When I’m not immersed in my day job as an elementary school principal, I’m often wandering with my documentary photographer hat on. You can find me capturing extra-“ordinary” moments with my family, photographing the abundance of food and community at Oregon crop festivals, or hiking the streets of our “Salem National Forest” to marvel at and to share suburban/urban landscapes that catch my eye.
My ongoing photo document on “Hiking Salem National Forest” has taken on a life of its own. So many trails, so little time! I have become fascinated with taking walks to closely examine landscapes that I’ve been driving on and by for years. The images encourage me to look carefully at landscapes that go unnoticed, like the water that envelops the fish.
Instead of venturing to majestic parks where pristine nature is preserved, I’m searching for nature along sidewalks, within shopping center parking lots, behind fast food restaurants, along creeks tucked between apartment complexes. I also encounter wildlife along the way: cyclists, birds, fellow hikers, store employees and a variety of wild animals frozen into signage.
I’m especially attracted to tenacious leftovers that have survived construction, urban sprawl and the march of progress.
I’m amazed at the resiliency of diverse transplants, so far from home and family, adapting to a new ecology.
I’m also intrigued with evidence of how we, as humans, try to order nature. We plant trees equidistant from each other in rows, and we manicure bushes into tight geometric shapes.
As a photographer, I must confess that I too am guilty of ordering nature by framing compositions within the cookie cutter rectangle of my camera’s viewfinder.
Thus far I have documented, from start to finish, the Lancaster Drive Trail, where hikers can enjoy such rare and remarkable sights as trees trimmed into the shapes of local forest dwellers;
the Silverton Road Trail, where I came across this big brown bear performing community service at the local barber shop;
the Salem Parkway Trail, where a freshly carved lake serves as a peaceful sanctuary within the sea of Capitol Auto Group cars;
the Portland Road Trail, where tired travelers can find comfy picnic spots tucked behind storage bins;
and the Fisher Road Trail, where coiffured arborvitae spiral between ornate motel balconies and sun-drenched windows.
I’ve also photographed throughout one of the forest’s best kept secrets — Keizer Station Botanical Gardens — where splendid landscapes abound, such as this row of amber waves of grain adorning the Subway drive thru.
River Road Trail
I recently launched my latest Salem wilderness adventure along the River Road Trail. I discovered the mouth of the trail at the confluence of Salem Parkway and Broadway Street, at River Road Park, where the big city of Salem meets the smaller burb of Keizer.
While searching for the river, I was surprised to come across a clown making balloon butterflies and flowers for only $1, for kids hiking in this wilderness area.
At the far end of the park, I finally caught a glimpse of the river, our very own Willamette, bathed in the warm rays of the waning day.
As I savored the sunlight while sitting on the park bench, I committed myself to hiking the River Road Trail in its entirety, due north through the heart of Keizer, in search of many more breathtaking views of the Willamette.
The following weekend I returned to River Road Park and found a convenient trailhead at the Les Schwab Tire Center. You can even get your tires changed while you hike! Don’t miss the sprawling spruce firmly planted in the pavement.
At the onset of the trail, there is no sign of the river; however, I did spot wildlife along the way. Unfortunately, hunting is not allowed in the Salem National Forest, given the high population density and the steady flow of cars.
As you pass by a vast field, marked by the KFC sign, take a moment to savor the open spaces and the smell of the 11 herbs and spices of the original recipe.
Approaching Apple Blossom Avenue on the River Road Trail, I spotted a young man carrying sails for his boat. The river must be near! Yet it turns out that he was just gathering advertising flags to close up shop at the Keizer Tire Factory.
Up against the wall at the 76 gas station, the sunlight illuminated another sign of water. I kept hiking, full of hope.
Hmmm …. the Willamette must be near; after all, a self-service car wash requires an abundant source of water.
I completed the strenuous 2.0 mile loop, from the Les Schwab to Sam Orcutt Way and back, just as night began to fall. Although I didn’t encounter the river along this section of the River Road Trail, I did glimpse several signs of churning waters.
I returned to my car, with even more determination to continue this quest — to find the river along the River Road Trail. It’s got to be out there!
Phil Decker, an elementary school principal in Salem, is also a documentary photographer and facilitator of the Salem Photo League. You can view his blog, “Hiking Salem National Forest,” at salemnationalforest.blogspot.com, or see his other photo essays at www.phildeckerphotos.com.