The air cuts through the branches of the tree starting a gentle rustling. I watch the mistletoe twist in the breeze above me. The oak leaves quiver. Despite the wind, the hill is hypnotically still. The farmland below seems to turn into a pastoral painting, but you can hear the occasional barnyard goose honking from the pastures. In the late summer evening the sun lights up the tall dry grass on top of the hill like candle wicks. Everything glows and shivers in the light.
Bald Hill Natural Area is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the Corvallis hills. On the horizon, it seems to sit just to the right of Mary’s Peak, but it is only an easy bike ride, or a short drive, north of the Oregon State University campus.
The first time I hiked Bald Hill I was new to the area. I had just moved to Corvallis for graduate school and I heard that there was a multi-use path that led to a covered bridge. Following the trail past the OSU animal science pastures and solar panels, I biked towards the bridge and further on to the sunburnt rolling hills, and found myself in what was soon to be my favorite retreat from busy campus life.
Bald Hill is east of Corvallis, next to the Benton County Fairgrounds. It is a 284.37-acre reserve that was purchased by the Greenbelt Land Trust in 1993. In 2013 the Land Trust bought the neighboring Bald Hill Farm, establishing a trail connection between Bald Hill and Fitton Green by way of Mulkey Ridge. The Bald Hill Natural Area was the first property purchased by the Greenbelt Land Trust, a local land conservation nonprofit that is focused on protecting ecologically, agriculturally, and historically significant areas in the mid-Willamette Valley. Bald Hill is just part of this 1,200-acre footprint of protected lands.
The Natural Area offers five miles of hiking trails that weave through the hills and climb to the top of the humble peak. There are maps on view at the small parking lot, along with information about the variety of animals in the area, including cougars.
As I arrived at Bald Hill for the first time, I had my first serious thought about these large carnivores: there was a sign at the base of the hill reporting a cougar sighting in the last few months. Although I was raised in the Willamette Valley, in view of Mount Hood and Jefferson—on a clear day, I had never thought about cougars before moving to Corvallis. For me, cougars lived in California, in the hills above Hollywood, and they went by their stage name: mountain lions. Initially, this posting only added to the magic of the Bald Hill Natural Area, it seemed to have everything, even rare and dangerous predators.
Moving away from the sign, I hiked up the steepest, most exposed trail in sight, one I’ve lovingly nicknamed Misery Trail, for the difficulty of the climb. The misery is easily countered by the views of the Cascades that the hike offers, views that only get lovelier when you reach the top.
As I turned from the view below, the hawk above me thrust its talons towards my head. It was a red-tailed hawk, a common species in Oregon, and it was nearly five feet from my face. Its talons were massive and its wings were spread as it hovered above me as if I was a mouse in a field. The wind fluttered through the thick feathers on its legs leading down to the scales on its yellow feet, its wings flapped, I screamed. Fortunately, I’m not a mouse, and it moved on from the noise I made.
Surrounded by the pastoral beauty of the nature reserve, it is sometimes easy to forget about the other animals we share the area with, but the hawk and cougar sightings are a clear reminder.
As the sun lowered on that day in late summer, I climbed into a small oak tree to watch it set behind the coast range. The valley was still, besides for the breeze in the branches of the tree, the scene seemed to fade back into the brushstrokes of a painting. As the light lowered the barnyard geese began honking, like a final bell tolling on the pastures below.
There is a variety of easy to rigorous dirt and gravel trails throughout the Bald Hill Natural area, thankfully there are other options besides Misery, and each one offers views of different natural wonders. This variety is not surprising since the ecosystems of the area move through upland prairie, oak savanna, and wetland habitats. There are brilliant green tunnels of hazel, maple, and snowberries to walk through and native plants such as the wooly sunflower, Nelson’s Checkermallow, and the Willamette daisy to admire. In addition to the hawks and the occasional cougar, western grey squirrels and bluebirds, acorn woodpeckers, and white-breasted nuthatches also call the area home. Camas, hawthorn, columbine, Nootka rose, and Tolmies mariposa bloom in spring, along with the Queen Anne’s Lace in the upper fields.
The views from the top aren’t entirely pastoral, before your eyes stretch to see the snowy peaks of the distant Cascades they meet the skyline of Corvallis, which is only a mile or so from the base of Bald Hill. The small city appears to be a concentrated cluster of homes and businesses, and if you look in the right direction, you’ll see Reser Stadium. The relatively urban center of Corvallis is surrounded by the rural farmland of the Valley, and this shift happens quickly, for people, and animals.
After that first trip to Bald Hill, I went back as frequently as the busy school term would allow, one of those times was in the early spring. The grass at the peak was not yet sunburnt, and the Queen Anne’s Lace was still in the beginning stages of budding. I sat in the solitary field and watched the wind shift through the sparse trees. Queen Anne’s Lace is also known as wild carrot. As I sat in the grass I pulled up a flower, mimicking what I thought a farmer may be doing in a garden below, and examined the roots: small and twisted, smelling like earth and the faint sweetness of a root vegetable.
