Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Kayaking the Sky: A Long But Fun Day on the Skykomish River

"After the second rapid, it should mostly be a float down the river," says Larry as we're getting ready to launch our kayaks onto Washington's Skykomish River.

Several hours later, we rib Larry each time we hear the sound of yet another approaching rapids. Granted, most of us are in sea kayaks and the rapids are just Class I and Class II. 

But still.  For those us of accustomed to wind, tidal currents, or calm sea conditions, this is an exciting change of pace.

The plan today was to meet at 9 a.m. in Monroe at Skykomish River Centennial Park, car shuttle up to Big Eddy a couple miles beyond Gold Bar, and be off the river by 3 p.m.--a paddle of about 18 river miles.

With a few folks running late, we don't get going until close to 11 a.m., which sort of sets the pace for the day. But it's a glorious, beautiful, clear blue sky summer day. 

Looking back at Class II rapid just past put-in, US Route 2 and railroad bridges in background.
The Skykomish River, often called "the Sky" for short by rafters, kayakers, and locals, winds 29 miles through the Cascade Mountains and foothills to the Puget lowlands, where it merges with the Snohomish River north of Seattle. In the popular whitewater and kayaking reaches upriver, and where we start today, our backdrop is thick forest-covered hills and some craggy, snow-capped peaks of the Cascades beyond, including dramatic Mt. Index.

It's a lovely stretch of river.

Our most challenging rapid is a Class II just a short way below our put-in spot, at the first bend in the river.  We let our two whitewater kayakers lead the charge, then the rest of us sea kayakers proceed carefully through the persistent standing waves. What an adrenaline rush for a sea kayaker! 


Chilling after the first rapid
In the second rapid, not too far downriver, two kayakers in our group capsize in the tricky, rocky stretch of river.  I get hung up broadside on a big rock and almost go over too but manage to stay upright. 

But everyone is okay. At this point in the summer, the water speed and level is about half the spring snowmelt peak. (I heard something about 3,000 cfs vs 6,000 cfs, but don't quote me on that.)

After three capsizes in the early rapids, our trip leader Larry stops and scouts a few times before proceeding down what sounds like more rapids, so we hang back a bit.   Who minds hanging out when it's a gorgeous July day and the temperature is a near perfect high 70s to 80 degrees (F)?

Our lunch break isn't as far down river as planned (Sultan), but it's after 1 pm and we're hungry.  So we lounge in the sun on a big cobbled sandbar in the river and enjoy ourselves.

After lunch the river really does get more mellow, but it's not over yet. 

We pass numerous fly fishers along the way, some gracefully arcing their line overhead for casting off. When I ask about their catch today, no one has had any luck. It's a bit early in the salmon season.

We stop in Sultan for a pit stop at Sportsman Park where the Wallace River flows into the Sky.  Gotta say, the Honey Bucket there is best avoided if at all possible.

At one point downriver from Sultan the river is split by several large bars, where our group split up and lost each other for a while.  If you're on the river and hit an area that fits this description, stay river left!

Then we just meander down river past occasional homes with people out on their docks partying, undeveloped forest-lined stretches of river, and reaches adjacent to US Route 2. And yes, run several more Class I rapids.

We finally get back to Monroe a bit after 7 p.m., and then there's the car shuttle back up US Route 2 to Big Eddy through weekend traffic, which adds another hour to our outing. I'm tired after almost 8 hours on the river and all the hauling and loading kayaks.

Regardless, it's a fantastic day and a real treat for us sea kayakers to be on a beautiful stretch of river in the mountains. Overall it's a relaxing and exhilarating trip. 

When You Go
If you'd like to embark on a similar trip down the Sky, be sure and check the water levels and velocity.  Also, a Washington State Discover Pass is required for parking at Big Eddy.

The first part of our trip, from Big Eddy To Sultan, is described here in the Paddling Washington guidebook.  Big caveat:  My fiberglass kayak is sporting a few new gouges and bruises from this river trip.  I highly recommend using a more durable (but heavier) plastic sea kayak if you plan to do this trip in a sea kayak. If you're a whitewater kayaker, this is all tame stuff.
And special thanks to Ron for letting me use several of his photos in this blog post.

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