Located in Clatsop County, Oregon, the Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge is a natural wildlife area spanning approximately 20 islands near the terminus of the Columbia River, providing a refuge for a large number of fish, waterfowl, and bird of prey species. The 1,270-mile Columbia River, named by Captain Robert Gray in 1792, is the dominant waterway of the Pacific Northwest, spanning from British Columbia’s Columbia Lake to a terminus at the Pacific Ocean near the city of Astoria, Oregon.
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The river and its basin were formed approximately 12,000 years ago at the end of the last Ice Age, as a result of melting ice dams near Montana’s Lake Missoula. Human habitation of the Columbia River basin area dates back at least 10,000 years to primitive hunter-gatherer cultures subsisting on fish and root vegetables such as the wapato. The islands and estuary area encompassing what is now Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge were traditional trading places for the area’s Cathlamet and Chinook indigenous people and were explored in 1805 by Meriweather Lewis and William Clark’s Corps of Discovery.
In 1972, the Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge was established as a 35,000-acre wildlife and natural preserve area, named in honor of the famed Pacific Northwest explorers and their historic 1804-1806 journey. The Refuge was intended as a means of preserving the area’s fish, waterfowl, and other wildlife within its estuarine wetland ecosystem. In 2010, the Refuge partnered with the Julia Butler Hansen Refuge for Columbian White-Tailed Deer to create a Comprehensive Conservation Plan for further long-term management of the area’s wildlife and tourism.
Attractions and Activities
Today, the Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge encompasses more than 35,000 acres of bars, riverine islands, mud flats, and tidal marshes along the Columbia River estuary, located along a 27-mile stretch reaching as far inland as the shores of Skamakowa, Washington. As the largest marsh area in western Oregon, the Refuge provides a habitat and wintering area for a large number of waterfowl species during peak migration season, along with a wide variety of fish, birds of prey, and other species. The Refuge’s habitat has remained largely unchanged since Lewis and Clark’s journey 200 years ago and are only accessible to the public by boat or kayak.
The area is best known as a major stopover destination for a variety of migratory waterfowl species on their northern migration route, reaching a peak population of more than 150,000 birds during the months of February and March. More than 50,000 ducks can be found in the area during migration season, along with over 5,000 Canadian geese and 1,000 tundra swans. Other notable waterfowl species include Caspian terns, gulls, herons, peregrine falcons, and cormorants. The Cathlamet Bay area’s cottonwood, spruce, and willow trees are also home to a significant bald eagle population, including a substantial wintering population.
The area’s estuarine wetland ecosystem is also home to a wide variety of mammal species, including raccoons, beavers, opossums, weasels, muskrats, coyotes, and Columbian white tailed-deer. River otters may be found in the area’s waterways, along with coho, chum, and Chinook salmon. Reptile and amphibian species such as northwestern salamanders and red-legged frogs are also common. A complete list of the area’s species may be found at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington.
Though the islands of the Refuge are only accessible via watercraft, many outdoor activities are available to those visiting the island, including kayaking and canoeing opportunities along the Lower Columbia River Water Trail, which spans from the Bonneville Dam and the river’s mouth at the Pacific Ocean. Boat launch facilities are offered at Skamokawa and at Oregon’s Aldrich Point and John Day Point. Quiet crafts such as kayaks and canoes are preferred so as not to startle wildlife, and use of binoculars, guidebooks, and telephoto lenses is encouraged. As the area’s waters as subject to large tidal swings, visitors should be advised that navigation may be challenging at times and caution should be exercised.
All sport fishing within the Refuge is regulated by the State of Oregon, and as such, all visitors wishing to fish or hunt on the premises need to possess a valid Oregon hunting license, Oregon State Waterfowl Validation, or Federal Duck Stamp. Hiking is permitted within the Refuge’s islands, though ATVs, bicycles, and motorbikes are not allowed. Camping is not allowed within the Refuge, though local campsites are offered in Skamokawa.
The Refuge’s islands and waterways are open daily from dawn through dusk, with tourist information available at the Refuge’s office on Washington’s State Highway 4. Though no field trip opportunities for students are offered directly at the Refuge due to accessibility concerns, Refuge staff may be booked for in-classroom learning opportunities by contacting the offices directly via phone or email. Information about current volunteer opportunities, including biological survey work, may also be obtained through the Refuge’s offices.
46 Steamboat Slough Rd, Cathlamet, WA 98612, Phone: 360-795-3915