What’s a family to do on a wide-open, weekend afternoon with no set plans? If you’re itching to give your brood a history lesson mixed with a good dash of the great outdoors and plenty of wildlife-viewing, drive 20 miles north of Portland to the Cathlapotle Plankhouse in the tranquil Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. Read on to learn about this hidden gem and why you need to grab your binoculars, put on your most comfortable walking shoes and pack a picnic lunch for this memorable trip back in time.

Photo credit: Maura O’Brien

The Plankhouse
As Lewis & Clark made their way to the Pacific Ocean in 1805, they observed the Chinook village of Cathlapotle in the floodplain of the Columbia River. The explorers stopped to trade in the village, which was then home to 900 people and 14 large plankhouses, and even returned one year later on their journey eastward. Although the Chinook people eventually left the village, the Chinook Indian Nation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Friends of the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge partnered in 2005 to construct a modern plankhouse to help visitors understand the lifestyle, culture, and history of the people who once lived in Cathlapotle.

Today, the plankhouse is open to the public on weekend afternoons, when friendly and knowledgeable volunteers help bring this historic community to life. Kids of all ages will learn how the people of Cathlapotle hunted, how they collected food, and how they used the land in each season. And they will see first-hand the ingenious methods the Chinook used to cook their salmon, to heat their water and to build their homes.

Photo credit: Maura O’Brien

The Refuge
Once you’ve toured the plankhouse, step outside to experience the beauty of the surrounding Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge. Established in 1965 as a winter habitat for dusky Canada geese, this 5,128-acre expanse is now a haven for great blue herons, sandhill cranes, bald eagles, painted turtles, river otters, black-tailed deer, and dozens of other species of waterfowl, shorebirds, and mammals. Got your walking shoes on? Grab a map and a wildlife checklist from the day use permit station and hit the Oaks to Wetlands Trail, a flat 2-mile loop that’s an easy walk for little feet that doubles as a bird-watching adventure. Prefer to take in the scenery from the car? Drive a short distance to the River “S” section of the refuge on S. 9th Ave., where you’ll find a 4.2-mile auto loop that is ideal for viewing wildlife while everyone’s still strapped into their car seats.

Special Events
As the plankhouse celebrates its 10th year and the refuge marks its 50th, 2015 will be full of special events and celebrations. On Mother’s Day, stop by the plankhouse for children’s activities from noon-4 p.m., as well as a presentation by Pat Courtney Gold, a weaver, artist, and member of the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs, who will discuss the native woman’s perspective of the Lewis & Clark expedition (2 p.m.). Otherwise, keep a eye open for Second Sunday activities—free with the price of refuge admission—on the plankhouse event calendar.

Getting There
With no reservations needed, a visit to the Cathlapotle Plankhouse and Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge is perfect for a wide open, plan-free afternoon. Follow I-5 north from Portland to Exit 14; turn left on Pioneer St. and follow the road into Ridgefield until it dead ends at N. Main Ave. Turn right, and drive until you reach the refuge headquarters. The plankhouse is an easy 500-yard walk from the parking lot, just over the train bridge.

Cathlapotle Plankhouse at the Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge
Open Apr.-Oct.
Sat. & Sun., noon-4 p.m.
Day use fee: $3/car
28908 NW Main Ave.
Ridgefield, Wa
Online: ridgefieldfriends.org/plankhouse

Have you been to the Cathlapotle Plankhouse? Let us know in the comments below!

— Maura O’Brien

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