Northwest Trek: Experience Washington’s wildlife in the outdoors
In a split second, I knew it was a bald eagle as it shot by about ten feet overhead. I had never been that close to one in flight before. The unmistakable white markings, yellow beak and talons and gargantuan wingspan that easily distinguished it from the more common ravens and falcons in Ocean Shores were clearly visible just before it disappeared over the roofline as quickly as it had materialized. On the third-floor balcony of the house that borders the Oyhut Wildlife Recreation Area, it was a vivid reminder that I needed to get back into writing my Washington blog.
So much had changed since I posted the final Daily Washington Cities Quiz back in February. I had finished yet another soul-stealing legislative session working too many hours for too little reward, we had just sold our only vehicle and were on the hunt for two cheaper vehicles and I had just been hired into a new position in a distant city. There was a lot still up in the air, but beneath the cacophony of life lay that ongoing desire to share the history, heritage and culture of the state in which I was born and raised with the world. It felt like an underground river, always flowing even when out of sight. The eagle messenger motivated me to get back to work.
Two weeks ago, when the weather was unbelievably pleasant and my son had just turned six, we decided to take him to Northwest Trek. It’s the Pacific Northwest’s premier wildlife and adventure park, and it’s less than an hours drive from us near Eatonville, WA. For all the times we had traversed up I-5 to Tacoma to visit the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium (which is affiliated with Northwest Trek), we’d only been to the more remote wildlife park twice. And be we, I mean my wife, kids and parents…I hadn’t been since I was about 14.
For starters, it’s a beautiful drive full of farmland and small, unincorporated towns. To really get a sense of western Washington outside the Seattle-centric view most people have, take a drive through east Pierce County. Truly breathtaking views of Mount Rainier, with anthem-inspiring scenes of rural America. You can read about some of it in a previous post about a drive to the mountain.
Even though it was the middle of Spring Break for most school districts in the south Puget Sound region, there were only a handful of people at the park that morning. After milling around in the expansive gift shop – which is quite good, full of clothing items, drinkware, pens, pins, pictures, posters, magnets, toys, stuffed animals, and other accoutrement…all overpriced, of course – we checked out the golden eagle pen. These two birds are flightless due to injury, but it still freaks me out being that close to them with no fence or barrier in between. Especially when the handler passes by and the bird tries to attack her (apparently it’s eagle mating season and the female is all…um…worked up).
Afterward, we had to get in line for the tram ride. The entire trip takes a little over an hour, but is absolutely worth the cost of admission into the park (the tram is free once you’re inside). This was the part I remembered most from childhood. Though the tram cars have obviously been around for a few decades, they were clean and in good shape. And because the large picture windows slide open to provide unobstructed views, they really give you the feeling of being right there next to nature. And by nature, I mean ducks, geese, owls, swans, raccoons, wolves, mountain goats, deer, elk, moose, bison, and bears.
Here are a few of the great pics I took while on the tram ride, and you can see them periodically in the headers of this website:
After the tram ride, there was still and entire day left and I wasn’t about to waste any of it. We paused for a quick lunch at the Forest Cafe (where I had a “bison burger” that I was pretty sure was a frozen beef patty…maybe it was just named “bison” the way some sandwiches are named after actors). The cafe fare was about what you’d expect, and overpriced as well. But it’s nice to have that dining option available if you didn’t bring your own food.
The walking tour around the rest of the park was very similar to that at Point Defiance Zoo in that each animal “enclosure” was large and spacious by human standards but far too small for the animals kept inside. I’ve never been a fan of zoos because it’s hard to see animals locked up, despite the attempts at making their artificial “habitat” very similar to their natural one. I give the keepers credit for making miles of progress in the past fifty years or so when they were kept mostly in cages no bigger than your bedroom, but the fact is that a wild animals natural territory is sometimes many square miles across.
Ever see an animal at a zoo just aimlessly walking around in circles? That should be a sign that something’s amiss.
But enough preaching…the fact is that the carnivores can’t be allowed to roam wild with the herbivores or very shortly there wouldn’t be any herbivores left. The wolf pack would devour the bison one at a time, the cougars, lynx and bobcats would wipe out the mountain goat, deer and elk population and the bears would probably have a buffet of birds to feast on.
So the herbivores are allowed to roam the tram grounds, which span 435 acres of meadows, woods, and lakes filled with wildlife native to the Pacific Northwest, while the meat-eaters are relegated to ”habitat” areas of which they are clearly bored to death. That’s why most of them will probably be asleep when you visit…uninterested in your presence at best or frantically pacing the length of their enclosure like a crazed mental patient at worst.
Here are some of the shots I got of the enclosed animals:
Yes, it’s a treat to see these wonderful creatures up close and in something vaguely resembling “the wild.” And yes, I also wish we had more opportunities to encounter these animals in the actual wild where they live so we wouldn’t have to pen them up for the visiting public. It’s a double-edged sword that nature-lovers wrestle with constantly. How do you feel about it?