Minimalist outdoor ethics
Our society today is obsessed with value. Life is often judged by the price of our homes, the cost of our food, or even the monetary values we assign to living beings--"he's worth 1.2 million" is enough to signal importance without a single other factor. This system has become the way we quantify everything: wilderness areas by tourist dollars and hiker traffic, oceans by their contribution to coastal and world economies. Movements to protect rivers are swept in with a vanguard of statistics and economic buzzwords. But along the way, in the maze of numbers and markets and monetary worth, some of the truest value of these places is forgotten.
Numbers are still important for rivers; they tell us how the river flows, how many fish and waterfowl call it home, and how many people have walked its banks. But the deepest value of a river is in none of these things. There is a part of the river that is utterly unquantifiable; a mystery, a knowing beyond the ken of humankind. There is more to a river than the numbers can describe, more in the sudden roar of a wavetrain appearing around a cliff-rimmed bend than any list of statistics can describe. It isn't the economic value of a river's components that keeps us coming back; what really draws people to the river, where its deepest value really lies, is beyond any list of monetary values or wildlife surveys. It is in the flickering silver gleam of a running salmon, the spray of whitewater in summer sunlight; the indescribable intrinsic energy that is the river's soul.
The soul of each river is different, and each one has the capacity to change lives in a different way. Even individual rivers are constantly changing; varying with each season, eroding new banks and channels, roaring and ebbing with the rhythm of each year's snowmelt. All the numbers in the world cannot come close to describing the different feel of a river in each season. The spring melt, wild with cold young water sluicing down from ice-clad peaks; the lazy low days of late summer, when heat and water blur together in somnolence and the banks are crowded with lush greenery; the clear quiet ripples of winter beneath an arch of bare branches. It is the brush of this indefinable mystery, this soul that is as vibrant and mercurial as the river itself that keeps us coming back, again and again.
There is plenty of value in river statistics; they help us learn, help us figure out how a river connects to the rest of the world. But the true worth of a river cannot be found on any spreadsheet or glossy brochure. If you really want to know the value of a river, grab a raft or a kayak or your own two feet and let the rush of wild water show you how to feel the river's soul.
Northwest Washington is a land of water. Ocean to mountains, the sound of water echoes all around; and everywhere, the lifeblood of this rain-soaked land, run the rivers.
Washington has over 70,000 miles of river, 197 miles of which are designated as Wild and Scenic. But what does that mean? What makes these particular stretches of river, less than 0.3% of the state’s total river miles, so special? And why should you raft these particular rivers?
At Triad River Tours we raft three rivers protected by the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act: The Middle Fork of the Snoqualmie (classified as both Wild and Scenic), the Skagit River (classified as Scenic and Recreational), and the Sauk River (classified as Scenic). This represents all three of the possible designations for rivers protected by the WSR Act. A river classified as “wild” is “free from impoundments…essentially primitive and unpolluted”. A "scenic" river is very similar, but with easier road access. A river classified as “recreational” is readily accessible but valuable for both its beauty and its enjoyable rafting. So what does that mean? It means that these stretches of river, less than half a percent of our state’s total river miles, are the most beautiful, fascinating, and fun to raft river miles out of 70,000.
Rafting a Wild and Scenic River is a glimpse into our country’s wild past, when the west was a wilderness and every river ran free and untamed. Pristine glacial- and snow-melt run beneath your raft as on the banks moss-hung firs crowd close over the boulders, the green depths of the mountain forest as beautiful and mysterious as when George Vancouver sailed up the west coast. For those who want their wildness near an easy-to-reach road, the Skagit and State Highway 20 run together down the river canyon, though the road is invisible from your seat in a raft for most of the descent. If you’re looking for an experience that is a bit more remote—but still easily accessed from Seattle—the Snoqualmie and the Sauk combine great whitewater and wild views into a rafting trip you will never forget.
