A large drop of water fell on my leg. Then another on my arm. A deep boom of thunder reverberated through the mountain peaks. Rain drops began to pour down on us. Onto the trees and shrubs, cascading onto the ground, and feeding, right there at our feet, into the tiny creek that was the source of the mighty Skagit River. These drops of rain falling on us would eventually make their way 160 miles down the length of the Skagit River, through Ross, Diablo, and Gorge Lakes and their respective dams, through a tunnel dug two miles into a mountain toward Newhalem, where it resumed its natural state as a river in an undammed riverbed, winding through protected Wild and Scenic areas, and joining up with the Sauk and Baker rivers before making its way through fertile farmlands of Skagit Valley into Skagit Bay.
Over the next 9 days, I’d be hiking, canoeing, rafting, and sea kayaking that entire stretch, minus a few miles of the tunnel through the mountain, and adding on a few more miles to finish where I spent the first 18 years of my life in the small town of Bay View on Padilla Bay.
Finding the source of the Skagit was surprisingly easy. And surprisingly well defined. The Crowsnest Highway in BC follows the river up to Allison Pass. The drainage on the east side goes into the Similkimeen, and the west side, into the Skagit. We explored around the pass, looking at the features of the mountains to gauge where the furthest source might be, but it turned out it was almost right under our noses.
We hiked along the highway, following the tiny stream until it finally opened up into a marsh, and then into a dry gully. Then nothing. So there it was, the moment the Skagit River starts its epic journey. An actual location where it goes from nothing to something. I’m no expert on finding the sources of rivers, but this was much more definitive than I expected. And in spite of the roaring highway behind us, there was a profound sense of intimacy, witnessing this great river’s birth.
Our first 22 miles on foot followed the path of the river through a surprisingly diverse range of forests. Dense old growth cedar groves, arid pine forests, and classic douglas fir stands. It was clear there was a huge range of rainfall and micro-climates around here. The river was energetic and raw. Already gaining power but still just a toddler in the life of this river.
We’d been warned about the prolific bear population around here. And although they rarely made an appearance, there were a few grizzlies in the area as well. We talked, clapped, wore a bear bell, and kept a canister of bear spray ready. But we didn’t see a single bear on the hike. That would come later in the trip.
We spent the night at a surprisingly decent sized campground along the river about 12 miles north of Ross Lake. A 40 mile long dirt road from Hope provides access to the campground (and Ross Lake), and our canoe shuttle met us there for the night. We ate well, fished a little, and watched the stars.
The next day we decided to hike the dirt road down to Ross Lake as opposed to the trail. The road was closer to the river and a couple miles shorter. We made good time, getting to the border park in three hours.
Ross Lake is not actually a lake. It’s a reservoir formed by Ross Dam, the most recent and largest of the three dams on the Skagit River. In the early 1900’s, Seattle City Light Superintendent JD Ross dreamed up a vision of publicly owned hydroelectric system situated on the Skagit River that could cheaply and reliably power the city. Over the next 50 years, Ross made that vision a reality. Ross reservoir is long and slender, stretching 24 miles through the heart of the North Cascades following the path of the Skagit River and at full pool in the summer months, crossing the border roughly a mile into southern BC.
We loaded our gear into a canoe our friend had dropped off and got on the water just as a wall of wind and whitecaps stormed up the lake. This would be the pattern for the next 8 days - calm mornings and windy afternoons. The wind, of course, was always in our face.
We talked about waiting it out, but we weren’t too keen on sitting around for hours when there was no guarantee it’d stop before dark. We hugged the shore and took breaks at each protected point, bracing ourselves for the next blast of wind and whitecaps. As the sun’s intensity began to fade in the late afternoon, it cast a warm glow across the mountains and the wind quieted down.
