Honor winter’s gifts by connecting with nature, preserving wildlife refuge

Today is the Winter Solstice, which marks the year’s longest period of darkness and shortest stretch of daylight.

It may be tough to see, especially during a typical Pacific Northwest winter, when most of us only see sunshine if we happen to be in a plane, flying somewhere above the blanket of rain clouds, or visiting the eastern parts of Washington and Oregon, but starting tomorrow, on Dec. 22, the days are going to get longer and the nights will get shorter.

Although the solstice, or Yule, is traditionally celebrated as a time of “rebirth,” when the sun starts to reclaim its place in the natural cycle, winter is, for most people, a time to become more introspective, get more rest and find warmth and comfort under a massive pile of blankets, thick sweaters and wool socks.

The next few months are a perfect time to honor the gifts that winter brings: without the constant activity possible in warmer, sunnier months, winter allows us to slow down, enjoy the silence, practice patience and try to find peace inside ourselves.

As we’ve written in this issue’s Hometown section (Page B1), the nearby wildlife refuge, located just east of Washougal, is an excellent place to practice some of these winter lessons and get away from the stresses of modern urban life.

Although we all long to hibernate during these cold months, getting outside in winter is critical to our well being. We need the fresh air and the vitamin D from what little sunlight there is this time of year. We also need a break from the constant bad news cycle and those ever-present digital devices that distract us 24-7.

The refuge offers a space where we can wander for 30 minutes or all afternoon, letting our minds rest, our lungs breathe and our bodies heal.

Saving these types of open spaces for the wildlife that literally depend on them for survival — as well as for our children and grandchildren, who will live in an even more populated world with fewer chances to escape the stress of urban living — is critical.

And it’s important to remember that we almost didn’t have the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge. In fact, not that long ago, people proposed placing either a nuclear power plant or a garbage incinerator on this beautiful land that connects the Cascade Mountain Range to the western tip of the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area.

So, use the refuge to find peace and stillness this winter, but don’t forget to give back. The Columbia Gorge Refuge Stewards group offers several opportunities for volunteers who want to help restore habitat at the refuge, lead environmental tours for youth groups, or take the lessons of the refuge to the public at events like Camas Days and the Home and Garden Idea Fair in Vancouver.

To learn more about how you can help protect and restore the wildlife refuge areas in the western Columbia River Gorge, including Steigerwald Lake Refuge just outside Washougal, visit www.refugestewards.org or email volunteer@refugestewards.org.