Rafting a Wild and Scenic river is a chance to experience for yourself some of the wildest, most beautiful places in Washington in the best way possible; on the rivers themselves. Whether you are looking for a peaceful float trip, class 3-4 rapids, or just a great introduction to the world of whitewater rafting in the beauty of a mountain wilderness, these stretches of river will deliver a wild and scenic experience you will never forget.
Photos by Allie Kohr
One of the best ways to experience the Cascades is by river, whether floating peacefully down the lower Skagit or punching through the rapids of the Sauk. While rafting you might encounter some of the native wildlife; elusive animals emerging from the forest, darting through the sky above, or swimming the snowmelt-fed waters beneath your raft. But what kind of wildlife are you going to see?
One of the most common—and least shy—wild animals in western Washington is the black-tailed deer, a subspecies of mule deer with a dark tail. These ungulates, or hoofed mammals, have four stomachs to digest their food and eat mostly the growing tips of trees and bushes. Many of them live in the Cascade Mountains and their foothills, migrating to lower elevations in the winter. More rarely you might glimpse one of their predators, the black bear. These bears, which actually range in color from black to dark brown to white, are extremely good tree climbers. They are omnivores, with a wide-ranging diet that includes, grasses, roots, berries, and fish as well as small mammals. Another predator you might encounter is the river otter. These mostly aquatic mammals have long, sleek bodies and short legs that end in webbed toes, and are covered in thick brown fur. Adult males usually weigh between twenty and twenty-eight pounds. River otters, while fairly common, are rarely seen. They range from the coast to mountain rivers; in colder months they stick to ice-free areas like waterfalls and rapids. They avoid polluted waterways, so you are far more likely to see one on a designated wild and scenic river like the Snoqualmie and the Skagit. River otters eat mostly fish and digest their food so quickly that it leaves their intestine within an hour!
If you take the time to look up while river rafting in the Cascades you are likely to spot America’s national emblem, the Bald Eagle. These large raptors can have a wingspan of up to seven and a half feet! Listed as threatened by the Endangered Species Act, Bald Eagles are actually quite numerous in the Cascades. During the winter many Bald Eagles come to the Skagit River to feed on the spawning salmon; this gathering is one of the largest wintering concentrations of Bald Eagles in the continental United States. Over two hundred other species of birds also call these mountains home.
If you’re lucky your rafting trip may pass over the most iconic fish in the northwest: the salmon. After spending most of their life in the ocean these amazing fish return to the stream in which they were born to lay their eggs, making the arduous journey upstream to spawn and then die. The Skagit watershed is the only watershed in the continental United States to support runs of all five Pacific salmon species—Chinook, Coho (King), Chum, Pink, and Sockeye! Every autumn thousands of these salmon make their way to the rivers of the Cascade Mountains, drawing hungry eagles with them.
River rafting is a great way to see Washington’s native wildlife. How many animals will you see on your trip?
Spring break of my freshman year of college, nineteen years old and in desperate need of wandering after months of drudging through calculus and chemistry, I loaded my dusty Volkswagen with food and gear and left the snow-swept peaks of Montana behind to spend a week as a desert vagabond. Three nights of that week I spent in the canyon of the Colorado River outside Moab, Utah, where sunlight and desert and river converged beside the slow-moving meanders of green water.
Time ran a little differently there, as it does on all rivers; not the linear mechanical time we are caged by in cities, but flowing, cyclical, sacred. Time was measured by moon and sun, star and water; I woke with the dawn and went to sleep as the stars came out, looked for camp when the sun neared the horizon and waited for morning to crest the canyon walls before meandering down to the riverbank with my thermos of stolen dining-hall tea. Beside the river there was none of the stressed time of what we call "civilization"; no deadlines, no classes, no work shifts, just sky and water and earth. For those few days I lived to the rhythms of river and weather, armed with only my gear, my notebook, and a copy of Ed Abbey's Desert Solitaire.