As we ventured away from the shore, we spotted something in the middle of the lake, maybe a half mile away. We figured it was probably a log, but curiosity drove us to investigate. As we made our way toward it, it appeared to change directions. Strange. Yes, clearly, this thing was moving. Our ideas about what it was evolved as we got closer. A bird? A deer? A cougar? It’s a bear! A sunbleached black bear was making the roughly mile wide crossing of the lake slowly and steadily by itself. We got within a stone’s throw of the animal, listening to it’s deep exhales and feeling its powerful strokes. It didn’t acknowledge our presence, but we gave it plenty of distance, knowing that it probably was feeling vulnerable and it wouldn’t take much for it to knock us over. Neither of us were too keen on swimming with a bear. We snapped pictures while keeping one hand on our paddles, ready to paddle away in a moment if necessary. It was a majestic scene, witnessing this powerful animal determinedly crossing the lake.
We paddled the majority of the lake the next day, getting started on a glassy surface and finding ourselves sucked into the meditative state of this dreamy setting in the mountains. Though we knew the afternoon wind was inevitable, we couldn’t resist taking our time, stopping for snacks, lunch, swimming, and fishing breaks. Again, just after 1:00pm, a line of whitecaps appeared on the horizon and raced toward us. Again, we focused on incremental progress, pausing at each protected point before battling through the next wind-battered open stretch. After a half-day of this, we found a protected dock and waited out the wind, content to swim, eat, and relax until it died down.
As dusk settled, we made our way to our campsite for the night, sharing an island with a group of adventurous retired women. They welcomed us and cooked up some fire-roasted steak which we inhaled.
We paddled the remaining two miles of the lake in the morning, hitching a shuttle truck around Ross Dam to the base of the dam where the greenish crystal waters of the Skagit are absorbed into the milky turquoise of Diablo’s other main tributary, Thunder Creek. In the morning calm, we made good time and rounded the corner into Thunder Arm just as the wind picked up. For the first time on the trip (and only time for the rest of it) we had the wind at our back. We took advantage of it and let the wind do the work, carrying us to where our shuttle would meet us at Colonial Creek Campground.
From here, the river would follow the highway through towns with growing frequency all the way to the mouth. This was the section of the river famous for steelhead fishing, for bald eagle tours, and that wound through Sedro-Woolley, Burlington, and Mount Vernon. It felt like the end of remoteness. But it also marked the least explored section of the river for me. I’d been to Ross and Diablo lakes numerous times, and while I’d raft guided many times on the Skagit from Newhalem nine miles downriver, I’d never been on most of the last 70 miles of the river to Skagit Bay - ironically, the area closest to where I’d spent the first 18 years of my life. I was eager to start this stretch of the river and see the world I’d grown up in from a different viewpoint.
My wife Jamie picked us up with our canoe and shuttled us to Goodell Creek Campground in Newhalem, where the river pops out of the two-mile long tunnel through the mountain at the Gorge Powerhouse. We sorted food and gear, pumped up the raft, set up the oar frame, made dinner, and set up our tents.
As we wrapped up dinner, some friends that knew about our journey stopped by our campsite and took us on an adventure to the Gorge Powerhouse at night. What a sight. A trail next to Gorge Powerhouse led us up a few sets of stairs, following Ladder Creek Falls. Various colored spotlights shone on the numerous waterfalls and pools, giving it a surreal, almost theme park feel. This little publicized feature revived by Seattle City Light captures a piece of the grandiose history of the once magnificent dam tours. JD Ross was not only a visionary, he was an entertainer, and he was intent on showing tax paying citizens of Seattle a good time. This magnificent light show was only part of the scene. There were exotic gardens, extravagant meals, and even a zoo. He had monkeys placed on an island in Diablo Lake for the boat tours to see. Guests would park in Rockport and ride a steam train (now viewable in Newhalem) up to the dams, fed and entertained the whole time. Hundreds of people each weekend would fill the bunkhouses. Their cars would be washed when they returned. It was a huge attraction. And one they wouldn’t forget.
The morning sun filtered a dappled light through the trees as Jamie and I got on the river the next morning. This was the real thing. The real river, flowing free and naturally. And as stunning as the dammed lakes are, it felt good to reconnect with the river in its native form.
The first nine miles were comfortably familiar. Most of the same logs, riffles, and rapids in place that had been here the last time I guided five years ago. One of the benefits of being dam controlled is that there’s not as big a fluctuation in the river level as there are on most. The highs are not as high, and the lows are not as low. While the rest of the rafting world takes a break as the late summer snow melts taper off, the Skagit draws boaters with its steady flow.
