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Navigating the Nisqually

I’ve always appreciated the language we use to describe rivers. They bend and stretch. They have a reach and run. They carry things. Really, they’re alive.

Not too long ago it occurred to me I’d never seen a wild, major river. What a thought. Thinking about all the rivers I’ve sat beside, floated on, or dipped into, and I still can’t come up with one I can verify was unfettered by dams. People are good at making rivers lay down flat and giving them collars. Sit. Stay. Fetch.

For all the time I’ve spent at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge, I’d never been on the water. I’ve found an interest in rivers lately and this prompted a day kayaking trip here with a good friend. We were looking for an alternative to a multi-day trip that injuries and work had postponed. He wanted to paddle and explore. I also wanted this, but I had an ulterior motive, I wanted to do some birding at the same time.

The refuge sits right up against Interstate 5, which, for those who don’t know, is the major freeway that runs between Canada and Mexico on the West Coast of the US. If you told me this as a first time visitor, I’d probably wrinkle my nose, as if you told me I had to spend the day at the mall. However, proximity to the freeway does surprisingly little to dampen the exciting things at Nisqually.

The main focus of the refuge is on the river delta, the estuary where 80 some mile long Nisqually hits the Puget Sound a few miles North of Olympia. I would never call this area wild, because it’s heavily altered, the site of a large farmstead which created a series of dikes to take advantage of the heavenly soil. Later, we “restored” the habitat by ripping out the dams. You’d think all this disturbance would deter wildlife, but boy does this place teem with life.

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The veiw from a boat on McAllister Creek.

We put in at Luhr Beach, a public water access and site of the Nisqually Reach Nature Center, facing the refuge from the South. Despite the gray day, it felt like spring with the constant chortling of Purple Martin and their smaller cousin Tree and Barn Swallows. As we headed out in our boats, I could hear more birds singing nearby and was happy to find that many of the neotropical migrants I wait expectantly for every year were back.

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My paddling companion.

McAllister Creek drains out on the South side of the Refuge and we decided that with the tide still coming in, we might as well explore its reaches. Immediately I was struck by the banks of mud that dropped three feet into the water, something I’d never seen from a boat in Western Washington. They were hollowed out, pock marked from a metropolis of tens of thousands of small crabs that live on the shoreline. More and more birdsong echoed from the forests cliffs to our right as we paddled. A few Spotted Sandpipers bobbed along the mud to our left, scattering with anxious calls as we came their way. Harbor seals popped up in the wider sections and a lone river otter played hide and seek with us as the creek narrowed.

I was fascinated by how far up the creek I saw evidence of the estuary. Where I’d expect only freshwater plants, the banks crowded with willows, rockweed, a common brown algae in the genus Fucus, drooped heavy from the banks. When we passed beneath the Interstate, it occurred to me that this must be one of the few places on the entire length of I-5 where barnacles grow on the supports of the overpasses.

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The interstate overpass. Note the distant Cliff Swallow in the image.

Besides the din that increased as we moved closer to the freeway, things started to change on the creek. It became channelized, with armored banks. The plants transitioned from mostly native to a profusion of weeds running up the bank. Fewer birds were nearby, except the Cliff Swallows, which nest in large colonies beneath the several places where roads cross over the creek. This proximity to constant disturbance I found odd. Paddling and thinking on it, I supposed that Cliff Swallows might nest in naturally noisy places anyway, like nearby a waterfall. Maybe the freeway might not be that bad? Yeah, right.

