Portland's Rhododendron Garden

The Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden in Southeast Portland, not far from Reed College and just off the Eastmoreland Golf Course, was a common place for us to visit when I was growing up. Back then to us kids it was just "The Duck Pond," because that's where we would go to feed the ducks.

We'd stop by the Franz outlet store for a couple loaves of day-old bread (or week-old, I was never really clear on that...) and then go to this park to feed the flocks of ducks and mean geese. I'm sure it meant a decent chunk of time where the kids were entertained and Mom just had to keep an eye on whether or not we would fall in the lake, but we loved it. (By the way, as always, click on the picture for a larger version. Depending on your screen size and browser, you may be able to click it again to make it even larger.)

I remember there always being so many ducks, mostly mallards, with some big white geese bossing the ducks around and honking quite loudly. I remember having bread ripped from my hand by these geese and freaking me and my sister out, since they were bigger than us. I remember realizing years later it was called The Rhododendron Garden because there are literally hundreds of rhododendrons, and in late spring when they are all in bloom it's quite fantastic to see.

But then again, it's usually raining around here then, so we probably never went there when I was a kid and they were blooming.

My favorite childhood memory of this park has to do with a summer day. Maybe it was around the Fourth of July, maybe it was a family birthday party - not sure - but after a meal at grandma's house we loaded all the kids (me, my sister, my cousins) into cars and drove out to the garden with loads of bread. (This was years before we knew feeding ducks bread was a bad idea. Whoops. Sorry ducks from the past.)

I don't recall whose idea it was, but for some reason all of us kids thought it was a good idea to take off our shoes and socks, roll up our pants, and walk INTO the water in that top picture here. Now, generally, I don't think this is accepted practice and I would absolutely recommend parents don't let their kids do this for a variety of reasons, but we had a blast. I distinctly remember - I want to say I was eight or nine at the time - tripping on a rock and face planting in the water.

One of the many reasons to not do this is, as I mentioned, tons of ducks live here. The bottom of this pond is blanketed in a layer of sliminess which, really, should only be referred to as duck crap. And we slogged through, all around the pond, in bare feet.

It makes me nauseous just to think about it, but we had a blast. I'm pretty sure Mom did not have a blast getting us cleaned up to get back in the car; it was probably pretty nauseous for her too.

I remember the Garden being a raucous, kid-crazy place, but recent trips there have shown it has matured. It's a quiet, almost zen-like park now, filled with bird watchers, sketchers, photographers, and poets. Older couples - and young ones - stroll hand-in-hand, sitting silently to watch the water and the wildlife. Feeding the water fowl bread is frowned upon, but you can purchase acceptable bags of feed. And now you pay a fee to enter, $3 most days and most of the year, which I know wasn't around when I was little (no way we would have gone as often). Come to think of it, that's probably a big reason why it's quieter now.

And surprisingly the park is dog-friendly (on a short leash), so we have to go back and bring Misaki.

There are still plenty of animals and birds, along with flowers, so here's a sampling of what we saw on a late April trip to the park.

I think these are azaleas (rhododendrons weren't blooming yet). See the two colors? They were on the exact same branch.

New leaves on sword ferns, growing in the shade amongst the rhododendrons and under the pine trees.

And what do we have here? A nutria! It was still early morning, so this little guy was our foraging for some breakfast. He didn't seem to bothered by us, though still wary.

And then we saw another out, this one just out in a field. They are kind of cute, in a no-flat-tail beaver kind of way.

And here, of course, is a Canadian goose. I don't remember these from childhood, but there were quite a few Canadian goose couples there now. No little guys though.

Goose butts! Not really sure what they are doing when they do this. Getting food from below? Washing their heads? Gargling?

These two were just hanging out in the path. They watched us walk by, but weren't in a hurry to share the space.

Here is the mean gray goose I remember from my childhood (not to be confused with the much cooler Grey Goose). This guy was very cranky (maybe because he was alone?). In fact, he seemed so mean and old, maybe he WAS there when I was little.

See the bird here at the edge of the water? That's a blue heron. Wish I could have gotten a better picture, but this was on the opposite side of the lake and the best my camera could do. Time to upgrade.

This is a red-winged blackbird. They have a wonderful sound they make that I won't even attempt to put into words, but it's very melodic and distinctive. One of our favorite birds for sure.

These are red-winged blackbirds mating. At least, we think. The other bird was gray and they looked nothing alike, but per the link below the other red-winged blackbird picture could have been a female of the species. Or maybe it was a sparrow, we have no idea. Which brings up a good question: Do they know? Will they cross species? I need to know these things.

And this, my friends, is a double-crested cormorant. If any bird you ever come across reminds you of a dinosaur, it will be this one.

And we saw two! I had never seen ONE before.

This is your standard mallard duck. There are still plenty of these in the park, but I remember it being overrun by mallards when I was little. The shiny green/blue of their heads is still one of my favorite colors. (I also remember the disturbing-looking muscovy ducks, but haven't seen any of those around for a few years. They were cranky too - I always thought it had to do with their appearance.)

Duck butts! In tandem!

And here we have, in my mind, the most striking duck of all, the wood duck. I love the lines in his head, the long feathers over the back of his head, and the red eyes. Okay, perhaps they are kind of creepy too, but very, very pretty.

And here is another wood duck, posing just for us on land.

So there you go, a piece of my childhood. This is a great place to spend a couple hours wandering slowly on the grounds, taking time to enjoy nature. It's quiet, well maintained, and not very busy. We definitely need to go back and take the dog. Hopefully she doesn't try and eat a wood duck.

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