River Views

Paddling the upper Skagit

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

Eighty-four miles of fabulous scenery await the adventurous paddler on the Skagit River. From Newhalem to the bay there are as many as a dozen places where you can park off the highway to launch.

Three bodies of water make up the Skagit. The river rises in Canada and meets the Baker River at Concrete. Both are controlled by dams for electric power. Where the untamed Sauk River joins, its glacial powder turns the whole river opaque.

Earlier this summer, I launched in Marblemount. In winter, eagle-watchers drift on commercial rafts from there to Rockport, hoping to catch the birds diving for spawning salmon. Howard Miller County Park is the headquarters, with camping spots and a rare dugout canoe in which Samish men, for a fee, ferried settlers across the river and maneuvered logs to downstream mills.

Canada geese watched me from the bank. A flock of seagulls flew up to disappear into the blue as an eagle glided harmlessly between them. A bend in the river revealed a fresh beaver dam on a tiny creek.

The river twisting northwest, I drifted backward to admire Glacier Peak. This is not always a good idea, as the river can charge along at 10 miles per hour. Each rapid announces itself loudly.

“Go down the V,” I was told, but was it left, right or center? Some rapids leap into your lap and spin you around, but if you avoid them, you risk stranding on a gravel bed. Higher water flows may increase the difficulty, but the huge, sunken boulders I skimmed over would be pretty challenging at lower water. 

I photographed Mt. Baker, tucked away the camera and looked up to find myself a paddle stroke away from a massive tangle of logs. Logjams build up at islands and large rocks. Another hazard is “sweepers,” where the river undercuts the bank until trees lean into the current. And half-sunken snags drag on the bottom, splashing alarmingly up and down.

Along the 30 miles from Rockport to Lyman, lawn chairs, shelters, tents, cabins and comfortable homes overlook the river. As I passed the Cape Horn subdivision on the fifth of July, a group of men fired at clay targets over the water, and on the beach lay dozens of spent skyrocket casings.

From Shangri-La Road, the Skagit is once more “wild and scenic” as it braids through many islands. On this day, herons stalked the shallows and hundreds of swallows and waxwings swooped above the water, catching insects. An otter peeked over a log.

Power lines, gas transmission pipes, railway and highway bridges announced Riverside Park in Sedro-Woolley. Then I shot beneath the bridge piers and entered several more miles of unspoiled river.

When the first dike loomed on the north side, I was greeted by the aroma of cattle. Welcome to Gardner Street, Burlington.

If you continue another 19 miles to Skagit Bay or La Conner, expect to find the river increasingly influenced by tides. Keep your eyes on the current and go down the “V.”

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