The National Nisqually Wildlife Refuge, carved from a large part of the Nisqually River Delta on Puget Sound, has been transformed into a shimmering gem of a wildlife area due to the recent de-construction of the old agricultural dikes that were built in settler days.
A recent tour of the newly-formed mud flats and tidal areas revealed that the entire National Nisqually Wildlife Refuge has blossomed into something much more than a revitalized spawning ground for fish.
Rather, as the seawaters and river mesh in the mud and channels of the newly flooded lands, they have formed new tidal pools, which glisten with nutrient-rich estuarial waters and are now attracting hundreds of ducks, herons, geese and other water fowl. In addition, on my visit I saw two bald eagles perched high in a snag, surveying the dance of nature in the waters below.
I was in the company of Karelina Resnick, a member of the Nisqually River Council, a consortium of private and public agencies and organizations that manage the entire Nisqually watershed.
Karelina’s keen gaze afforded me a sublime view into the world that the eagles were watching. We saw a dozen varieties of duck, including a couple of exotic ducks with rust-colored heads that had most experts searching their manuals. Besides the volume and diversity of species, we witnessed some sublime avian behaviors.
For a few memorable moments Karelina and I observed a small group of common mallards swimming in unison with their heads bobbing in the air rhythmically as if they were teenagers listening to a rap tune on their iPods. Another treat was watching an unusual duck swam excited in looping circles, its bill placed constantly in the water. Karelina theorized that it was a species that had perforations in its bill to allow it to be a filter-feeder. Regardless, it was unperturbed that a couple of tourists were watching just a few feet away.
That proximity to nature is another new development of the flooded landscape, as there is a growing network of elevated wooden walkways – almost two miles-worth of new boardwalk has been built– that coupled with the mile or so of older wooden walkways and trails atop a few dikes left standing, allow viewers to see the wildlife up-close in their natural settings.
The new walkway, called the Nisqually Estuary Trail, snakes its way across mud flats, water channels and the outflow of the neighboring McAllister Creek, and is an engineering marvel and a testament to the ability of governmental bureaucracies to build something beautiful, solid, and enchanting. I heartily recommend a visit.
Another appealing aspect of the place is that it is completely flat. As a result, it is readily accessible to young kids in strollers or older folks who might need some assistance in walking. The walkways begin about 100 feet from the parking lots and their network of trails can lead hikers to the inner ponds and willow thickets (and bathrooms back at headquarters) or further out onto the tidal areas.
To get to the furthest reaches, head towards the Twin Barns area and then connect with the Old Brown’s Farm Dike trail, which leads directly to the new boardwalk that runs out into the sanctuary lands. All told, a round-trip to the furthest point will be about a five-mile trek.
One note of caution to the intrepid: there are no Porta potties beyond the Twin Barns areas.
The Nisqually Wildlife Refuge is located about ten miles north of Olympia, just off Interstate 5 at exit 114. Although the Visitors Center and Nature Shop are only open Wednesday through Sunday, 9 am to 4 pm, the trails of the Refuge are open daily, sunrise to sunset. The NWR charges a $3 per car fee. For more information call (360) 753-9467.
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