Oregon’s Secret Garden
Spruce Reach Island
The beauty of an Oregon spring is the chance to strike out on new adventures where the scenery is never twice the same. So it is this week as we visit two striking sites for the price of one stop — The Dean Creek Elk Preserve and Spruce Reach Island.
Be prepared for something special along Oregon State Highway 38 near Reedsport on Oregon’s southern coast: what appears to be dancing antlers across grassy fields at the Dean Creek Elk Viewing Area. On some days, elk antlers are all you spy from the refuge viewpoint in the tall, wavy grass that obscures the large animals that lounge across the habitat at Dean Creek. The site encompasses 1,040 acres and it is jointly managed by the Bureau of Land Management and the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
It’s managed for public viewing and education with information kiosks at the O.H. Hinsdale Interpretive Center. The covered site offers information about Oregon’s elk and the environment of the Dean Creek area, as well as spotting scopes to enhance viewing. There are also free brochures that tell you the story of the elk and the surrounding area.
BLM Manager Bob Golden said that it’s a reliable photo opportunity because the elk are so close at hand. Often, the big animals (some elk tip the scales at 600 pounds) are but a few yards away, so you’ll want to have your camera at your side. “We offer visitors a great educational experience and you do get to see the wildlife up close. On any given day you can come out here and see the elk,” he says.
The elk have lived on the Dean Creek Elk Refuge since the 1930s, when historic salt marshes were drained and fresh water was allowed to feed the site’s grasslands. The herd of 120 Roosevelt elk roams freely on protected pastures, woodlands, and wetland areas, sharing their habitat with other wildlife including bald eagles, Canada geese, beaver, and black-tailed deer.
But Dean Creek’s elk herd is just the start of this wild adventure. The real show-stopper is just up the road at Spruce Reach Island, where you see thousands of rhododendrons and azaleas and camellias – over 300 different species. Stroll in and discover what some call, “Oregon’s Secret Garden.”
“It was a bit of a secret garden for decades,” said Bob McIntyre, member of the American Rhododendron Society and a Friend of the Hinsdale Garden. “You see all of that and more here: white, cream, pink, reds, oranges, yellows and purples. There are rhodies of every imaginable color, size and texture.”
It’s a public place built by a private man. Howard Hinsdale was a successful Oregon businessman who began transforming his 55-acre Spruce Reach Island right after World War II.
“It is unlike any garden you’ve ever visited,” noted Megan Harper, a BLM staff member. “Most people are familiar with more manicured English garden styles, but you come here and it’s like a wild garden. Hinsdale spent a lot of time planning and putting this garden together in a very specific way.”
Hinsdale imported rare rhodies and giant spruce trees from as far away as England too. He barged them through the Panama Canal and had them delivered them to his island.
Harper said that he even ‘strolled and shopped’ through many Portland area neighborhoods. “If he found a rhodie that he loved, he’d knock and the door and start peeling off bills and say, ‘How much would it take to give me that plant?’ And then his crew would take shovels and dig it up right on the spot,” she said.
Hinsdale created an oasis of calm on his island, but it took 20 years of hard work to achieve. “You have to understand that this was swamp land! He had to dredge the Umpqua River through this stretch and deposit the material – 28,000 cubic yards of silt – onto his island. Plus, the scores of old spruce trees that you see rising above it all – he bought them all and planted each one here,” McIntyre said.
But when he was done, here was Hinsdale’s escape from the hectic hub-bub and stressful business life. His secret garden lasted until 1994. “And then the government bought it,” said Stephan Samuels, BLM Archeologist. “When we found out what we had, we went to work on it and began to open it up because that’s what Mr Hinsdale did.”
Samuels added that through the decades, Hinsdale had shared his garden with friends and family who loved the place in spring. That tradition continues today.
“It is here for people to enjoy,” added Harper. “You don’t honor the place by keeping it a secret or not letting people enjoy it!”
The BLM has recently teamed up with the local group Friends of Hinsdale Garden. They plan to open the place throughout the spring and summer so more visitors can see and appreciate one Oregonian’s vision for peace and solitude.
“We hope to open it from April-October,” added Samuels. “Even when it’s not blooming, people can come here, relax and have a nice lunch while they enjoy a beautiful spot on the Umpqua River.”
“It was a secret garden, but now it’s a spectacular place for anyone to enjoy,” said McIntyre with a smile. You walk in here and oh-my-gosh, it’s awesome! That’s what Hinsdale was after and I think he achieved it.”
About the Author: Grant McOmie
Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.
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