By Mac Larsen | CNA Media Team
Whitaker Ponds Natural Area sits just northeast of Concordia. It’s a hidden gem that provides two wetland ponds for birdwatchers, nature enthusiasts and anyone trying to get away from city life.
“Having these little pockets of natural area here is really valuable when you’re surrounded by all of this industry and urban infrastructure,” said Jennifer Starkey. She is the education director for the Columbia Slough Watershed Council.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic shut businesses and schools, a visit to Whitaker Ponds was typical for local elementary students.
Under normal circumstances Jennifer and the council run a program called Slough School, which lets students interact in local ecosystems with the earth sciences curriculum they’re taught in the classrooms.
Educators face a school bus driver shortage and other obstacles amid changing pandemic precautions. Education programs like the ones at Whitaker Ponds moved online and, eventually, back to classrooms.
Despite these challenges, educators like Jennifer see a thriving interest in Portland’s local nature and wildlife.
“I have seen every day that I’m there families with their kids,” she said. “I had an event in October called Boo in the Slough. It was something I had always wanted to do, just have a Halloween party. Families showed up with their kids, and so many of them said ‘I’ve never heard of this place before.'”
The hidden nature of Whitaker Ponds, according to Jennifer, is part of its appeal – as is its transformative history. Before it was a city natural area, the ponds were treated as a dump.
Through plenty of work, investment y and collaboration with the city and partners like the Native American Youth and Family Center, the watershed council has elevated all eight of its sites for conservation and education.
“It feels great to be in a place where you can hear a woodpecker or see a beaver dam or just listen to water moving,” Jennifer pointed out. “I feel really grateful that I get to do that for my job.”
As the pandemic continues to complicate in-person gatherings, the watershed council plans to increase events at all watershed areas this spring and summer.
Details for events at Whitaker Ponds and the Columbia Children’s Arboretum are posted at ColumbiaSlough.org/events.
If you’re curious about Whitaker Ponds, Jennifer offers this advice: “Come on down. Leave your dog at home.”
Mac Larsen is a graduate student at the University of Oregon, pursuing a master’s degree in journalism. He grew up in Concordia neighborhood and can be found frequently on Alberta Street, complaining about all the construction.