Equally at odds with the din of semi compression breaks and roaring engines was the history of the creek I was sitting on. In 1854, it was known as Medicine Creek by settlers, She-nah-num to the various tribes in the area, and it was the site of a historic treaty between the United States of America and nine tribes and bands of Native Americans in this part of the world. If it were not for this treaty, the land that was once farmed, later becoming the refuge I was here to visit, and the freeway, which was carrying travelers, commuters, and the like, might not have been. In an idyllic world, the Treaty of Medicine Creek would have cemented the rights of the tribes involved. Instead it sent them off to reservations on poor land, often away from the places they’d relied upon for livelihood. Despite the treaty (and many others like it across the West) offering to uphold traditional hunting and fishing grounds, these rights were almost universally ignored. The Nisqually and others like them, who’d lived lives moving through the landscape in response to seasons and available resources, were strongly encouraged to farm instead of relying on traditional resources, like salmon. The fish now belonged to the state. Some of the tribe did farm, and some were successful enough. Others, including the man who Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge is now named for, Billy Frank, Jr. would not stand down in the face of opposition to their right to fish for salmon for survival.

Frank, a member of the Nisqually Tribe, was arrested over 50 times during the course of his activism on fishing rights. By activism, I merely mean exercising his right to fish in the estuary and fishery his ancestors used for thousands of year. Thankfully, by 1974, district court judge George Hugo Boldt ruled in favor of area tribes against the State of Washington. This gave 20 treaty tribes joint management of the salmon in Western Washington and reaffirming the right to harvest half of all the salmon that flow through our waters. Billy Frank, Jr. became the first Fisheries Manager for the Nisqually Tribe.

I’d never suggest that any of this makes up for the land grabbing, racism, and destruction of natural resources the tribes in Western Washington have endured. In my mind, all these things, add up to genocide. However, what we have today: a refuge renamed after a member of a tribe who fought for their rights, and won, well, I feel about as good as I can about that.

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More of the gray day and the delta.

We came out of the creek, feeling the water’s confusion of incoming tide mingling against perpetual outwash. Both of us wanted to drift into the flooded area that the farm dikes formerly held away from saltwater, but it was off limits. I may ignore some legal suggestions, but Fish and Wildlife officers have made it clear they aren’t worth messing around with, and I know my caring about birds more than the average person doesn’t give me to right to trample all about. Birds need space away from birders as much as other people. So, we headed toward the river.

Stretching for a moment on the outer mud banks, I peaked my head over the grassland sitting mere feet above the water. Even in a lonely little patch, an island away from the main, I could hear a Savanna Sparrow’s song, reminding me of a tiny sprinkler head. Caspian Terns screamed like pterodactyls over the flats, and I watched them dive out where the water was deeper, toward the former site of Fort Nisqually near DuPont, Washington.

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An immature Bald Eagle that was startled when we rounded a bend in the flats.

Fort Nisqually was the first European settlement descent along Puget Sound. The Hudson’s Bay Company needed a midway point between Fort Vancouver and Fort Langley and in 1833 Achibald McDonald came with Dr. William Fraser Tolmie to build a permanent fort there. The Hudson’s Bay Company may have been the leading edge of the storm of manifest destiny, but I enjoy thinking of Tolmie’s explorations in a largely unfettered Puget Sound. Those who enjoy plants in the Pacific Northwest will recognize the name, because Tolmie was not only the Chief Factor of the Fort and later a prominent politician in Victoria, BC, but a botanist whose name is affixed to several plants, including Tolmie’s onion.

Back in the present, we’d reached the mouth of the river and took another break. The grass grew thick on the banks, but the hint of saltwater was still there in the form of more rockweed. We watched swallows gathering in great clouds overhead and enjoyed a fantasy of being on a wild river delta away from it all.

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Rockweed growing well into the mouth of the Nisqually River.

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The high bank of the river and a Barn Swallow. I could have sat here all day.

Paddling upriver, into the noise of the interstate again, we hid in the shadows of the current and took breaks from the steady push of the Nisqually. The river is born from the flowing ice of the Nisqually glacier which creaks down from Mt. Rainier. When I was very little, I didn’t quite understand, that when we talk about river sources, that doesn’t mean the water in the river only comes from one place. Of course there are tributaries that make the Nisqually’s flow so substantial, but in my young mind this misunderstanding made the process of glacier to river seem even more outlandish. And when you see the Nisqually glacier, even in it’s diminished form today, it’s easy to believe that it could feed the delta on its own.

