Thursday, February 01, 2007

Ridgefield National Wildlife Preserve-Washington

A bit of history, a bit of botany and a pleasant walk: find them on the two-plus mile Oaks to Wetlands Trail on the Carty Unit of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. To reach the Carty Unit, take exit 14 off of I-5 and go west into Ridgefield. At Main St., turn right, head out of town and look for the brown sign for the Refuge on the left.
Cross the "hump bridge" and follow the path to the Plankhouse. On their way to the Pacific Ocean, Lewis and Clark stopped in a native village called Cathlapotle (Cath-la-poo-tuhl or Cath-la-poe-tuhl) on November 5, 1805. They counted 14 cedar plankhouses belonging to the people of the "Quathlapotle nation" and estimated some 900 inhabitants. To learn more about the Plankhouse, click here. After leaving the Cathalpotle village, Lewis and Clark camped for the night at a "butifull grassy place." As near as can be determined, this site is located on the Refuge and known today as Wapato Portage on Carty Lake. Here, Clark observed village women portaging their canoes to collect wapato, a large-leafed wetland plant with a starchy tuber.
The second attraction of the present-day trail is the signage identifying some familiar northwest plants, including wapato. Winter is a fine time to visit if you are a birder, but if you are interested in plants, pick another season so that you can actually distinguish the identified plants.
Finally, there are the birds. Winter waterfowl love the open water and wetlands surrounding the trail. Perching birds are plentiful and more visible in the bare trees.

Birders will also enjoy the auto tour of the River S Unit. In winter, tundra swan are reliably here, along with a good variety of other waterfowl and avian species, some of which are surprisingly fearless. We had a red tail hawk land less than 10 feet from the open window of our car. To reach the S Unit, turn south off Highway 501 (the road into Ridgefield from I-5) onto 9th, which turns into Hillcrest Rd, .6 mile to a sign for the refuge on the right.
In both units, passing trains are a distraction. Automatic gates close at posted times. There is a fee to enter the units, currently $3. The usual federal government passes are accepted. No dogs are allowed outside of vehicles on the refuge.

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