(WA) Working to Improve Skykomish River Access

Posted: 07/23/2001
by Jason Robertson

Put-in Closure on The Skykomish River

By Meg Lee

In May 2001, American Whitewater estabished the Sky Access Fund to improve access to the river. Please help to improve access by making a donation.

Fear overtook my whole body. Every muscle stiffened to the point of being unable to move. My head roared, amplifying the sound of the water so that it reverberated in my head as if it were an empty cavern. I focused on the house-sized boulders that blocked my view of the rapid and tried to breathe.

My companions laughed and shouted to each other as they entered the rapid. Years of experience on the river have given them the confidence to relax and throw tricks amidst the waves. Boulder Drop is the most difficult rapid on the Skykomish River and has caused me more anguish than any other rapid in my short career as a whitewater paddler.

My only thought was the memory of the last two times I was here. I could still feel the power of its hold. I was sucked down into a recirculating hydraulic, spit back up again, tossed over and over by the river as a cat plays with his doomed prey. I needed to focus on the task in front of me. I attempted to smile and relax as I slipped between the first two boulders.

I tried to remember why I love the sport of whitewater kayaking so much. Was it the paralyzing fear or the sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach? I dimly remembered something I said earlier that day about enjoying the fear.

This is the Skykomish River, one of the many breathtaking wild and scenic rivers in Washington State. As long as river users remember, the put-in for the Skykomish River has been at the base of Sunset Falls near Index, Washington. Although the falls are un-runnable to kayakers, the sound of thousands of gallons of water pounding over the rocks gets the adrenaline pumping for the journey down the river.

Kayakers starting the journey down the Skykomish River have been launching off the rocks at the falls for as long as they can remember.

"I've been boating on the Skykomish for twenty years and that has always been the put-in for us," said Jennie Goldberg of the American Whitewater Club (AWA). " I miss it."

Jennie Goldberg is on the board of directors at the AWA and the Washington Kayak Club (WKC). She has been working on the problem of put-in closure since access to the area first became a problem in July of 2000. Jenny has been living in the Seattle area most of her life and rivers such as the Skykomish hold special importance to her.

"The river is beautiful and a fun play river," she said, "That is why it has become so popular in the last couple of years. The number of boaters on the river has tripled."

The growing amount of boaters on the river has caused the majority of problems at Sunset Falls. The road to the put-in is a private road for homes on the river and a state owned fish facility. The property has never been officially accessible to the public.

"The put-in has never been public property. The land belongs to the state fish facility located there. The employees that work there have always looked the other way when kayakers came to use the put-in. The road down to the fish facility is private property and the Department of Fish and Wildlife was granted easement to truck and haul fish on the road," Goldberg said.

The problems began with run-ins between employees and boaters. The road is not wide enough for boaters to park and change into their gear while large trucks come and go chauffeuring fish.

"The reason we had problems at the put-in last summer was because good water levels lasted longer than usual this last year. This brought about conflicts between employees at the fish hatchery here and kayakers using the same roads to get to the river," said Goldberg.

Every year during June and July salmon begin to swim their way up the Skykomish River from the ocean. They battle their way up small waterfalls and fast flowing rapids to Sunset Falls. At the falls Washington's Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) intervene in the migration upstream. The fish at the base of the falls are caught in nets and thrown into the backs of trucks filled with water. These large mobile fish tanks are trucked above the falls so the fish can continue their journey upstream to spawn.
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Last summer when the large snowpack melted it kept the Skykomish River accessible to kayakers during a time of year when normally the salmon and fishermen are the only visitors to the river. Kayakers, attracted by high water levels, got in the way as truck drivers hauling thousands of gallons of fish and river water stormed up and down the road to deliver fish around the falls.

"The drivers felt they might have to slam on the brakes because of boaters in the road," said Goldberg, "The WDFW didn't want to compromise the safety of their personnel and they felt it was turning into a liability issue for them."

The last straw for the Department was when a van full of kids came down to the put-in site. Some officials from the WDFW came down to confront the driver of the van. The driver was rude and the WDFW decided not to deal with the problem of public access anymore.

"It was not entirely their fault, the problem had been building, but that was one of the final incidents that shut down the put-in." Goldberg said.

Another incident was an unrelated fatality at the falls one night. This caused the WDFW to again point to the problem of liability in allowing the public on the property. They did not want to be responsible for the problems related to public access. Nearby property owner Phillip Killion watched as rescuers pulled the body out of the river the next day.

