A Journey Home: The Skagit from Source to Sea

A large drop of rain fell on my leg.

Then another. A deep boom of thunder reverberated through the mountain peaks.

It began to pour.

The rain dripped from the trees and shrubs, cascading onto the ground in rivulets and feeding, right there at our feet, the tiny creek that was the source of the Skagit River. These particular drops of rain would eventually make their way 150 miles down the length of the mighty river. They would pass through Ross, Diablo, and Gorge Lakes and their respective dams and through a tunnel dug two miles through the mountain to Newhalem. Here the river would reassemble itself in an undammed riverbed, winding its way through protected Wild and Scenic areas, and joining up with the Cascade, Sauk and Baker Rivers before finally making its way through the fertile farmlands of Skagit Valley into Skagit Bay and the Salish Sea.

The source of the Skagit River at Allison Pass. Photo by Dallas Betz
The source of the Skagit at Allison Pass. Photo by Dallas Betz

Over the next nine days, I’d be hiking, canoeing, rafting, and sea kayaking that entire stretch (minus the tunnel) and adding on a few more miles at the end to kayak across Padilla Bay to the small town of Bayview where I grew up. My journey, tracing the Skagit from source to sea would be a homecoming of sorts.

Finding the source of the Skagit was surprisingly easy. The Crowsnest Highway in British Columbia follows the river up to Allison Pass. The drainage on the east side of the pass goes into the Similkameen River, the west side drains into the Skagit. The source was right under our noses in a marsh, out of which a tiny stream issued forth, the humble beginning of the mighty river.

In spite of the roaring highway behind us, there was a profound sense of intimacy, witnessing this great river’s birth.

Photo by Dallas Betz
Photo by Dallas Betz

Our first 22 miles on foot followed the path of the river through a forest of dense old growth cedar groves, arid pine forests, and classic stands of Douglas Fir. The river was energetic and raw, already showing its muscle.

We’d been warned about the prolific black bear population in these woods. And although they rarely make an appearance, there were a few grizzlies in the area as well. We talked, clapped, wore bear bells, and kept a canister of bear spray at the ready. But we didn’t see a single bear on the hike. That would come later in the trip.

We spent the first night at a campground along the river about 12 miles north of Ross Lake.  We ate well, fished a little, and watched the stars.

Photo by Dallas Betz
Setting out on the Silver Skagit Road. Day two of hiking, 12 miles from Ross Lake. A three- hour hike, baking in the sun, covered in dust, and swarmed by mosquitoes. Photo by Dallas Betz

In the morning we strapped on our boots and set off for the lake, covering 12 miles of dirt road. Ross Lake is not actually a lake. It’s a reservoir formed by Ross Dam, the largest of the three dams on the Skagit River. In the early 1900’s, Seattle City Light Superintendent James Delmage  Ross envisioned a publicly-owned hydroelectric system situated on the Skagit River that could produce cheap and reliable power to the city. Over the next 50 years, Ross made that vision a reality. Today, Ross ‘Lake’ is long and slender, stretching 24 miles through the heart of the North Cascades, following the once-upon-a-time path of the river across the international border into southern BC.

We loaded our gear into a canoe for the next leg of our trip, paddling the length of the lake.  The wind came up and whitecaps stormed up the lake to greet us. We hugged the shore and took breaks at each protected point, bracing ourselves for the next blast. Thankfully, by late afternoon the wind had died down and we spotted something in the middle of the lake, maybe a half mile away. Probably a log. Curiosity drove us to investigate.

Day one on Ross Lake (day two of the trip), we made out something crossing the lake just as the wind died down. We felt the power and presence of this animal. Photo by Dallas Betz
Day one on Ross Lake (day two of the trip), we made out something crossing the lake just as the wind died down. We felt the power and presence of this animal. Photo by Dallas Betz

As we made our way toward it, it appeared to change directions. Strange. Yes, clearly, this thing was moving.  A bird? A deer? A cougar? Holy shit, it’s a bear! A large black bear was making the roughly mile-wide crossing of the lake slowly and steadily. We got within a stone’s throw of the animal, listening to its deep exhalations and feeling its powerful strokes in the water. It didn’t acknowledge our presence, but we gave it plenty of distance, knowing that it probably was feeling pretty vulnerable and it wouldn’t take much for it to knock us over. Neither of us felt like swimming with a bear. It was a majestic moment, witnessing this powerful animal determinedly crossing the lake.

The next days were spent paddling down the lake, sometimes on a glassy surface, seduced into a meditative state, quietly soaking up this dreamy setting in the mountains, and sometimes fighting a headwind when every paddle stroke was a struggle against the wind and waves.

