Cold, quiet, beautiful

The Upper Skagit Valley is an undiscovered winter haven for anglers, eagles, Tarheels, and a few savvy tourists

Up on the Skagit River in Washington, the early-morning fog is so thick that you can hardly see the water where a human figure gracefully moves its arms and body. In the swirling mist it looks like an ancient river spirit practicing tai chi on a cloud, but a closer look reveals it's only a fisherman.

He stands there, mindless of the winter cold, in the artful pursuit of one of the Skagit's prized steelhead. But he's not alone. Look closely among the treetops and you'll see others who've come to fish: bald eagles. They roost in the trees until dawn, then swoop down, snatch a trout, and take it to the rocky bank, where they breakfast, strutting and posturing to keep others from poaching their meal.

As many as 350 bald eagles fly through the Skagit River valley each December through February in search of steelhead. Their headquarters are on a stretch of water near the town of Rockport. Visit soon, and you'll have the valley ― and the river ― pretty much all to yourself. Wait until the first weekend in February and you can take in the valley's bald eagle festival.

The area's solitude is surprising, given that the picturesque Skagit Flats, which stretch from I-5 west to La Conner and Puget Sound, are well known to bird-watchers and winter tourists. However, few visitors venture east from the freeway to head up the valley.

While this stretch of the Skagit is famous for its steelhead, you don't have to pull on your waders. You may choose just to wander along the water at Rasar State Park. The valley is the kind of place where you can pull your car onto the shoulder of the road for 15 minutes to watch a herd of Roosevelt elk munch in a vacant field, and nobody will care. If another car does happen by, it'll pass quietly out of respect for you and the animals.

Driving along State 20 as it edges the rushing river and passes through thick forests, you'll find cozy places to settle in for a long weekend, savoring the mist and moss and slow-moving woodsmoke that so poetically enshroud a chilly Pacific Northwest winter.

Tarheel traditions
The ancient trees and the continual migration of fish and birds give visitors a sense of being in a place largely untouched by time, and in many ways so do the small towns and lodges tucked into the countryside.

Settlement of this part of the valley dates back to the late 19th century. Many current residents are descendants of loggers and miners who came from North Carolina to work. These Tarheels made a rich and indelible mark on the culture of the valley. Fiddles often fill taverns with bluegrass tunes on weekend nights, and sausage, biscuits, beans, and greens are as common on local menus as salmon. And now and then you might be addressed by an old-timer as "you'ns," as in, "It's good to see you'ns."

The town of Sedro-Woolley is the heart of Skagit culture. As you walk Metcalf Street, lined with sturdy old brick buildings, there's no better proof of that cultural vigor than Oliver Hammer Clothes Shop. Opened in 1921 and largely unchanged since, it's the place to get fitted with a pair of Carhartt double-knee logging jeans and red suspenders. You'll step out "lookin' slim as a dirt dobber and fair as a lily," as the locals say.

Hospitality is genuine all the way up the valley. At 89, Tootsie Clark, co-owner of Clark's Skagit River Resort near Marblemount, has decades of experience in treating visitors well. Most days she trots around the restaurant, looking after patrons and serving homemade meals. Pies made by Tootsie and daughter Judi Brooks are among the best in Washington state. "My grandmother ran a roadhouse up here. See that flag on the wall?" Tootsie points to a large, faded, and worn American flag with 42 hand-stitched stars. "Grandma made that flag, and it was the first to fly in the Upper Skagit Valley on the first Fourth of July after Washington became a state in 1889!" Searching for swans
 

Great stretches of farmland surround Sedro-Woolley, and this month about 3,000 trumpeter and tundra swans visit the valley fields around I-5. This is a wintering destination for them, and they comb the flat, dormant vegetable and flower fields in search of grain, tubers, and grasses.

Bird-watchers from all over the United States come for the spectacle. You'll see them parked along the roads, binoculars raised to their eyes. The swans are impressive: the massive birds can weigh up to 38 pounds with a wingspan of 6 to 7 feet. As they come in, flying low and honking, you feel like you're watching 747s touch down.

And once you land in the Upper Skagit Valley, you'll discover that it's no place to rush. Block off a weekend, and pack a change of clothes, a slicker, and a good book. By Sunday you'll find yourself as quietly focused as a roosting eagle ― or even an angler casting for steelhead.

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