Of all of the incredible experiences we have rafting on the rivers of Western Washington, all of them happen in the presence of an amazing natural phenomena; volcanoes. The coastal whitewater rafting rivers of Western Washington (Sauk, Skykomish, Snoqualmie, Stillaguamish, Skagit, Nooksack, Suiattle) are all in existence as a result of geological changes, primarily in the form of fairly recent (geologically speaking) volcanic eruptions. This is most prevalent on the Sauk, Suiattle, and Nooksack River systems where volcanic activity and the subsequent lahars formed from eruptions of Glacier Peak and Mount Baker, respectively, carved the channels and determined the gradient of the rivers, which we now navigate by paddle raft. This amazing reality really sets in while you feel the current beneath a raft on your way down one of these rivers, and almost sense that this was the same channel that volcanic debris flows followed centuries earlier. We are so lucky to have these rivers available to us to raft!
Volcanoes of the North Cascades
Mount Baker and Glacier Peak are two of the largest volcanoes in the Cascade Range. While Mount Baker stands proudly visible from hundreds of miles away from the south and west, Glacier Peak is barely taller than surrounding North Cascade peaks and can only be seen from civilization from I5 near Everett, and HWY 530 between Darrington and Oso. Both volcanoes have been active within recent centuries, and both volcanoes have been highly influential in creating the whitewater rapids that we now raft each summer.
Mount Baker is a popular skiing, hiking, backpacking, and photography destination, and has ample access through smaller roads that begin on HWY 520 (“Mount Baker Highway”). Baker is notoriously glaciated, and even in mid summer the snow levels on Mount Baker are impressively deep; this mountain boasts the second most glacial volume, next to only the massive glaciers of Mount Rainier. As a result, during summer melts of glacial moisture, the many branches of the Nooksack River become mecca for whitewater river rafters and kayakers.
The Nooksack River is the primary drainage of the glaciers of Mount Baker, while the White Chuck, and Suiattle Rivers are the primary rivers that come from Glacier Peak. The Nooksack has several forks, all of which contain magnificently exposed glacial formations and distinct volcanic history. The lower reaches of the Nooksack River are choked with evidence of debris flows in the form of glacial sediment, and unstable river deltas.
The Sauk River section that is rafted commercially near Darrington gets almost half of its annual water from the southern slopes of Glacier Peak, and the headwaters of the White Chuck River. While the White Chuck is the largest tributary of the Sauk River prior to the confluence with the Suiattle, and is only 20 miles long, it is a watershed rich with geological history and Native American legends (many of which involve stories of geological activity that can be scientifically verified). The White Chuck River has a short section near Darrington, which can be navigated by road, but the headwaters are only available by foot. Once the White Chuck bonds with the Sauk, about 8 miles upriver from Darrington, Washington, the Sauk becomes a formidable stream, and the river continues cascading down through volcanic lahar shoots formed primarily by massive floods from the White Chuck, from past eruptions of Glacier Peak.
The Suiattle River drains the northern slopes of Glacier Peak and has two sources to the Eastern and Western sides of its northern face. The Suiattle is notoriously silty and turbid, even more so than the water of the White Chuck River. The Suiattle meanders around for approximately 40 miles in total before joining the Sauk, then the Skagit, and eventually empties into Puget Sound at the town of Mount Vernon. The Suiattle is a unique geological formation that has plentiful nature opportunities for visitors, especially after the very recent renovation and improvements made to Forest Service Road 14, which can take travelers within a few miles of the foothills of Glacier Peak.
We are incredibly lucky to be able to raft rivers that are so active and offer up insights into the not so distant geological history of the Cascade Mountain Range. The next time you go rafting with Triad River Tours, take a look around and imagine behind all the peace and serenity of the nature that the river hosts today, how much chaos and destruction lies at the origin of the formation of these magnificent rivers.