A male ring-necked duck shows off the ring for which he is named on a rainy spring morning at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. The picture is from 2011, before I started saving GPS tracks on every visit, and I can’t remember where on the refuge I took the picture.
There was a period of time at Ridgefield where I came across what I called Hawk-on-a-Stick, juvenile red-tailed hawks perched on signs around the large meadow that would allow me to view them from close range. They didn’t often look directly look at me, which was a good thing, as it meant they were comfortable with me and on the lookout either for voles in the meadow or older redtails that might chase them away.
This environmental portrait of a great egret on the Oaks to Wetlands Trail is one of my favorites from my many visits to Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, the second-to-last picture on my second-to-last visit. I didn’t know it was going to be my penultimate visit, I arrived in innocence, unaware in a month a job search would begin that ended in a move far away. The trail is in the Carty Unit, a part of the refuge I didn’t visit very often as I so loved the auto tour in the River S Unit, I almost didn’t go since I forgot my tripod which made pictures in the dark of the forest difficult (I’d forget it on my last visit too). I’m glad I did since it turned out to be my last hike on this trail.
It takes on extra meaning for me now as in both picture and memory I look at my beloved refuge from a distance. Thankfully the look evokes fondness rather than regret, full of thankfulness for my many visits rather than sadness at their end. I knew after moving here the biggest test of how happy I was would be if editing old pictures brought tears rather than smiles, so I’m pleased to report that I’m both grateful for my two decades in the Pacific Northwest and thrilled about exploring the American Southwest.
The wetlands behind me, the desert before, my life begins anew.
A juvenile red-tailed hawk sits in a meadow in heavy fog at Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge in Washington. The telephoto lens is exaggerating the whiteout effect as it is picking up all the fog between my car and the distant hawk but it illustrates the point: for an animal that might normally hunt by soaring high above the meadow and looking for voles below, a thick fog changes the dynamic between predator and prey.
The fog didn’t have such an impact on an American bittern stalking the shoreline that winter morning as it looked and listened for small creatures both on the land and in the water. Sometimes it hunted by slowly walking up and down the shoreline, sometimes by standing still, but in either case the thick fog would not obscure the prey such a short distance away.
Washington lies across the Columbia River just to our north. I’ve spent a lot of time at Ridgefield and I’ve written about my love for that little refuge but there are two more parks that are near and dear to my heart: Olympic National Park and Mount Rainier National Park. The Olympics literally go from the rugged coast (and tide pools) to rain forests to the snow-capped Olympic mountain range, along with plants and animals endemic to the Olympic peninsula. Rainier has its massive namesake where you can easily hike trails from the lodges and within minutes see pikas and marmots. There are many other trails too, such as the Summerland Trail in the Sunrise area where I met this hoary marmot sunning itself on the rocks. Sometimes I saw bears in both parks, sometimes quite close, sharing the trail with me. Deer and elk, birds, ground squirrels, so much wonderful wildlife living in such breathtaking scenery.
Washington has many other wonders I never explored, I never even visited Seattle for that matter apart from one quick business trip. But I could have explored these parks alone for the rest of my life and never gotten bored. Goodbye, I love you.
It’s not like Mount Rainier or Olympic National Parks, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge, not the sort of place you plan a trip around. It’s not scenic, there are no mountains, no beaches, no waterfalls, no old growth forests. But I spent more time here than anywhere else in the Pacific Northwest. I might have spent more time here than all other parks combined. Not because of what it didn’t have, but because of what it did: the auto tour.
There’s a mostly one-way gravel road that winds through the seasonal ponds and lakes of this unassuming little refuge across the Columbia in Washington where for significant portions of the year you have to stay in your car. Because the animals aren’t spooked so easily if you are in your car compared to when you are not, I watched birds and mammals behave naturally from close distances. I met this yellow-headed blackbird, showing off his acrobatic skills as he straddles two stems, at Rest Lake late on a sunny spring evening.
I stayed dry in the rain and warm in the cold. Relatively warm in the cold, I shut my car off when I stopped and sometimes I stopped for hours. I kept an extra coat to drape over my legs on the cold days, extra towels to drape around the car on wet ones. I started playing around with video towards the end once I got a camera capable of good video but it was too late for me to have taken very many, but those few videos joins thousands of pictures in my archives.
I’d be embarrassed to tell you how many hours I sat in my car and watched bitterns hunting at the edges of the lakes. Or watching herons and coyotes hunting voles in the big meadow at the end of the auto tour. Watching the eagles and swans at Rest Lake. Watching red-winged blackbirds, yellow-headed blackbirds, marsh wrens, song sparrows, common yellowthroats, American goldfinches, all from one spot at South Quigley Lake.
There are a couple of short hiking trails at the refuge, one only open during the warmer months when the cackling geese are gone, but mostly what drew me was the auto tour. Too much so I suppose, I knew I should explore other places more often, if nothing else for the exercise. But I kept having wonderful experiences so I kept coming back.
I haven’t been up as often the past few years, mostly because I was walking Ellie during the hours I would have normally visited the refuge, but Ridgefield I will hold in my heart for all of my days. Goodbye, I love you.