There’s really just one significant rapid on the Skagit. It goes by various names: Shovelspur, the Portage, and the S-Bends. You hear it before you see it. At the end of a long straight, narrow section of the river, the water makes a horizon line where the river below is no longer visible except for an occasional splash of water tossed up. Jamie held on as I rowed us through the heart of the wave trains, trying to get Jamie as wet as possible in the bow of the boat, driving away from the rocks on the right bank, dodging the reversal, and keeping our boat away from the rocks at the bottom of the rapid. We were dumped out into the bubbling pool of flat water at the bottom and spun around as the river tried to figure out where to go next. Jamie was soaked and had a giant grin on her face. I felt the same grin on my face. We laughed and immediately began debriefing our experience of the rapid, both of us thinking one of the waves on the second wave train had grown since we’d last rafted here. We were both relieved and at the same time wanted to do it again.
The river turned placid, relaxedly flowing as a single entity over the rounded river rocks below us. We relaxed, ate, and floated down for another couple of miles until we got to the place where we normally take out as guides. But this time, we didn’t take out. This marked the beginning of new territory. New territory on the way home.
Once again, the wind picked up in the afternoon. In spite of the current helping us in our cause, the wind made for a long afternoon of rowing as we tried to cover 24 miles to where Jamie would be picked up.
We made it to Rockport and said our farewells. We’d see each other in two days when she would drop off a pair of kayaks, gear, and my sea kayaking partner. Until then, I’d be flying solo for my first time on the trip.
That night was warm, clear and quiet. A moderate breeze drove ripples of water up the river. I set up a tripod at the river’s edge and lost myself in trying to capture the dusky light...the water and sky divided by the silhouette of the mountains...the moon filtering through the swaying trees, its reflection broken in the waves of the river. The leaves whispered in the wind. I was witnessing an intimate dance. It was a dream state.
The next day I remained in that dream, losing my “self” to the rhythms of the water, the trees, the birds, and the occasional splash of giant salmon jumping. This is why I return to natural places. To simultaneously lose myself and find myself. To feel small but also connected to something much bigger - the elements of my environment and the forces that shape us. In this state of connection, I’m on the same frequency as my environment. The distinction between everything diminishes, all of it part of the same fabric.
The connection began to fade as the day wore on. Hunger and fatigue grew, and the wind picked up, relentlessly this time. Even trying to keep up with the current was a chore. I finally reached the sandbar I’d hoped to camp at. I was wiped out. I pulled up the boat, sat on the sand, and tried to eat, but the wind blew sand into everything: my eyes, ears, gear, and food. I tried to use the boat as a windbreak, but could still barely open my eyes with the wind blowing sand everywhere. There was no protection and no shade. Eventually I got back into the boat and huddled into a corner, trying to find some protection from the elements.
The wind died down with enough daylight for me to cook dinner. I pulled out the camera and tripod again to snap some photos of another amazing sunset and dusk, the raft dark against the river with the mountains in the background. As I settled into my sleeping bag, I realized I missed my friends and family. It had been a powerful solo experience over the last day, but I was worn out and ready to share the experience with someone, that reflection feeling like an essential part of human experience.
I woke in the morning soaked with dew, a chill in the air. I recalled the cries of a pack of coyotes throughout the night, wondering what they’d scored. I packed up hastily, ate a granola bar, and drove the boat downstream, keeping an eye out for the Hamilton boat launch, in the town that floods almost every year.
I pulled my boat up the launch. Nobody was there, but they were on their way with breakfast. I unloaded and cleaned all the gear: the cooler, the dryboxes, drybags, oars, oar frame, straps, and got it all ready to load up in the car. When they arrived we took another two hours trying to figure out what to bring and how to fit it in our boats. Going from a raft to a kayak is like going from an RV to a bike, and took some serious paring down of equipment. The weather called for hot, dry conditions, so we unloaded most of our clothes, and kept the essentials: food, gear, and whiskey.
