A Brief History of Canyon Day

Since ye olden days of Reed, the wooded ravine bisecting what was once Crystal Springs Farm has been a section of land of turbulent change, going from cow pasture to prospective development site to neglected wildlife refuge and eventually the urban sanctuary we know today. Since 1914, Canyon Day, known originally as Campus Day, has been an active Reed tradition, surviving through almost all of Reed’s existence. Canyon Day has always been a celebratory occasion, a day to engage the community with the grounds surrounding the college and get them involved its maintenance.

The underground spring that feeds Reed Lake emerges from the Portland terraces at the eastern end of the Canyon. The terraces are a 100 square mile area of silt deposits on top of gravel and sand that eroded during the Pleistocene flooding. The spring is deep enough underground that rainfall and runoff have no effect on its quality. After flowing through marshland, into Reed Lake, and down into the fast clear stream at the western end of the Canyon, the spring water used to irrigate a farmer’s crops before continuing into Crystal Springs Creek, through the Eastmoreland golf course, into Johnson Creek and finally the Willamette River.

Back before the founding of the college, the Canyon cut through William Ladd’s cow pasture. Because of the cow’s frequent munching, the Canyon was unable to become as forested as it is today. In 1910, Ladd donated a part of his homestead as a site for the fledgling Reed College. The reed College Record of 1912 stated: “through the center of campus, east and west, is a wooded ravine, which, in the course of the development of the grounds, will be made into a picturesque lake.” In the school’s early years, several attempts were made by the college administration to remodel the Canyon, including a plan by Albert Doyle, the architect of Reed’s first building, to transform the Canyon into an elaborate Tudor-gothic style garden. However, these plans never came through due to lack of funding, and the State Game commission declared the area a wildlife refuge one year later.

On Canyon Day in 1915, students dredged a hole in the bottom of a natural pond in the Canyon by hand; though the records are spotty, some historians who have studied the Canyon are convinced that Reed Lake is artificial, while committee members of the Johnson Creek Protection Plan state that it is “the only naturally occurring pond or lake remaining in the [Portland] inner city area.” Some argue that the students were simply deepening the pond to use it as a swimming hole, while others claim that their digging may have established the depth of the current lake.

Historically, Canyon Day involved burning the understory to clear debris and make the area more park-like, though there is little written about this practice in the archives. On especially cold winters in the thirties, students were photographed playing hockey on the iced-over Reed lake. Another elusive Olde Reed canyon tradition was tug-of-war across the lower stream, an epic competition between sophomores and freshmen held every spring when the ground was muddiest.

One of the areas of the Canyon that has experienced the most dramatic changes since the college’s founding is where we now have the fish ladder and land bridge. This was referred to as “the picnic area” in the Reed College Campus Facilities Master Plan of 1989, and used to contain the now-infamous outdoor swimming pool, which was protected by a dam that blocked the lake and rerouted the stream. In “The Reed College Canyon Brief,” a historical article written by Jimmy Y-Ming Huang in 1997, the area is described as follows: “The picnic area extends from the swimming pool to the theater. Although not frequently used for picnics, this is a greatly valued resource in the College community… the dam area provides a direct and convenient vehicular link between the north side of the canyon and the south side of the canyon.” In addition to the building of the dam, swimming pool and rerouting of the stream, another major disturbance and source of sediments in Canyon water was the construction of the Cross Canyon dorms in 1957. As human development and intervention disturbs the Canyon ecosystem, native plants die out, leaving spaces ideal for exotic invasive species such as ivy, blackberry and clematis to set up shop.

Until 1994, the reactor used to disturb the eastern end of the Canyon by pumping water from it for use in the heat exchange pipe system. It was rerouted due to Canyon water’s corrosive effects on the pipes. Another pipe, a water main belonging to the City of Portland, used to stretch across Reed Lake until its painstaking removal in 2005 after it burst. “There used to be a 16” diameter water main spanning across the lake, which ruptured during a 2005 snowstorm. After a debate with the City of Portland, they decided the best way to remove it was to bring in a helicopter. We closed all the trails, and brought more police than I’ve ever seen on this campus. Each foot of pipe weighed about 100 pounds, so it had to be cut into seven segments and flown out to the sports field piece by piece, where it was loaded onto trucks to be recycled. The pipe had no particular function, it just went across the lake. Sometimes people tried walking across it and fell in.”

