In her years caring for the Oxbow area, Eileen Laramore has seen a thing or two.
The diminutive 69-year-old is a fierce protector of the 222-acre Bureau of Reclamation property along the Umatilla River in Hermiston. She and a handful of other volunteers she has christened Friends of Oxbow are out each week battling invasive weeds, assisting in restoration projects and keeping the habitat free from garbage.
“One time I found a pair of black stiletto heels,” she said. “They were gorgeous. They were stunning. But how did they get there?”
Last summer the amount of man-made trash spiked after a sudden proliferation of homeless camps and criminal activity in the maze of thick brush and trees.
“Last year we had nothing but trouble here,” she said. “This year we’ve only had two camps so far.”
Laramore said the Bureau of Reclamation was able to curb the problems eventually by being proactive, including cutting down swaths of trees through the biggest problem area to increase visibility. There were no active homeless camps visible as she hiked through the property Wednesday morning, but she pointed out former living spaces as she went.
There was the “bicycle chop shop” where police and volunteers pulled out a collection of stolen bicycles, the “party camp” where she found people singing around an illegal campfire, and the “hole-in-the-ground camp” where someone dug a 10-foot hole and covered it with tin sheets.
One woman kept a mattress in a grove of trees that Laramore suspected might be used for prostitution. Then there was the “Taj Mahal,” which included makeshift walls from salvaged items, and an impressively well-hidden bivouac put together by a man Laramore called the Camouflage King.
“I shook the hand of the Camouflage King because he had the best camp I had ever seen in my life,” she said.
Laramore said she was sympathetic to the plight of those she encountered, and sometimes helped them with food or clothing. But their living situation put the restoration area’s ecosystem at risk from fire, garbage and other hazards. Many were also putting themselves at risk by using unsanitary water from the Hermiston Ditch, which collects stormwater runoff, for hygiene or washing clothes.
“Most of the homeless were pretty good about moving on, but the criminal minds just went deeper into the bush,” she said.
Now that the camping and illicit activities are mostly under control, Laramore has gone back to focusing on other projects, such as planting milkweed to attract monarch butterflies. Friends of Oxbow is aggressively removing puncture vine and garlic mustard, an invasive weed that chokes out native plants and releases chemicals into the soil that discourage other plant growth even after it has been pulled up.
In April, spring runoff caused the Umatilla River to overflow its banks and come rushing through the Oxbow area. Between the flood damage and the work of some literal busy beavers, Laramore said some parts of Oxbow are now more difficult to access.
Laramore is a passionate environmental advocate, and said she finds Hermiston a frustrating “black hole” when it comes to interest in environmental issues. She disbanded a previous endeavor called Tour of Knowledge due to lack of help. Most of her help at Oxbow comes from people fulfilling court-ordered community service hours.
She worries about what will happen when her increasing age and health problems keep her from putting in so many hours each week.
“We need more people in the group, because I don’t know how many more miles I’ve got left in me,” she said.
Whoever carries the torch next, it’s hard to imagine they would be as passionate as Laramore, who spent much of Wednesday’s hike waxing poetic about the “stunning” trees and “amazing” wildlife she finds on her walks. The paw prints of a mother raccoon and her babies on the river bank are enough to make “even cranky old me” melt, she said.
“Every section of Oxbow is very different,” she said. “It has personality.”