PADDLING THE SKAGIT
Story by Sue Madsen
From Marblemount to the delta, the Skagit River offers serenity and surprises.
The Skagit River starts 23 miles north of the U.S. border in Manning Provincial Park in B.C. and flows south for 150 miles before emptying into Puget Sound near Mount Vernon. After the Columbia it is Washington’s largest river, with a 59-mile-long section from Concrete to just east of Sedro-Woolley designated as Wild and Scenic. Most importantly, the Skagit River is a paddler’s dream with 85 miles of water that are easily navigated by canoe or kayak. With that temptation in mind I set out in 2012 to paddle the entire length of the Skagit from Marblemount to the sea.Over its length, the Skagit River transforms from a rushing mountain stream that cuts through steep bedrock canyons in the rugged North Cascades to a powerful, winding river traversing fertile farmland. Upstream of the small town of Newhalem the river is broken by a series of reservoirs that are part of Seattle City Light’s Skagit River hydroelectric project. Downstream of Newhalem, the river retains its rambunctious manner for about 10 miles – this section is popular with whitewater kayakers.
Our journey began at Copper Creek, a put-in located 6 miles east of Marblemount. The water in the upper reaches of the Skagit are a deep, translucent green, bordered by conifer forest that is punctuated by the occasional soaring rocky cliff. The water is swift but the rapids are gentle, with only an occasional stretch of Class 2 water. In paddlers’ terms, this means that there may be some rough water and small drops, but only basic paddling skills are required (as opposed to Class 1 water which requires minimal boating skills). Look out for eagles, water ouzels and kingfishers in the air and mink and river otter along the banks. During the late summer in odd years (including 2013) the clear shallow waters of the upper river are filled with thrashing pink salmon building redds and jostling for space. Larger Chinook can also be glimpsed in early September.
Approximately 10 miles downstream of Marblemount, just past the Highway 530 bridge and Howard Miller Steelhead Park, its largest tributary, the Sauk, joins the Skagit River. The Sauk River is also part of the Wild and Scenic River corridor and is fed by glaciers surrounding Glacier Peak to the south. As a result of the turbid glacial melt water, the Sauk’s waters are a milky white in the summer, and paddlers can travel along a clear boundary of the two streams for a mile or more downstream of the confluence before the water mixes and the rivers become one.
Downstream of the Sauk, the Skagit River deepens and paddlers begin to sense the powerful force of the now dark greenish-gray flow. Steep mountain slopes and soaring rocky cliffs give way to large cobble bars and high cliffs of easily erodible glacial sediments that were left over when this part of the valley was a glacial lake backed up behind a lobe of ice which extended down Puget Sound from Canada. This middle section of the Skagit Valley consists of a mix of floodplain forests and small farms. Several large elk herds inhabit the area, and a lucky paddler may glimpse these majestic creatures along the banks. During the late summer, Chinook and coho salmon lurk in the cool, deep pools, and may surprise unwary travelers by leaping in front of the boat.
As we continue downstream we pass fishing shacks and vacation cabins. Farms become more common and the river widens, bordered by large flat sand bars ideal for a short stop to stretch one’s legs and snack. Just upstream of Sedro-Woolley, the Skagit passes under a water supply pipeline, a railroad bridge and Highway 9 in short order. At this point, the transition to farm valley is largely complete, as forests give way to fields and the bustling communities of Sedro-Woolley, Burlington and Mount Vernon.
You can miss the fact that the river passes through the heart of these two towns; despite the pastoral feel, the area represents a refuge and travel corridor for birds and wildlife, and harbors some surprisingly wild creatures.
As we pass Sedro-Woolley and approach the outskirts of Burlington in the late afternoon sunshine, a harbor seal suddenly pops up to check out the brightly colored flotilla invading its hunting grounds. Seals are salt-water animals, but will sometimes travel upstream chasing the large salmon that are its favorite prey; they have been spotted as far upstream as Concrete! The late afternoon sunshine fades and a full moon rises; great-horned owls hoot as we round the big bend and head towards the bank for our take out at Edgewater Park in downtown Mount Vernon. We save the final section for another day.
The river continues downstream of Mount Vernon for a few miles through fields bright with tulips and daffodils during the early spring, then splits in two and fans out to form a large delta. We travel the North Fork Skagit downstream, with the river splitting into ever more numerous channels lined with reeds and willows. At the very end of the river lies Fish Town, an artist community hidden amongst the myriad marshy channels that thrived in the 1960s and ’70s (read Tara Nelson’s article on Fish Town in the summer 2007 edition of Mount Baker Experience). Great blue heron, beaver, and shorebirds are common companions on this section of river.
At low tide, raccoons ply the banks looking for stranded delicacies. Paddlers must pick their way carefully to navigate through the delta successfully by keeping Ika Island over the right shoulder. Once free of the maze, it is but a short crossing to the “hole in the wall,” a narrow channel that breaches the jetty protecting the La Conner boat channel, then up the Swinomish Channel to the end. We take out under the Rainbow Bridge, and then decamp to La Conner to toast the companions who accompanied us on some of this entire 85-mile journey through the heart of the Skagit Valley.
Travelling speed on the Skagit during the summer low flow period is approximately 6 miles per hour. Although it can be done in a single, very long summer day, you will enjoy the float more by camping for a night or two. There are a number of boat launches along the river and a couple of campgrounds. Consider starting at Copper Creek and floating down to Rasar State Park for the first night (about 8 hours/40 miles). From Rasar, continue to Sedro-Woolley (about 4 hours/20 miles beyond Rasar), where River Front Park includes a small RV camping area that could be used as an overnight base, or continue on to La Conner, approximately 25 miles further. Camping is also allowed on lands owned by the USFS, but be considerate and leave no trace. Respect private lands by avoiding areas posted with no trespassing signs, and by stopping only on publicly-owned land. Pack out what you pack in.
Information on river conditions can be found on the USGS real-time stream flow conditions website (waterdata.usgs.gov/wa/nwis/current/?type=flow). Think about flow levels when planning your trip. Shallow flows mean paddlers must take extra care not to scrape or dent the bottom of their boat, and to avoid rocks that may tip the unwary into the water. High water poses different hazards, including floating submerged logs and swift, rough flows.
I have had good luck targeting flow levels between 5,000 and 10,000 cfs at the Marblemount stream gauge, and between 8,000 to 20,000 cfs at the Concrete or Sedro-Woolley stream gauges. Always wear a PFD. Immersion can be dangerous if one is unprepared, as the glacially fed tributaries keep the water temperature low even in late summer.
Also be wary of logjams and avoid getting swept in. The Skagit is generally large enough that such hazards can be seen and avoided by moving away from them while still well upstream, but it is easy to underestimate the speed and power of the seemingly calm flow, so stay alert. X