Ross Lake, illuminated by moonlight. Photo by Dallas Betz
Ross Lake, illuminated by moonlight. Photo by Dallas Betz

On the third day we reached Ross Dam at the end of the lake, hitched a ride on a shuttle truck to the base of the dam at Diablo Lake, where the greenish waters of the Skagit were absorbed into the milky turquoise of Diablo’s other main tributary, Thunder Creek. Paddling was easy in the morning calm and we made good time, rounding the corner into Thunder Arm just as the wind picked up. For the first — and only — time on our trip, we had the wind at our back. We took advantage of it and let the wind do the work, carrying us to where our next shuttle would meet us at Colonial Creek Campground.

From here, the river would parallel The North Cascades Highway, passing through forest, farmland and — increasingly — towns, all the way to its mouth. This was the section of the river famous for steelhead fishing and bald eagle tours. Although I had once worked as a river guide near Newhalem, much of this 70-mile section of the river was unknown to me.  I was eager to start this stretch 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 emerges out of the two-mile long tunnel through the mountain at the Gorge Powerhouse. We sorted food and gear, pumped up the raft — our next mode of transportation —  and made dinner. As we were finishing dinner, some friends stopped by our campsite and took us on an adventure to the Gorge Powerhouse at night, where multi-colored lights illuminate the cascades of Ladder Creek Falls.

The Gorge Powerhouse at night. Photo by Dallas Betz
The Gorge Powerhouse at night. Photo by Dallas Betz

What a sight. This little publicized feature revived by Seattle City Light captures a piece of the grandiose history of the once magnificent dam tours. In his day, J.D. Ross was not only a visionary, he was an entertainer — and he was intent on showing the tax-paying citizens of Seattle a good time. A 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.

Guests would park in Rockport and ride a steam train up to the dam, lavishly fed and entertained the whole time. Hundreds of people each weekend would fill the bunkhouses. Ross even arranged to have their cars washed!  The locomotive that powered the train is now a tourist attraction in Newhalem.

The morning sun filtered a dappled light through the trees as Jamie and I wrestled the raft onto the river. It felt good to feel the current again after the dammed lakes, to reconnect with the river in something like its native form.

The first nine miles of this stretch were familiar from my guiding days. Most of the same logs, riffles, and rapids were in the same places that they had been five years ago. One of the characteristics of being dam-controlled is that there’s not as big a fluctuation in the river level as there are on undammed watercourses. 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.

The Wild and Scenic Skagit. Photo by Dallas Betz
The Wild and Scenic Skagit. Photo by Dallas Betz

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. Jamie held on as I rowed us through the heart of the waves,  steering 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 a bubbling pool of flat water at the bottom and spun around as the river tried to figure out where to go next. We were both relieved to have made it through and at the same time wanted to do it again.

After the rapids, the river turned placid, languidly flowing for another couple of miles until we got to the place where, as guides, we normally took out. But this time, we didn’t take out and continued our journey downstream. This marked the beginning of new territory for me.

At Rockport, we said our farewells. We’d see each other in two days when she would drop off a pair of kayaks, gear, and my paddling partner. Until then, I’d be alone with the river.

That night was warm, clear and quiet, the water and sky divided by dark mountains and the moon filtered through 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 like a waking dream.

Sweet Moonlight. Photo by Dallas Betz
Sweet Moonlight. Photo by Dallas Betz

The next day I remained in that dream, losing my “self” to the rhythms of the water, the trees, the birds. 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 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, making progress difficult. 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. Eventually I got back into the boat and huddled into a corner, trying to find some protection from the elements. Coyotes sang in the distance.

I woke in the morning soaked with dew, a distinct chill in the air. I packed up hastily, eating a granola bar for breakfast, and drove the boat downstream, keeping an eye out for the Hamilton boat launch where I would meet my paddling buddy and trade the raft for a pair of kayaks.

It took some paring down to fit our gear into the kayaks. The weather report called for hot, dry conditions, so we off-loaded 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 straight line. But on the river we were trying to make quick turns and paddle in short bursts. 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.

Photo by Dallas Betz
Photo by Dallas Betz

Signs of civilization became more frequent. We passed through Sedro-Woolley, then under the Highway 9 bridge. Our destination for the night was a friend’s home in the Skagit farmlands between Sedro-Woolley and Burlington. She had her kids stand up on the dike and wave flags so we’d know where to pull out. The river presented its last surprise of the day, breaking up into four channels, all of them choked with log jams. We took the path of least resistance, which necessitated ferrying upstream to an eddy to take out. Hauling our fully-loaded boats up the steep rocky bank represented an exhausting challenge for us at the end of a long day of paddling. We stumbled up the dike and wearily carried the boats across the fields to her house. An hour later, I was taking my first shower in a week, shedding the dirt and sweat accumulated from 135 miles of hiking, paddling, camping, swimming, and rowing on the river.

