Before a levee was built, Kerry Island was intimately connected with the tides. Soon it will be again.
In spring 2013, Columbia Land Trust purchased Kerry Island, a 109-acre piece of land located in Westport Slough. The announcement triggered memories of my first trip to Kerry Island, which took place on a beautiful June day. Standing on the ferry that connects Cathlamet, Washington, to Westport, Oregon, I remember gazing at the Columbia River—glass-still that day, a watery mirror that reflected endless stands of Oregon ash and black cottonwoods.
The scene belied how drastically this landscape has changed in the past century. The Columbia River has lost tens of thousands of acres of floodplain, and Kerry Island represented an opportunity to restore intertidal wetlands that had been disconnected from the slough for nearly a century.
The purpose of my journey was to evaluate Kerry Island’s habitat, to assess its plant communities, to see whether restoration would be easy or difficult. I brought along topographic maps and aerial photos, which held evidence of its much wetter past. Historic channels that once provided habitat for salmon appeared on the map as petroglyph-like squiggles. A scalloped pattern of mounds was the natural result of floodplain depositions. I marked my counter-clockwise route around the island with a red pen.
The name Kerry Island, in truth, is a bit of a misnomer. Until the turn of the 20th century, Kerry Island was more like a finger of land that pushed into the slough. But a channel had been dug on the north side; a levee was erected around its circumference. Today a small land bridge barely wide enough for two cars to pass is the only thing connecting Kerry Island to the mainland.
I rolled over the bridge thinking about my route, but those thoughts were halted when I swung my door open: What reached me was pure sound. My father, a biologist, taught me that nature was something to listen to, and the air vibrated with an orchestra of Pacific chorus tree frogs, warblers, flycatchers, thrushes. I heard a rookery of great blue herons and the agitated chatter of a nesting osprey.
I found that rookery a couple of hours later, eight nests built high in a Sitka spruce. If I had arrived at Kerry Island with a sense of possibility, I left with a sense of awe. One day, perhaps after I’m gone, but perhaps in my son’s lifetime, these wetlands will be as rich as they were 100 years ago. In some places, the best way forward is to let land and water meet again, to help the land become what it was before. —Dan Friesz