Trail’s beautiful legacy is drawing to a close, but future looks promising

NISQUALLY – It’s never easy to say goodbye to an old friend – especially a final goodbye.

The Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge will close the Brown Farm Dike Trail for good on Sunday, and people who love the 5.5-mile hike around the bird- and wildlife-filled refuge are taking their last walks down the tree-shaded trail.

I took my first walk on the Dike Trail way back in 1996, when I was interviewing for a reporting job at The Olympian. Two days of interviews had me worn down, and I decided to hike the trail before driving back home to Oregon.

As I hiked, I saw wildlife galore. A blacktail deer doe stared at me as I set out from the parking lot.

A few hundred yards down the trail, I was in the middle of sweeping freshwater marshes. Elegant, savage herons stalked dinner. Ducks – their butts pointing at the sky as they fed – were everywhere. A feeding otter swam along a small canal just a few feet away.

The trail pretty much sold me on South Sound.

Since then, I’ve hiked the trail dozens of times – and during all seasons. I’ve walked through drifts of soggy, red-and-brown bigleaf maple leaves, snow flurries, hail, rain, drizzle, sleet and even sun.

Whatever troubles I carried with me on those walks soon vanished.

Now, my trail is going to vanish this summer. Heavy equipment will gouge into the dike and carry away the earth and rocks that block Puget Sound tides from flowing onto the land. Sometime this fall, the dike and trail will be gone, and – for the first time in decades – saltwater will flow over the land.

The Nisqually River Delta will once again be a natural saltwater marsh, and that is good news for salmon, steelhead, sea-run cutthroat trout, shorebirds and Puget Sound water quality.

Marshes and wetlands are the nurseries of life in Puget Sound, and the maze of mud and plants also filters and cleans polluted water. The restored marsh just might help restore Nisqually River salmon runs to numbers we can’t even imagine. Marshes also are beautiful. The tides roll in and out in an endless cycle, and the water flows amid grasses and other saltwater plants. The Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge plans to build a boardwalk over the 760 acres of restored marsh, and I can’t wait to walk out over the living, watery landscape.

Still, I’m going to miss the Brown Farm Dike Trail, so I took a last walk Monday evening.

Storm clouds boiled to the south, but a nice breeze kept rain from falling. The setting sun sent shafts of light through the clouds, and it seemed like an omen for the many trees that shade the trail.

Most of those trees are doomed – including the ancient apple trees that are now blooming, but will probably not drop a last crop of fruit for the deer. It was strange to walk amid so much beauty – and know that so much of it is about to vanish. Of course, another kind of beauty will replace those alders, willows, maples and brush, but it is still sad to me.

Geese – many with little flocks of peeping goslings – sunned themselves on the trail, and I stayed well away from the hissing adults.

A breeding pair of wood ducks – the male gaudy in shades of red, green and white – swam on a nearby pond. I once found a wood duck nest near the trail, and I spent a couple of hours waiting for a glimpse of the baby ducks. Blacktail deer eased through a wooded area, and crows rasped from a nearby tree. An otter swam down a canal – leaving a trail of bubbles on every dive.

All this beauty is going to change this summer, and I fought feelings of sadness and loss as my last hike ended. But a new, more natural landscape is coming.

And I can’t wait to say hello to a new boardwalk trail over a restored marsh teeming with life.

Chester Allen can be reached at callen@theolympian.com">callen@theolympian.com or 360-754-4226.