BANDON - A milestone was reached Thursday afternoon when seven members of the Coquille Indian Tribe paddled a Chinook-style canoe into the mouth of Fahy's Creek in the western part of the Nil-es'tun Unit of the Bandon Marsh National Wildlife Refuge.
Watching from a muddy patch of ground nearby, Jack Lenox, tribal planner and cultural committee chairman, said, "It's been about 145 years since a Coquille Tribe canoe has been up in this marsh."
Also on hand for the occasion was Nicole Norris, a tribal archaeologist, who added, "The tribe is a partner in this project, which is really important to the tribe as well as to the general community."
Lenox, Norris and other tribal officials, along with project volunteers, supporters, partners and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff, cheered as the canoe entered on the incoming tide, then turned around and nestled against the bank to give the paddlers a breather.
Some 418 acres of refuge property are being restored to tidal marsh by the USFWS after the land had been ditched, diked and drained by ranchers for use as pasture a century ago. It's the largest tidal marsh restoration project ever undertaken in Oregon.
Since acquiring the property about 10 years ago, the USFWS has been working toward restoring the twice-daily tidal influence on the former marsh, which is located on the north bank of the Coquille River and east of U.S. Highway 101 just north of Bandon.
Over the past several weeks, heavy equipment operators gradually lowered the old levees and worked to remove the tide gates that have kept the waters of the Coquille River out.
Project managers attempted to recreate the original channel of Fahy's Creek, which for decades had been running through a straight ditch and tide gate directly into the river. On Thursday, contractors dug an opening and connected the recreated channel with the creek's natural mouth, allowing access by the canoe.
South Coast NWR Manager Dave Ledig said, "We're extremely pleased with the team effort that went into this restoration and how that restoration - at this early stage of allowing tidal flow in - seems to be going just as planned. ... We look forward to watching this tidal marsh recover in the years ahead."
A long process
The marsh restoration project required removing 15 miles of ditches, and recreating the natural channels of both Fahy's Creek and Redd Creek (located on the eastern end of the refuge). A new channel also was dug for a third, smaller creek with no name that flows between the two larger streams.
Contractors dug about five miles of channels of various sizes throughout the former pasture land to give Mother Nature a jump start in reclaiming her territory.
The outer levees were narrowed and lowered in stages, with the final cut and tidegate removal scheduled this month to take advantage of the lowest high tides of the year. All of the earth moving done to get the project to this point was monitored by archaeologists to protect cultural resources.
Extensive ecological data was collected by project partners and volunteers in the months leading up to Thursday's tidal incursion at Fahy's Creek. Samples were taken to measure water quality, and surveys were done on existing fish, amphibian, bird and plant populations.
High voltage power lines that formerly crossed the refuge were rerouted underground and under the Coquille River. Utility poles and lines along North Bank Lane also are being placed underground. Part of the impetus for the underground electrical is to eliminate bird strikes on the overhead wires.
The North Bank Lane roadway has been raised in the area of the two larger creeks, and fish friendly culverts were installed. The entire length of North Bank from Randolph Road to U.S. Highway 101 will be widened and repaved.
Tidewater Contractors of Brookings is handling the Federal Highway Administration road improvement project, which includes building new T-junctions at Highway 101, Fahy Road and the NWR office. This section of North Bank Lane is part of the Charleston-Bandon Scenic Byway.
In addition to creating channels and obliterating ditches within the refuge itself, heavy equipment was used to level some areas and to create watershed divides/bird resting areas in a couple of spots. Some of the dirt from the outer dike was hauled to the east and west ends of the refuge to reinforce shorter levees designed to protect neighboring properties from flooding.
Knife River Construction is the primary earthmover on the project.
Randy Van Hoy, a civil engineer with Ducks Unlimited, is serving as contract manager and construction inspector. He helped design the project, including the tidal channels, the setback levees that will protect the neighbors, and the exterior levee and tidegate removals.
The waters of the Coquille River passed only a few feet below the levee's outer edge near where Van Hoy stood. Standing near the same spot on Thursday, he watched and cheered as members of the tribe's Canoe Family - several of them wearing traditional woven cedar hats - paddled into Fahy's Creek for the first time in generations.