Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge: Birders Paradise

Swimming in circles
If you think you have noisy neighbors, pity the poor mallards, herons, and red-tailed hawks living year round at the Ridgefield Wildlife Refuge. They are about to receive a visit from tens of thousands of Cackling/Canada Geese, Tundra Swans, Sandhill Cranes, and assorted waterfowl as they stop here on their winter migrations along the Pacific Flyway. When the Corps of Discovery overnighted here in November, 1805, Captain William Clark complained in his journal that he couldn’t get a wink of sleep thanks to all the geese, swans, and ducks: “…they were immensely numerous and their noise horrid.”
The refuge, located in the flood plain of the Columbia River about 10 miles downstream from the Portland/Vancouver metro area, covers over 5000 acres of marshes, wetlands, and woodlands. It was established in 1965 partly as a result of the devastating earthquake in Alaska the prior year. The area around the Copper River Delta was lifted over 6 inches, severely altering the only summer, nesting habitat of the dusky Canada goose. To save the breed, efforts were made to protect their winter habitats along the Columbia River and in the Willamette Valley.
The refuge is divided into several areas, but the most accessible are the River “S” and Carty units, both near the small town of Ridgefield, Washington. To reach the River “S” unit, follow Interstate 5 north of Vancouver to exit 14. State route 501 leads west 2.5 miles to Ridgefield; turn left on 9th Avenue at the flashing school zone sign. It’s approximately one mile to the wildlife refuge sign on the right. A graveled, one-way road provides a scenic, four-mile loop through wetlands and forests. In winter, visitors are not permitted out of their vehicles except in a few areas, but there are numerous pull-offs and wide spots in the road for viewing wildlife. Between May and September, hikers can enjoy spotting songbirds, woodpeckers, and herons along the easy Kiwa Trail.
To reach the Carty unit, return to route 501 and turn left into downtown Ridgefield, a charming town and ideal place for a coffee warm-up. Follow Main Avenue a short distance north of town to another refuge sign on the left. This area is only accessible by foot and includes a short climb over an arched bridge across railroad tracks. On the other side, is the recently completed Cathlapotle plankhouse.
For thousands of years, people as well as birds have inhabited this area along the lower Columbia River. In their journals, Lewis and Clark described a large, prosperous Chinook village here called Cathlapotle and documented over 900 inhabitants and 14 plankhouses. These long, cedar buildings were central to the Chinook culture and provided a place for sleeping, cooking, working, and celebrating. The explorers met and traded with the natives and camped nearby on both legs of their journey.
To commemorate this historic event, volunteers have built a full-scale, Chinook-style, cedar plankhouse to serve as a classroom for interpreting the natural and cultural heritage of the area. It took over three years and 3500 hours of volunteer labor to complete the 2800 square-foot building and it is the only Chinook-style plankhouse replica in existence. Since it is staffed by volunteers, the building is open only periodically. To view their calendar, check the website  to confirm open hours. Even if the building is closed, it is still interesting to view from the outside. Near the plankhouse is the trailhead for the Oaks to Wetland Wildlife Trail winding a little over two miles and passing lakes and a wide variety of habitats.

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