There were three birds overhead, they spun above me in an ominous circle—vultures. As I sat in the grass the vultures came low enough that I could see the shape of their feet, the feathers ruffling on their necks, their vibrant red faces against dark beaks. Like the wild carrot I held in my hand, I appeared to be almost edible. I stood up and paced around the tall grass, trying to exclaim in my motion that I was not carrion. As I moved they continued to lower their flight until finally I gave up my spot in the grass and headed back down the hill.
The vultures were beautiful in their own way, how they moved with the wind, gliding on the thermals, the synchronicity of the group, communicating in a way that was mesmerizing and foreign to me. But they were also terrifying. Their naked blood-red heads and curling horn colored beaks filled me with dread. I wanted nothing to do with them and they were already too close.
The quick shift between the urban center of Corvallis and the surrounding rural farmland and nature reserves only increases the beauty of the area, but it also enhances the complexity of how humans and other animals share the land. This is a complexity that I felt personally when encountering the vultures and the hawk before them, they overwhelmed me with awe and fear. The human perception of nature constantly shifting between these two extremes, we both revere and revile what we consider to be the natural world and all the wild animals that live within it. This can be seen in early art movements such as the Pastoral, in which nature is neatly manicured and controlled, and the Sublime where it is wild, vivid, and yet to be conquered. We want both, but we want them on our terms.
As we spread out on the land, as Corvallis and other urban centers grow, we have less control of the natural world around us, the animals we once admired from a distance now creep into our developments, or live too close for comfort—like on a nearby humble peak. With less control for us also comes fewer options for the animals, their territories become squeezed, and cougars move further into neighborhoods, not because they hope to meet us, but because those places were once their homes too.
Early this November I rode my bicycle back to Bald Hill to walk around the multi-use trail that surrounds its base. There was a color run beginning on the path, crowds of runners were gathering at the fairgrounds, all dressed in neon. Dustings of bright chalk marked the pavement surrounding the hill. Further on, a graduate student was conducting a Leave No Trace survey, asking about the appearance of the trails and whether or not they were clean and clear of signs of humanity. The cougar postings had been taken down.
Just because the signs are gone doesn’t mean the animals are too. Cougars were abundant in Oregon until the 1800s, when they started being hunted. By the early 1960s, there were only 200 animals left in Oregon. Luckily, since then cougars have become a protected species, and populations have grown and are once again healthy. There are currently about 6,400 cougars in Oregon. Due to this massive growth, habitat loss, and less available territory, the animals are being pushed into more populated areas.
Cougar sightings have been on the rise in Corvallis since at least 2003 when a homeowner saw a cougar cross their driveway one dewy spring morning. Another famous cougar sighting in the area is Wilson, of Wilson Elementary, a cat that had been seen multiple times in 2010 on the paved bike path near the school in south Corvallis. Just this past October there have been multiple sightings in rural residential areas of northwest Corvallis, including a hunter who saw a mother and two cubs in a powerline corridor in the hills above the city. The hunter claimed that the mother cougar crouched and growled at him, most likely in an attempt to protect her cubs, leading him to shoot and kill her.
Oregon law allows homeowners to kill a cougar if the animal attacks their livestock, threatens human safety, or displays “a general loss of wariness to humans.” According to the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the agency examines cougars killed by homeowners or trapped in Polk, Benton, or Linn counties nearly every week.
It was a beautiful autumn day. The sky was a clear bright blue. The sun hung at the low golden angle of fall, cutting through the oak trees on the side of the hill. There was a chill in the air and the sweet smell of damp hay lingered on the breeze from the nearby pastures. Occasionally, as I walked around the base of Bald Hill, I would hear the cheers from the color run ending at the fairgrounds, or be captivated by the sight and sounds of a giant gathering of Canadian geese flying overhead, but for the most part, the hill was quiet and peaceful. As I walked past Misery Trail I caught sight of something in the grass along the side of the hill. It was far enough away that I couldn’t make out its shape, it appeared to be round—or crouching—and it was in shadow. I stared at it until it seemed to move, until it seemed to be more than a rock, or a stump, more like a large animal. The fear twisted in the pit of my stomach as my eyes played tricks on me. It grew with each passing second, until I couldn’t separate the fear from the reality—it was a rock, it had to be.
Even though the likeliness of encountering a cougar on Bald Hill is incredibly slim, this doesn’t stop our fear of these predators. The chances of seeing a cougar is even smaller because they fear us too. A study conducted in the mountains of Santa Cruz, California in 2017 found that cougars fear people so much that just a recording of our voices caused unanimous fleeing behavior in all studied animals, halving their feeding times in suburban areas, and causing cascading effects throughout the ecosystem.
As I stood in silence, staring at Bald Hill, watching for the shape in the shadows to move, the rest of the hill came alive. Songbirds began singing, chickadees and bushtits darted around in front of me. When I finally walked on, I saw a hawk hunting in the fields next to the hill, it rose and fell with the wind with effortless and tireless grace, looking for its next meal. A rabbit stood in the underbrush off the path, its small dusty-brown ears erect and twitching, waiting for me to move on. I could hear the field mice running through their tunnels under the brambles of the bushes, a gentle busy rustling permeated the otherwise still hill, and a cricket began to chirp with the intention of the birds in the trees. My fear was submerged in wonder.
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