There is a tranquility in that place beyond words, where river and desert meet; time measured in the slide of golden sunlight over red-rock cliffs, in the glittering touch of starlight on the silt-laden green water at their feet, is something indescribably beyond the mechanized drone of the city. Here was the stillness, the quiet peace of the desert that Abbey spoke of. I rarely knew what day it was, and even more rarely knew the mechanical time; if the sun was up it was time for breakfast, if it was going down it was time to camp, and there were at least a few more nights between this wordless peace and my return to school. Each morning I would stand beside the water, toes pale with cold in my Chacos, and watch the Colorado meander wide and slow between startlingly vertical cliffs of varnish-streaked sandstone. I had stepped into the river of universal time, the realm of earth and water and sky, and left behind for these few days at least the artificial chains of ticking clocks and deadlines; in the cold spring air of the river canyon, battered fleece hat tugged low over my ears and my only pair of jeans slowly turning red with desert dust, I was free.
Eventually my return to the real world loomed, fierce and implacable, and I drove myself twelve hours of empty highways back to Bozeman. I had essays to write, rent to pay; for a while at least I would have to leave the Colorado behind. Eventually I wandered onto other rivers, to the Gallatin framed by tumbled boulders and ten thousand foot peaks and the Yellowstone with its wandering bison; but there remained something special about those days alone in the red-rock canyon of the Colorado, something different in the way desert and river had met beneath the clear spring sky. To this day I have no name for it, and I don’t think I ever will.
Sometimes I still cast my memories back to those days and nights on the river; to dawn on cool green water and sheer red rock, sunset over wind-carved towers, the rustle of bare oaks beside the bank and the shadows of ravens chasing their owners across the blaze of red-gold thrown back by the framing cliffs at sunset. What I found in the red-rock canyon of the Colorado was something different, unique, where sunlight and desert and river converged; something still with that deep quiet only the desert can hold, simple as the slide of sunlight over the canyon walls and complex beyond the capacity of humanity. Listening to the smooth ripples of green water over red rock, the muted susurrations of the current at dawn, I began to understand why Abbey called Utah’s canyon country “the most beautiful place on earth.” Words, though, will always fall short when trying to describe this feeling, this idea of "river time" that flows so differently from the tyranny of alarm and deadline. Colorado or Skykomish, desert or forest, time runs different with rivers, and those who run them are caught in the spell; it is just one of the river’s many gifts, a reminder that there is more to the world we live in than the constructed schedules of our city lives. Like all the gifts given by wild rivers, it is one I treasure with every float and whitewater run.
The peaks and valleys of the Cascades Range are carved from a complex geologic patchwork, with volcanic intrusions and massive sedimentary blocks pressed up against the range’s metamorphic spine on every side. The Sauk River, which drains Glacier Peak and the surrounding area, provides a perfect snapshot of this turbulent history.
Towering over 10,500 feet, the summit of Glacier Peak is the highest in the Sauk-Suiattle watershed. The combined watershed of these two rivers drains 96 glaciers. In the upper drainages traces of older alpine glaciers can be seen in deposits of glacial till--the haphazard piles of rocks left by retreating ice--and glacial outwash plains. Most of these deposits are about 20,000 years old. West of the river the geologic footprint of a larger glacier can be seen; most of the lower valleys in this region are filled with sediment dropped by the Cordilleran Ice Sheet 15,000 years ago. The Cordilleran Ice Sheet was an enormous continental glacier that stretched from southern Alaska all the way through British Columbia to northwest Washington. The projected ice surface altitudes of this ice sheet suggest that nearly the entire crest of this part of the Cascades was covered in ice!
The section of Sauk River area rocks you’ll see from our rafts is a unit called the Darrington Phyllite, whose original source rocks were likely formed in the Jurassic period. These rocks have gone through multiple deformations that destroyed most of the original sedimentary structures; the original minerals were also replaced during metamorphosis. Keep an eye out for traces of the original sedimentary bedding (layers) in any boulders you find along the way!
