New pedestrian bridge widens access to nature’s beauty

Birdfest and Bluegrass celebration formally opens latest piece of expanded vision for Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter

Published:

 

If You Go

• What: Birdfest and Bluegrass, a celebration of nature, wildlife, native culture and bluegrass music.

• Where: Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge and downtown Ridgefield.

Activities: Guided bird walks, geology walks, historical talks; 2 p.m. talk on Chinook culture with vice-chair Sam Robinson of Chinook nation; traditional salmon bake at 3 p.m.

Downtown: Birder’s marketplace, food, wildlife stories and crafts, live bird shows; 2 p.m. free showing of “O Brother Where Art Thou?” at Old Liberty Theater.

• Cost: Most events are free; some guided outings require preregistration and cost between $10 and $15.

Full information, maps, tickets at http://ridgefieldfriends.org/birdfest.

RIDGEFIELD — Nobody showed up in a wheelchair on Saturday morning to test the easy, gradual incline of the new universal-access bridge that’s now welcoming everyone into the northern Carty Unit of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge.

“They’ll be here,” said Kevin Foester, regional chief for the National Wildlife Refuge System. Word will spread about the 615-foot span over the railroad tracks, he’s certain.

Saturday morning’s bridge dedication — the centerpiece of Ridgefield’s annual Birdfest and Bluegrass festival — was attended by hundreds of folks nonetheless, including representatives of the Cowlitz and Chinook nations, who sang, drummed and chanted to bless the bridge.

Chinook vice chairman Sam Robinson and Cowlitz elder Tanna Engdahl both pointed out that their ancestors lived in and around this area for thousands of years before Europeans showed up; Engdahl said her grandmother used to travel the Lewis River for friendly gatherings of different tribes at what’s now the refuge. Since those gatherings really were pretty darned friendly — leading to definite intertribal “hugging and kissing” — Engdahl joked that she and Robinson must be at least distantly related.

So the history here isn’t remote and ideal, Engdahl said — it’s immediate and personal.

The previous pedestrian bridge — narrow, slippery and steep — was built in 1981 to get folks over the railroad tracks that pass through the refuge, but if you’re someone with a walker or wheelchair, it was just as much obstacle as connection. Refuge deputy project manager Eric Anderson said he found that “frustrating and even a little embarrassing” for years.

So Anderson was thrilled to be able to oversee a federal grant of $2.3 million to get the new structure built. It rises gently while the ground slopes steeply away beneath it, making for a nearly flat stroll onto and up the bridge. It’s a great spot for birdwatching, even as it bends right and leads down to the Plankhouse and the scenic Oaks-to-Wetlands trail.

That trail remains paved for about another quarter-mile (aside from one gravelly stretch in front of the Plankhouse) as it heads north into the Carty Unit — so if you are in a wheelchair, while you still can’t disappear off into remote corners of the refuge, you should be able to reach a great rest area and birdwatching spot without much trouble.

The new bridge went up south of where the old one came down, Anderson said, because it’s intended to connect with a new visitors center that the local refuge staff is just starting to envision. That visitors center will replace the tight manufactured building now serving as refuge headquarters here.

“There’s a lot of momentum behind something here that’s better than that doublewide,” said Anderson.

“This facility is growing. It’s growing because it needs to” in order to keep up with an increasingly urban region, said refuge manager Christopher Lapp. Ridgefield Mayor Ron Onslow said the refuge receives over 100,000 visitors per year; while the visitors center remains more dream than concrete plan, work is underway on more pedestrian connections between downtown and the refuge.

“We are all joyous, celebrating, grateful,” said Cowlitz elder Engdahl, both to remember the thousands of footsteps that passed over the previous bridge as well as to bless the thousands more that will “enjoy the wonderful vistas beyond.”

Ridgefield’s annual Birdfest and Bluegrass celebration, pulling together native culture, acoustic music and the wonders of the refuge and its inhabitants, continues Sunday.