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ALBANY — It’s chilly and gray outside, and both factors encourage a state of lazy hibernation with a cup of tea and a good book. While the snow-capped mountains present a siren’s call to skiers and snowboarders, fair-weather hikers such as myself tend to view them as cold and unwelcoming. If and when I venture outside, I’m looking for a short hike, preferably one that’s close to home.

For those who live in southwest Albany, it doesn’t get much closer to home than the Oak Creek Greenbelt Trail. This two-and-a-half-mile trail (ignore the sign that claims 1.8) forms a horseshoe around the 53rd Avenue subdivision through fields, light woods, and alongside the Calapooia River. It also includes an a segment south of 53rd Avenue to Teloh Calapooia Park.

Widening the loop to include  a stretch from the park south on Looney Lane and then the perimeter of  Linn-Benton Community College  extends the distance to nearly five miles, a hike that I recently completed with my fiancé, Ben Farlow.

Mud was not a major problem —although that would certainly change after a week of more typical winter weather. We were lucky to encounter warm temperatures in the 50s and partly cloudy skies that gifted us with a few moments of genuine sunlight.

Beginning at the Oak Creek Trailhead just to the east of the subdivision, the trail descends from the road down into a hollow edged with blackberry bushes. This theme of blackberries, which continued for much of this portion, presents a strong case for returning to this area during the late summer season.

Although it’s a world apart from the old-growth forests that persist in other areas of the state, the lightly wooded landscape has its own peace to offer. Lichens and mosses adorn bark and branches, and ruby-crowned kinglets flit through the undergrowth.

Further on, the Calapooia River meets up with the trail and the two amble along together. Although the tracks on the riverbank that I initially mistake for otter footprints turn out to belong to someone else, dusk most likely brings a veritable parade of water-loving mammals down the river. At a

later hour, you might find beaver, nutria, muskrats, and maybe even the elusive river otter. Certainly opossums, raccoons, and squirrels make their homes here.

Use caution on the rickety, somewhat slanted bridge that traverses a small stream about half a mile into the Greenbelt. Farther along, the trail skirts homes and an open meadow bordering the woods. Despite the proximity to civilization, the trail remains relatively litter-free. Few people seem to use — or at least abuse — this suburban retreat in the winter. A local naturalist estimates you could find 25 species of birds in the area over the course of an hour, thanks to the area’s wide range of habitats: forest, fields, creeks, sloughs, ponds, and residential neighborhoods. Today, the western scrub jays almost outnumber the dog walkers and the joggers, and although it would make a nice bike ride, not a biker is to be seen.

After crossing 53rd Avenue, the trail threatens to become a floodplain in wet weather, but today we make our way south to Teloh Calapooia Park with minimal mud. This area of wetlands, currently undergoing restoration, should be a good place to hear Pacific tree frogs perform their chorus on warm winter evenings. The trail winds past sports fields and a playground in the park, then we take to the sidewalk for the walk down Looney Lane past several impassive sheep to LBCC.

Elevated and topped with a layer of bark mulch, the trail through the well-maintained campus grounds seems more mud-resistant than the Greenbelt section, although persistent rain can flood this area as well. Alongside the trail sprout a veritable cornucopia of fungi, while a row of pine trees to our left has obligingly dropped a bed of needles to soften our steps. The sun breaks out for a moment and the view widens to encompass several snow-capped peaks to the east, including Mount Jefferson. Moments later we’re reminded that we’re still in the city as our path takes us through the LBCC parking lot before returning us to that pleasant mulched path. Retracing our steps up the lane, through the park, and back to our car, Ben and I are surprised to realize that we’ve walked nearly five miles — not bad for a lazy winter day.

Jen Matteis of Corvallis is a free-lance writer. She can be reached at jen.matteis@yahoo.com

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