetation and nutrients, many species of birds reside in the canyon (Johnson Creek Basin Protection Plan, 1991). To make the canyon more hospitable to wildlife, Reed College students put up nesting boxes in the canyon. According to Wayne Bowers, a biologist working for the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Service, squirrels, screech owls, and even yellow jackets have all used these boxes (Leonard, 1990). Good amphibian habitat also exists in the canyon in the form of numerous downed logs within the creek (Johnson Creek Basin Protection Plan, 1991). Beavers, one of the canyon animals, may be responsible for most of these downed logs. Various witnesses have reported the presence of two beavers.

Beavers have been in this general vicinity for the last 20 to 30 years, though the traditional beaver mound along the damming area still has not been found. The lake has no need for beaver dams; the beavers, nevertheless, continue to gnaw down trees and branches near the water. State Fish and Wildlife personnel have advised groundskeepers to leave beaver-felled trees alone to nourish the neighboring trees and to provide habitat space for the amphibians as mentioned earlier (Leonard, 1990).

The beavers' relentless destruction of trees has become somewhat of a nuisance. They foiled Angell's numerous attempts at planting Red Alders by gnawing them down. The damages the beavers cause, unfortunately, do not stop there. An excess of fallen trees unnecessarily disrupts the canyon's ecosystem. The decaying trees, for example, can accelerate the pond's eutrophication. In addition, wood chips clog the drain at the base of the lake (Leonard, 1990). Although the beavers represent a new challenge for the canyon, this ecosystem has already survived many assaults since time immemorial.

Included as part of the Johnson Creek Watershed, the Reed Canyon existed long before the College was founded. The canyon cut through William Ladd's pasture and provided water for his cows. The cow herd, unfortunately, proved to be too much for the riparian vegetation. As a result of the cows' frequent visits, the canyon could not become as forested as it is today. In 1910, William Ladd donated this part of his homestead as a site for the college (Riddle, 1987).

During the college's early years, the administration attempted to remodel the canyon rather than preserving it in its natural state. Cited by David Mason's thesis, the Reed College Record in 1912 stated that "through the center of the campus, east and west, is a wooded ravine, which, in the course of the development of the grounds, will be made a picturesque lake" (Mason, 1958). In 1913 Albert Doyle, the same architect who had designed Reed's first building, tried to use the canyon as the centerpiece of an exquisite garden modeled after the Tudor Gothic quadrangles of St. John's College in Oxford. Doyle failed to execute his plan due to a lack of funding. In that same year, the state Game Commission declared the canyon as a wildlife refuge. The state Fish Commission, then a separate agency from the Game Commission, had a fish hatchery set up. The fish hatchery is, however, no longer in service (Riddle, 1987).

Between the years 1914 and 1917, the clear water from the spring was piped up the hill to a water tower and fed twelve to thirteen hundred people. Approximately fifty feet away from the spring, a well that had contact with the spring water was created. The people, however, abandoned the well shortly after (Odale, 1932).

The biggest change came in 1915's Canyon Day when the students hand-dredged a hole in the mud bottom of the natural pond (Riddle, 1987). Based on the information available to him and his interpretation of this information, Mason concluded that the Reed Lake is an artificial lake (Mason, 1958). Duncan Park, in 1992, also suggested that the lake was man-made (Park, 1992). The Johnson Creek Basin Protection Plan, however, disagrees with their conclusions. The plan states that the lake is "the only naturally-occurring pond (or lake) remaining in the inner-city area" (Johnson Creek Basin Protection Plan, 1991). In Florence Riddle's article on the Reed College Canyon, she wrote that the college merely improved upon the pond for the sake of swimmers. Since the students had only one day to turn the lake into "an improved swimming hole," they must have only worked on a specific part of the canyon (Riddle, 1987). Mason noted "a sudden drop of bottom level" just below the old footbridge. While he rationalized this drop as "the region of present-day active sedimentation, the drop may actually indicate the extent to which the students dug (Mason, 1958).

Two major disturbances may have led to the deep sedimentation in the lower stream. First, the college made a dam so that the concrete-lined outdoor swimming pool could be built in its present location (Riddle, 1987). In doing so, the college slightly modified the creek's path and introduced a good amount of sediments into the canyon. The second disturbance came during the winter of 1957 with the construction of the Cross Canyon dormitories. On the north bank of the canyon, excavation done for the dormitories brought more sediments into the canyon. As observed by Mason, "great quantities of silt frequently colored the lake after a heavy rain. A large alluvial delta was formed opposite the amphitheater, and smaller deltas at several points along the north shore" (Mason, 1958). Deep silt contributes to the eutrophication of a pond. While eutrophication inevitably occurs as the pond ages, it can be dramatically hastened by intrusion of eutrophicating agents, such as silt, through excavation and erosion. As Mason noted, the lake was often covered by yellow leaves from the surrounding deciduous trees during the fall season. The wind carried them near the banks, where they eventually sank after absorbing enough water (Mason, 1958). Matching the Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ecology's description of an eutrophicating body of water, Reed Lake is shallow while rich in shore vegetation and plankton populations. During summer the thermal stratification stagnates the water; this stagnation prevents the re-oxygenation of the hypolimnion layer where the fish are (Allaby, 1994). The silt, as Mason added, probably accelerated the lake's unavoidable eutrophication process.

