The tide flowed in as the crowd pushed out onto the $2.8 million boardwalk that opened to the public Tuesday at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.
The mile-long, over-water boardwalk drew rave reviews from among nearly 200 visitors who attended the opening-day ceremony, including Natalie Cooper of Olympia, who said she has been visiting the refuge since she was a child and has kayaked in the delta as a young adult.
From the observation platform at the end of the wooden structure, Cooper could see Mount Rainier, the Nisqually Reach, McAllister Creek, Anderson Island and the Tacoma Narrows bridge in the distance under clear blue skies.
“I think it’s great; I’ll be back soon,” she said.
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The wooden boardwalk, which features an observation tower, an enclosed viewing blind, two covered viewing platforms and several push-outs, winds out into the Nisqually River Delta through 762 acres of estuary restored in late 2009.
“It’s the longest marine boardwalk in Puget Sound, if not the West Coast,” said U.S. Fish & Wildfire Service refuge manager Jean Takekawa.
The mud flats visible when the boardwalk opened were covered with water by the time some of the first visitors walked the full length of the structure.
“This is something you don’t get to see that often,” said Chuck Benefiel of Steilacoom. “I love the way it changes with the tides.”
The Nisqually estuary, the place where the river flows into Puget Sound, was diked and farmed beginning in the early 1900s, a common practice in Puget Sound.
The dike became part of a 5.5-mile looped trail at the refuge that was lost when the dike was breached and marine waters flowed freely again for the first time in more than 100 years. The new boardwalk and trail is a four-mile round trip.
“No one alive today has seen this estuary the way it is now,” noted Robyn Thorson, Portland-based regional director of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service. “This is the largest estuary project in the Pacific Northwest.”
Recovering the estuary is vital to dozens of fish and wildlife species, including Puget Sound chinook salmon, a threatened species. The boardwalk doesn’t help the fish, but it could build more public support for their recovery when people experience the changing tides and see fish and wildlife firsthand, said David Troutt, director of natural resources for the Nisqually Tribe.
“To be out in the estuary and see the tidal exchange, you feel that the fish will be here,” Troutt said, adding that pink and chum salmon should start showing up in the next month.
The boardwalk begins within shouting distance of the site of the signing of the Medicine Creek Treaty of 1854, and the creek has been a spiritual place for the tribe for thousands of years, tribal chairwoman Cynthia Iyall said during a welcoming ceremony that preceded the opening of the boardwalk.
Also on hand was Helen Engle, founding president of the Tahoma Audubon Society in 1969 and one of the South Sound environmentalists who helped save the Nisqually Delta from development some 40 years ago.
“I have a certain nostalgia for the diked trail, but it’s still a wonderful estuary,” she said.
Refuge officials acknowledged that the boardwalk may attract thrill-seekers who might try to climb over the fenced railing and jump down into the mud or water.
Signs will be posted on the boardwalk soon to warn against such risky behavior, said refuge restoration biologist Jesse Barham.
“We also have an extendable ladder and throw rope to place out here in case we need to rescue someone,” he said.
John Dodge: 360-754-5444 firstname.lastname@example.org