Natural History Audio Tour

Audio Guided History & Nature Walk

Pop your headphones on and join Matt, our Conservation Program Manager, for a guided walk from our barn, past our orchard and fields, to the riparian forest along the edge of the Snoqualmie River. Uncover the hidden geological and cultural history of the landscape.


Audio Tour Transcript:


Welcome to Oxbow’s audio-guided History and Nature walk! I’m Matt Distler, the Conservation Program manager at Oxbow, and I’ll be your guide, hopefully providing you with a sense of the deeper story of human and natural history that lies behind the beautiful scenery of the Snoqualmie Valley’s fields and forests. We’ll be starting here at the Barn, where our offices for our farm, education program, conservation program, outreach and administrative staff are located. Before we head off to think about the history hidden in our landscape, let’s take a second to give you spin-in-place tour of Oxbow’s nerve center here around the barn.

Program Areas & Spaces

If you are looking at the front of the barn from the visitor’s parking (& facing out toward the big powerlines beyond the barn), the pack shed is on the left side of the large gray barn building under the covered area. This is where our organic veggies are gathered and washed, stored in the cool room if necessary, and packed up for sale or donation. That’s the beating heart of the farm operation here. Now swivel your head a quarter turn to the left- 9:00 from where you were looking – and see the covered hoop house labeled “Kids’ clubhouse”, and the gardens and covered areas beyond. That’s the heart of our education program (fondly known as “OxEd” here). It’s where (on a normal year!) the education team and thousands of youngsters from 4 years old to high-school gather for creative play and learning about farming and the environment. The 1.1 acre kids’ farm is an amazing spot for kids to pull up their first carrot, and the sloughs and thickets right around this kids’ area are the perfect place for fairy houses to be built. Plus, there’s a bubble-blowing climbing tractor.

Finally, at maybe 8:00, just visible between the Kids’ clubhouse (to the right) and our new hoop house (to the left) – you can see the double peaks of our native plant greenhouse and nursery. This is where our native plant nursery crew works to produce thousands of native plants from 160+ different native species for wholesale to restorationists and native landscape projects. They are also striving to work out propagation protocols – procedures to successfully grow native plants of all kinds from seed and teach people about the uses and importance of native Pacific Northwest plants.

So that’s the nerve-center of our non-profit, and the start of our tour. From here we are going to stroll out into the fields and orchards and begin to sift through the layers of history and ecology that make this landscape such a special one.

Directions & Orientation

This guided walk starts by crossing the gravel barn parking lot and walking through the little orchard along the side of the entrance road you came in by. It might be helpful to get oriented to directions at this point, too, so we can refer to them along the way. From the visitors’ spots toward the barn is north. The path between the kids’ farm and living playground heads west from the parking spots. Heading through the orchard along the entry road is going NE. Let’s go NE and I’ll begin to give you a little geological context for this land.

As you hear a little about the deep history of this land, you’ll walk along (but off) the side of the gravel road, passing through our orchard and then passing some small fields on your left until you approach a patch of forest just ahead and to your left. As you approach the trees, you’ll see a tiny area of sloping lawn on your right across the road, overlooking the lake. Turn right and cross the gravel road (carefully! There is some farm traffic) to this grassy area.

Geological Context

So, while you start walking, let’s talk geology.

Sometimes we all want to return to an earlier, simpler, time, don’t we? Ok, as we’re walking, imagine for a moment that you are taking this tour 40 million years ago – during the Eocene epoch.  The climate is warm and humid, the continents are just settling into the positions we’re familiar with today, and the land-going ancestors of today’s whales are beginning to return to the sea. So, how should we dress if we were taking this walk then (56 to 37 million years ago)? The answer is: scuba gear! The area where you’re standing now was the edge of a shallow sea. You might have been able to see the shoreline of the continent as we can see the foothills of the Cascades from where you are now. The gently-sloping coastal plain you could have seen across the waves was likely dotted by vast peat swamps, whose peat deposits, once buried and metamorphosed, would slowly form the western Washington coal deposits that made coal boomtowns with evocative names like Newcastle and Black Diamond famous coal centers in the early 20th century.

However, as we stand here in the Eocene, things are also changing that will create new land on the edge of our growing continent. Through plate tectonics, the giant bedrock slab which lies under the eastern pacific – called the Juan de Fuca crustal plate — was at that time (and still is) sliding (subducting) under the crustal plate of the north American continent, something like the way a thin cutting board might be slid under a table runner on a table if you pushed them together. As the Juan de Fuca plate dove beneath the North American Plate, island chains sitting atop the Juan de Fuca plate (imagine food scraps on our cutting board) were scraped off, one by one, and joined to the growing west coast of the North American continent (Alt and Hyndman 1995, Dragovitch et al 2011). In fact, geological evidence indicates that these “scraps” or “exotic terranes” as they’re known to geologists, formed all the land west of the modern Washington-Idaho border, docking in about 50 episodes from 100 million to 5 million years ago. If we go back to our imaginary cutting board and table runner, you can imagine that sliding the cutting board under could rumple up the edge of the runner, and in fact some of the more violent collisions/subductions periods caused the North American plate to rumple up into ranges of mountains, known today as the Cascades and Olympic mountains, each of which reached their maximum height about 2-5 million years ago . With these events came episodes of vulcanism as well. As parts of the subducting plate became molten and rose through the crust, they birthed a series of volcanos along the ancient coast. If it’s a nice day- you can look out to the south (across the fields and up the valley) and see rugged faces of Mt. Si and its neighbors. These mountains are the remains of these ancient volcanoes that started in the shallow off-shore areas and then were subsequently “rumpled up” by those tectonic forces we just discussed.

The modern Cascades volcanoes– Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Adams – are the product of a later episode of vulcanism. Ok, meet you at the side of the lake!


If you’ve crossed the gravel entrance road to the little sloping lawn looking down onto the water, you’re looking out at Oxbow’s eponymous oxbow lake! Ecologically, the lake and surrounding wetlands are the nexus of the property, with the aquatic ecosystem and myriad wetland plants supporting fish, waterfowl, frogs and salamanders, muskrat, mink, otter, and beaver and the riparian forests supporting a rich range of forest understory plants, mammals such as coyotes, and dozens of species of songbirds.

An oxbow is a particular kind of lake that forms from when a river erodes a shortcut between a more upstream bend and a more downstream bend. When this happens, the river abandons the intervening river bend and leaves a low, wet lake in the old, abandoned stretch of river bed. While you listen, you might take a look at the sign to your left that illustrates this development of an oxbow.  Our oxbow lake is an especially young one. When surveyors came through to plat the land in the 1870’s, they mapped the river course through this oxbow, and you can see from the 1936 aerial photo that it was just beginning to abandon this channel in the 30’s.

The Snoqualmie River is in so many ways the center of this landscape. The river waters the land and once supported great swamps and forests, seasonal flooding built the amazing fertility of the lowlands that now support farms and ranches, the river facilitated travel and early settlement, and is home to a wealth of aquatic life, supporting the food chain of the surrounding landscape and the salmon that are so central to the life ways of native peoples and to the identity of many Northwesterners. Like many of our Puget sound area rivers, its path is partly defined by the deep geological history we discussed at our first stop: it flows north-south in the folds created by the rumpling up of the cascade foothills millions of years ago. The shape of the valley, the sediments and soils it runs through, and the quirky hills and dales around it were all shaped by the interplay of the river and another, more recent geological force, however: glaciers.


From about 2 million years ago until 10,000 years ago, the earth experienced a long series of cold glacial periods (known as ice ages), each lasting 40-70,000 years. Ice sheets formed and spread south across the northern part of our continent. During the last episode of glaciation (from about 14,500 years ago and 13,600 years ago) the land you’re standing on was ploughed over by a giant sheet of ice hundreds of feet thick.

Tongues of ice pushed their way up the Snoqualmie River valley and adjacent Sammamish and Puget basins, bulldozing up mountains of crumbling rocks and debris and dammed up entire river valleys for hundreds of years. The tongue of ice that came up the Snoqualmie Valley ground to a halt just above the modern town of North Bend. With the valleys north of that dammed by ice, a series of massive pro-glacial (glacier-edge) lakes, fed by the continued flow of mountain streams and tributaries, filled the upper valleys. As the waters rose up the valley walls, they overflowed and began to carve connecting channels to adjacent, parallel valleys, so that water from the Snoqualmie valley cascaded over to the Sammamish basin and from there across to the Cedar/Lake Washington  basin, draining west from valley to valley along the edge of the glacial terminus and eventually out to the ocean via the Chehalis River valley. The channels carved by these glacial waters remain in our landscape, echoes of this cataclysmic but temporary reorganization of the regions rivers – kind of a geological secret code: If you drive on the Preston-Fall City Road along the Raging River or along Hwy 202 and Patterson Creek or up I-90 between Issaquah and Preston, you are following the channels carved by these waters as they sought new routes to the sea around the blocking ice.

As the glacier began to recede again, glacial meltwaters and glacier-marginal rivers deposited deep, sorted strata of sand and gravel, forming hills and hillslope formations called kames, like the gravelly hillside you can see across the highway now. These valley wall deposits now provide the materials that support gravel mining operations such as Cadman industries’ High Rock mine near Monroe, which sits upon the High Rock kame complex (Dragovitch et al. 2011).

