Skip to content →

The Wilderness We Deserve: Johnson Lake

Residents of Vancouver, Washington who work in Oregon often have ample time to sit on Interstate 205 near the Columbia River and take advantage of the vista afforded by the high embankment. Unfortunately, when they get to Portland, it’s mostly an industrial area and the airport. Jessie Honeyman is writhing in her grave in frustrated agony.

But just below the highway embankment to the south, and right behind the Owens-Illinois (O-I) glass factory off Columbia Boulevard, is an expanse of rippling blue. It’s placid and beautiful, a stopover for migratory birds, surrounded by a few acres of alder, maple, and fir, itself surrounded by a puzzle of asphalt, steel, concrete, and fiberglass.


Although I’m a soft-bellied modern—kept alive and entertained by a disquieting labyrinth of conduits and cables—I’m a disciple of Lonesome Dove’s Augustus McCrae. Lying on his deathbed, drunk, pierced in the leg by an arrow, sepsis creeping through his veins, Gus turns to look out the window of his dingy, hot room: “‘Look there at Montana,’ he said. ‘It’s fine and fresh, and now we’ve come and it’ll soon be ruint, like my legs.’”

McCrae had long regretted that he and the Rangers had made the West safe for those of lesser fortitude. Civilization had crept across the frontier, and now it was full of barbershops and dandy bartenders. McCrae fancies himself a philosopher, and his most coherent philosophy critiques urbanization and gentrification. Montana had been the final frontier, a place that existed for itself, rather than as a resource for European agricultural and industrial exploitation. Now he and Pea Eye, Dish Bogget, Woodrow Call, little Newt and the boys had come and brought the cattle.

So we’ve inherited this fractured and withered landscape from those hearty and vicious pioneers. Look, there at the clear-cut “working forest.” lo, an urban creek runs with arsenic and petroleum. Behold the vacant lot covered in ivy and blackberry brambles and garbage—it’s what we’ve got.

Yet we can still escape to “the wilderness,” and a ten-billion-dollar US apparel industry has grown up around the idea. I’m right there. Got my Gore Tex boots with Vibram soles, my semipermeable laminated rain shell, my little wool socks and I’m gonna go out and get away from this degraded urban landscape. Gonna be a modern day rustic, shoot somethin’ and eat it, and howl at the sunset.

Although that myth has begun to lose its grip, we can still indulge this little fantasy, while knowing that “Wilderness” is really nothing more than resources-in-waiting. In fact, it’s being a good little resource, a resource of myth-making, while it waits around to give up the goods—and it will give up the goods.

I get it: the breast-swelling joy of transcendence through immersion in the natural aesthetic, the tug at the heart of the wind pouring through the tall trees, the joy of solitude. But then I see a dogshit blossom, notice the undergrowth is trampled to dirt, feel the fragility of the running water, and the spell is broken.

Because even these scenic wilderness resources, it turns out, are not inexhaustible. Every year around this time, the articles start appearing: The Ten Best Swimming Holes (including these secrets), Ten Quad-Busting Hikes Within One-Hundred-and-Twenty-three Miles of Your Downtown, Best New Ultralight Gear for Backcountry (and how to dispose of your old gear), and then a once-quiet little riverine chasm makes the social media rounds, and now beckons hordes with bluetooth-connected speakers, bodies luxuriantly slathered and pickled in exotic synthetics, and incessantly trampling feet eroding, killing the tiny things. Call me a misanthrope; you’re not wrong, but neither am I.


This disillusionment has brought me back to the city, and especially its margins, the places trampled and forgotten, rather than loved and maintained. What can we learn between a highway and an industrial park about our effect on…la naturaleza, for lack of a better word?

The factory that makes our beer bottles in the Portland Metro area looks like a clever device for catching unwary birds by the score. Or like an open pair of pliers pointed skyward on their journey through time. It’s called Owens-Illinois (O-I), and it moved into the Parkrose neighborhood, then a suburb on the edge of farmland, in 1956.

O-I had an open house soon after setting up shop in Parkrose, to meet the community. In their advertisement for the event, they promised to be “a good neighbor” and “a good corporate citizen,” but among the very first things they did was to pollute the local swimming and fishing hole.

Before that, back in the 1910’s, Parkrose was being sold as farm lots of some of the most fertile ground around—great for growing asparagus, the real estate advertisements suggested. The north side of Parkrose is bounded by the mighty Columbia, and was once threaded through with the Columbia Slough, a series of channels, lakes, and wetlands now almost entirely covered and hemmed in by industry. Many of the lakes and wetlands were filled and drained for agriculture. But one remarkable lake, although so insignificant in the context of the time that it isn’t even named on early maps, was bought by a guy named Harry Johnson.

Shallow through most of it’s two-point-five acres, and fed by twenty springs so forceful they supposedly rippled the surface of the water “like fountains”, it was clear straight through to the bottom. It became the neighborhood meeting spot, and at one point boasted a floating dock, a dance hall, and a still. The Vanport Flood of 1948 brought Columbia river silt and carp into the lake, after which it was no longer as clear, but the real coupe-de-grace was the effluent stream of O-I. All this I learned from Parkrose native Marcy Emerson-Peters, who spent years trying to resurrect this special place from the onslaught of industrialization, before giving up.

Harry Johnson bought the lake in the 1940’s as a little family retreat, but the neighborhood was welcome too. Johnson was a business-guy, an entrepreneur, and a big booster of the Parkrose Neighborhood. He wanted industry to move in and provide some employment to the area. He seemed to have believed that the heat of industry and the cool tranquility of a spring-fed lake could exist in harmony. So he sold half of his lake to Owens-Illinois Glass, which quickly moved to disillusion him of these eco-capitalist fantasies.

