I never tire of crossing over the Columbia River into Washington. It has everything: a bridge, a river, another state, and another point of view. Driving east along the northern shore of the Columbia, rolling hills slope gently upward. Houses perch along the slopes with big windows overlooking the water, and forest all around. The river is broad here and my blood seems to flood through me in rhythm with the river’s steady flow. How I love this river.
One reason we chose to live in Santa Barbara all those years ago was because of how it lay between the Santa Ynez mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Here in Portland I landed between the Cascade mountains and the Pacific ocean. But while I love living near the mountains, I am a water girl. When I have time to spend, I go to the river. If I have more time I go to the ocean. But seldom do I head to the mountains. I just like having them nearby, and the long view from Washington is exactly what I need.
Today I’m headed to Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge, which lies alongside the river. It underwent a massive reconstruction and transformation during the pandemic, and was closed, in a quarantine of its own. I’ve been waiting impatiently for the recent reopening, since it was during this time that birdwatching became a more compelling interest for me.
The refuge remodel was a miraculous coming together between federal, state, and local agencies. People said it couldn’t be done. A levee was removed to allow more water to flow freely from the Columbia into Gibbon Creek, aiding salmon and steelhead migration, preventing flooding, and giving us humans a better outdoors experience. But I think the birds love it too.
I hear constant birdsong during my four hour visit. The purple martins and tree swallows weave a continual overhead commute from tree to field. An osprey holds court from high up in his nest with frequent flyovers, surveying the scene. I stop to watch the antics of the friendly robins – why do they always seem so cheerful? I follow the elusive killdeer as they blend in with sand, mud, and dry grasses, revealing themselves only when they hop and call with their loud cheep. A great blue heron flies in the distance, and perhaps that’s a green heron that flies over two or three times. My Merlin phone app identifies a dozen others by their song, but they remain hidden in the tree thickets and dense underbrush. Tall Cottonwoods line the ponds, the perfect habitat, and thousands of tiny new trees have been planted in the streams and along the paths for future habitat. I also pass a guy carrying a football. That will remain a mystery forever.
As I walk out over the new levee and along the gravel paths, the area is so altered that there is little I recognize. Most of the time I have no idea where I’m going, whether the trail will circle around or come to a dead end, and there are few signs or people to ask. The remodel scars are fresh, with slashes of mud, tree debris, and tire tracks quite evident, and there is still much work to be done. But the birds and the river views and the hike are what I’m here for.
I’d come here to wear myself out, hoping to shed the previous week’s anxiety and decision-making exhaustion, taking a pass on a dear friend’s visit to the coast. With Covid case counts up yet again, I’m cautiously guarding my good health in advance of another long awaited trip coming right up. I’m grateful to have choices at all – many don’t – but I felt depleted by the hemming and hawing, the restless nights, and the disappointment. This hike was the perfect antidote.
But now I am quite tired out, and mistakenly choose a long path that doesn’t go through to the parking lot. So unfortunate, I think, so tired, so achy. Then I come upon a small knot of people. A woman motions me to be quiet and then waves me forward. “A Bullock’s oriole!” she whispers. I train my binoculars on the nearby shrub that everyone’s looking at with their cameras, binoculars, and bare eyes. I scootch, I bend, I squint, I turn, and finally the bright yellow-orange feathers pop out at me, and we all stand in adoring silence at seeing this beauty, a lifer for me. Sadly, my bird photographer husband wasn’t with me. Happily, he went the next day!
Now that Alan has his own blog I’m afraid I’ll have to start paying him royalties to use his photos. But he kindly let me use this one. Go see the rest of his pics!
Miraculously in the next shrub over, a cedar waxwing alights, back from its southern migration – my first of the season. The aching in my joints just disappears somehow, and my wrong turn turned out to be just right.
On that fifth mile back I grumble and moan until I meet an older woman coming my way. She is encased head to toe in rainproof and sunproof wrapping, wearing a huge grin. “Isn’t this amazing!” she exclaims. But I’m tired. I’m dying to get to the bathroom and to my car, so I hedge a little. “There’s so much work to be done,” I say, “and lots of cleanup.” “Oh of course,” she says, “but look at all this water, and it’s so big now!” She is glowing, so excited to be back. I look across at the pond where Canada Geese graze on the slope, and a tall white egret stands at attention, hunting along the water’s edge. My spirits lift and I have to agree. It is amazing. We wave and continue on our separate ways.*
* The next day when Alan visited he came upon a woman who was quite dour about the whole thing, with a litany of complaints. Alan countered with words about birds! and water! and potential! and the view of Mount Hood! They went back and forth and after a long exchange she begrudgingly admitted, “Okay, you’ve cheered me up,” and smiled. Sometimes it takes a kind word and a shared experience of wonder to get us over a hump.