By Kirby Neumann-Rea • Of the News-Register • 

Back, and forth: Unique forest park offers mix of familiar and fresh

Kirby Neumann-Rea/News-Register##Sam Gendusa’s mushroom house is the whimsical centerpiece of Galen McBee Airport Park.
Kirby Neumann-Rea/News-Register##Sam Gendusa’s mushroom house is the whimsical centerpiece of Galen McBee Airport Park.

Adjusting to a new place can be all the more interesting when you encounter something that feels familiar. And I’ve seen plenty of places like Galen McBee Airport Park.

Visiting Sunday for the first time, I experienced a revelation, a reminder that I have much yet to explore around here. Because it seems I’ve never seen any place quite like Galen McBee Airport Park after all.

The park is like many forest trails tucked into urban areas, yet unique: It is a decidedly distinct patch of forest surrounded by farmland and airport.

Most forest parks don’t come with a trailside gallery of concrete sculptures by the late Sam Gendusa. But this one does.

Well-placed whimsy coupled with immersion in nature are the pleasures of this verdant forest space, dedicated in 1977. It was designed by its namesake, who served as the city’s parks manager from 1968 to 1997.

The park lies next to the McMinnville Armory, off Highway 18. It features a small parking lot, a portable toilet and a detailed sign at the trailhead.

The main trail was designated as a one-way loop, though not everyone chooses to walk it that way. A half-mile option is also available.

The park was designed as a place to savor nature while also getting a close view of planes landing and taking off — fitting, as McBee also served as airport director for years.

I’ve seen airports with a café or other amenities of that nature, even an aviation museum nearby. But I’ve never seen one with a nature trail running alongside taxiways.

McMinnville has it all. A McBee Park hike and a visit to the Evergreen Aviation & Space Museum would be a prime way to fill out a day — along with a visit to The Diner café, just a short drive west.

The park is longer than it is wide, so you are never far from its open-space edges. Yet much of the time, you get the sense of being enveloped in a larger wooded area.

Airplane noises were sporadic the day we visited.

Periods of stillness prevailed, enough to allow us to listen for a full minute or two and hear the GRIK-aree, GRIK-aree sound of a frog. In that moment, we might as well have been deep in the Coast Range.

McBee Park, like most in McMinnville and rest of the county, was heavily affected by the February ice storm. The damage required closure of the park for several months for safety reasons.

Walking through now, it’s clear how much work had to be done this year — and no doubt in past years — to keep the trail open. There appear to be as many fallen trees, including a number of maples, as there are standing. Numerous moss-covered trees lie flattened, either fully downed by wind or cut aside to clear the trail.

Many have been levered and arched at semi-horizontal angles by wind and weight, yet almost look as if, in time, they could spring back skyward.

The park has a resilient quality. Despite the blowdown, the bower remains. And with all the shade, it would be a great place to spend a few hours on a hot summer day.

With recent rains, the trail shows a few muddy spots. But for the most part, its walking surfaces seem clean and stable.

Newly sprouted ferns and trees retaining golden leaves add color and texture to the trail, which is remarkably litter-free.

With the trail’s many twists and turns — gracing both the mile and half-mile versions — nature reveals itself in different ways. Ravine slopes and secluded patches have an elfin-haven feel.

Quoting from the trailhead sign, the park remains “the enchanted mystical woods lost in time, as envisioned by Galen McBee and Sam Gendusa.”

In the areas close to the parking lot, around a dozen picnic tables with benches have been spread around, some nicely arranged for group picnics, others perched along the property line for airplane viewing.

Equally intriguing is the sheer number of concrete benches placed along the trail. It seems every few yards there is a spot to sit down, though a coating of moss will give you a wet posterior.

These benches would require either two people or an ATV to place along the trail. It’s hardly a gargantuan task, but impressive nonetheless.

I lost count at 20 or so, an extraordinary number of places to rest, considering the length of the trail.

Online comments about the park and trail make for interesting reading.

One online site indicated the park was not dog friendly. But dogs are allowed as long as they are on leash, and the doggie debris bag station was well-stocked.

Some commenters consider the park’s iconic mushroom house creepy, but most call it charming and whimsical.

It had seen its share of graffiti and litter before volunteers organized by the Rotary Club pitched in on a major upgrade in 2018. Now, the 10-foot-wide interior features only a small amount of graffiti.

Someone has placed a few sticks of wood there, fireplace style, along with a wooden chair. That gives it an odd, lived-in touch.

The sculpture does inspire a sense of wonder.

The words of volunteer Mark Pauletto, quoted in a 2018 News-Register story on the work party, perfectly express what it is this park provides.

“You just come out in the woods, close out all the stress and it just feels so good,” he said. “You get so much coolness and oxygen because the trees are producing oxygen like crazy.”

Impressive as it is, the mushroom house is not the only Sam Gendusa art decorating the trail. It also features five concrete sculpture fountains, embedded with stones and oyster shells that mostly repel the persistent moss.

With curves and spirals, they were meant to serve as fountains. However, the pipes and faucets have been disused for what looks like decades.

The Visit McMinnville website entry describes the park well, up to a point. It correctly notes the park features trillium beds in the spring, a flowing creek year-round, forested mile and half-mile soft-trail loops with bridge crossings and “several micro environments that are worth exploring.”

It goes on to say, “Picnic tables, drinking fountains and a ‘mushroom house’ add flavor to this park.” The implication is that the fountains provide water, but they do not. There is no drinking water available at the park.

About 15 years ago, the fountains were decommissioned and the plumbing taken out of use. They must have been something to see operating.

Doubtless, the cost of providing water, as well as attending to the fountain mechanics, proved more than the city could bear. But they retain the charm of anything crafted by hand and left to merge with nature.

Contact Kirby Neumann-Rea at kirby@newsregister.com or 503-687-1291.

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