O-I directed a pipe from their property and poured water from their cooling and settling ponds, which allowed something… something described as an oily sludge, to pour into the lake. They also had a power station, filled with transformers containing Polychlorinated Biphenyls, which rainwater leached off the property and into the lake. Someone, it’s not clear who, erected a log boom around the outflow pipe to keep the floating sludge on O-I’s side of the lake.

This precautionary measure was, of course, to no avail.

And what did the Department of Environmental Quality find when, decades later, they tested the water and sediments? Chromium, lead, PCB’s, petroleum, copper. Unfortunately, folks in those days weren’t as chemophobic as we sissified moderns, because they just kept swimming and fishing in the water. Fishermen didn’t give up on the lake until sometime in the 1970’s, when all their catches came up with sores on them. As recently as 2012, a post on a fishing forum suggests, carp from Johnson Lake still come up with sores.

No one showed up at the public comment session in 2009 to demand a full dredging of the contaminated sediment. We nature-lovers were out swimming in holes further afield, amid the lilies and birdsong, so the state and the company worked out the remediation process: partial dredging of the contaminated silt, capping with sand and gravel, and then testing. According to the 2012 plan, the fish were to be tested annually for at least five years, but 2017’s results are not yet online. PCB’s, I’m sure you know, don’t easily degrade, and metals never do. So the fish in the lake, as in the rest of the Slough, will likely be too toxic for human consumption (as indicated by the liberally posted signs) for the foreseeable future.

Though industrial pollution was the death-knell to the water’s recreational utility, Emerson-Peters recalls it being a quiet and peaceful place to visit until 1975 or ‘76, when Interstate 205 came crashing through its eastern end. The I-205 Environmental Impact Statement maintained that, “Except for the 1% loss in lake area, and a temporary disturbance to water quality, I-205 would not have a significant impact on Johnson Lake.” Which ignores, you know, beauty, placidity, reverie—everything experientially valuable about a non-material resource. So now this Portland Parks and Recreation property, still home to a great variety of migratory birds and at least some carp, is wedged between a highway, a glass factory, an RV storage lot, and a random mishmash of cube-shaped commercial enterprises.


Nowadays, there is a path from the northwestern side of the lake to its eastern end, directly below the I-205 embankment. Several smaller trails lead to the lake’s edge where reeds and cattails grow. To the south, the open mouth of the glass factory chomps at the sky up behind the alders. A barbed-wire-topped fence, demarcating OI’s property, slices through the woods straight down to the lake’s edge on one side, and toward the mud of the slough on the other. It’s a walk through melancholy, the brush (the illusion) breaking up the harsh lines and noise of the highway (reality), filtering the grit of the glass factory roof (reality), and the glare of the RV garage (reality). Ducks and geese regularly touch down and break the smooth surface of the lake, as jets approaching the airport roar overhead and freight trains and trucks barrel by.

So here’s what we’ve lost: a place close to home to retreat from the built environment, a place to cool our overheated bodies, fish to eat, tranquility. No one really visits anymore. So perhaps we could argue that the place only had to become so unlovable, its recreational utility so thoroughly debased, that no one wants to visit. It ceases to be a resource, and reverts to nature-for-itself. Not quite. Now, clearings in the woods are strewn with trash, fire pits scattered among the nettles and fringecup and Indian plum. The modern-day McCraes, the new rustics, have found the fine and fresh and lovely among us, and set to settling it. And how far will the swimming holes in this year’s lists be from the overheated hearts of our cities?

Volunteer parties still meet to clean the place up and plant native species in the surrounding forest. It must be a genuine romantic who can bring themselves to love the slough—the kind of soul who would partner with a chronic disease sufferer in their denouement, perhaps hoping to reunite in the afterlife. Emerson-Peters is a compelling personality, but she hasn’t been in five years. Two bad encounters with campers in the woods put her off the place for good. Since she led the effort to rehabilitate the place, I imagined it must have been heartbreaking to give it all up after so much hard work. I suggested she must still feel the loss.

“Not really,” she said. “I worked hard for a long time and I changed. I was living in the past, and now I’m not…. It’s a good thing.”


I’m sentimental about things I have no business being sentimental about, so I like to visit the place and fantasize about the silence, the birdsong, the crystal clear waters teaming with fish, the Gorge breeze waving the asparagus fronds. But, as a great capitalist supermarket owner once told me, there’s no going back. Once the concrete is poured and utilities are dug in, it won’t come down, but maybe for centuries. So let’s take it a step further and concede to the pragmatists: this nature was only ever stealing from us anyway. If we needed it, we would be suffering without it. Now we have order and productivity where once we had terrible wilderness, and plenty left to escape to, if a little further away.

Now we can bring it back to Augustus McCrae, remembering the beautiful but useless Jake Spoon:

“Come ride to town with me,” Augustus said to Call. “This place is quiet as a church on Monday. I’ll buy you a meal and we can sit and talk philosophy.”

“No, I’ll stay,” Call said. “I don’t know a philosophy.”

“Your philosophy is to worry too much,” Augustus said. “Jake would have gone with me quick enough if we hadn’t hung him.”

“Damn it, he brought it on himself,” Call said.

“I know that, but when I spot a town I remember what a fine companion he was around supper time,” Augustus said.

Published in Uncategorized

One Comment

  1. Pat Fleisch Pat Fleisch

    Mike, What an eye-opening story. Too bad It’s happening all over the country; not just in Portland. It’s part of capitalism. It’s bad. The corps promise all the things there going to do to protect the rivers, streams, lakes, oceans, land; but they know the laws started are going to be enforced. Shame on them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *