Umatilla Wildlife Refuge and the Lost Office

The refuge includes land on both sides of the Columbia River, islands in the river, wetlands along the river, crop lands, high desert with sagebrush and bitterbrush, and an area of sand dunes. Such variety of habitat meant variety of birds. With sagebrush possibly we could see sage grouse, a species we had never seen.

Leaving the interstate highway we drove into the town of Umatilla, site of the refuge office according to Butcher. But Butcher’s book was published seven years ago. The office isn’t in Umatilla now. Not only that, people I asked about the refuge office, in the town library and city office building, didn’t know where it had been moved, to Irrigon, first town to the south, they thought.

We’d come through Irrigon on the way to Umatilla. We drove back to Irrigon. But nobody I asked there knew where the Umatilla Wildlife Refuge office was either. Perhaps, a couple of people suggested, it was at the state fish hatchery a few miles south.  It wasn’t. But at the fish hatchery they told me there was a refuge facility of some kind behind a grain elevator just a half mile farther south.

That, it turned out, was a refuge maintenance area, a place where there were shops and equipment. There was nobody there when we got there but an hour later a maintenance man drove in.

“The Umatilla Refuge office,” he said, “it’s not in Oregon, it’s in Burbank, Washington, the other side of the river.”

By then it was late afternoon. I asked if there was some place nearby where we could park and stay in our motorhome overnight.

“Sure. We have a primitive campground just half a mile from here. Come on, I’ll lead you.”

That, like the office location, was a change. According to Butcher no camping is permitted at the Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge.

The campground, along the bank of the Columbia River, had parking sites and one pit toilet and it was deserted, probably, we agreed, because nobody but employees of the refuge knew where it was. There, however, from the windows of our RV we saw ring-billed gulls, mallards, double-crested cormorants and white pelicans. While walking in the campground I saw flocks of Brewer’s blackbirds. During the night we heard coyotes call.

Leaving the campground in the morning we drove back through Irrigon and Umatilla, crossed the river into Washington, got lost in Kinnewick and Pasco, and eventually found Burbank. But not an office for the Umatilla National Wildlife Refuge. Outside Burbank, however, we’d driven by an office and visitor center for the McNary National Wildlife Refuge. Leaving Burbank we went to McNary and that, we found, was the office and headquarters for McNary and Umatilla and six other refuges.

We didn’t go back to the Umatilla Refuge. Nor did we see much of McNary though from an observation deck outside the visitor center we saw more ring-billed gulls, more double-crested cormorants and golden-crowned sparrows on the ground beneath a bird feeder.

We didn’t see any of the other refuges of the complex, as they called it. We didn’t see those thousands of ducks. We didn’t see sand dunes or sage brush or sage grouse. But we intend to go back some day. Now we know where the refuge office is. Now we have an up-to-date brochure, which states, “No camping on the refuge.”

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