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The year 2016 dawned clear and bright but a little bit nippy in the mid-valley, with overnight lows in the mid-20s, but the chill didn’t deter a few hearty souls from starting the new year off with a brisk walk in the woods.

About 30 people and a handful of dogs turned out at Luckiamute Landing State Natural Area at 10 a.m. on Friday for a guided hike.

The 926-acre nature preserve, located about 10 miles northwest of Albany at the confluence of the Luckiamute and Willamette rivers, was one of 28 locations taking part this year in the fifth annual First Day Hikes program sponsored by the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. The short, easy walks are led by rangers or knowledgeable volunteers, and the usual $5 parking fees are waived for the day.

Eric Sherman and Dave Hood of Dallas arrived early. The two friends exercise together about three times a week and were eager to explore Luckiamute Landing after reading about the First Day Hikes program in the newspaper.

“We thought, ‘What a great way to get a little exercise,’” said Sherman, adding that “it makes our cardiologist happy.”

The hike got off to a late start after trip leader Steve DeGoey, a ranger with the state Parks Department, was bitten on the leg by an overexcited dog. But after cleaning the wound, citing the animal’s owner and making sure the still-barking pooch was safely locked in her car, DeGoey brushed off the incident and picked up where he left off.

“Sorry about the delay,” he told the group. “I hope that’s the worst thing that happens to me in 2016!”

The walk began under a line of mature Oregon white oaks, bereft of leaves but decked out with big clumps of mistletoe and long streamers of mossy gray-green lichen, with gravel crunching under grown-up boots and frozen puddles cracking under the impact of stomping children. From there the path dropped down off a small hill and into the floodplain, where a restoration effort is underway to reclaim former agricultural land.

Over the last several years, state parks personnel have teamed up with volunteers from the Luckiamute Watershed Council to clear more than 200 acres of blackberry brambles, reed canary grass and other invasives while planting more than 300,000 native trees and shrubs and encouraging the growth of native grasses.

The project suffered a setback last year, when the hot, dry summer killed off some of the newer plantings. To illustrate the problem, DeGoey called a halt in a partially restored prairie, where a clear line separated clumps of knee-high grass from a field of short green stubble.

“This is our nice, healthy prairie over here,” he said, “and this part failed.”

Another challenge facing Luckiamute Landing is damage caused by waterfowl hunters, who sometimes break or cut off tree branches when setting up shooting blinds.

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“I’ll be blunt: They’re our poorest user group,” DeGoey said. “I try to educate them, but it doesn’t always work.”

The natural area also has success stories to share, however. Luckiamute Landing boasts a pair of ponds – excavated during World War II by the Army, which needed gravel for use in building Camp Adair – that now serve as homes for a variety of animals, including a type of turtle considered a sensitive species by state wildlife officials.

“It turned out to be really good habitat for Western pond turtles,” DeGoey explained during a stop at West Pond, where he pointed out a turtle nest in the semi-frozen soil at the top of the bank. “There’s even a natural spring that keeps it full all summer.”

That kind of information was fascinating for Kevin Kenaga and Faye Yoshihara, a pair of Portland transplants who bought a place in the Soap Creek Valley last spring.

“We’ve got a little pond on our property,” Kenaga said. “We’d like to get some turtles.”

For Yoshihara, the main attraction was being able to connect some geographic dots with their new home.

“We were curious where our waters go,” she said. “We’ve got Spring Branch on our property; it flows into Soap Creek, and that flows into the Luckiamute.”

The pond was about half a mile into the hike. From there, the group made a short loop around a grassy prairie before heading back toward the parking lot. In addition to the guided walk, each participant got a lapel pin emblazoned with the Oregon State Parks logo and the words “1st Day Hike 2016.”

The event has become an annual New Year’s ritual for Tom and Suzi Holling of North Albany.

“We’ve done it here before, and last year we wound up at Willamette Mission (State Park),” Tom Holling said.

“It’s a great way to learn more about your state parks because you get a guided tour with a ranger,” his wife added. “And it’s a great way to set the pace for the new year.”

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Reporter Bennett Hall can be reached at 541-758-9529 or bennett.hall@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter at @bennetthallgt.

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