Human Influence

You’re looking out at Oxbow’s so-called “front field” now, where we often grown pumpkin and other veggies, with the sounds of traffic in the background from Highway 203 reminding us of people going about their business up and down the valley. It’s a good place to consider that geological forces aren’t the only ones that have shaped our landscape over the years. Humans have been a part of the story of this landscape as far back as we know. Oxbow acknowledges that we are on the Indigenous Land of Coast Salish peoples who have reserved treaty rights to this land, specifically the Snoqualmie Indian Tribe). We thank these caretakers of this land who have lived, and continue to live, here since time immemorial. 

Coast Salish peoples through the ages knew intimately the many plants and animals in the region and used them to produce all of their food, shelter, and their material culture in a system of seasonal gathering and preserving across the Puget Sound landscape. Using deep knowledge and technical expertise developed over thousands of years, they shaped and maintained the plant communities they depended on– especially the prairie areas that were burned regularly in order to provide a sustainable source of important staple foods like camas and bracken. When European settlers began to enter the area, they made different and more drastic changes to the landscape, changing the relationship that Coast Salish people were able to have with the land, as they were moved to reservations after signing treaties. In the wake of the Point Elliott treaty and following battles between tribes and white settlers, retired soldiers accelerated their settlement of the valley. Early farmers such as Jeremiah Borst transformed a vast prairie in North Bend that had been maintained and cultivated by the Snoqualmie People to European-style agriculture, and other settlers followed, farming and logging the valleys lowlands and forests. In the half century between the 1870s and 1930s, about 75% of the valley’s forest was logged and most of the land converted to agricultural use. By 2000, only 16% of the 1870s forest cover and 19% of the historical valley wetland area remained (Collins and Sheikh 2002).

Modern History

Land survey notes from 1873 indicate that a G. Boyer had already begun farming the field before you and had a logging camp in the hills to your left. Logging operations in the valley were likely accelerated in the 1880s, as they were in the rest of the Pacific Northwest forestland after loggers began to replace bull teams with the Dolbeer Donkey, a steam-powered winch invented in 1881 (White 1992).

When the agricultural potential of the valley became widely known, a number of railroad companies became interested in laying track. In 1909, Great Northern Railroad laid tracks up the valley to the town of Cherry Valley. The town itself was in the way of the planned tracks, and Great Northern paid to have the town’s buildings moved laboriously uphill to the current site of the town of Duvall. A few of those buildings, including the Grange Restaurant still stand there today.

By 1916, The Milwaukee Railway had begun passenger service up the valley on what is the Snoqualmie Trail you can see to your left – with stops in Monroe, Duvall, Stillwater, Tolt (Carnation), Fall City, Snoqualmie and North Bend, before returning to Seattle via Cedar Falls. Almost immediately, the ascendency of the automobile began undercutting the railway, although the Milwaukee Railroad continued passenger service until the 1960s.

Starting in Monroe in 1912, the roads connecting the towns of the valley began to be paved. By 1937 they were combined to form Secondary Highway 15B, renamed Highway 203 in 1964.

Turn back from the old railroad grade and highway to the fields and the line of tall alder trees to your south. Let’s head to a last stop by those trees where we’ll talk about less-appreciated impacts of agriculture and white settlement in the valley – the ways we’ve influenced the plants and animals that inhabit the patchwork of fields and forests, farms and towns. See you at the alders!

Plant Life & Invasives

European Americans brought more than just railroad tracks and new methods of agriculture to the region. With all this burgeoning industry, agriculture and travel, Europeans also brought many plants and animals with them from the Old World. Take a moment to look around you at the fields. Most of the crops we grow are not native to this region, but most of these plants don’t spread aggressively into our natural areas, and we are grateful for their presence here and on our plates at dinnertime. Nearly all the plants in the grassy meadows or cultivated fields around you now, like timothy grass, English fescue, or English plantain are European weeds or forage plants of agricultural and waste areas. These plants are well adapted to the disturbances of Euro-american agriculture, and have come to dominate such urban and agricultural places across the continent. Some of the plants Europeans brought spread even more aggressively and have invaded ecologically important parts of our ecosystems, changing their character and processes.

