Reed College Canyon

Canyon Resources  

Canyon Day--Past and Present

by Nathan Coutsoubos '97

The following article was published in a 1997 issue of Reed Magazine. Copyright ©1997 Reed College

This article is being published as a historical reference.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

Since nearly time immemorial, Canyon Day has provided an outlet for Reedies who can find no joy greater than rooting around in the dirt. Each year, as spring breaks out all over, the call of the canyon beckons civic-minded students to spend a day volunteering their time to help manage and preserve the wild space on campus enjoyed by all.

Canyon Day has a long and varied history, reaching back to the very beginning of the college. The canyon as known today has not always been there. What is now the exceedingly vegetated natural area known and loved by all was once a simple pasture, the residence of the cows on the Ladd Estate's Crystal Springs Farm. What is now the canyon lake was in those days a meandering stream, originating then, as now, in the Portland Terraces springs uphill and east of campus. Trees and most undergrowth, other than the large Douglas firs, were absent except on the immediate streamside, as the cows kept the rest neatly munched down to size. The Ladd family donated their pasture to the college in 1910.

Early college visionaries, not content with a patch of grazed land, were determined to create a sculpted garden from the canyon. Within the Reed College Record of 1912, the future favored for the canyon was as a "picturesque lake," at the site of the naturally occurring pond, to be constructed during the development of the pasture into the college grounds. Another highly influential figure of this time was Albert E. Doyle, who in 1913 submitted plans for transforming the canyon into the central hub of "an artful landscape of Tudor Gothic quadrangles and formal gardens." Happily, these plans fell through, mainly for financial reasons but also because of an undercurrent of preservation rippling through the minds of college advocates and planners of the time. Soon after, the state of Oregon officially protected the canyon as part of the Johnson Creek Watershed, designating it as a fish and wildlife refuge. Today, the 60-acre site provides relatively high-quality habitat, with its associated wetland and upland area.

Completing the transformation that same year from intended garden of cultivated delights to de jure refuge and wild area was the initiation of Canyon Day. Starting in 1913, a day has been set aside yearly for members of the Reed community to pitch in and take care of the canyon. This ethic of stewardship works to guarantee that Reed's common resource maintains its health and vitality.

In the first few decades, Canyon Day focused primarily on the enhancement of the canyon as a recreational area for human use. A large section of the creek was excavated in 1915 to produce a swimming hole. (There were originally two bathhouses for men and women, complete with a dock and a diving platform; one still lives on as the bike co-op.) This area lives on today as the west end of the lake, where the water is darkest and deepest--over ten feet from surface to lake bottom in some places, not counting the thick, rich benthic mud. The mud itself deserves a side note as the rumored resting place of a Portland police car, whose officer was bamboozled by some intrepid Reedies back in the 1910s or '20s. Or so the legend goes.

In 1929, a dam was built to provide secure space downstream in the canyon for a neighborhood swimming pool. With water flow restricted to a small culvert running under the dam, the previously excavated swimming hole began to fill. Both the outdoor pool and dam exist to this day, with the latter having metamorphosed over the years into the land bridge leading to the cross-canyon dormitories.

The final large-scale canyon construction occurred in 1957, with the excavation of the north bank for the construction of the cross-canyon dorms. Since then the canyon has largely been left to fend for itself, as the management regime for the canyon has shifted from recreation through transformation to recreation through preservation. Canyon Days have subsequently seen energies spent focusing on trail repair, revegetation efforts, and other types of general maintenance rather than prescriptive measures for turning it into an urban park. Whatever level of wildness remains in the canyon, efforts are made to let it run its course while protecting the canyon from potential ecological catastrophes such as invasive plant species.

This year's extravaganza was led by Canyon Day signator Eric Buhle '98, and, as in the recent past, the day had been scheduled to coincide with Earth Day, which falls each year in the latter half of April. Pleading before the Student Senate, Buhle managed to acquire enough funds to lay out a nice spread of food, drink, and other goodies. Additionally, in consultation with various members of the physical plant office, the faculty, the Green Board, and the 1995 signator, Nancy Hoegler '97, he had identified key areas of concern and identified a plan of attack. There was quite a lot to be done--blackberries and other nasty vines had left great swaths of the canyon devoid of ground cover. The severity of the previous winter added to the work list, as record rains, floods, cold, and wind had all done their part to rearrange the canyon. The physical plant office staff was, as always, exceedingly generous with support, providing tools, a wide stock of native Northwest species for transplant, even a tractor--which later narrowly escaped being sucked into the depths of the famous canyon mud.

After a week-long blitz of full-scale publicity, a sudden wave of rampant volunteerism struck campus, exceedingly rare the Saturday before the final week of classes. Spirits buoyed by the good food and drink, Buhle's able leadership, and the knowledge that their cause was just, a healthy horde of Reedies turned out to dig, plant, and fix. Work was done all along the length of the canyon, repairing washed-out sections of trail and adding large numbers of ferns, salal, Oregon grape, western red cedar, red alder, and other plants to the landscape. Many vines were chopped and much mud was strewn about. As the sunlight lengthened and the day turned to dusk, many present began to feel anew the nagging urge to clean up and return to the library. As Canyon Day drew to a close, the progress made by a day's worth of stewardship became clear.

Nathan Coutsoubos, a senior in biology, comes from Battle Ground, Washington. His article on reintroducing salmon into the Reed canyon appeared in the May 1996 issue of Reed.