I’d expected this section of the river to be calm, flat, and simple, but it wasn’t exactly that. Almost immediately we encountered a small wave train around a bend, followed by a 3-way split in the river with logs in every channel. We were in sea kayaks on a river. Long and straight, our boats were great for going long distances efficiently, typically in a pretty straight line. On the river we were trying to make quick turns and paddle in short bursts. I’d actually never been on a river in a kayak. I hadn’t realized how hard it would be to see what is approaching from the water level view of a kayak compared to the relative birds-eye view from a raft. Still, it was really fun, and kept things exciting. And it was nice to share the river with an old buddy.
Signs of civilization became more frequent. We passed through Sedro-Woolley, then under highway 9 bridge and railroad tracks. Our destination for the night was a friend’s home in the Skagit farmlands between Sedro-Woolley and Burlington. Her kids stood on the dike and waved flags so we’d know where to pull out. The river presented its last challenge for the day, breaking up into four channels, all of which had log jams. We took the clearest path and had to ferry upstream to an eddy to take out. With our boats loaded, the steep rocky bank posed a tough challenge for us at the end of a long day of paddling. We stumbled up the dike, somehow keeping our boats intact.
The hike to their house turned out to be longer than expected, another hour of carrying our loaded boats across fields to reach it. But it was worth the wait. A garden oasis in the midst of the farmland. I took my first shower in a week, shedding the dirt and sweat accumulated from 135 miles of hiking, paddling, camping, swimming, and rowing on river. I snapped photos of their beautiful garden of sunflowers, roses, and lilies in the warm glow of sunset. They fed us barbequed burgers, juice, and dessert. We felt like kings.
We set out our sleeping bags under a pergola alive with creeping vines. The cool late August air had hints of fall just around the corner. I slept a deep, dreamless sleep, waking rested and ready for the day.
This was my last day on the river. The remaining 18 miles were the setting of the first 18 years of my life. I’d passed by or crossed this river countless times throughout those years. The river that formed a boundary separating rival towns of Burlington and Mount Vernon. The river that shaped the valley and brought tremendously rich nutrients to the world famous farmland known for its tulips, potatoes, berries, and seeds. The river that formed a highway for world famous steelhead runs. Livelihoods and the local economy depended on this river; the third largest river on the West Coast, and I’d barely touched its surface in my backyard.
Today, that would change.
Our hosts told us to throw our boats in the back of their pickup truck, and we gladly obliged. We sat in back and watched the fields recede as we drove through a neighborhood to the boat launch. We gave hugs and thanks, and got back on the water. We passed under the recently infamous I-5 collapsing bridge, past the Wal-Mart and the Anacortes water treatment plant (ironically, Anacortes gets its drinking water from the Skagit River in Mount Vernon, while Mount Vernon and Burlington do not), and approached old town Mount Vernon. My dad had worked here since I was born, with his first office right on the revetment. The old town shops had changed over the years, but the buildings were essentially the same as they were 40 years ago.
The river color and texture changed, and we realized we’d entered the tidal zone. Soon after, we reached a fork in the river. The south fork leading through Conway then splitting further into a series of fingers to the river delta. We’d be taking the north fork, through an old hippie art community called Fish Town and emptying out near La Conner.
We kept our momentum going, riding the dropping tide and hoping to avoid the afternoon winds. Other than the towns, the river seemed deserted. We hadn’t seen another boat on the river in two days. Apparently fishing season was not open yet. We began to get whiffs of salty sea air. We started hearing seabirds and seeing the landscape shift to grassy mudflats and rocky island cliffs. As we made the official entrance to the Skagit Bay, a bald eagle witnessed our conclusion to the river trip. It felt symbolic, and it watched us exit the river without leaving its perch next to the river.
We took a break on a sandy beach created by the jetty built to keep the shipping channel clear of silt from the river. A narrow opening called the “hole-in-the-wall” allowed fish a pathway to and from the river, and also allowed kayakers a channel through the jetty. We caught it at low tide, so after lunch, we carried our boats through the opening and launched on the other side officially in the salt water. The transition was undeniably complete. Yachts paraded up and down the Swinomish Channel, on their way to and from La Conner and who knows where else. We felt a bit of culture shock, but embraced it. Riding the flooding current, we cruised under Rainbow Bridge into LaConner, found a dock to tie up on between a couple of 80 foot yachts, and stepped out of the blazing sun into the nearest bar.
