Autumn Canoeing on Washington's Skagit River

Published by the Military Beat Magasine, 1999

By A. Michael Kundu, Director, Project SeaWolf

As my bow swept along the river’s turn, my dog Sabrina’s ears cocked forward. Standing at the water’s edge were two young Black-tail does, fluttering nervously in-between drinks of cool river water. Instinctively, Sabrina barked and the does were gone, bounding into the shrouded cedars without looking back. As our canoe drifted past their hoof prints in the sand, a large eagle lifted from a cedar almost directly overhead. Sabrina shifted her position slightly to watch it glide away upstream; I planted the paddle deeper into the water and arched the canoe around, savoring the fluid movement of my boat as the current gently guided the motion of my paddle-stroke.

Regardless of what others may tell you, paddling is symbiotic with early winter. Years ago, I came to anxiously correlate the crisp November season with my myriad journals of back country canoe trips. The forests were always alive with activity; wildlife scrambling in preparation for the colder season ahead; colourful autumn warblers are everywhere, and the changing hues and seasonal chill all providing a brisk precursor to coming winter. Going afield in a canoe or kayak in November is a sure-fire way to permeate one’s senses, and give oneself a true reason to feel alive and invigorated.

And in the Pacific Northwest, the landscape accommodates November river excursions most accordingly. While canoeing may seem to take second place to the more popular kayaking sport in the greater Puget Sound, this region is inarguably a paradise for single-blade paddlers as well, with dozens of glacially-fed rivers cascade from the surrounding foothills, creating tributaries ranging from sheltered streams to raging, class five rapids. Early winter is an excellent time to venture out an explore these rivers by canoe, and as long as you remember to plan for cooler temperatures and take the few safety precautions necessary for this time of season.

Enthusiasts should consider paddling the Skagit River between Marblemount and Puget Sound if planning any November trips. This segment of the Skagit is a scenic, soothing run and meanders enough to accommodate novice paddlers or those just beginning the craft. If you pull your canoe out at Steelhead County Park in Rockport, at the junction of Highway 20 and Highway 530, this relaxing paddle will take you a little over an hour.

As our canoe occasionally swung back to the highway, we would encounter the odd fisherman casting flies from the shallows into the slow current. The movement of the flyline attracted Sabrina’s watchful eye, and her sudden shift caught me slightly off-guard. Planting my blade into the current on the opposite side of the canoe, I braced her movement and the boat trimmed normally again. "Sit," I commanded curtly. She gave me an apologetic dog-stare and I moved the canoe to the opposite shore, while the fisherman smiled at the obviously unmatched paddling partners passing his shoreline stance.

Winter run Chum salmon start appearing in the Skagit by late August, and the fish remain until January. The Skagit was once one of the legendary northwest rivers that drew fisherman from miles around, but the numbers of salmon have dwindled over the recent decades, and many fisherman still travel to the river in late autumn to chase the larger fish.

The interesting life cycle and history of salmon traveling the river is easily researched in places like the fish hatchery at Marblemount, where salmon fry and smolts are raised. Returning adult salmon can be seen in the autumn just beside the hatchery in a small creek leading up to the hatchery. In November chum and coho, visitors can view Chum and Coho salmon from the bridge crossing the Skagit River at Rockport, although the best vantage point is clearly from a canoe on the river, where large adult salmon will even on occasion bump into your craft as you traverse shallower areas of the river. At these times, it is highly recommended that you keep a close eye on any excited dogs or small children that might be traveling in your canoe.

The presence of salmon annually in the Skagit has created this to become a world-class eagle watching river. Each winter, Bald eagles by the hundred swarm to the Skagit to feed on the spawned-out salmon that make their final trip up the slow moving river.

Just beyond Marblemount, the River flowed below an old steel bridge where another launch point reached the water. Sabrina and I beached our canoe and pulled out on shore, firing up a small stove and cooking a quick lunch. The forests around the riverbank were dappled with a number of ivory eagle head shilouettes. Along the shore a handful of large salmon carcasses were evident; each having been stripped clean by the hungry birds.

Bald eagles start appearing along the Skagit River in early November, while peak numbers can be seen in January and early February. It is not uncommon for government monitors to report over 500 eagles along a stretch of the river during these months, and the significance of the Skagit River to these birds is such that at peak seasons in January, there are noon hour closures when all boat (including canoe and river raft) traffic is restricted to prevent any interference with the feeding activities of these eagles. Some of these eagles remain on the river until well after April, and thus, the Skagit River has gained wide recognition as an excellent place to observe over-wintering eagles.

Occasionally, an eagle would life off from a cedar over the river and sweep low over the river, landing hard on a struggling salmon that found itself caught in a shallow eddy near the shore. Sabrina and I watched this on two occasions, and each time I had to encourage her to remain beside me. The salmon seemed to succumb rather quickly in both incidents, and the eagle would start to feed on the fish until irritated by the harassment of gulls attracted to its feast. Their immediate response would be to tear away a large portion of the salmon and abandon the rest of the carcass for the gull and crows to debate over; there were plenty of other salmon to harvest, and the eagle seemed to be in no hurry.

Completing our lunch, we re-entered the river, we headed westward slowly to our destination at the Steelhead County Park. Our route ran parallel to Highway 20, yet frequently meandered back into the forestlands to allow unimpeded views of ragged peaks and snow covered ranges of the North Cascade Mountains. While some of the route travels past private farmland, there are enough access points that one can select from numerous entry and exit points to vary the length of the route according to their own schedules.

The canoe route approaching Steelhead County Park from the east can be considered a novice river, and while there are a few stretches of faster water along the route to give you a refreshing change in pace, they should not be of any serious concern, even if you take small children along with you in the canoe.

Finally, it should be mentioned that river paddling in colder weather does require some common sense; life jackets should always be on hand, particularly since colder extremities might make one a little more clumsy in the event of a capsize. And while the river temperature in the late fall is slightly over freezing, it is generally easier to head to shore in the event of a capsized canoe. This being said, your clothing selection should reflect the ambient outer temperature that could induce hypothermia even if you remain out of the water. Pile, fleece and wool are much better than down, and a nylon, tightly cuffed jacket should be worn to keep out the frost and wind. Spare clothing should be kept in a waterproof, airtight dry-bag, and plenty of fast, high carbohydrate snacks should be brought along. Fresh water too, should be carried, since the Skagit River contains commercial farm run-off.

Finishing our little excursion, I beached the canoe at Steelhead Park and clambered up the bank to our awaiting vehicle. A light snow had started to fall and accompanied us over the last few miles of river, but the sensation only added to the pleasantness of the tour, leaving me with a sense of accomplishment accented by a touch of adventure. Sabrina’s attention was more definitive. Eyeing a chocolate bar left on the car seat, she left the loading up to me. In a few minutes, we were en-route back to Marysville and home. Our timing was perfect, as the light snow turned to rain as my car left the park. Canoeing in early winter – enjoyable, but one must remember to come prepared.

- End -

Michael Kundu, Founder & Director of Project SeaWolf

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