Friday, August 28, 2015

Lions and Tigers and Bears--at Northwest Trek, not a Zoo

My family recently took a field trip to Northwest Trek. An odd name for a wild animal park where the tourists are confined and the animals roam free.

It's located not far from Mt. Rainier, about an hour and a half's drive from Seattle. Excitement built as we left the city and eased onto roadways through pastures and firs, and finally, the forest.

Northwest Trek immediately welcomes with a gentle, wholesome atmosphere. Staffed with fresh-faced animal lovers rather than "cast-members" or salespeople, it's about wildlife, not providing wild life. There's a grassy picnic area for unfurling your own blanket, no regular restaurants. The view is breathtaking Cascade foothills, looming Douglas Fir, a curvy lake with the descriptive name, "Horseshoe."

You board a tram that's not on a track, open on all sides (except the top--this is the Northwest, and rain is expected), and even parents feel like it's a class outing. The young guide inquisitively searches for movement along the road. We slow to a plod as a mama moose, trailed closely by her baby, saunters in front of the tram. After they wander into a wood, we see a herd of long-horned sheep lying in the shade. Peculiar bumps poke from a muddy pond as we pass--bull frogs that each year multiply so freely that soon they'll unbalance the habitat.  Over a clearing of bleached grass we find where the buffalo play--or rather, lie around, several generations together. Our tram comes so close that if we violated the no-hands-out rule, we might have stroked them.

Next to us, on an embankment at eye level, a white mountain goat returns our stares. Later, some resting reindeer whose antlers impossibly weight their heads barely acknowledge our movement just a few yards from their siestas.

The deer and the antelope did play, though not together. The 435 acres of free-range area lets them live pretty much predator-free. On the perfect-temperature day we visited, we saw no animal conflict. White trumpeter swans floated next to colorful ducks on a serene pond; rams sat contentedly together. So droll to live in harmony.

Northwest Trek does have its zoo-ish aspects. Wild cats have enclosed areas, as do certain fowl, like the barn owls perched waxen-like in a faux barn. The Snowy Owl appeared wise, peering out from a small structure that might have been its library.

Unlike the Washington DC National Zoo that we visited recently, the forest setting felt relaxed. A huge area with viewing huts on opposite sides contained bears that managed to elude my zoom lens other than one who revealed his, um, lumberingly large backside. And there were the otters and beavers and skunks and porcupines, and all the Northwestern creatures at which you wouldn't normally marvel.

In Yiddish, you'd call Northwest Trek "haimish," kind of family-style, accessible, easy to embrace.Though you can't actually embrace the wild critters here, the emphasis
is on them, not on providing humans with a selflie-stick moment. After the tram-ride, we enjoyed a sandwiches-from-home picnic, and then headed for an adjacent un-plugged-in adventure--an aerial obstacle course, with tree-platform stations connecting rope bridges, tightrope, ziplines and wood-slat walks that challenged confidence and courage.

Our best family memories are on days like that, when we can together encounter amazements of God's world in person, not on a screen. The perfect way to admire the beauty of the Northwest with enough education and enlightenment to take home as a souvenir.