Nature endures at Chehalis River preserve

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David Haerle | The Vidette A honey bee crawls into a wildflower just off one of the trails at the at the Chehalis River Natural Area Preserve.
David Haerle | The Vidette Noel Ferguson, a DNR research technician, stands on an old dock that washed up near a trail. It’s now a favorite spot for local fishermen. David Haerle | The Vidette Noel Ferguson, a DNR research technician, stands on an old dock that washed up near a trail. It’s now a favorite spot for local fishermen.
David Haerle | The Vidette The Chehalis River reflects trees on the bank across from the boat ramp at the Preachers Slough access point in the Chehalis River Surge Plain Natural Area Preserve.
David Haerle | The Vidette A pair of runners use the interpretive trail at the Chehalis River Natural Area Preserve.
David Haerle | The Vidette A visitor takes in the view at the overlook to Preachers Slough.
David Haerle | The Vidette A visitor takes in the view at the overlook to Preachers Slough on Sunday at the Chehalis River Natural Area Preserve outside of Montesano.
Be aware: A volleyball-sized wasp nest hangs from a wild bald hip rose just off a trail.

There is very little undiscovered country around us, though there is some relatively undiscovered country right in our own back yard.

Earlier this year, the state Department of Natural Resources completed about $250,000 worth of improvements to the Chehalis River Surge Plain, a 3,018 wetland area spread over the lower end of the Chehalis River, just upstream from where it empties into Grays Harbor.

The main improvements came to parking areas and trail heads at Preacher’s Slough, just outside of Montesano on State Route 107, and Blue Slough, located off the cutoff to Cosmopolis. There they’ve added portable toilets, small boat ramps and improved trail systems for both hikers and small watercraft.

Access is free to the public as a Discovery Pass is not required for day use or parking.

“They did a lot o work and a lot of improvements and it looks real good there,” said Renee Mitchell, a DNR natural areas manager. “A lot of money went into it and a lot of thought went into it. It’s a great area. It’s a cool project.”

Many of the best features can be found at or nearby the Preacher’s Slough access to the preserve. From there, visitors can access two trail heads and a boat launch, from where they can access miles of “canoe trails” that meander through a labyrinth of sloughs and wetlands.

Among the protected species found in the preserve are bald eagles and Olympic mudminnows.

The preserve is a freshwater tidal surge plain, where heavier salt water — driven by the tides — surges under the fresh water of the Chehalis River and surrounding sloughs, creating a unique ecosystem full of birds, wildlife and wildflowers.

The DNR is attempting to manage out some of the noxious vegetation by replanting much of the area — often inundated by non-native and highly intrusive canary grass — with native species such as red elderberry, salmon berry, sitka spruce and dogwood, to name a few, according to Noel Ferguson, a DNR research technician who covers the surge plain and five other DNR preserves in and around Grays Harbor.

“Both sites are a lot nicer than they used to be,” said Ferguson, who was at the site on Monday morning. “We’re definitely seeing more hikers and families use this area.”

Mitchell and Ferguson both credit recently retired DNR employee Birdie Davenport with being the brainchild of the improvements to the area.

“She worked hard on this project,” Ferguson said.

According to the DNR website describing the preserve, “Sitka spruce and western red cedar thrive in the wet soils where fresh and salt water mingle on this 3,018-acre site. This preserve contains the largest and best quality tidal surge plain wetland in the state, including sloughs that shelter young salmon and other fish. The surge plain also supports osprey, bald eagles, and state-listed sensitive Olympic mudminnows.”

Two easy walking trails highlight the preserve. The first is a 3.5-mile interpretive trail that follows the old railroad bed that used to run between Montesano and Cosmopolis. It begins near the entrance to the Preacher’s Slough access and travels below and mostly out of sight — but not sound — of the nearby roadways and features interpretive signs highlighting the area’s natural and human history. The first half mile of trail is barrier-free yet rustic compacted gravel, leading to an large observation platform overlooking a remote area of Preacher’s Slough. A rougher-surfaced interpretive trail continues for three miles along Blue Slough and ending at the parking area there. There are a number of rustic bridges over nearby creeks and viewpoints of the waterways.

Another quarter-mile trail begins near the boat launch at Preacher’s Slough hugs the shoreline of the river. It features a number of nice spots for picnicking and fishing with wooden benches installed near the river and even some DNR-installed PVC fixtures to anchor fishing poles.

Hank Elliot, 56, of Seattle, happened to be driving by the Preacher’s Slough access on his way via the Oregon Coast to visit relatives in Grants Pass, Oregon. A dedicated bird watcher, he saw the sign off State Route 107 and decided to pull in to stretch his legs and explore a bit.

“I just saw the sign and I was hoping to see some birds; wildflowers are nice, too,” he said before taking his stroll down the quarter-mile trail with his binoculars and camera. “This is a nice opportunity to stretch my legs.”

“The fishermen really like it out here, too,” noted Ferguson a bit later. He was standing on an old private dock that broken away somewhere up river and had washed up near the trail. He said while the DNR has considered putting a permanent structure there, he noted that the local fisherman like the old dock so much that they have secured it with some serious ropes and even provided a small garbage can. He said the area is a favorite among anglers seeking sea-run cutthroat trout.

The preserve boundary includes much of the flood plain area between river miles 3.8 and 10.5 of the Chehalis River. From Montesano, take State Route 107 for 3.9 miles. Turn right at Preacher’s Slough Road.

Public and private universities, other research institutions and individual researchers may contact DNR to propose a research project at the site. The DNR also offers a teacher’s guide for educators interested in taking field trips to the Chehalis River Surge Plain. More information can be found the the DNR website —