Beneath these geologically young deposits the rocks of the Sauk River area are divided into two distinct halves by the Straight Creek Fault, which separates the western area of low-grade metamorphic rocks and the eastern area of medium- and high-grade metamorphic rocks. The eastern half of the Sauk River region contains three distinct “terranes”, or geologic regions bounded by faults: the Swakane terrane, the Chelan Mountains terrane, and the Nason terrane. The Swakane terrane is composed entirely of biotite gneiss, which probably started as sandstone before being subjected to enough heat and pressure for metamorphosis. Over the Swakane terrane lays part of the Chelan Mountains terrane, a rock unit called the Napeequa Schist. This unit is made up of quartzite, amphibolite and hornblende schists that were once part of an ocean floor. The last unit, the Nason terrane, is also former seafloor, likely from the Jurassic.
West of the Straight Creek Fault most of the rocks are also ocean-sourced, though they were metamorphosed at lower temperatures and pressures than those east of the fault. This area is cut by a series of tectonic faults known as the Darrington-Devils Mountain Fault Zone, complicating the local geology. A set of low-grade metamorphic rocks known as the Northwest Cascade System border this fault zone on one side, while on the other side of the fault system two mélange belts present a jumble of different rock types. Parts of these mélanges are sedimentary rocks instead of metamorphic, and contain a few different kinds of fossils; however, most of the fossils are very small and deformed, and were described by the USGS geologists mapping the area as “usually uninspiring”.
Any journey through the Sauk River region presents an intriguing slice of these mountains’ complicated geologic history, from the enormous glaciers of the recent past to the ancient ocean floor that now forms much of their rocky peaks. These rocks have been folded, buried and reformed, torn by tectonic faults, scraped clean and then covered in sediment by ice. Each one of them shows the traces of this past, in minerals and bedforms and tiny fossils; a story, ready and waiting for those who learn how to read it.
Metamorphic—a rock that has been changed from its original structure and composition through heat and pressure. Common examples include gneiss and schist.
Igneous—a rock of volcanic origin. Common examples: granite and basalt.
Sedimentary—a rock formed from compressed deposited sediments. Common examples include sandstone and shale.
Sources: GEOLOGIC MAP OF THE SAUK RIVER 30- BY 60-MINUTE QUADRANGLE, WASHINGTON By R.W. Tabor, D.B. Booth, J.A. Vance, and A.B. Ford, part of U.S. Geological Survey Geologic Investigation Series I-2592
Skagit WSR - Skagit Wild and Scenic Facts Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest - Resource Management, https://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/mbs/landmanagement/resourcemanagement/?cid=fsbdev7_001631 (accessed May 2017).
After I became a guide in 2000, I started traveling to rivers all over the country. Usually I would work summers, sleeping in a bivy sack on the beach during multi-day expeditions, and in the winter I would rent a room somewhere while doing drift boat fishing trips. After working rivers on the East Coast in 2003 I got a job at a Patagonia store in Bar Harbor, Maine. Ever since then I worked at that store I have used their gear, but it's not because of the quality of their clothing, it's mostly because of what they stand for.
When I worked at a Patagonia store we were trained to ask people "do you have something that already serves this purpose?" to make sure that we weren't just selling something because it was cute; we wanted it to serve a purpose. I can remember talking with the Patagonia factory employees on the phone; you could tell that they were happy where they worked, and you knew that they backed up their products not only because it was good business, but because the company sincerely wanted to produce less waste. Since I worked at a Patagonia store I don't think I have ever been on a river trip since then where a piece of Patagonia gear hasn't been with me. It's expensive, that's for sure, but I always feel good buying it. I have pieces of Patagonia gear that I have sent in for repairs 3 or 4 times. They always fix it and send it back, or they'll send me a gift card to buy something else. Now that I'm finishing my masters degree in business, focusing on sustainability in the outdoor recreation industry, I can't help but think that Patagonia is the company that sets the standard for minimalist ethics in a consumer industry.