The more natural, carefully maintained canyon as we know it today was set in motion in the late nineties by a revival in restoration efforts and a newfound commitment by the college to support ’s commitment to improving habitats for local fauna, and the hiring of Zac Perry, who was brought in as full time Canyon restoration and maintenance manager in 1999.

Zac graduated from Oregon State with a degree in horticulture and botany. He later fell in love with Reed’s campus, and was interested in the need to improve the landscape in the canyon even before being employed by the college. When Zac arrived at Reed, “The canyon was absolutely engulfed in invasive plant species: English ivy, wild clematis, Himalayan blackberry everywhere. Weeds were fifteen feet tall, you couldn’t see the ground. There were no trails, and it wasn’t perceived to have any ecological value or function.”

A restoration strategy was drafted and adopted by two ecological consultants and Zac in 1999. A generous donation from the alumni class of 1965 set the project in motion: $35,000 dollars were specifically donated for the canyon’s restoration. Laurel Wilkoneen, the alumni who began the canyon fund, had realized during her time at Reed that the canyon was neglected and failing as a habitat, and it had only declined since her graduation. She was the first person to allocate a donation specifically for the Canyon, and her request was that students be involved in all aspects of the restoration, hence the Canyon Crew. The college decided that best method for using the money was to make a restoration strategy and establish best practices.

Zac Perry explained, “What the [restoration] strategy did was break the Canyon down into different zones: lake, stream, and emerging marsh, and their proposed restoration cost. That strategy called for a ten year, million dollar investment into the Canyon. The Board of Trustees and Powers that Be at Reed decided the Canyon was worth it, but they wanted it done in five years. That involved a lot of up-front costs, especially removing the swimming pool and building a fish ladder. I had thirty students on Canyon Crew that summer, and as we worked we discovered hidden gems, native plants and amphibians.” Once the thorny tangles of blackberry and ivy were removed, the decrepit swimming pool demolished and removed, and the new land bridge and fish ladder installed, the Canyon had became more accessible to the community, had transformed into a more hospitable habitat for wildlife and native plant species, and looked more or less like it does today.

The canyon’s restoration was not only a physical phenomenon. The value of the space and the way people connect with it has also changed. When asked what he believes the value of the canyon is, Zac Perry said, “The big thing, the real saving grace and value of the Canyon, is that it has become a classroom with no walls. It serves the students and outside scientists as a place to investigate urban restoration and apply what they’ve book learned to a real place.” Before the restoration, 17 theses since Reed’s founding mentioned the Canyon. In the sixteen years since the restoration in 2000, there have been 57 canyon-related theses, from design analysis of the new bridges to water quality investigations to population studies.

According to Perry, “The Canyon is a space for all of us to decompress and find peace. It provides a counterbalance to academics and it’s available to everyone. There are almost two miles of trails to observe otter, beaver, and blue heron. And it’s all right outside class or your dorm.” This closeness to a natural space, even though it is far from being a wilderness, can benefit students and community members in a variety of ways. Indra Boving, who works for Perry on Canyon Crew, commented, “The Canyon is one of the reasons I applied to Reed. It’s really important to have natural places, stay rooted and help others stay rooted in appreciating the world.”

While playing a role as a unifying force on campus, the canyon can also be a brief escape from the world of urban development and academics alike. A calming stroll along its wood-chipped paths, boardwalks, or even just across the bridges provides a respite from daily life that can be enjoyed over and over. The canyon is also a microcosm of environmental history and restoration, reminding us of how much work it can take to take good care a space that treads the line between nature and city.

Zac Perry emphasized that everyone is a steward of the canyon. “We all play a role in restoring it, we all appreciate it. Everybody can be an advocate: encourage your peers to leave it better than they found it, and not just use it as a resource at their disposal.”

So how can we be better stewards of Reed College’s favorite ravine?

“Stay on the trails! And go to Canyon Day,” said Boving.