Enter a land that is in the process of returning to its primeval origins. The former dairy farm is now grassland, and the peat mine is gone. Portage Creek Wildlife Area is gradually reverting to wetlands wilderness after years of commercial use. Even the foot trails are disappearing. What is emerging is a habitat for migrating birds, deer and other small mammals, reptilian creatures, amphibians, and aquatic life such as the Coho salmon.
“Bring binoculars,” advised Sharon Swan of the Snohomish Parks and Recreation Department. Swan was directly involved when the county first acquired the former peat mine in 1995 and the dairy farm a year later.
Private ranch land and neighborhoods encompass the 157- acre property. On the south side is the Arlington Municipal Airport. Its flight path runs directly over Portage Creek. Hikers also have to contend with the faint but ever-present noise from vehicular traffic on the surrounding streets and highways. The reserve is shaped on the north side like a square lot, but the meanderings of Portage Creek contour its south side.
There is only one authorized entrance, located off 59th Ave. SE in Arlington. Look for a small sign pointing towards a gravel road. At the end of the road are parking and the trail head. Note the sign barring dogs.
From here, enter and keep right along the fence line. After 200 yards is a small bench for wildlife viewing. The path follows the cottonwood trees planted in a row heading south.
Vegetation flourishes as you head towards the center of the reserve. Watch for tall cattails that rise up like corn dogs on a stick, horse hair that resembles bamboo shoots, and many colorful flowers along the ground. Beware of poison hemlock. It rises up about three feet, has white pedals, and is identical to Queen Anne’s lace.
“We had a problem with poison hemlock,” Swan said. “It took quite a while to deal with.” The plant is difficult to eradicate and toxic to humans.
On the grassy fringes of the trail you may see toads and an occasional harmless garter snake scrambling to get out of your way. The sight is startling at first. Consider these signs of the wetlands returning to health.
Behind the cottonwoods is a motionless creek bordered by shrubs, bark, and young cedars. A hundred yards down the trail you will find a bench and an interpretive sign about the restoration of the wetlands. Behind this sign is a break in the trees for a close-up view of the stream.
Next is the first of two sturdy bridges. Use these as viewing platforms. They’re separated from each other by about 200 feet of pathway. Watch for great blue herons, red-tail hawks, eagles, and flocks of swallows darting over the trees. It’s likely that water-fowl, mallard ducks, and Canadian geese are present in the marshy areas. Deer and other small mammals like beaver and raccoons frequent the area.
After the second bridge, the trail continues to the southern end of the property. Water pools up here and can be very muddy to slog through. Manmade structures remain in this lower part for the time being. A collapsed log cabin lies disintegrating into the wet ground. A two-story red barn stands abandoned and fenced off. Nearby are a concrete slab foundation, hewn wood logs, and a sign for parking. These are remnants of a previous version of the reserve, when a colorful character named Gene Ammon had custodial duties here.
In 1978, Ammon discontinued his peat farm and created his own preserve. He called it Amens Wildlife Sanctuary and he promoted it with a giant sign atop scaffolding. In 1992, he approached Snohomish County to sell his 20 acres, which they eventually purchased. The name was altered to Portage Wildlife Sanctuary. The entrance sign is visible behind a thicket of brush near the barn. The barn housed a bird habitat on the top level and an education center below.
Ammon remained connected to the property even after the sale to the county. He wasn’t hard to miss. With a stocky build, he sported a full white beard that flowed over his chest. He rode around the city of Arlington on a bike as colorful and interesting as he was. While walking around Portage Creek taking pictures with his digital camera, he noticed strange orbs appearing in his images. He considered these lost spirits. Ammon captured over 400 of these images, according to The Arlington Times.
Portage Creek Wildlife Area is a land still healing from a century of human activity. Much of the reserve has returned to a natural state where animal life is thriving. Visitors will enjoy more than a hundred acres to roam and investigate all year round with ample bird watching and wildlife viewing opportunities.