Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Nisqually Wildlife Refuge

Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge
One of the most iconic Puget Sound experiences is riding the ferry from the mainland to the Kitsap Peninsula or one of the islands.  That has always topped my list of things to do for visitors to Seattle.  Now I have another iconic Puget Sound experience to add to that list: the Billy Frank Jr Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge.  And, to make it even better, the trail system is accessible to wheelchairs.

I have long wanted to visit this refuge, but the dawn-dusk opening hours never fit with my Seattle-Portland drives.  Finally, I simply made a special trip to the Wildlife Refuge (Exit 114 off of I-5, near Olympia), and met and exceeded expectations!

The Refuge provides rest for just a few migrating Canadian geese
The Refuge was created in 1974 in order to protect the mammals, birds (resident and migratory), and fish at this meeting of the freshwater Nisqually River and salt water Puget Sound.  To look closely at the wildlife, as well as at the incredible scenery, you'll want to bring your own binoculars or to rent them at the  Visitors’ Center (open Wed-Sun 9-4).  There is a a large parking lot with a $3 per car charge.  Parts of trails are closed Oct-Jan for waterfowl hunting season on non-refuge land adjacent to the trail, but the estuary boardwalk is open.  Be prepared: there are a lot of people!


Brown Farm Dike Trail
View of estuar
The Twin Barns Loop is an 1 mile level boardwalk that is entirely accessible.  It starts and ends at the Visitor's Center.  About halfway around the loop is the Puget Sound Observation Center.  This location also boasts two port-o-potties, one of which is wheelchair accessible, and it is the turn-off via the gravel surfaced Brown Farm Dike Trail to the refuge's showpiece, the Estuary Boardwalk Trail.

Estuary Boardwalk Trail

The accessible Estuary Boardwalk Trail travels one full mile over the delta.   When the tide is in, the trail runs over the water;  when the tide is out, the boardwalk runs over mudflats, with shorebirds hunting for food.   There are several pull-out viewing spots along the way, and the highlight is the Puget Sound Viewing Platform at the end, with views of McAllister Creek, the Olympic Mountains, Mt Rainier, and several Puget Sound islands.  The entire trail combination is 4.4 miles roundtrip, with an elevation gain of a whopping 10 feet!  Perhaps my only complaint is that the railings -- which I read were lower to allow wheelchair users to see over the top -- were, in fact, too high for me to see over easily.  Then again, I'm short!

Mt Rainier from Puget Sound Viewing Platform

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Bella Coola Loop:Part 3 (of 3) -- Scenic Highways from Bella Coola Valley to Seattle

Bella Coola Loop

After "the Hill" and Hechtman Pass, we returned to paved roads and our way back home.  We missed most of the sights of Highway 20, because we spent too long on side-road adventures (see below).  We missed most of the stops on Highway 97, because it was (finally) raining.  And we missed most of the possibilities on Highway 99 and I-5, because we were running out of time (had to be back in the US for a B'nei Mitzvah).

What we did not miss, however, were some incredible opportunities and views by air and by road.  I would divide this part of the trip into three sections: Nimpo Lake, Tatlayoko Lake, and Lillooet/Pemberton.

Nimpo Lake

Nimpo Lake

On the other side of Hechtman Pass is the float plane capitol of Canada (or so say some ads; I have a feeling that there is more than one).  This beautiful lake is surrounded by mountains and inhabited by loons.  There are several fishing and adventure resorts situated around the lake.  Most are bustling during the summer months (and some in the winter, as well), but the area was quiet when we arrived in October.

Mats over loose gravel
Wilderness Retreat Inn
In our limited research, we didn't find any officially accessible lodging.  However, we heard belatedly that Stewart's Lodge might have accessible rooms.  The Wilderness Retreat Inn, where we ended up, had one ground-floor room that had worked with a wheelchair before.  While it was far from ideal (I had to supplement the bathroom with my own commode/shower chair, I could not use the room's back door due to steps, and I could not easily enter the inn, because of the loose gravel driveway), it was high in "can-do" attitude.  I was able to get in to the building thanks to the hotel manager lining up a series of mats on top of the loose gravel path.

Building a ramp for me
Tweedsmuir Air
The highlight of our stay -- and perhaps the highlight of this great trip -- was the flight tour out of Nimpo Lake.  As many of our guidebooks around the world state, it was"expensive, but worth it."  We flew over -- and at times, amazingly close beside -- places that were inaccessible without a plane.  We went with Tweedsmuir Air, who operate float planes out of Stewart's Lodge.    We almost had to go on the flight, because they didn't even flinch when we mentioned that I used a wheelchair.  In fact, they had recently fashioned a type of backpack to hoist a quadriplegic man up into the plane.  For me, they built a wooden plywood ramp, so that I could wheel up to the plane which was parked next to the dock on the lake.  From there, I sat on the edge of the cabin floor, and two adults lifted me into the cabin seats.  We toured over the Rainbow Range, Hunlen Falls, and the Monarch Icefields.  Until that flight, I had no idea that it was possible to fly so close to the mountains on either side or below the plane.  It was spectacular, and now I will bombard you with photos!

Coastal mountains

Rainbow Range

Monarch Icefields

Tatlayoko Lake

After leaving Nimpo Lake, we drove down another unpaved road off of Highway 20 to Tatlayoko Lake.  Our destination was another spectacular lake surrounded by mountains.  Its community park boasts one of the Cariboo District's many accessible paths -- this one made out of mining conveyor belts.  Unfortunately, this was free-range area for cattle, meaning that nothing -- including the path -- was safe from monstrous cow pies.  Nearby was a beautiful campground, complete with an accessible outhouse.
Tatlayoko Lake Community Park accessible trail


After a rainy day of driving from Williams Lake, we arrived in Lillooet, where we stayed in an accessible room at Canada's Best Value Inn.  Across from the hotel was a mountain vista, as was prevalent everywhere in that area.  After the Bella Coola unpaved roads, we exerted caution and decided not to attempt the unpaved scenic drive from Lillooet to Pemberton through Gold Bridge (although that caution may not have been warranted), but the drive from Lillooet to Pemberton on the main highway (99) was itself incredibly scenic.  We stopped in at Pemberton (the old train station has an accessible washroom), and then we drove to the Pemberton Meadows to access the unpaved road from the south end in order to catch the vistas -- which were, of course, stunning.  Next time we would do the loop from Lillooet to Pemberton on the unpaved road through Gold Bridge, especially because I read that both the Highland Cream Resort and the Tyax Lodge there are wheelchair accessible.

Pemberton Meadows

Autumn Gold

Eventually, we drove into Seattle. The trusty Prius was dirty, but alive.  Another successful Canadian adventure