It’s one of the coldest days of the year, but the sun is radiant and the air invigorating — and we all know that the never-ending rains are coming our way — so it’s not too surprising to see a few cars parked at the Steigerwald Lake National Wildlife Refuge, just outside Washougal’s eastern city limits, off Highway 14.
With its flat trails, incredible views, abundant wildlife and easy access, the local refuge is a favorite go-to spot for families and photographers during the spring, summer and fall months.
“I come out at least once a week,” says Washougal resident Chris Marlahan. On this particular day, when temperatures are hovering around 33 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind is whipping near the refuge’s Columbia River edges, Chris and his wife, Michelle, are bundled up and watching out for the many wintering waterfowl that call the refuge home from December through early spring.
“We saw a bald eagle today,” Chris says, pointing to the eagle’s nest in a tree branch overlooking Redtail Lake, near the refuge’s southern boundary.
“And a nutria,” Michelle adds.
The couple, who moved here from Las Vegas 12 years ago, says the refuge is one of their favorite places to visit throughout the year. Chris sometimes runs along the levee trail that parallels the Columbia River, but often he and Michelle park in the lot off Highway 14 and walk the Gibbons Creek Wildlife Art Trail.
“Dress for the weather,” Michelle advises future refuge visitors. “And definitely bring binoculars because there are lots of birds out right now.”
Wintering waterfowl are indeed plentiful at the refuge during the winter months. On this particular day, a hawk swooped low over the art trail, near the Steigerwald Lake Overlook, searching for prey and paying almost no attention to the few humans below. A few minutes later, visitors could hear but not yet see the hundreds of geese and ducks that populate Steigerwald during the winter months.
As you make your way past the flat, open refuge fields and twist up toward the seasonal spur trail — which is closed from Oct. 1 to May 1 to protect wintering wildlife — take a few seconds to stop, close your eyes and just listen. The sound of the highway will have melted away by this point and you can hear the wind whistling through the trees and the geese calling to each other in the heart of the refuge. Part of the magic of this place is the fact that you can head out of the office on your lunch break and, within 20 minutes, trade the stress of the “real world” for the peacefulness of the refuge.
Wind your way over the Gibbons Creek bridge and in a few minutes you’ll come to a second bridge that crosses Redtail Lake. Watch out for the bald eagles here, and don’t be surprised if one of the refuge’s many nutria — who seem to have zero fear of humans — crawls out of the water and tries to make your acquaintance.
If it’s not too cold and windy, keep going on the Gibbons Creek Art Trail and head toward the fish ladder and Columbia River overlook before reversing your course and returning to the parking lot. The entire walk, round-trip on the art trail, is 2.75 miles long. In the winter, the refuge offers an easy, quick way to get some exercise, find a few moments of complete peace and, on sunny days, absorb vitamin D, which boosts serotonin levels and helps stave off seasonal depression.
The 1,049-acre wildlife refuge is located east of Washougal, at the intersection of the Columbia River and the Cascade Mountain Range. The parking lot entrance is at milepost 18.1 on Highway 14. Established in the late 1980s, the refuge offers visitors a chance to see nearly 300 species of birds, and a variety of fish, amphibians, reptiles and mammals.
To view a list of wildlife commonly seen at the refuge — as well as those that are there but not always seen — during the various seasons, visit www.fws.gov/refuge/Steigerwald_Lake, click on “Wildlife & Habitat” and then on the “Watchable Wildlife Brochure.”
The site also offers maps of the refuge and links to get involved as a refuge volunteer or member of the Columbia River Gorge Stewards, who support three wildlife refuges in the region, including Steigerwald, and the 590-acre Franz Lake and 329-acre Pierce national wildlife refuges near Beacon Rock in the western Columbia River Gorge. The stewards recruit and train volunteers to support habitat restoration projects within the refuges, serve as advocates for the three refuges, lead environmental education efforts and help connect the community to the wonders within the refuge areas. To learn more about the stewards, visit www.refugestewards.org.