The best way to watch the changing tide for most is to stand on the beach. But now there's a new option for experiencing the water's ebb and flow: from above.
The Nisqually National Wildlife Reserve's new Boardwalk Trail, which opened Feb. 1, stretches across the Nisqually estuary mudflats for more than a mile. From the boardwalk, visitors can watch water flow in through slough channels just feet below them, and maybe spot some of the more than 300 species of fish, birds and other animals on the reserve.
"It really provides people an opportunity to see the restoration up close," Visitor Services Manager Sheila McCartan said.
The Nisqually NWR finished restoring its 762 acres in November 2009, providing an important habitat for juvenile salmon and local birds. The new walkway replaces the popular Brown Farm Dike Trail, which was removed as part of the project.
Nature lovers benefit along with the fish and fowl, with the boardwalk designed to add a whole new dimension to how people experience the area.
The trail runs over the estuary, rather than along the side, giving visitors unique perspectives of the Sound and the channels leading to it.
"Because you're in an estuary where the tide is coming in and out, there's a lot of movement in what you're looking at," McCartan said. "You're not just hiking along a forest trail where everything is the same. It's changing constantly."
To preserve the reserve's mission of providing habitat, the trail was designed to have no impact on wildlife. Perching birds have even found a way to use it to their advantage. McCartan found bird guts on the boardwalk the day before the opening - leftovers from a larger bird's lunch.
Phil Kelley, a reserve volunteer and retired Army officer, found other upsides to justify the four-mile roundtrip from the visitor's center.
"I want to say we saw about a dozen species of birds from the new boardwalk that we would not have seen if we hadn't been able to go out there," he said, referring to the bird watching group he leads once a week.
Kelley didn't become serious about birding until after he retired from the Army at Fort Lewis in 1986, but he sometimes thinks about the birds he missed while he was in uniform.
"I look back and say boy, if I'd been a birder when I was in Korea or Germany or Italy, what I would have added to my life list," he said.
The trail offers more to see than birds. Mount Rainier is visible all along the path, and from the end of the boardwalk visitors can see the mouth of McAllister Creek, the trusses of Narrows Bridge, and engines of trains slowing to work their way around the edge of the water. At high tide, the platform is suspended above the completely flooded estuary.
The views are already drawing crowds. The reserve attracted at least 400 visitors each of the first two days after the opening, McCartan estimated. A good weekday last February might have registered 100 visitors.
"There's a significant difference these last two days, and it's because of the boardwalk," she said.