Now that we live in politically charged times, we as guides have to be careful to be open to everyone. We are public servants, here to expose and introduce people to their natural landscapes, their public lands, and the wonders that surround them in Washington. It's not our job as guides to change the minds of people, it's our job to listen to them, what their values are, and how we can facilitate their relationship with mother nature. We have to work alongside several government agencies, and its not always perfect, but we appreciate that these agencies are there to protect public land, and (hopefully) they are there to empower our company to serve the public on those lands (and rivers). Now we see Patagonia as a company taking a stand for public lands, identifying their company as a proponent of protecting public land even at the expense of profits. While we are politically neutral as a company, we respect Patagonia for the statement that it is making; that business shouldn't come at the expense of our core ethics and beliefs.
River Manager at Triad
Guides spotted 3 logs in a dangerous spot on the Sauk River on January 28th. The logs are positioned at the bottom right of the rapid called Jaws; they are not a serious safety issue right now for us (we ran it close to our lower bound cutoff to just do drills) but in higher water boats taking the standard right run could be pushed into it.
The trees cover about 3/4 of the river right now, extending from the right bank out into the flat pool (about 150 feet of slack water after jaws) after the big “demon seed” rock…
Darkness got to the training run before they could go back up to develop a strategy for avoiding it, but we will look at it more closely next time we are up there and report back.
At this time we are not sure if high water will wash them out or not. They clearly fell from the high cut bank that exists below Jaws on the right.
The map above is of the Sauk; Jaws is in the center of the map.
We have seen some changes to the river flows, and the general consensus is that we're in for a short whitewater season (so book your trips early). The Sauk has went from around 4,500 cubic feet of water per second, to about 2,200 in a matter of 2 days. What it seems is that the snow is at higher elevations and thus requires extremely high temperatures in order to have a melt which has an effect on the river flows. This is a good and bad thing for us because on the positive side it's going to extend our season; on the negative side it makes things a little more unpredictable and potentially we will have a long season of water that is slightly too low to run (god forbid!).
The diagrams to the left are snapshots of the hydrographs at the time of this writing (Thursday May 12), they show the Sauk and Skykomish river systems, both of which are mostly related to the snowpack report of the "Puget Sound" region. The Sauk has a little bit of influence from the Northern region, which has more snow. The river level hydrographs from this week clearly show a definite relationship, nearly 1 to 1, regarding air temperature and water flow; although neither river really got as high was we would expect with temperatures that hot.
You can see the average river levels by the small yellow triangles. You would think with the hot temperatures that we'd be seeing very high levels, but with less snowpack, and (theoretically) that snowpack being concentrated at higher elevations, it's common for that hot weather to just bump us a little. Either way the rivers are all clear and running; no trees, and we are good to go. Got new brakes on one of our buses, and two new rafts, so we're all stoked. We look forward to hosting you great folks on the river. The Sauk and Skykomish look to be good bets for the next couple months; SO HIT THEM UP!
Our summer rafting season is almost here and we've been monitoring the rivers and snow pack closely. After a drought last year we are cautious to plan out our summer too early.
At this time we are expecting to have a good season on the Sauk river in June, with some technical lower water in July. We anticipate having a great season on the Skagit River in August and September. The Skykomish had some high water this past month of April, and we expect it to have a solid season through June and hopefully well into July.
Triad River Tours is based primarily out of Bellingham, Washington, but our expedition roots precede us and we just cannot help but spread the joyous experiences we've had doing multi-day expeditions. Our affiliated outfitters offer adventures in many other states and a few countries. Our primary clientele is from Seattle, Bellingham, and Vancouver. These cities are close enough to us that you could take a day off of work and get in some great rafting and be home for dinner; that's fantastic and that's why we are here. There is yet another way that people seek our expertise, and it comes to your annual family, couple, or individual vacations. Multi-day recreational travel in the whitewater realm is absolutely the way to go when you are planning your next vacation if you live in Washington.
