Washington in February may have been a misguided vacation plan. Sub-freezing temps, every layer of clothing I own, more miles of walking and more sitting in the car than is good for me – I kept hearing Little Feat’s Old Folks Boogie: “And you know, that you’re over the hill, when your mind makes a promise that your body can’t fill.”
But I couldn’t wait for perfect weather. Two things were on my mind – the Billy J. Frank Jr. Nisqually Wildlife Refuge, and meeting two blogger friends in person. Along the way, we’d see what there is to see. As it turned out, cold and snow made for a beautiful adventure; roadsides and trees dusted up white, sun peeking, hiding, rainbows flying up from wet tires, then brilliant sun pushed me onward.
The drive up Highway 30 from Portland along the mighty Columbia River brought us to the breathtaking Astoria-Megler Bridge and into Washington. I forget we have a whole state at our side to explore, because – so much Oregon!
We hoped to hike through the Willapa National Wildlife Refuge, but couldn’t figure out how. We drove, backtracked, and wandered, and mostly enjoyed the scenery from Highway 101. A strange mountain loomed in the distance. Not sure if we saw Mount St. Helens or Mt Rainier or both. Our familiar Portland view offers a different perspective, so we were perpetually confused.
Cutthroat Creek gave us a nice break from the car. I dressed too warmly for this inland hike and was very happy about it after several days of shivering. Sometimes I just want to be too hot. Whimsical sculptures lined a boardwalk over wetlands, followed by a steeply muddy root-filled climb through old growth hemlocks and giant sword ferns. I wondered if the trail name came from the terrain (again wondering why I keep going where I shouldn’t) but it’s from the trout that share the name.
Highway 6 brought us into Centralia, a small time-worn town, and a charming Airbnb alongside a forest. Our rooms were delightful, color and art-filled, overlooking the valley and Mount St. Helens beyond. It’s owned by one of my two blogging friends, dear people I’d come to know but never met. It turns out blogs can be a kind of computer dating service for writers, and I’d been looking forward to our not so blind dates.
Day Two: Woke at my usual ridiculous o’clock and it was still 27 degrees and barely light. We quickly put on every single layer, and were out the door in time to see the sunrise light up Mount Ranier and the frozen landscape as we skirted Olympia and headed east to Nisqually, and a near empty parking lot.
Bonnie Rae, my now in-person friend, was the perfect guide, as she spends many of her mornings at this incredible refuge. She shared what she knows about the place and well hidden wildlife, while we geeked out about blogging, writing, photography, cameras, past hikes and adventures, life transitions, and caring for elderly parents. We have much in common, and sharing blogs brings about a different sort of friendship, intimacy with broad gaps (but that’s an essay for another day). Check out the beautiful photos of her adventures like these eagle shots and her many Mt. Rainier posts.
I’ve often wondered about how to make friends in my situation – retired, introverted, busy with grandkids, a solitary writer. My greatest friends these days are my online writing friends; it’s both weird and wonderful. My friend greeted her friends along the path, people she’s grown close to by virtue of showing up at the same place and time, sharing a love of nature and cameras, then moving into the more personal. To my surprise and pleasure one of those friends even reads my blog.
Our guide led us to a well-hidden spot, and after much squinting and tilting our heads, we found an American Bittern camouflaged among reeds under a stream bank. Its height, large chest and long legs surprised me, as I had expected something smaller. It was completely still, legs poking up from shallow ice-lined water. I worried it might be frozen in place, but then it moved. What a wonder! A lifer, as the birdwatchers say, my first Bittern sighting.
Another thrill was the several Bald Eagles (adult and juvenile) in the treetops as they took off, wheeled, soared, and settled back in for a landing, white heads and tails shining in the bright sunshine (well into the low 30s by that time).
The Nisqually River Delta lies at the southern edge of the Puget Sound. Salty seawater meets river freshwater, creating a wonderland of habitats – salt marsh, forest, freshwater wetlands, grasslands – that attract, well, just about everything! It’s an important stopover ground for migrating birds on the Pacific Flyway, and now it’s on my seasonal stopover list. It’s a photographer’s dream, and we certainly saw “plenty of glass” – the camera lenses we saw got longer, bulkier and pricier.
A long boardwalk led us over low tide mudflats. Flocks of Dunlins flew low over shallow water, their reflections seeming to double the size of the flocks. The tide crept further in, and seals sunned their wet shiny bodies on a tiny island. Ducks, herons, and other shorebirds dipped into the mud for a good meal. The damp smell wafted up, but mostly it was too cold for smells. Everything was frozen and still, no wind, and the mountain watched over us the whole way.
The shadows of the boardwalk were an art show too, and we carefully picked our way over the shifting icy stripes where sun hadn’t hit, a striking collage of white or brown, frosty or wet, slippery or solid. We walked at a photographer-birdwatcher’s pace, five miles in five hours – a lot for me, but I couldn’t leave, there was so much to see.
Gorgeous pics on Alan’s Nisqually blog!
Later, we met up with our host Gretchen, whom I’d bonded with in early pandemic days as we wrote about homeschooling grandkids, sharing the quarantine from our different corners, truly a sanity saver. Now we compared notes on life, and all this writing stuff. I’m generally hunkered down alone in my writing room, making editorial decisions based on nothing but whim and whimsy, so talking about it is a treat. So good to have in-person friends, especially these wildly creative women. She’s written a book about caring for her mother in her last years, which evolved from earlier blogging. Wow, I thought – could I do that? Would I want to? Check out her her blog, and also her website and book and as she supports others in the fraught and confusing world of being a caretaker.
Day Three: Our morning was a little slower, lingering over… well, being inside and warm to be honest. A sweet sunrise, Gretchen’s homemade muffins, granola, and applesauce, and a glance at maps, still diverting attention from dire world news, for just a minute more.
We took the direct way south on I-5, stopping 40 miles down the road at Seaquest State Park for a short boardwalk hike alongside Silver Lake. Boardwalks are very handy for clean PNW hiking. Redwing blackbirds serenaded us amongst the ducks and geese as we wound around the wetlands, sunlight reflected on tranquil waters, and again the mountain loomed – just 30 miles east of us.
Then came clouds from the north and we made a beeline to Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, another 40 miles south, a place now familiar and beloved, and always different. Highlights included a group of almost invisible Wilson Snipes (another lifer!) poking and pacing in the mud, with ducks, Canada Geese, and Tundra Swans in the background. Then just in front of our car, a bald eagle swooped down to snatch up his prey (lizard? rabbit?), lingered a minute to wrestle with it, then flew off into the trees, away from our prying eyes. More gorgeous pics on Alan’s Silver Lake/Ridgefield blog.
We had rolled into Washington as Russia rolled into Ukraine, and that was the running background tape as we traveled. I couldn’t help but notice how these birds, while seeming like ruthless killers, know so much better than us humans to take only what’s needed to live, without greed. I was glad to have a few days break to assuage the helpless hopeless feelings of these times. Rain started in earnest, and we made the short drive home. It’s nice to know that Washington is always here on my side.
“Hope” is the thing with feathers –“Hope” is the thing with feathers – 314 by Emily Dickinson
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
And never stops – at all –