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?