We didn’t know where we were going to camp for the night, our best options already behind us. We put feelers out to some locals for places to camp on the Channel, half-thinking that one might offer a deck or yard to set up our sleeping bag. We eventually heard about a spot about ½ mile up the Channel - some sandy beaches past the marina. We loaded up and headed there, finding a perfect sandy spot between the Channel and the farmlands. The harvest was on, and we heard the constant hum of tractors nearby. It was peaceful, and the feeling of home in my bones. The smells and sounds, bringing up such strong connections to my childhood, the house where I grew up only a couple miles away.
I thought about the trip and why I’d done it. What appealed about this adventure over the endless possibilities out there. I thought about my upcoming 40th birthday and my own journey to midlife. While it wasn’t the only factor, it certainly played a role in this trip. Or maybe more than midlife, it was fatherhood. I became a dad two years ago, and while I didn’t notice any profound shift in myself when my son was born, I’m certain I’ve changed more in the past two years than I had in the previous twenty. Part of this evolution has been a stronger awareness of and connection with my own story... childhood, parents and how they showed up for me as a kid, siblings, the space I grew up in. It’s almost like for the first 38 years of my life I’d had the telephoto lens on and was constantly zoomed in on details and specifics. The last two years, though, feels like I’ve been panning back into a wide angle. Seeing more of the big picture and how it all fits together. My place in the myriad of stories going on, how the pieces all fit together and giving more context to things that happened, things that didn’t. Following the Skagit River was a way for me to understand the forces that shaped the world I grew up in, and in the process, understand myself.
As we set off in the morning, the darkness just beginning to give way to dawn, I felt the circle closing. The story coming to its conclusion. The stillness, the the bright pink eastern skyline silhouetting the farmland, the quiet dip of our paddle blades into the water… all of it rich with significance. Each piece a component in the story. We passed under the highway 20 bridge and around a grassy island, our boats just grazing the mud flats below that in a few minutes would be exposed.
The end of our trip was a mile across the bay. We could just make it out now, almost lost in the glare of the sun as it crested the mountains in the distance. The mountains where our story began nine days ago, those raindrops falling to become the source of it all.
The bay was glass. The tide was slack. And the air was still. Our welcoming party wasn’t expecting us for another hour. There was no rush, no urgency. Just us, paddling methodically, absorbed in the magic of the place and the moment.
We neared the beach, the conclusion to this adventure just a few paddle strokes away. I paused, not ready for this journey to end. I looked around, trying to soak it all up. Trying to hold onto this deep connection to where my story began, where it was shaped, and where, today, the story of this adventure ends. The circle was closing. I felt the gravity of it all, that wide-angle perspective on my life, how it all fits together with various generations in my family, the most recent addition, my son. Deep emotions welled up in me. I felt compelled forward, inertia carrying me to the shore.
We carried our boats from the beach up onto the grass and began unloading our gear. We made our last breakfast of the trip. Family began to show up, wanting to hear all about it. I struggled to figure out how I could describe this trip, how it could possibly be translated into words. I was only gone for 9 days, but I felt like I’d been to another world, and needed time to acclimate.
I saw our white station wagon pull up. I left the group in mid-discussion, half-running to the car. My wife stepped out of the car, immediately walking around to open up the back door. I could see his head in the rear seat, trying to see me just as I was trying to see him. She unbuckled and pulled him out. I couldn’t believe how much he’d grown in those nine days, and I wondered if he recognized me. I strode toward him, picking him up and holding him, overcome and trembling with emotion, tears streaming down my face. I couldn’t let go. The three of us held onto each other for minutes. Tears, then laughing, then more tears.
I couldn’t help but think about the cycles of life, the stories involved. My parents, 40 years ago, moving to this place. The stories they brought with them shaping me and my siblings. Now, my parents in their 70’s, taking the place of the elder generation, leaving me and my siblings to step into what seemed like a permanent role for my parents when I was a kid. And this new generation filling our role. Just like the river, the story relentlessly moving forward. From those raindrops into a trickle of a stream at the very start, to the wild and energetic youth of the river through the mountains, to the slow and steady contemplative river entering the bay, the river continuing the cycle, over and over through time.