Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Kayaking the Lower Stillaguamish River: Eagles, Aromas, and Baby Rapids

I don't know about you, but I love going places I've never been before and seeing the world from a new perspective. Even if it's just walking down a different street in the neighborhood that I've somehow bypassed, I still feel that little surge, the thrill of discovery.

So when a last-minute spot opens up on a kayaking trip down the lower Stillaguamish River (aka the "Stilly") in northwest Washington, I sign up quickly. While I've hiked along the Stilly and driven along and over it many times, I've never been on the river.

Summer chose just the right day to return after a week+ of Pacific Northwest Juneuary. As I drive north from Seattle on I-5, thankfully traffic-free on a Sunday morning, the sky glows powder blue and cloud-free. Temps are predicted to hit the mid 70s F. 

Just about perfect.

After a 45-minute drive, I pull into the Haller Park put-in area in Arlington, where friendly trip leader Phyllis greets me. Others are already here unloading kayaks and gearing up, about 10 of us total on this Seattle Area Sea Kayaking Meetup Group trip.

Loading and adjusting a kayak before the trip.
The Stilly starts as two forks in the Cascade Mountains, and the North and South forks converge just upriver from where we're starting today. From here we'll pass through rural lowlands and end up at the Hat Slough take-out, for 16 total river miles. Not far beyond, the river flows into Puget Sound.

Before we launch, Phyllis tells us about two points along the river to watch out for. In the first few miles, we'll reach a rapid where we'll stop and portage (carry our boats). Then at a junction just below the I-5 bridge, we need to stay river right to avoid going over a small dam. Nope, that would not be fun for us sea kayakers.

Since the river has cleared the foothills by this point, we meander along a mostly mellow channel flanked by green. Pretty flat overall, but we pass some bluffs along the way.

There's still snowmelt coming off the Cascades, so the river current is decent. We need to keep an eye out for tree/wood snags and rocks in the river. Personally I think it makes the trip more interesting rather than just a lazy float downriver.

  A couple guys in the group who are also whitewater kayakers can't resist playing in the rapids at the portage.  Captain Kirk (below) has fun darting around the standing waves. (Yes, Kirk is literally a captain and an enthusiastic, accomplished paddler.)

Although I didn't get a decent shot, we hear and see bald eagles along the river. At one point a big eagle watches us pass beneath the big overhanging branch where it's perched.

I'm also happy to hear the lovely spiraling trill of Swainson's thrush (my totem bird) along and across the river, along with the chatter of kingfishers.

When we stop for lunch at a sand bar, I stumble getting out of the kayak (this is not normal for me!) and end up halfway in the river. My first impression is how pleasant and warm the water is here.

After lunch it's more of the same: pleasant, mostly mild water, lush green along the riverbanks, and lots of bird calls. After we pass under the I-5 bridge, we all hang right into a side slough to avoid the dam. 

Passing under Interstate 5
 My favorite part of the river is the next reach as we meander through the narrower slough, which amplifies the bird calls echoing around us.

However, a little way downriver we're assaulted by the heavy, over-ripe stench of livestock. This follows us off and on through the last stretch of the trip, and it's the only downside of this otherwise splendid day on the river.

Stretch stop
On such a brilliant early summer day, we don't see many people along the river but for a couple flyfishers angling for steelhead and a few families playing on some sand bars. This relative solitude is a nice change from overly crowded hiking trails and other popular destinations around the region.

After this day on the river, during which life's stresses and nagging aches slipped away for a good while, I come away feeling refreshed, tired in a healthy, "earned it" sort of way. I love these words, which capture perfectly a river's spell:

We are never far from the lilt and swirl of living water. Whether to fish or swim or paddle, of only to stand and gaze, to glance as we cross a bridge, all of us are drawn to rivers, all of us happily submit to their spell. We need their familiar mystery. We need their fluent lives interflowing with our own. — John Daniel, Oregon Rivers

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When You Go

Our trip was 16 river miles, with the put-in at Haller Park in Arlington and take-out at Hat Slough boat launch (links above in this post). We did a car shuttle, with cars at both the put-in and take-out. A Discover Pass is needed to park at the Hat Slough launch. Arlington is about 47 miles north of Seattle.

Phyllis, who organized this Seattle Area Sea Kayaking Meetup Group trip, is President and Director of Education for Shearwater University, specializing in sailing, kayaking, and navigation instruction. Check out the link if you're interested in learning more about kayaking, etc. And If you're an experienced paddler and planning your own trip, be sure and check the river stage.


Suezy Proctor said...

Lovely post Jill. I like to see things for the first time too, even if it is only from a different angle. That area is beautiful and the gateway to my favorite wild mountain blackberry and mushroom picking.

When Dan came back from a year in Haiti, I picked him up at Ft Lewis and drove him over Steven's Pass and on to Winthrop. As we approached the livestock area you described, Dan got all teary eyed. I asked him what the matter was. He grew up in Dallas OR...around dairy cattle. The aroma was familiar and triggered a bit of nostalgia and homesickness....he was glad to be home.

It was nice to learn what your totem bird is. :-)

It sounds like a very nice way for you to kayak, meet people of like mind and do the thing you love to do...experience the world around you.

jill said...

Suezy, thanks for your as always thoughtful and informative comment! Ha that's funny about Dan's nostalgia. Aromas can do that, pleasant or not! Yes, the meetup trips are always fun with nice, like-minded people.

Sistah Anne said...

Sounds like a perfect Jill day! I did a float trip from Darrington some time back to see bald eagles and loved it, its great country up there.