By Patrick Johnson
As I walked down the switchback heading down the slight hill, with my feet crunching in the gravel, an amazing thing happened.
I broke through the trees and into a White Oak savannah research area and was amazed at what I saw. Flying above was a bald eagle, calling, riding the wind, and I found the nearest bench and just stopped and took it all in.
Life today can move so fast that you don’t realize the gems that are right in your backyard. The Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge is one of the places that I plan on visiting again and again. Taking a deep breath in today’s world can be very therapeutic, and I can’t think of a better place to do it in nature than the refuge between Tualatin and Sherwood on Highway 99W.
That’s the amazing part, for being so close to a highway, the minute you get even 15 minutes down the trail, the buzzing of traffic melts away, and you are left with a true natural experience minutes away from downtown Portland.
Since 1992, wildlife managers have been restoring and protecting lands and water for the benefit of native wildlife and habitat. In the refuge are streams, ponds, rivers, wetlands and forest. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service website, the area is now home to more than 200 species of birds, over 50 species of mammals, 25 species of reptiles and amphibians, and a wide variety of insects, fish and plants.
The effort has created an area where if you take the time, you can really get a feeling of what it would be like if you hiked miles out into nature and conducted an expedition to study wildlife.
The Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge is one of only a handful of urban national wildlife refuges in the country. It is one of more than 540 refuges in the National Wildlife Refuge System, a network of lands and waters set aside specifically for wildlife and managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Located in the flood plain of the Tualatin River, before the area was set aside, it was farmer’s fields that would flood every winter. Now that the wetlands have been restored, even though it comprises less than 1-percent of the 712 square miles watershed, it has some of the most abundant and diverse species living in its small area.
It offers something year-round, with the wildlife changing with the seasons, from nesting to migration to raising young, there are always birds and other animals to see when you visit, no matter the season. In fact, during the winter months, there are an average of 20,000 waterfowl and in some years there have been as many as 50,000 in a single day.
Your first stop at the refuge should be the Wildlife Center, which has a display of the history of the refuge as well as a gift shop that helps support the operation of the center. The center is staffed with volunteers and they are a wealth of information about the comings and goings of the different birds in the refuge. At the front door there is even a chalkboard with a list of the recently seen birds and animals, so you know what to look for.
On the day I was there, a scope was set up in the gift shop pointing right at an eagle nest, where an eagle was working to complete its home. It’s an amazing sight I wouldn’t have seen without stopping and asking questions.
That really is the key when visiting the refuge, take your time. This isn’t a Twitter feed or Disneyland, this is someplace where your investment of time will most likely be rewarded. Much like my sitting and enjoying the calls of the Eagle in the late afternoon, stopping and using one of the many benches in the refuge are mean to not only give you a place to rest, but a place to stop and be quiet, so animals will come out of hiding.
If you are looking for a calm, quiet and educational visit during your time on vacation, or even during your lunch break, the Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge provides just the thing you are looking for, and frogs too.
About Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge (from www.fws.gov/tualatinriver/): Just a few short miles from the center of Oregon's largest city, the honking of geese replaces the honking of cars. This special place is a refuge, a haven for wildlife and people. Born of a community's dream, and made possible by their support, a wildlife refuge now thrives in the backyard of a growing metropolis.
What to bring: There is a little over a mile of trials around the refuge, and this being Oregon, weather is always a consideration. If you plan on trekking around the wetlands, make sure to bring comfortable walking shoes that you won’t mind getting wet or muddy. Trials are gravel, but during the winter months things do get very, very damp.
Tip: You might be excited to hit the trails and start exploring, but one of the best 10 minutes you will spend is to go into the Wildlife Center and talk with the volunteers running the gift shop. They are there daily and know what to look for and can point out new wildlife. The day I was there I witnessed a bald eagle nesting – something I wouldn’t have noticed if I had just tore off on one of the trails.
Season: The area is open year round, however during the winter months trails are closed. However the Wildlife Center during the winter months offers spectacular views of the wetlands and the wildlife coming and going.
Getting there: The refuge is right off Highway 99W between Tualatin and Sherwood. There is also a Tri-Met bus stop along the highway for the national refuge.