Skagit Paddle

A river runs through it

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Paddling down the Skagit River, the last thing I expected was a current running up the South Fork, pushing me into the North Fork.

My car was at the Conway boat ramp. I’d gotten a ride to Burlington and already paddled three hours against blustery winds. The North Fork leading to La Conner was not an option.

On this first day of clear weather after weeks of dense smoke, I had launched my kayak from a gravel bed near the Burlington Railroad bridge, startling a flock of Canada geese.

The whoosh of tires told me when Riverside Boulevard was overhead. Then I passed under I-5, feeling the pressure waves of heavy trucks banging and thumping above. This is the bridge which fell into the river not long ago; when would metal fatigue strike again?

Cruising the three-mile river bend to Mount Vernon, it was briefly quiet. Beneath me I saw tangles of sunken roots, their trunks yearning downstream, broken tops bobbing like heads of otters or seals, dripping with moss. I tried to avoid them, but felt a thump from time to time. 

On a sandbar, one bleached skeleton tree stretched nearly a hundred feet from root to tip, awaiting the next flood to carry it to the ocean.

High rock dikes protect the little town of Avon, west Mount Vernon, and the City of Anacortes’ water intake. Sprinkles of rain meant it was time to put on my jacket: nearly impossible to wiggle into without getting out of the boat. Delicately, I eased myself out onto a splintery floating dock. A false move would send the kayak in one direction and me into the water.

Raising a hellish metallic banging, a giant excavator hoisted jagged boulders from waiting trucks, dropping them at the water’s edge, pounding them into place. The Army Corps of Engineers won’t be leaving Mount Vernon to flood again.

Traffic noise increased as I passed Lions’ Park and under the Division Street truss-swing bridge, built in 1954, which no longer opens for boat traffic.

A heron on a limb above me took flight with a squawk. An orange fishing boat decorated with Confederate flags roared past, making beautiful ripples to reflect sky and trees.

After the South Fork and its moment of frenzy, I splashed into a quiet pool carpeted with green and yellow leaves; then another with white feathers and after, gray feathers—like some fairytale quest.

Floating foam and the smell of cattle betrayed the presence of Fir Island. The dike looked low here, overgrown with alders and blackberries—perhaps it’s not on the Corps of Engineers’ list of priorities?

I heard the traffic on the Conway bridge. Two Jet Skis buzzed past, gratefully out of sight as I nosed my craft onto the ramp and tumbled out, rear-first into the mud.

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