Exposed to the Elements
By: Lindsey Broadhead and Paul List
This epic adventure begins as two strangers hop aboard a Toyota RAV-4 (affectionately nicknamed Ravioli) and depart into the great expanse known as the American West. Their adventures will take them through steep and dark mountain ranges, wide open prairies, ragged coastlines, and desolate deserts. Along the way they will meet a variety of amazing people, view some incredible wildlife, and sample all types of breakfast restaurants and Love’s travel stops.
Through our travels, we have noticed an elemental theme between our assigned refuges, and we want to take you on a journey with us through water, earth, and air.
Saddle Mountain National Wildlife Refuge: bringing people to the river
Nothing is as essential to life on earth as water. Especially in desolate areas like eastern Washington, water, more specifically the Columbia River, is critical in supporting the food we eat every day. Our first refuge was here, right in the heart of the Washington agricultural industry at Hanford Reach National Monument (Saddle Mountain NWR, the name is no longer used). Hanford Reach protects the longest free-flowing stretch of the Columbia river, and we saw the importance of the river firsthand while we were in the thick of salmon run. People from throughout the Pacific northwest converged to try their hand at catching the world-renowned Chinook salmon in the clear, cool waters of the Columbia. In fact, this spot was so popular that people set up “salmon camps” for months at a time, living on site so that they could fish every single day. From many vantage points along the river and refuge, visitors can also view the 9 decommissioned nuclear reactors of the of the Hanford Site for which the refuge is named. The refuge itself was and still is a buffer site between the surrounding communities and the nuclear reactors. Part of the reason that this place was chosen for the complex was the clean and abundant water supply from the Columbia river. The river here is truly the lifeblood of the region, a deep blue vein of life in a vast sagebrush sea.
In addition to our first two week sampling period at Saddle Mountain in late August, we returned for a third week a month later in October. During our first two weeks, the salmon had not yet begun their migration. We returned to Saddle Mountain just in time for the end of salmon season, encountering a significantly greater number of salmon fishers actively enjoying their access to the river. While the vast majority of visitors we met at Saddle Mountain were fishers, some came for other reasons. We met families looking to enjoy an afternoon boating, sightseers looking to explore this stretch of the Columbia River, and even a class out searching for macroinvertebrates. These groups helped remind us of the many different uses people might find for a river like the Columbia and the importance of continuing to preserve access for generations to come.
Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge: preserving an iconic American landscape
After our first period at Saddle Mountain, we headed inland for Oklahoma, home of Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge. Here, the namesake mountains rise up out of one of the last remaining expanses of mixed grass prairie, creating a surprisingly diverse ecosystem rich in wildlife. The refuge is one of the oldest in the nation, founded in 1901 as a sanctuary for one of North America’s most iconic land animals: the American bison. Since then, the refuge has grown into an iconic attraction for nature lovers, with a wide array of activities and uses. An auto tour route takes visitors through the grasslands to admire wildlife from prairie dogs to longhorns, while a network of trails brings guests up into the mountains themselves. A state of the art visitor center allows guests to learn about the refuge’s unique natural history, while volunteer led educational programs take guests out into the field for a more in depth experience. With picnic areas and camping sites, this refuge feels in many ways like a national park.
Our slower start at Saddle Mountain did not prepare us for how popular Wichita Mountains would be. It is the most visited wildlife refuge in the system, and at 59,020 acres of wildlife and wilderness it is easy to see why. Visitors ranged from local regulars to international tourists looking to experience a piece of American history. It was clear that Oklahomans are incredibly proud of this place, as evidenced by the active volunteer group, Friends of the Wichitas. We spoke to people who have been coming here for generations, now taking their great grandchildren for the first time to experience its wonder. We also got a taste of wonder ourselves as we ogled over one of the oldest herds of American bison, intricately patterned Texas longhorns, charismatic prairie dogs, and majestic elk, all on the backdrop of beautiful red granite mountains. Our housing was a 1930’s CCC built bunkhouse surrounded by woods and mountains, and we made friends with a fellow intern named Miahna who was staying with us there. We had a grand old time going to local restaurants, discovering venomous snakes on nighttime drives, and snapping photos of tarantulas as you do when you are all hardcore nature nerds. Another highlight of this leg of the trip was our invitation to a boy named Robert’s 10th birthday party while we were sampling near a picnic area. The family generously provided us with hotdogs and (heavenly) homemade strawberry shortcake, a gesture that sealed our love for this place and the people of Oklahoma.
Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge: where the skies are filled by wings of thunder
After leaving the prairies of Oklahoma, we returned north to the Great Salt Lake region of Utah, home of Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. Like Wichita Mountains, this refuge is old, dating back to 1928 when it became the first wildlife refuge created by an act of Congress. Like Wichita Mountains, Bear River has an active Friends group and is loved by the local community. However, unlike Wichita Mountains, Bear River was designed as a refuge for migratory birds, preserving the famous sound of “wings of thunder.” From the bird shaped design of the visitor center to the giant American avocet that greets you as you enter, the importance of birds at the refuge is made abundantly clear. The visitor center also prominently displays an airboat, commemorating the wildlife biologists who developed this method of harnessing the power of air as a way to effectively navigate the refuge’s wetlands. In addition to the visitor center, the refuge features a 12 mile auto tour loop through the wetland area, with several pullovers and viewing platforms for birders.
Our first weekend at Bear River coincided with National Public Lands Day, a national day of service and celebration of our public land systems. We were able to assist with Bear River’s commemoration of the day by running activities for guests. The visitor center’s classroom, normally closed to guests, was opened up, allowing visitors to examine natural history specimens or enjoy the collection of bird puppets. To help guests learn more about the birds that call this refuge home, a station was set up to depict various beak types, with interactive components for hands on learning. In addition, we were provided with materials to set up a track making activity, allowing guests to leave with a free, educational souvenir. Unfortunately, the skies were not fully cooperative this day, as cold rain kept us from having the high visitation we were expecting. Nevertheless, those visitors who did join us were enthusiastic participants, eager to learn and grateful for our efforts.
Our last weekend at Bear River introduced us to a new kind of visitor: hunters. During hunting season, Bear River’s wetlands are opened up to waterfowl hunters, who came out in great numbers to take advantage of this opportunity. Purchases of duck stamps (which are required for hunting migratory waterfowl) provide an important source of income for the refuge, while refuge regulations and wardens help ensure that game species are sustainably hunted while nom-game species continue to be protected. The hunting community’s support was invaluable in the creation of the refuge almost a century ago, and this partnership continues to be crucial today.
From the Columbia River in Washington, to the Wichita Mountains in Oklahoma, to the Migratory birds in Utah, our adventures thus far have taken us to refuges defined by access to water, land, and sky. Along the way, we have met a wide variety of visitors, from dedicated local fishermen to international sightseers. Despite their diversity in uses, all were unified by their appreciation for the continued access to wildlife provided by these refuges. As we continue our journey through California and return to Washington, we expect to continue to see how both people and animals benefit from the work of the National Wildlife Refuge System.