Native Nature

Mixing history and the outdoors at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

Checking out the bridge at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

My family has always enjoyed the peacefulness and wildlife viewing at our region’s national wildlife refuges — federal lands and waters that have been set aside to protect the nation’s fish, wildlife and plants. A few months ago, that peacefulness was shattered at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in southeastern Oregon, when a group of armed militia members occupied the refuge to protest federal land policies.

Now, in the wake of the 41-day stand-off, refuge staff and volunteers are working to restore the refuge to its rightful owners — all of us, and the wildlife that depend on it. My family has added Malheur to our list of places to visit in the future. In the meantime, there are refuges closer to home to explore.

Last fall, my son and I headed north of Vancouver, Wash., to visit one such beautiful place, the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, which has both family-friendly hiking trails and an auto tour route. Part of our day was spent joining a volunteer naturalist from the Audubon Society of Portland and other visitors on a nature walk on the refuge’s seasonal Kiwa Trail (open from May through September). Armed with binoculars, my son and I observed spotted red-winged blackbirds and turkey vultures and Northern harriers flying low to survey the ground for rabbits and rodents


Ridgefield is also a rewarding destination for those interested in Native American and Lewis and Clark’s history. The land and waterways of the current refuge were home to members of the Chinookan peoples for several thousand years, and they likewise managed the wetlands and land to their benefit.

Access to the Columbia River and its natural resources sustained the village of Cathlapotle, which boasted 14 cedar plankhouses (a typical structure for Native American villages of the Pacific Northwest). Archeological remains of the village have been found on the refuge. On their way to the Pacific in 1805, the explorers Lewis and Clark landed at the village and traded with Chinookan peoples.

Hands-on activities at the plankhouse.

We were lucky to visit during the refuge’s annual BirdFest in early October, when the refuge celebrated its 50th anniversary by unveiling a brand new, visually unique pedestrian bridge (to replace an old, wearing bridge that was not ADA accessible). The bridge provides access to the north unit of the refuge where visitors can venture to the all-year Oaks to Wetlands Trail and visit a modern Chinookan plank house, which is actively used for tribal events. Make sure to pause on the bridge and see if you can spot an egret from afar.

The 37-by-78 foot community-built plankhouse, made from Western red cedar, is open on weekends from mid-April through early October and also serves as an outdoor classroom for school field trips for learning about the traditions of the Chinookan peoples. Staff and volunteers from the Friends of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge also provide interpretation and activities for plankhouse visitors on the weekends from noon to 4pm.

You and your kids can learn about traditional practices of basket weaving, foraging for foods, fishing, and hunting, and a variety of other traditional skills. On the second Sunday of every month, the Friends have special events, which can include a lecture (generally on Chinookan culture, archeology, or natural history), a guided nature hike, and activities for families. The nature trails are accessible to all, and great for kids of all ages. On the day we visited, my son was able to paint with oak gall ink and tried his hand at processing acorns for food.


We had a fun and educational afternoon, and it was worth the drive from Portland. “Whether people are interested in hiking, wildlife watching, photography, history or Native Culture,” says Sarah Hill, the Cathlapotle Plankhouse Coordinator for the Friends of the RNWR, “there is something for everyone at our refuge.”

Something for everyone at the refuge, indeed — all of them. Everyone’s refuges.

When not advocating for connecting children to nature through or and taking his own two kids outside, Michael D. Barton enjoys reading about the history of science and natural history.

If you go:

FieldTrip-apr16-2The refuge is a 25-mile drive from downtown Portland (about 40 minutes) next to the town of Ridgefield. Parking and restrooms are available at the refuge’s headquarters in the Carty Unit (providing access to the Cathlapotle Plankhouse and year-round Oaks to Wetlands hiking trail) and at two sites in the River ‘S’ Unit (location of the 4.2 mile auto tour route and trailhead for the Kiwa seasonal hiking trail).

Refuge is open year round, from dawn to dusk. The plank house is open on weekends from mid-April to early October, from noon to 4pm.

A daily entrance fee of $3.00 (cash/check only) per non-commercial vehicle.

More local national wildlife refuges:

Tualatin River National Wildlife Refuge, Sherwood
The Tualatin River NWR offers miles of hiking trails, birdwatching opportunities, and a beautiful visitor center with interpretive displays and a nature store. The refuge is an important site for migrating birds within the Pacific Flyway. The Friends of the TRNWR provide regular educational programming, including their popular Puddle Stompers program for preschoolers. The refuge is also host to the annual Tualatin River Bird Festival in May.

Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge, on the Columbia River near Washougal, Wash.
Steigerwald Lake provides a thousand acres for migrating and year-round birds and wildlife. Visitors can hike nearly three miles of trails through wetlands and woodlands with a beautiful view of Mount Hood. The refuge is a popular destination for field trips.

Michael Barton
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