Skykomish thrills

Adventures on an unspoiled Washington river

Nicholas O'Connell

The Skykomish River never stops. From its headwaters high in the Cascade Range in Washington, it plunges over falls, roars through rapids, and barrels over riffles like a runaway train. Making a gleeful, undammed dash for the Pacific Ocean, it creates a series of pools, eddies, and runs that draw whitewater rafters from around the globe. Aquagasm, Boulder Drop, Lunch Hole, and Railroad Rapid ― the names suggest the river's wild, turbulent character. In fact, Congress is considering giving wilderness designation to the Skykomish River watershed to keep that character intact. I've caught tantalizing glimpses of the Skykomish while driving along U.S. 2 toward Index, Washington, but today I'll make a formal introduction ― from the seat of a kayak.

Running the rapids

As a novice kayaker, I'm nervous about running the river, but I'm confident in my guide, 34-year-old Jason Luker, a 15-year whitewater veteran and vice president of Wave Trek, based in Index. After donning Gore-Tex drysuits, neoprene booties, gloves, and plastic helmets, we carry our inflatable kayaks down to the put-in at Split Rock, a house-size granite boulder in the middle of the river. Luker coaches me on paddling and safety. Then we're off, knifing through pools of liquid jade.

"Look for the green tongues!" Luker yells, pointing to the calmer channels in Railroad Rapid. His tiny red kayak pirouettes around rocks like a sports car, bobbing above the spray.

For a brief moment, I wonder if I should have opted to go down the river in a raft instead, since Wave Trek offers both when the water level is high enough. Too late now. My 14-foot inflatable kayak pounds straight ahead like an SUV. The river boils around me, trying to wrest the paddle from my hands. Whooping and hollering, I cruise into the eddy, jazzed after passing my first whitewater test.

Luker congratulates me and offers advice. "Read the water," he says. "Be aggressive. Keep paddling, even if you're about to go over!"

Nodding, I head for Fisherman's Rapid, a boiling cauldron above a fishing hole. At first, I relax. Mistake! A cold wave hits me in the face. Paddling furiously, I struggle to keep the boat from flipping. Water washes over me, tossing the kayak around like a bathtub toy. I come close to falling out, but I keep stroking. Finally, I break free of the rapid.

My adrenaline rush doesn't let up until we've regrouped and entered the tamer lower part of the main run of the Skykomish. We paddle past cabins and houses amid groves of alder and Douglas fir trees. In the quiet water before the takeout at Big Eddy, we enjoy unobstructed views of the snow-spackled sides of Mt. Index. Pulling my kayak ashore, I step over the carcass of a spawned-out salmon, a testament to the still-pristine qualities of the wild Skykomish.

Skykomish River outfitters

The following companies offer regularly scheduled guided half-day trips. Availability of rafting trips depends on water level.

North Cascades River Expeditions. Rafting trips only; one guide per four to six clients. Mid-Mar-Jul; $55 per person (includes lunch; wetsuit rentals an extra $15). Based in Arlington, WA; www.riverexpeditions.com or 800/634-8433.

Wave Trek. For inflatable kayaks, one guide per four clients; for rafts, one guide per six or seven clients. Apr-Aug; $80 per person for kayaking, $77 per person for rafting (both include a barbecued chicken meal and use of wetgear). Based in Index, WA; www.wavetrek.com or 800/543-7971.

Wildwater River Tours. Rafting trips only; one guide per raft of no more than six people. Mar-Jul; from $40 per person for groups of six or fewer (wetsuit rentals an additional $15). Based in Federal Way, WA;

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