TACOMA – An amazing 360-degree view is the reward for reaching the end of the new mile-long boardwalk at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.
Standing at the eight-sided Puget Sound Viewing Platform, one can see the mouth of McAllister Creek, Nisqually Reach Education Center, part of Luhr Beach, the Nisqually Reach of Puget Sound, Anderson and Ketron islands, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, the top of Mount Rainier and the new saltwater marsh inside the refuge.
And that’s just the scenery.
The platform – in fact, the entire two-mile long Nisqually Estuary Trail that includes the boardwalk – will give visitors a place to watch the wildlife. You’ll have the chance to see ducks, raptors, gulls, geese, songbirds and more.
Still, there is more to the sensory experience.
There’s the smell as well, as saltwater courses in and out of the marsh areas. There’s the sounds as bald eagles wheel overhead and ducks squabble over a good feeding spot. There’s the textures, looking at the mud rippled by the ebb and flow of the tides.
The $2.7 million boardwalk is the final step in the effort to restore 762 acres of the Nisqually Estuary. A key element of the three-year, $13 million project was the removal of the Brown Farm Dike and the popular 5.5-mile trail atop the dike. That trail closed in May 2009.
The boardwalk is expected to open before the first of the year, said refuge manager Jean Takekawa. But only the first three-tenths of a mile will open; the rest is closed until the end of the waterfowl hunting season. The entire boardwalk will open Feb. 1.
When fully open, the new trail/boardwalk will offer a four-mile roundtrip hike from the refuge visitor center traversing a half-mile portion of the Twin Barns Loop Trail, the half-mile portion of the estuary trail that sits atop the exterior dike, and the one-mile boardwalk.
Looking out at the Sound from the boardwalk’s aptly nicknamed Octagon on a late November day, Takekawa couldn’t help but smile as she talked about the project.
“The feeling and the connection to Puget Sound, I didn’t know what that would feel like,” she said. “It’s so much more remarkable than I thought. We are a part of Puget Sound, and you feel that so much more now.”
Visitors will best feel that connection as the incoming tide fills the marsh. The water pours through sloughs, with the speed of a fast-moving river in places, flooding vast stretches with an infusion of saltwater.
Those tidal shifts have been one of the greatest challenges in building the boardwalk, said Mike Kaufman, project foreman for 5 Rivers Construction of Longview, Wash.
“It’s a different work schedule. You work half a day down here in the mud and half a day on top,” Kaufman said.
“Twice I’ve been busy working and I look up and I’m surrounded by water, I’m on an island,” he said. “Once I had to wade out and the water was above my knee.”
Kaufman and his crew have been working on the boardwalk since April.
The structure is held up by supports that sit atop concrete piers. Each pier is anchored into the ground with steel pins that are 7 or 10 feet long. Untreated cedar planks form the 8-foot-wide deck. A metal mesh below the railing will allow viewing for children and people in wheelchairs. There are three viewing platforms, a viewing blind, and four pushouts, places where visitors can set up spotting scopes without slowing others on the boardwalk.
“A person could set up a spotting scope and sit here for hours,” Takekawa said of the viewing opportunities.
As she walked along the boardwalk, she pointed out wigeons, green wing teal, mallards, buffleheads, great blue herons, gadwalls and pintails.
Phil Kelley said he has seen 145 different bird species so far this year. He figures the new boardwalk will let him add another 10 species.
“It will give us access to (see) things on the saltwater that we can’t see right now: grebes and loons, things we don’t see too much in the interior,” Kelley said.
“It will be interesting to see what things will be like a year from now, once everything has settled in.”
Takekawa shares that same curiosity.
“You can already see the transition from freshwater to saltwater,” she said. “People will get to see the saltwater marsh return. That’s so unique.”