When you look around at maps of Western Washington; what do you see? Short, fun, playful paddle rivers and beautiful slow meandering scenic trips. The thing about these rivers is that no matter how scenic, magnificent, and family friendly they may be, they are, by definition, coastal rivers that are all carrying water from the Cascade Mountains to the Pacific Ocean. What makes them accessible to people that live in the city is exactly what makes them less remote. Our Washington rivers are serene and majestic, and they are within our reach at any given time. With so many professionals living in Western Washington, and so much stress in our daily lives, our company feels that an escape from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives is exactly what most of us need. But when we are looking to take our paid vacation, or when we have a week or an extended 3 or 4 day weekend, the multi-day expeditions on the roadless wilderness areas of Idaho and Oregon are the places to go.
Mountain River Outfitters has been one of the industries leading multi-day expedition whitewater outfitters in North America for over a decade. Their refined, relaxing style of rafting soothes even the most stressed out executive and lulls them into the serenity of the river corridors of the Snake, Salmon, and Owyhee Rivers. We really encourage you to give some thought to these extended day rafting trips when you plan out your next vacation. Please feel free to contact us at Triad, at (360) 510-1243, if you have any questions about these trips. The founder of Triad spent a decade guiding mult-day expedition whitewater trips with many of the guides at Mountain River Outfitters, and can give you detailed explanations of the workings of these kinds of trips. The meals, the guides, the boats, and the trip itineraries are so refined they border on luxurious. At some point we all deserve to get away from the ordinary, and this is our opportunity to give that to you. The experiences you take with you on multi-day expedition rafting trips will last a lifetime, they are a great way to reestablish connections with family and friends, and remind ourselves of the true beauty and connection out in mother nature. Sometimes you just need to get away... We can help.
Everything we do starts with organizing our equipment and committing to the task of refining our procedures to make our whitewater rafting trips safer. When Safety is your top priority, you cannot skimp on good gear. In Western Washington reaction time and effectiveness in emergency situations is crucial, and at these times you cannot take the time to consider the possibility of equipment failure; that is why Triad River Tours meticulously tests and selects specific equipment that is perfectly suited for the task at hand. Each Whitewater Rafting trip is led by a trip leader with advanced medical training. Each raft is inspected and is free from any damage that could hinder its performance. We use safety kayakers or safety catarafts whenever the situation requires added safety, and our kayakers are some of the best in the industry. Every raft is equipped with first aid, rescue throw bags, and all the appropriate and required equipment, and then some. We spare no expense in selecting the right tool for the job. To date, we have practiced and ran drills with over a dozen raft designs as well as considered multiple approaches to running safety on the river. With a properly executed protocol as well as hiring and training only those who are passionate about the safety of our guests, we have put together a way of running trips that is second to none when it comes to safety. We look forward to impressing you with our attention to detail, and meticulous selection of only the finest equipment in order to keep you and your family safe on the river. For more specific details on the equipment we use on the river, please visit our page dedicated to the subject by clicking here.
Rafts we use are manufactured with industry leading designs by leading manufacturers such as Sotar, Maravia, Aire, and NRS. Our rafts are self bailing which offers our clients the feature of enjoying the scenery rather than spending the day bailing water out with a 5 gallon bucket. Raft design has come a long way in the past decade and that is one reason why we have only the newest and most modern whitewater river rafts, some of which are proprietary designs which were designed and built specifically for Triad River Tours for the rivers that we run.
All of our equipment is held to the highest standard, and safety is always considered before profit margin. We know that this is a business, but we will never make sacrifices to our core values for the sake of making extra money. We believe that if we do right by our guests, that they will notice the difference in our trips compared to our competitors. While much of the preparation and training that we do is completely out of the eye of the public, we know it will benefit us in the long run. Great equipment isn't something you find at Wal-Mart, and sometimes what is the industry standard isn't up to our standards, and alternatives have to be sought after. We applaud the manufacturers of equipment which we use for their commitment to quality over quantity, and through supporting us in our pursuit of the most appropriate gear by allowing us to test prototype rafts, and cutting edge equipment.