Here’s a trivia question that touches on both the crop plants we have brought from elsewhere to feed us and the weedy invaders that we wish we had left where they were. What do the potatoes we grow for French fries and our ubiquitous and painful Pacific Northwest Brambles have in common? The answer- a man named Luther Burbank. In the last decades of the 19th century, he was famous as a prolific plant breeder, philanthropist, and entrepreneur. One of his great professional goals was to bring affordable fresh fruits and vegetables to the urbanizing American populace. He bred over 800 plant varieties, including ornamental plants like the beloved Shasta Daisy and the ever-popular russet Burbank potato – a variety which we don’t tend to grow here at Oxbow, but from which are made nearly all of the millions of French fries eaten by Americans every year.

Burbank was also working on breeding various berry varieties that would do well in the Pacific Northwest in hopes of improving the nutrition of residents of the region. In 1894 he introduced a robust variety of blackberry he discovered in Armenia, dubbed the “Himalayan Giant” for dramatic effect. The species indeed produced delicious berries, still prized by denizens of the Pacific Northwest, but also spread aggressively throughout the region by the 1940’s. Today this prickly and roving plant is a fixture of the landscape, altering the movements of animals and humans across the landscape, suppressing the growth of new forests, and changing in many other ways the ecological functioning of our lands (Dornfield, 2016). You can see Himalayan blackberry dotting our fields and edges if you look. Our conservation team, and ecological restoration practitioners around the region spend countless hours every year trying to win back land from this plant to restore better habitat for land animals and for fish.

English holly is another infiltrator, beloved and hated by various factions in the region. In 1874 English Holly was introduced into Oregon, becoming an important crop for seasonal decoration and yard plantings (Watts, 2012). Over time, seeds were dispersed by birds and this species became established in the understory of forests across the region. Recent studies have shown it to be an aggressive and resilient plant that can outcompete native vegetation and found that it is coming to dominate the seedbanks of urban forests in particular. Once well established, this tree in incredibly hard to remove, so it’s beginning to look like we won’t be able to protect our forests and open spaces unless we work together to locate and remove these sprouts in our natural areas and to control its spread.

Animal Life

European Americans haven’t only influenced plant life in the valley, we’ve also introduced animals. Roosevelt Elk, native to western Washington, were historically hunted by the Coast Salish, but in the years following European settlement, extensive hunting reduced and then eliminated these native elk from the area. In 1914, a group of hunters brought a herd of elk from Yellowstone to improve hunting in the Snoqualmie Valley, and these animals grazed and bred in the meadows and floodplain areas around the towns of Snoqualmie and North Bend. Some portion of the herd moved downstream, and these elk can be seen by the dozen in and around Meadowbrook and Carnation Farms today.

Salmon Decline, Restoration, and Recovery

Look through the alder trees, and you may see light coming through from the expansive width of the Snoqualmie river on the other side. The banks are steep and dangerous, so we don’t recommend walking through. The river, like the forests and prairies, has been radically altered over the decades, by bank stabilization, dredging, hydropower development upstream, and removal of streamside forests. These changes removed places that young salmon could rest, feed, and hide from predators, removed shading trees that cooled the waters, and smothered spawning gravels, as well as removing forested habitats for birds, mammals, and amphibians that rely on stream-side forests. Today, Northwesterners know that the plight our endangered Pacific Salmon runs stems in part from these changes to their streams and rivers, and our dwindling Southern resident orca populations, which rely largely on Chinook salmon, are a stark reminder of this loss.

However, Indian tribes, government agencies, non-profits like Oxbow, and concerned citizens have all been working together to bring salmon back, through conscientious land use and ecological restoration. Starting the 1970’s, major federal laws such as the clean water act, clean air act, and endangered species act, began to reflect the growing concern about the degradation of the environment. Indian tribes like the Snoqualmie and Muckleshoot began to demand that we take better care of this resource. In 1991 the 1st salmonid species on the west coast was listed as Federally endangered, quickly followed by several more runs, and the state of Washington created regional Fisheries Enhancement Groups to help citizens get involved in rebuilding fisheries. In 1999 the first Washington salmon runs were listed. The salmon recovery funding board created in 1999 to provide grant money for salmon recovery projects in Washington, and in the last 20 years over $1 billion has been spent on salmon recovery. From 2005 to 2017 in the Puget Sound’s watersheds, 5,400 acres of riparian land have been restored, 703 fish passage barriers removed, and 893 miles of stream re-opened to salmon. The forest in front of you, planted in 2004-2005 by Stewardship Partners and expanded and maintained in collaboration with Oxbow’s conservation team, is part of this effort to create a landscape that supports farms and towns while conserving the biological legacy of our land, including salmon.


We can only succeed in this work as a community working together, so please explore our website and learn more about the ways you can get involved with restoration, sustainable food systems, and environmental education!

This concludes our audio tour. Enjoy your ramble back to the start, remembering to cross the roads carefully and to appreciate the layers of history you move through on your way!