Skagit & Baker Rivers
I love the North Cascades. There's something about the craggy peaks, lush valleys, towering volcanoes and the unrelenting weirdness that is rural Washington peppered in between that just hits every one of my pleasure centers. And so last weekend, I took my packraft there for the first time.
With limited time, and after a particularly draining week at work, I decided to try out a pair of day trips rather than something longer.
The first trip was a run down the popular Class III section of the Skagit river from Newhalem to just above Marblemount.
We parked one car at the take-out, a dirt National Park Service road close halfway between mile marker 111 and marker 112 on Washington State Highway 20, just east of Marblemount. From there we drove to Goodell Creek Campground, stopping at mile 114 to scout the S-Bends, a series of 3 Class III rapids that makes the crux of this 8.5 mile section of the Skagit.
We parked the van at a river-side site in Goodell Creek Campground, inflated, geared up for the run and put in at the confluence of Goodell Creek and the Skagit, about 300 meters upstream of the boat launch.
Just below the boat launch, Goodell Rapids start, a fun series of Class II wave trains. Below that, the rivers flattens out a bit, switching between moderate wave trains and fast moving flat water for most of the run. There are some good spots in this section to practice catching eddies and ferrying.
The rivers braids a few times, and the deepest channel is usually obvious, but a wrong choice could lead into some butt-scooting at lower water levels.
Eventually, after about 1.5-2 hours on the river, we arrived above the S-Bends. You'll know you're there when the highway cuts away from the river, you pass a series of large, emerald green eddies on river right, the bank becomes less gravel and more boulders and the river speeds up.
The S-Bends are a great rapid for people just getting into Class III whitewater, especially to get a feel of bigger water rapids. They all have an easiest line, and the only major hazard is a large river left hole on the third rapid. Other than that, scout the rapid, pick a line and paddle through some fun roller coaster waves.
The river flattens out below the S-Bends and we pulled out about a mile and half later. You could continue running mostly Class II water further down the Skagit. In the long, hot days of summer, a float it all the way to the ocean might be fun. You can also run this section with an easy bike shuttle and it could be a fun, challenging bike raft on a longer trip. Another idea I didn't have time for would be to link a run on the Skagit with the Teebone Ridge traverse, a high, mostly scrambling, mountaineering route that traverses the peaks south of the river.
If my love of the North Cascades has a gravitational center it is, undoubtedly, Mount Baker. On clear days, I can see it on morning runs near my house in East Vancouver, in the winter, it's one of my favourite back-country zones (not to mention home to the only ski resort near Vancouver I usually pay money to ride).
It's also the source for the Baker River, a once wild flow that is now contained behind a massive dam that created the stunning Baker Lake reservoir. But, above this lake, the river still flows from high glaciers down crystal clear through a lush valley.
On Sunday morning we made the drive from our campsite, through Concrete, WA to the end of the Baker Lake Road. From there, we packed gear and set out on the Baker River trail. The trail is well marked and easy to follow for 2.5 miles from the trailhead to a campsite at Sulphide Creek. During spring snow-melt there would be a few creek crossings, but in early fall, it was a fairly dry hike, even with a light rain falling.
From Sulphide Creek camp, a faint trail weaves through the woods to the Baker River, but some of it has been hidden by deadfall and regrowth, so I ended up bushwacking about 100 meters to the Baker proper.
The river was running low, around 150 cfs (according to an online gauge) but it was just enough to run a packraft down. The river is continuous Class II, with some small wave-trains and a series of gravel-bed pool drops. At low water, the major issue for most of the river was finding the right line with deep enough water to no high-center on rocks on the gravel drops.
The main hazard on this run is wood. On most sharp bends in the river, wood piled up, forcing me to portage 3 times in the short 2 mile run and in those bends where wood didn't force a portage, small rapids pushed me towards partial strainers and sweepers. They were easy enough to avoid, but I had to keep my head up and could see wood becoming hard to deal with at higher flows.
The best part of the run though is a fun rapid about 100 meters above a bridge near the trailhead. A short, technical boulder garden, it was an unexpected challenge and would be even more fun with a little more volume.
Below the bridge is another series of wave trains before the river drops into Baker Lake. The parking lot comes up quick on river right and, at the time of paddling, there were a series of cairns on the river bank to mark an easy take-out.
All-in, the Baker River is a perfect half-day packraft trip following the established trail, but there is also potential to continue upriver through a mix of bushwacking and hiking up the gravel river-bed for longer runs.