One of the joys of my childhood was having unlimited access to the Willamina River that bordered our small farm in Western Oregon.
With nearly one-half mile that was mine to explore, I was never happier than when I escaped to its edge to indulge in minute explorations of this moist, boggy, ferny paradise. Robinson Crusoe fantasies dominated my play. By the age of eight, a part of me longed to escape the tensions that were a daily part of life in my family.
The river bank is where I learned to skip rocks, catch crawdads, check the boggy areas for minnows, and observe the development of tadpoles each spring and summer.
The delight I felt when discovering a gleaming, gelatinous mass of frog eggs, each with a distinct pair of eyes just below the membrane of the egg’s surface was boundless. I knew that this mass of eyes would provide endless fascination throughout the summer.
Recalling the process of development from bug-eyed larvae to tadpoles, to fully developed miniature frogs, is one of my favorite memories. After emerging from the eggs, heads, bellies, and tails would gradually become smaller as the hind-legs formed under the skin, popping out one at a time, followed by the front.
Observing the tiny front legs emerge, each with five perfect, suction-cup fingers was a thrill. As their legs developed, tails would shrink, and within a few weeks, hundreds of fully formed miniature Oregon Leopard frogs would emerge to swim in circles in the clear pool to search for an escape route. By the next day, they would all have escaped in the flow of water along the banks of the river.
The same process was observed on our front porch. Every summer as the ditches near our house trapped hundreds of tadpoles in the drying summer heat, we would scoop them into Mom’s enamel washtub. Carefully watching their progress, I would add water from the nearby creek to sustain them over the summer.
Releasing them into the creek that ran beside our house was pure joy. The fact that 95% would become food for whatever predators favored them never crossed my mind. Obviously, many survived, since there was never a summer night without a chorus to serenade us.
The Meadow at the back of our farm was the transition area from cultivated field to river. This was a magical place. I recall the first time I discovered a fungus growing on the side of a tree — a huge, glowing orange semicircle — fleshy and utterly mysterious. I squatted in front of it for a good long time, simply taking in the wonder of it.
Filled with wild Oregon native plants, ferns, nettles, wild peppermint, butterflies, and bees, The Meadow was a wonderland. It led directly to several access points to the Willamina River that bordered our property.
Although our neighbors had the best swimming hole, which all of the kids within bicycling range used throughout the summer, ours was private, quiet, shady, and wild. It was the perfect escape for a kid who longed for solo adventures.
One of the blessings of my childhood was that my parents did not believe in over-supervising. As a result, I was pretty much free to run down the lane any time my heart took a hankering for some freedom and solitude.
What a marvel that is today with most children having their days booked solid throughout the school year, and most of the summer. It was the saving grace of my childhood.