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Sea grass never stops moving.

I wondered what our paddle would have been like if the Nisqually wasn’t tamed at La Grande and Alder Dams upstream. As it was, we had to hide from the current in places. My boat was slightly less sleek, so I needed a few more breaks. A good excuse to drink in the sounds of newly arrived migrant songbirds and to watch a pair of Cinnamon Teal peel around a bend in the river.

As we moved along, the willows dotting the bank gave way to more and more venerable trees. First only Oregon ash (Fraxinus latifolia) stuck tall above the banks. This was a tree I have given little time to over the years and which I’ve only just started to notice. I suppose this is a result of growing up in a place dominated by conifers. This blinded me to many interesting trees over the years, including these ash trees, here at the Northern end of their range. Oregon ashes are dioecious, meaning there are male and female plants. According to my meticulous research (ahem *wikipedia*), only 6 percent of flowering plants are thus divided, which means this system of reproduction is fairly uncommon.

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Cottonwood, maple, alder, ash, willow. A nice array of the deciduous trees that grow on the Nisqually.

Another dioecious tree started to tower over all else as we got closer still to the freeway. Black cottonwood (Populus trichocarpa) stood tall and beautiful above the big leaf maples and red alders in the midstory. Somewhere back in there was a female tree called “Nisqually-1,” the first Black Cottonwood to have its genome sequenced. She didn’t do this out of vanity, black cottonwoods are an ideal a model species because of their quick growth and economic worth. So some folks took a sample and had it sequenced, hoping to better understand it’s genetics. This was the first time any tree, individual or species, had its genome sequenced.

We didn’t make it much further beyond where the green bridge of I-5 crossed over the river. At a sand bar just on the other side we took a break. I found the delicate paw prints of mink that had coursed the bank and the larger, oddly human like tracks of a raccoon. We’d seen one swim across the entire width of the river earlier, presumably startled by our presence. We were just as startled to see one swimming hard against the pull of the river.

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Mink tracks.

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Looking downstream to the green bridge, where I-5 crosses the Nisqually.

Pushing just around the bend, the current got too tough and we had to turn. As we did, a father and son come by in a speeding boat, zipping upriver. If I had to guess they were members of the Nisqually tribe, which now calls large sections of the river home (after being pushed off their land a second time in 1915 by the army, making way for Fort Lewis). They’d obviously been out fishing and I thought of Billy Frank, Jr and his legacy as we turned and followed the current out.

I’d known the mud flats of the Nisqually delta, teeming with life and a vital part of the ecosystem, were not far beneath the water when we’d passed by the first time. Now I saw that they were just inches below the surface. An entire sand bar we’d not seen before was exposed and covered in dozens of harbor seals, unsure about our sudden appearance, glancing nervously our way. Somehow Dan managed to skirt over the veneer of water, but I was too heavy and had to get out and walk. At the end of a 14 mile paddle, it wasn’t my first choice to slog across a mud flat.

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The outer reaches of land at the refuge. Also where I had to get out and walk.

After I finally got back in my boat, I was ready to be done. Still only a few inches above the mud, our boats startled some small starry flounder, presumably trying to escape the shadow they expected was a predator. Instead they bonked into our boats, flipping across our bows and even smacking into us a few times. This made me chuckle all the way back to the landing, even if it probably wasn’t very funny for the fish.

We got out, stretched out legs, and looked back at where we’d been. The Nisqually has always been a place I admired, but seeing it from the water gave me a new understanding. Now, thinking back to this paddle, I realize I need to go again and see more and explore as many angles as possible. Though I’m always raring to get out and explore new lands and see new birds, every local excursion these days seems to bring me round to an important notion: there’s no place like home.

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A happy naturalist.

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