A watershed tour traces the course of the Marys River

One bright morning in August, a group of 30 people hiked in clusters toward the top of Marys Peak. A little girl ran ahead, clambered up rock faces, examined wildflowers and, when she got tired, rode on her dad’s shoulders. An older couple, long retired, made a valiant effort to summit, but their knees balked. They returned to the overlook at the trailhead, where they sat and took in the vast landscape unfolding below.

Meanwhile, on a precipice high above a blanket of wispy clouds, the hikers stopped to listen as the leaders of the first-ever Headwaters to Confluence Tour talked about the Marys River Watershed, which unwinds through a tangle of forests, wetlands, grasslands, farmlands, highways, neighborhoods and business districts from its beginnings here in the Coast Range.

“The headwaters are a network of tributaries,” explained Xan Augerot, executive director of the Watershed Council. Behind her, the clouds flowed west across the Coast Range toward the ocean. She revealed that those ambiguous headwaters aren’t actually on Marys Peak (many people assume they are because of the twin names, Marys and Marys) but farther north near the town of Summit. This iconic spot was chosen today as a stand-in, partly for the symbolism (it’s the highest in the range), but largely for the spectacular views. She went on to tell the story of the river and of the concerned landowners who banded together two decades ago to restore water quality, riparian habitat and, ultimately, cutthroat trout populations.

Augerot went on to tell the story of the river and of the concerned landowners who banded together two decades ago to restore water quality, riparian habitat and, ultimately, cutthroat trout populations. Then she handed the talk off to the Greenbelt Land Trust, the tour’s cosponsor, which has an even longer history of restoration and conservation in the watershed. Development Director Jessica McDonald shared the Land Trust’s story of working to conserve acres and acres of green spaces. “They are the jewels on the necklace of Corvallis,” she said.

Stop Two: Cedar Creek

There used to be a fish-passage problem along Cedar Creek, a tributary of Greasy Creek, which is in turn a tributary of the Marys (“watersheds are nested systems,” Augerot noted.) Where the creek flows under Highway 34, the old culvert was “perched,” hanging two feet above the water — an obvious obstacle to fish trying to swim upstream. So the Watershed Council hauled in rocks and boulders to create a “graded riffle.” Now, the streambed meets the culvert, and fish no longer face this artificial barrier to reaching their spawning grounds. Along the banks, the Council has planted saplings of ninebark willow, vine maple and other riparian vegetation, all protected from beaver damage inside chicken-wire barriers. Farther upstream, a log structure slows the flow, allowing gravels to settle and pools to form — another Council restoration project. Cutthroat will find more congenial habitat in a creek that is shadier, clearer, slower and colder.

Stop Three: Evergreen Creek

On this oak-studded former farmland, little orange flags peak from a field of tall, golden grasses. If you look closer, you can see an ash sapling growing green beside each flag. This is the beginning of a planned series of actions to restore the property, recently purchased by Greenbelt Land Trust. Someday, Evergreen Creek and Cattail Creek (a tributary of Evergreen that was named by local students) as well as a riparian ash forest, an oak savanna and a prairie on this 220-acres will offer rich, healthy habitat for birds, fish, amphibians — not to mention the schoolchildren who come here several times a year to attack invasive species, study native vegetation, investigate animal behavior and learn why local landscapes and ecosystems matter.

Final Stop: Confluence

Finally, at Shawala Point in Corvallis, the tour group walked past the skate park, under the freeway overpass, and into the trees and undergrowth that screen the two colliding rivers, the Willamette and the Marys, from view. From a well-packed dirt path, they could see the place where the Marys rushes into the massive Willamette, the waters merging in a tumble of riffles and a swirl of eddies on their way to the Pacific Ocean.