Disturbances such as excavation and building also affect the canyon's ecosystem adversely in other ways. As human disturbances kill native plants, exotic plant species inherit the vacant spaces. Most of these foreign plants thrive in the canyon and threaten the surviving native plants. Ivy, blackberries, holly, and morning glory are just a few of the exotic species that infiltrate the canyon with the help of human excavation and building (Johnson Creek Basin Protection Plan, 1991). Human disturbances also helped the invasive clematis vines to thrive. Though clematis vines are native to the Portland area, they can easily to snuff out other native trees if allowed. Since 1984, the college has been reforesting the canyon and the neighboring areas. All non-native plants which moved in when the ground was cleared for the art building, the Cross Canyon dormitories, and the chemistry building are being replaced with thousands of young conifers (Riddle, 1987).

Other rehabilitation efforts have also been undertaken. In 1990, the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Service, along with Cleveland High School and Clyde Brummell's Sellwood Moreland Fish Hatchery, operated fish hatch boxes in the area and released fingerlings below the dam. Angell hopes the cutthroats, steelheads, and coho living there will mate with the hatchery fish and strengthen their population in the lake and stream (Leonard, 1990). While the college's administration and the local government have kept vigilant watch over the canyon, few theses have also surveyed the canyon during the college's eighty-year history.

In 1932, Louise Odale studied the nitrogen cycle in the canyon water. Frederick and Forster's research, as cited by Odale, indicated that plant matter decomposes in a different manner from animal matter. Plant matter yields far less free ammonia, nitrite, or nitrate than animal matter. Most of the nitrogen from plants can be found in the form of albuminoid nitrogen. Animal matter, on the other hand, generates less albuminoid nitrogen. Odale reported the ammonia concentration to be 0.046 ppm, albuminoid ammonia concentration to be 0.003284 ppm, and nitrate concentration to be 0.006 ppm; free ammonia, albuminoid nitrogen, and nitrate are all in fairly high concentration -- indicating both animal and plant contamination. Odale expected plant contamination since tree debris fall into the canyon water everyday. As for the source of animal contamination, Odale blames the chickens. Beyond the swamp was a small chicken yard. Odale noted that chicken excrete was washed regularly into the swampy region where the springs originate (Odale, 1932).

In 1985, Marie Haws applied the River Continuum Concept to the three urban streams in Portland -- Johnson Creek, Crystal Spring Creek, and the stream in the Reed Canyon. According to Haws's thesis, the River Continuum Concept synthesizes data collected in freshwater studies since the mid-sixties. A river, as defined by the River Continuum Concept, is a continuous gradient of physical conditions progressing in one direction from the source to the ocean. Haws's thesis involved examining three streams in the urban area of Portland. Her data followed the conditions predicted by the River Continuum Concept. Reed Canyon and Crystal Springs, which are considered headwater streams, contained a large percentage of coarse particulate organic matter while Johnson Creek, which is considered the lower stream in this river continuum, had more finer organic particles (Haws, 1985).

Haws's data showed that the temperature at Reed Canyon was always warmer than the other two sites; it ranged between 13.5 °C in March and 5 °C in January of 1985. Reed College also had the highest mean temperature at 8.9 °C in comparison to Crystal Springs and Johnson Creek. In her study, Haws found more organisms living in the Reed Canyon than in either Crystal Springs or Johnson Creek. This finding, however, does not agree with the River Continuum Concept. As predicted by the River Continuum Concept, the headwater streams should have fewer species and lower abundance since these areas are nutrient poor and are less diverse environments. Haws explained the results by noting the special characteristics of the Reed Canyon. Reed Canyon has close ties with its surrounding wooded areas. This tie becomes especially apparent during autumn when the deciduous trees shed tons of leaves directly into the water or onto the riparian land. In some sections the layer of leaves can be up to 50 cm deep. As a result of the dam at the base of the Reed Lake, the Reed Canyon has grown in its capacity as a depositional area of various nutrients. Large amounts of accumulated silt which are over a meter in depth in some areas, are also found here. In addition to these two special characteristics, Haws noted that Reed Lake had the highest rate of leaf decomposition during the length of her study. The combination of the three reasons gives Reed Lake its invertebrate specie diversity (Haws, 1985).

In 1987, Caitlin Cray was troubled by the low organismic density and biomass of the canyon. According to Cray, the canyon's organismic and biomass seemed lower than other natural Northwestern streams. She decided to survey the water quality of the canyon with a bioassay. Cray chose four sites for her study -- the headwaters, the water about one third of the distance from the source to the west-end of the lake, the water seventy meters from the second site, and the outflow grate at the lake's bottom. Although the third site is relatively close to second site, the third site's flow rate is significantly slower than that of the second site; the narrow creek becomes a wide shallow lake between the two sites. Cray chose the third site for another reason; it is located near the mouth of a storm sewer that drains Eliot Circle (Cray, 1987).

