Adventures on an unspoiled Washington river

Nicholas O'Connell

The Skykomish River never stops. From its headwaters high inthe Cascade Range in Washington, it plunges over falls, roarsthrough rapids, and barrels over riffles like a runaway train.Making a gleeful, undammed dash for the Pacific Ocean, it creates aseries of pools, eddies, and runs that draw whitewater rafters fromaround the globe. Aquagasm, Boulder Drop, Lunch Hole, and RailroadRapid ― the names suggest the river's wild, turbulentcharacter. In fact, Congress is considering giving wildernessdesignation to the Skykomish River watershed to keep that characterintact. I've caught tantalizing glimpses of the Skykomish whiledriving along U.S. 2 toward Index, Washington, but today I'll makea formal introduction ― from the seat of a kayak.

Running the rapids

As a novice kayaker, I'm nervous about running the river, butI'm confident in my guide, 34-year-old Jason Luker, a 15-yearwhitewater veteran and vice president of Wave Trek, based in Index.After donning Gore-Tex drysuits, neoprene booties, gloves, andplastic helmets, we carry our inflatable kayaks down to the put-inat Split Rock, a house-size granite boulder in the middle of theriver. 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 thecalmer channels in Railroad Rapid. His tiny red kayak pirouettesaround rocks like a sports car, bobbing above the spray.

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

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

Nodding, I head for Fisherman's Rapid, a boiling cauldron abovea fishing hole. At first, I relax. Mistake! A cold wave hits me inthe face. Paddling furiously, I struggle to keep the boat fromflipping. Water washes over me, tossing the kayak around like abathtub 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 andentered the tamer lower part of the main run of the Skykomish. Wepaddle past cabins and houses amid groves of alder and Douglas firtrees. In the quiet water before the takeout at Big Eddy, we enjoyunobstructed views of the snow-spackled sides of Mt. Index. Pullingmy kayak ashore, I step over the carcass of a spawned-out salmon, atestament to the still-pristine qualities of the wildSkykomish.

Skykomish River outfitters

The following companies offer regularly scheduled guidedhalf-day trips. Availability of rafting trips depends on waterlevel.

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

Wave Trek. For inflatable kayaks, one guide per fourclients; for rafts, one guide per six or seven clients. Apr-Aug;$80 per person for kayaking, $77 per person for rafting (bothinclude a barbecued chicken meal and use of wetgear). Based inIndex, WA; www.wavetrek.com or800/543-7971.

Wildwater River Tours. Rafting trips only; one guide perraft of no more than six people. Mar-Jul; from $40 per person forgroups of six or fewer (wetsuit rentals an additional $15). Basedin Federal Way, WA; www.wildwater-river.comor 800/522-9453.

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