Sunday, April 23, 2017

A New Stop Along the Way: Siletz Bay Wildlife Refuge

This national refuge is certainly not new; in fact, it was first established in 1991. Sprawling on either side of Coast Highway 101 between Taft and Salishan, the wide, flat marsh has long been both easily visible and difficult to visit. Until recently, the only access has been from the Siletz River, boating in from elsewhere and paddling up Millport Slough.

Of course, finned and feathered visitors have had no problem accessing this 568-acre parcel of sloughs, mudflats, marsh, and forest. Once diked to provide grazing for cattle, the land has been gradually returned to its original estuarine state. Grey skeletons of salt-killed trees provide roosting for raptors, peaceful backwaters offer sanctuary for waterfowl, and lush coastal undergrowth harbors flocks of songbirds.

Situated where the Siletz River empties into Siletz Bay, this marshy area is often inundated by high tides. At low tide, a network of creeks winds through the boggy terrain and scattered mudflats appear. Though still fairly inhospitable to two-legged, wingless humans, the Refuge has recently opened one small section to those who wish to hike, birdwatch, paddle, or even bank fish for salmon and steelhead.

To find the new trailhead, look for a pullout on the east side of Highway 101 at the south end of a small bridge over Millport Slough. There is parking for several cars, but the lot is small and won't accommodate trailers. An easily-accessible visitor's kiosk provides an overview of the tidelands. There are no restrooms, but a portable toilet is provided. Visitors who wish to explore further should be aware that pets are not allowed in the Refuge.

Ten-acre Alder Island is one area of the Refuge that stays high and (relatively) dry, and a half-mile nature trail winds around its circumference. The first section of the trail follows an old, paved roadbed, so it is easily traveled by foot or wheelchair. It passes through coastal shrubbery, with frequent views over the marsh, and ends at the beginning of a smoothly graveled loop.

This hike is perfect for families with children; the path is easy to follow, the length is short, and wildlife is abundant. Listen for the chirrup of tree frogs and the squawks of Canada geese as you walk through lush undergrowth. Look here for small songbirds such as white-crowned sparrows and marsh wrens. As you walk, watch underfoot for rough-skinned newts.Taking the left-hand side of the loop, the trail wanders through the forest alongside the Siletz. The trees here include Sitka spruce, red alder, elderberry, willow, and hemlock. The undergrowth occasionally parts to allow views of the river, and a small riverside beach provides a rare opportunity for bank fishing on this part of the river. Leaving the river, the path then follows the slough. Some parts of this side of the island are being replanted, so stay on the gravel trail. It is possible to see a variety of waterfowl in the slough by moving quietly and using the underbrush as a screen. Look for mallards, buffleheads, and mergansers, as well as the aforementioned geese. Click here for more visitor information, including links for downloadable wildlife and bird guides.

A three-mile water trail surrounds this little island, utilizing Millport Slough and the Siletz to make a loop. The trail passes through the heart of the wetland and is a wonderful opportunity to spot ospreys, eagles, and red-tailed hawks along with waterfowl and shorebirds. This area is strongly affected by tides, however, so be sure to check tide tables if you venture onto the water; outgoing tides can leave paddlers stranded in deep mud. While this paddle is rated for all skill levels, river currents and afternoon winds can be surprisingly strong, so be prepared.

The wanting kayak and canoe launch
At this writing, the much-hailed kayak and canoe launch here is, in fact, a graveled spot that usually sits several feet above the water. There is no beach or bank, just a straight drop into the slough. Further work on the launch is proposed for the summer of 2017; in the meantime, it may be a better plan to put into the bay at Taft and paddle up the Siletz to access the paddle trail. Again, watch the tides, as much of Siletz Bay becomes mudflats at low tide.

Part of the National Wildlife Refuge System, Siletz Bay offers enough activities to keep visitors entertained for days. Even if you're just passing through, though, take a little time to relax and explore the bay's newest nature access. Take some photos, spot some wildlife, and maybe even cast a line.

Millport Slough

Siletz River

Riverside beach for bank fishing
Accessible paved road at the start of the nature path

View of the refuge from the old roadbed 

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