Cray found that Impatiens germination increased as the water pH approached 5.5. D. E. Bilderback, in 1980, showed that maximum germination was obtained in media of pH 5.5 to 6.0. The average pH of canyon water, however, was 7.0 +/- 0.2 in 1987. Cray wrote, based on her data, that the pH of the canyon water might have been high enough to inhibit germination significantly; but since the pH did not change significantly among the four different sites where she obtained her water while the percent germination did, Cray concluded that something else may have been at work (Cray, 1987).

Cray's bioassay using Impatiens sultanii does have a major limitation -- it cannot identify specifically the culprit or culprits responsible for the low organismic density and biomass of the Reed Canyon. Instead of a nice trend as she hypothesized, with the water at the spring source allowing the greatest percent germination due to its cleanness while the water at the base of the lake allowing the least due to the pollutants accumulated along the water's descent, an unexpected pattern emerged. The percent of germination was greater, first of all, at the lake's base than at the spring's source. Another unanticipated result was that the plant's percent germination became significantly lower when nourished with the water from the third site. Cray hypothesized that run-off from Eliot Circle, with its closeness to a storm sewer, stirred up bottom silt and contaminated the water with oil, gas, and phenolic compounds from the asphalt pavement. Her bioassay, however, cannot identify anything beyond the mere presence of contaminants. Recognizing this limitation, Cray recommended a chemical analysis of the canyon water for any future research (Cray, 1987).

Because the canyon serves as the drainage basin for the area between Woodstock and Steele streets, it, as Cray noted, collects run-off from lawns and gardens of the area. With Bilderback's data in 1980, Cray suggested that the herbicides, such as Monuron, can seriously inhibit Impatiens pollens even at low concentrations. This situation might have been one of the reasons for the significant difference of percent germination between the control and the canyon water in her study (Cray, 1987).

The canyon's general geological features, its history, and the three Reed biology theses all testify to this accessible ecosystem's richness. Continuing from where Cray left off, the Natural Science students will carry on chemical analyses for the dissolved oxygen concentration, continue the pH measures, and test for trace metals in the canyon water. They will then interpret the data to the best of their abilities and document their findings for posterity.


  • Allaby, Michael. The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Ecology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1994
  • Cray, Caitlin. An Investigation of Aquatic Environmental Quality in the Canyon Through Use of a Bioassay. Reed College Thesis. 1987.
  • Haws, Maria. Urban Stream Ecology: 3 Portland Streams. Reed College Thesis. 1985.
  • Leonard, Rita. "Busy Beaver, Blue Heron Enliven Reed College Canyon Habitat." The Bee, 29 November 1990, 6-7.
  • Mason, David. An Investigation of the Environment and Nature of the Fat-soluble Pigments in the Sediments of Reed Lake. Reed College Thesis. 1958.
  • Odale, Louise. Nitrogen Cycle in Water. Reed College Thesis. 1932.
  • Park, Duncan. The Effects of Climate & Microclimate on the Surface Activity of the Oregon Salamander, Ensatina eschscholtzii oregonensis. Reed College Thesis. 1992.
  • Portland, Oregon. Johnson Creek Basin Protection Plan. 1991.
  • Reed College Campus Facilities Master Plan. 1989.
  • Riddle, Florence. "The Reed College Canyon." The Urban Naturalist. Portland Audubon Society. Winter 1987, 4-5.
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Portland District. Johnson Creek at Portland Vicinity, Oregon Willamette River Basin Flood Control Improvement Restudy -- Reconnaissance Report. 1992.


Appendix A: map of the Reed Campus (not on-line)

Appendix B: Map showing Reed College Canyon with Respect to its Neighboring Streams (not on-line)

Appendix C: List of birds seen in the Reed Canyon

Appendix D: Fish Species Survey (From Rick Boatner, Salmon and Trout Enhancement Program (STEP) Biologist)

Appendix E: Nuisance Plants

Dominating Plants-

Lesser Celandine, Canada Thistle, Common Thistle, Western Clematis, Traveler's Joy, Field Morning-glory, Night-blooming Morning-glory, Lady's-nightcap,, Scotch Broom, Queen Ann's Lace, Crane's Bil, Robert Geranium, English Ivy, St. John's Wort, Fall Dandelion, Purple Loosestrife, Eurasian Watermilfoil, Reed Canary grass, Climbing Bindweed, Himalayan Blackberry, Evergreen Blackberry, Tansy Ragwort, Blue Bindweed, Hairy Nightshade.

Harmful Plants-

Poison Hemlock, Golden Chain tree, Poison Oak, Stinging Nettle, Garden Nightshade.