River Ruminations

Paddling the Middle Skagit

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

Skagit River floods are legendary. Since 1900, more than 50 have reached a flow of 100,000 cubic feet per second (cfs). And several, double that amount. Less than half the river basin is regulated by dams and there’s zero prospect of any more.

Launching my kayak into the river in Concrete recently, I found the Skagit running at a mild 8,600 cfs. Here, the Baker River joins with another 5,000 cfs. The marriage is like two giants arm-wrestling. I eagerly pointed down the “V” while waves bounced into my lap.

Maple trees lined the banks in glorious colors. The sky was thinly overcast. Smiling, I waved at fishermen who, scowling at their miserable luck, ignored mere paddlers.

My companion and I passed under the scenic Dalles Bridge on the Concrete-Sauk Valley road. Built in 1952, it put three rustic ferries out of business. These had been taking passengers across first by canoe, then by cable-secured flatboats, for three-quarters of a century. 

A century ago, the riverbanks looked vastly different. The south shore was occupied with logging and gold mining. The north shore, initially agricultural, was being transformed by construction of five massive electrical generation dams on the Baker and Skagit rivers. A railroad line from Burlington to Newhaven brought equipment, workers and cement from the huge plant at Concrete—with an accompanying pall of gray dust.

On our journey, it was peaceful. The unusual 180-degree bend at “Cape Horn” came into sight. A popular neighborhood almost surrounded by the river, residents here and in nearby Hamilton are regularly rescued from flooded homes by rowboat. FEMA has offered to cash them out, but many “wouldn’t live anywhere else.”

What forces a massive river to turn around on itself at Cape Horn?  The answer is a 20-foot cliff, its layers of glacial boulders reinforced by a band of solid volcanic rock—likely a deposit of the pyroclastic flow which swept down the Skagit from Glacier Peak 1,750 years ago. Who ever thinks about Glacier Peak, possibly the most dangerous volcano in the state?

I contemplated glaciers and volcanoes while the Skagit spun grandly in a river-wide whirlpool; it was like riding a great horse shying away from a snake. We paddled south, and the river found its way west again. 

We took a break on a beach to stretch, drained our kayaks and ate lunch.

A line of ancient timbers driven into the riverbed nearby may be remains of the Birdsview ferry landing. Opposite, on the south shore at Pressentin Creek, a rough foot trail through brambles is one of the few river public access points (in spite of what the guidebook Paddling Washington suggests).

Fed and dried, we drifted a few more miles to our takeout near Hamilton, where my van was parked. This is Shangri-la Road, named for once-abundant salmon fishing, but now only an echo of riches long gone.

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