Down the River

A winter’s day on the Skagit

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

It was to be a day of rest, a respite from the busy-ness and hoopla. We had it on our calendars: Nothing today.

And then Gary called to invite us on a rafting excursion down the Skagit River with his friend Frank, a boatman who lives way the hell out there, up the Cascade River Road out of Marblemount. The weather was promising. The eagles were profuse. Who could say no? So much for our day of nothing.

We met Frank at the Eatery in Marblemount (Frank calls it Tootsie’s) and launched beneath the bridge at the Marblemount boat launch. The morning drizzle had stopped and by the time we had Frank’s pontoon raft loaded, broken clouds revealed patches of sacré bleu overhead. Auspicious.

We shoved off into the current, immediately joining the river’s pulsing rhythm. The murmuring of the water harmonized with the music of wrens, singing their lilting, melancholy theme song. Marvelous harlequin ducks dallied in the eddies. Frank tried a few casts, but nothing doing.

We moved downriver, passing eagles perched along the shores, watching us with their iron-willed raptor stares. They, of course, are the main attraction on the river at this time of year. Rafts packed with “eagle peepers” floated by now and again, glittering with binoculars.

We beached the raft on a sandy little island. The beach was covered with animal tracks and fish bones. A few bare willows, faintly red, lent a splash of color to the monochromatic scene. On the shores, ghostly shrouds of lichen adorned the dark trees.

Frank casted a few times from the island and, in less than five minutes, landed a burly steelhead. Catch and release. We ate some hummus and then rejoined the current.

Frank loves the river. You can see it in his eyes and hear it in his voice when he talks about it. He works in Bellingham and commutes three hours a day so that he can live beside the sparkling water in the last house with power on the lonely Cascade River Road. Frank is committed to the river. We felt fortunate to be aboard his raft on this fine winter’s day.

This portion of the 150-mile long Skagit is designated a Wild and Scenic River and is managed by the National Forest Service, along with the Sauk, Suiattle, and Cascade tributaries. These banks were home to the Skagit tribe for thousands of years before Henry Custer “discovered” them in 1859.

The scene, today, is still certainly wild and scenic.

The river in this stretch flowed smoothly, with nary a protruding rock and only a few scattered and easily-avoidable log jams. We slid downstream, flying over the rock-mosaic bottom clearly visible six feet down through the crystalline water. Behind us, to the east, the clouds blew away, revealing the snow-white crown of El Dorado against a deep blue sky.

We beached the raft just past the Rockport bridge and adjourned to the nearby tavern, where (of course) everybody knows Frank, for a round of celebratory beers and some wild talk about river trips yet to come.

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