Exploring the Tidelands of Ellsworth Creek

By David Ryan, Field Forester

Ellsworth Creek Preserve, near Willapa Bay in Southwest Washington, has just over 350 acres of old-growth forest. The remainder of the approximately 8,000 acres of the preserve contains mostly forest lands of varying ages, which are divided into several experimental basins for scientific study.

The Ellsworth Creek watershed. © Chris Crisman

It turns out that Ellsworth has about 380 acres of tidelands — more acreage than the old-growth forest. For many reasons, this estuarine habitat is critical for healthy salmon, and salmon are critical for healthy forests (that's another post).

With this in mind, I channeled my best inner salmon, put my kayak in at the bridge where the Naselle River meets Willapa Bay and, mimicking an inbound spawning salmon, paddled upstream to Ellsworth Creek. Paddling east up the wide Naselle delta, the incoming tide carried me upstream, an odd sensation, but a welcome one.

The bridge where the Naselle River meets Willapa Bay. © David Ryan / TNC

Turning south into the mouth of Ellsworth Creek, I entered our tidelands. The goal was to paddle up the brackish slough to where it meets the forestlands and becomes a freshwater creek. Having strode across the headwaters of Ellsworth Creek without getting my feet wet, the great width of it at the estuary was striking in comparison. The sewing machine song of marsh Wrens heralded from every reach as the tides continued to push me upstream. Several other bird species marked my passage by their flights and songs.

Exploring the estuary. © David Ryan / TNC

I passed under the Bonneville Power Administration right-of-way which runs through the preserve and over the estuary and looked east to where we will be taking out an old logging road this month. This project is being undertaken specifically to protect this important estuary.

The water appeared to boil along the streambanks as the incoming tide purged the air from the pore spaces created by any number of lifeforms that thrive in these murky, muddy places. The creek continued to narrow and, despite the biofilm that seemed to cover every bank, log, rock and even the water itself, I could see the cobble and gravels at the creek bottom. Several schools of salmon fry, some several inches long, swam about among the pools and riffles.

Portaging across some shallow, rocky reaches, I was close to my goal. An easy portage since the tide surprisingly continued to push my boat upstream, even this far from the bay.

A clear stream. © David Ryan / TNC

Experiencing this tidal push, my salmon brain prodded my human brain into realization of yet another important facet of these tidelands. I understand that time spent in the tidelands provide salmon with food, security and the time to allow their bodies to transition between salt and fresh water. However, timing inbound and outbound migrations with tidal ebbs and flows can ease the journey and allow for rest while still covering distance, even upstream. While this seems obvious in contemplation, it is quite another thing to experience it.

Reaching a point where the trees were more predominant than the grass and the water was running clear down a shallow gradient, two juvenile mallards announced my arrival, and their desire for my departure, by flushing from the creek edge. I waited a while, hoping that the tides would turn and I would have an easy push downstream.

Such was not the case, and in an ironic déjà vu, my paddle downstream was more like a hard paddle upstream. Now mimicking an outbound juvenile, I made my way downstream, taking time to explore some of the many side channels in the Ellsworth estuary and finding the old pilings that hearken back to the days of logging camps here.

Remnants of the infrastructure for old logging camps. © David Ryan / TNC

The wind had picked up as I reached the Naselle River. Foregoing the calmer river edge, I steered into the rodeo-like chop caused by a 10-20 mph headwind combined with the confused seas of conflicting tides and currents. Still thinking of salmon migrating up Ellsworth Creek, as the swells splashed over the bow and into my face I wondered, "Do salmon exult?" When they fight their way upstream through rapids and falls, do they exult in their life's work? I hope so.

Total round-trip distance: 5.7 miles

Total trip time: 2.5 hours