Last month, I was at a dedication of a new addition to the Port of Camas-Washougal. Local politicians and economic development folks filled the tent and honestly, it was the type of event that a conservation leader like me is not typically asked to attend. But this was not a typical port dedication.
This was the dedication of the Washougal Waterfront, a stunning gem of a park and trail along the Columbia. Looking south to Mount Hood and east to the Gorge, it’s hard to imagine this serene spot was once an old mill site or that such an oasis even exists as you whiz by in your car on Washington State Route 14. But it sits just over three miles from the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, which begs the question: Why does Friends of the Columbia Gorge care?
We care because of Gorge Towns to Trails, a vision for a trail system wrapping around the Gorge, exploring hidden waterfalls and vistas and connecting into communities to allow multi-day trekking with hikers staying in towns and B&Bs, much like you would see in Europe today. It’s a vision that will protect more land, provide relief to overused trails, and give Gorge communities an economic boost.
The Port of Camas-Washougal saw the benefit that Gorge Towns to Trails could provide to their community and became determined to make this spot the trail vision's western Washington launch point. They have worked with Renee Tkach, our Gorge Towns to Trails Manager, who helped the port land a $700,000 state grant to build the park. We are working with the port to take trails from this park east through Washougal and eventually to Steigerwald National Wildlife Refuge. The port is also looking at trail systems west to connect to Camas, Vancouver and eventually Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. That’s right, a refuge-to-refuge connection.
I was beyond proud to watch Renee give the best speech of the day at the dedication (well worth five minutes of your time) as she laid out the vision and spoke of what we, a collective “we,” did to make this happen and how “we” aren’t even close to being done. Port officials, businesspeople and conservative politicians all nodded in unison with enthusiasm.
When we launched Gorge Towns to Trails, I didn’t know where it would take us and we deliberately chose to not predetermine how this vision would play out. I thought we would be working to build trails in the National Scenic Area and then work to connect them into communities. However, the opposite has been true. It is the communities who are the catalysts, wanting to be the launching points and working to extend trails from their communities out into the National Scenic Area.
We now have two communities, Mosier and Washougal, who have built trails from their towns and highlight Gorge Towns to Trails as part of their signage. Gorge Towns to Trails is now in the master plan for the town of North Bonneville’s trail vision. Finally, our land trust is whittling away at those remaining connection properties to make trails from Washougal to Stevenson and Hood River to The Dalles possible one day.
Gorge Towns to Trails is opening doors and taking us places we could not have imagined five years ago. While we still have a long, long way to go, a visit to Washougal’s Waterfront Park will help you believe in the possible and look east with optimism and anticipation of what lies ahead.
(All photos by Mitch Hammontree)