We set out our sleeping bags under a pergola alive with creeping vines. The cool late August air had a distinct hint of autumn just around the corner. I slept a deep, dreamless sleep.

Eighteen more miles to go on a river that now flooded me with memories from my childhood, through lush farmland known for its tulips, potatoes, berries, and seeds.

We approached Mount Vernon’s venerable downtown.  My dad had worked there since I was born, with an office right on the revetment. The merchandise in the old town shops had changed over the years, but the buildings were essentially the same as they were 40 years ago.  Unlike me.

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 led through Conway then split further into a series of fingers that emptied into the river delta. We’d be taking the north fork, through the old hippie art community called Fish Town and emptying out near La Conner.

We rode the receding tide, getting our first whiffs of salty sea air.  Although we passed through towns, the Skagit itself was deserted. We hadn’t seen another boat on the river in two days.

We passed through grassy mudflats and rocky island cliffs and started hearing seabirds.  As we made our official entrance into Skagit Bay, a bald eagle witnessed our conclusion to the river portion of the trip. We passed by quietly, without startling it from its perch.

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 in what was now clearly salt water, the transition complete.

Dawn on Swinomish Slough. Photo by Dallas Betz
Dawn on Swinomish Slough. Photo by Dallas Betz

Yachts paraded up and down the Swinomish Channel.  We shrugged off the culture shock and cruised under Rainbow Bridge into La Conner. Past the marina, we found a sandy spot between the channel and the fields in which to roll out our sleeping bags one last time. It was a peaceful evening, and the feeling of home was in my bones. The smells and sounds brought up such strong connections to my childhood. The house where I grew up was now only a couple of miles away.

I thought about the trip, about my upcoming 40th birthday and my own journey to midlife. I thought about being a son — and becoming a father.  My son had just turned two, and the experience of fatherhood had created a stronger awareness of my own story; my childhood, my parents and how they showed up for me as a kid, my siblings, the space I grew up in. 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.

The darkness was just beginning to give way to dawn as we pushed off from the bank. On this, my last day on the water, I felt the circle closing. It was time to go home.

The morning was still, the tide was slack, and the water was glassy as we paddled our kayaks across the bay toward Bayview. The sky to the east was a pastel pink, illuminating the mountains that I had passed through on this journey. There was no rush, no urgency. Just us, paddling methodically, lost in our thoughts, 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 in, trying to hold onto this sense of deep connection to where my story began, where it was shaped, and where, today, this journey would end. I felt the gravity of it all in my bones, a wide-angle perspective on my life, how it all fit together with various generations of my family, and especially the most recent addition, my son. Deep emotions welled up in me as I approached the shore.

We carried our boats from the beach up onto the grass and unloaded our gear. Family began to show up, wanting to hear all about our adventure. I struggled to figure out how I could describe this trip, how it could possibly be translated into words. It was only a nine-day trip, but I felt like I’d been to another world.

Home. Photo by Ryan Tabb
Home. Photo by Ryan Tabb

I saw our white station wagon pull up. I left the group in mid-discussion, half-running to the car. My wife stepped out, immediately walking around to open up the back door. I could see his head in the rear seat, trying to make me out just as I was trying to make him out. She unbuckled and pulled him out. I couldn’t believe how much he’d grown in those nine days. 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. About my parents, a young couple moving to this place 40 years ago. The stories they brought with them that had shaped me and my siblings. They were in their 70’s now.

Just like the river, the story relentlessly moved forward, carrying me along. From those raindrops at Allison Pass that fed a trickle of a stream at the beginning of my journey, to the wild and powerful energy of the river through the mountains, to the slow and steady contemplative current entering the bay, the river continuing the cycle, over and over, through time.

Dallas Betz’ ambitious and inspired plan to follow the Skagit from source to sea was the winner of our ‘Live Your Adventure’ contest last year and was financed by a $1000 cash award from realtor Brandon Nelson, himself a world-record paddler.

DSC_0991When Dallas Betz loses himself, he goes to the forests, mountains, rivers, and sea. It is there that he finds himself. His Skagit River adventure had been brewing for years, and finally given wings with support from Brandon Nelson Partners and Adventures Northwest. He is ever-grateful for that support.

One comment

  1. Hi Dallas, Thank you for the description of the head of the Skagit River. I am from the Skagit Valley too and and heading up to see where our great rivers starts. Where exactly is that marsh that it begins at?

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