"People from out of town come here and want to get as close as they can to those falls, but the rocks are covered with moss and get pretty slippery," said Killion.

Another fear the Department voiced was that people accessing the fish facility could steal the fish.

"As if kayakers are interested in stealing fish," said Goldberg.

The final decision by the WDFW was to keep the general public off their property, this included kayakers. The Sunset Falls put-in was closed. Boaters now use put-ins further downstream. But for those who know and love the river, the downstream put-ins cut off an important part of the Skykomish run. Many boaters drive hours to run the river, and now they are denied access to one of the key features on the river. This key feature is a wave that has always been a great place to throw tricks and practice skills. It is now over a half-mile upstream of the nearest legal put-in.

Kayakers must try to convince the state and the decision-makers in the WDFW that this section of river is important to the public they are working for. The state needs to acknowledge the river is not private property and should be accessible to everyone.

For now, the only way to access the wave is to undertake a strenuous trek and paddle upstream. And so I found myself ankle deep in mud on the riverbank trying to make my way around the first rapid.

I had taken another step into the clay and watched my foot disappear underneath the thick gray mud. It was the consistency of wet cement. As I pulled my foot out of the mud, my Teva sandal stayed underneath. My left hand gripped my paddle as it slowly sank into the bank, I braced myself from slipping downward. Balanced on my right shoulder is my prize possession, my Riot 007 kayak. Although it is one of the lightest whitewater boats made, its weight threw my small frame off balance. If I leaned over to dig my Teva out of the mud I would have most likely dropped the kayak, slipped down the clay bank, and landed in a pile of kayaking gear in the riverbed below, still minus a sandal. I stood carefully balanced on one foot, watching my friend in the river below make more progress than I as he struggled to paddle upstream.

I managed to grab my Teva with ape-like toe maneuvers and hobbled across the stretch of mud. I set my boat among the roots at my feet and sighed. In our trek upstream we had about three more rapids to portage around before we reached the top wave. I decided to risk the slippery mossy rock portages rather than deal with any more mud.

As we drew closer to the wave homeowners came out to watch the crazy kayakers making their way up river. I waved and smiled at our audience. I managed to get a wave back, but no smile. We reached the play spot and the other kayakers began to surf on the wave. A standing wave on a river is a feature that holds the boat in place against the moving current and lets the boater practice tricks. Being the novice in the group I was the only one who found that the wave was not sticky enough to charge my way on. I was ambushed by a variety of tips from the rest of the group.

"Lean forward." John demonstrated in his boat for me.

"Lean back more and brace." Jason yelled over a shoulder.

"Try starting up higher above the wave." Drew shrugged and offered this advice.

"Don't start so high up." Once again John showed me what he meant. If it were only that easy for me.

"Smile." Jack offered the best advice of the day.

I ended up on the rocks next to the wave taking pictures with a waterproof camera.

After an hour or so the six of us started down the rapids. I paddled hard to warm up, amazed by the steep peaks that rose above the river on both sides. The tallest, Mt.Index, watched over the river through snow-covered shades. I blew out of my mouth and watched the steam cloud rise in the February air.

With each rapid my heart beat faster, anticipating the dreaded Boulder Drop. We came around the corner and I caught the first glimpse. I pulled into the first eddy and stared wide-eyed at the next drop. One deep breathe, another, maybe I needed a couple more. I paddled out of the eddy scared so stiff that my hips didn't absorb the waves above the drop. I found myself upside down headed towards a line of rocks in between which is a six foot drop to a hydraulic. I rolled up and braced on truck-sized rock on the right side of the drop.

'This could be bad,' I thought momentarily.

I pushed off the rock headed sideways over the drop. I braced my paddle into the water, slammed myself against a rock on the left to straighten out and launched as far as I could over the small waterfall. I surprised myself by staying upright and paddled hard to the first person I saw in the eddy. I was finally able to breathe.

The rest of the rapid was like flying. The river picked me up the crest of a wave and then dropped me into the next leaving my stomach behind. I was part of the water itself, following its drop from the mountain peaks. I got down the rapid and joined the other boaters at the bottom. This time no one had to remind me to smile.

Jason Robertson
635 Joseph Cir
Golden, CO 80403-2349


Associated Projects

Skykomish Stewardship (WA)
AW is actively engaged in the conservation of the Skykomish River and its tributaries and advocacy for public access.