Stillaguamish River delta, n. Puget Sound, WA 1 Dec. 2018

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by alexsidles, Dec 3, 2018.

  1. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA
    In winter, the fresh waters of Washington State serve as a refuge for tens of thousands of waterfowl. Having nested on the arctic tundra, ducks, geese, and swans head south to our waters to shelter and feed. You can find these beautiful winter visitors on just about any body of fresh water, but the best places to see them in large numbers are on the estuaries and deltas, where the largest rivers meet the salt water of Puget Sound.

    By volume, the Stillaguamish is only the fifth largest river discharging into Puget Sound, behind the Skagit, Snohomish, Nooksack, and Puyallup Rivers. But you can't always guess how large a river's delta will be based solely on river flow. The size and shape deltaic environment depends on all kinds of local topographic features, including especially the level of human development. Despite its relatively unimpressive volume of flow, the Stillaguamish has one of the most expansive deltas in the sound. On Saturday, I drove up for a day paddle to see some winter waterfowl.

    00 Route map.jpg
    00 Route map. The launch point is the bridge between Camano Island (L) and the mainland (R). This image—and my trip—only includes the northernmost corner of the Stillaguamish delta. The whole delta is perhaps ten times this large.

    It was a good thing I didn't check Google Earth before I headed out. Looking at the imagery now, I'm amazed I was able to get a kayak in there at all. The Stillaguamish delta has only a couple of main channels. Everything looks like impassable swamp.

    In reality, there are narrow channels throughout the entire swamp, and I spent several hours exploring them. Especially as the tide rose, I was able to penetrate far into the mysterious, watery world of the delta.

    01 Wooden hulk at launch.JPG
    01 Wooden hulk at launch. Like most of our river deltas, the Stillaguamish once hosted a wide array of timber and fishing facilities, all in wood. These are now slowly decaying into the mud.

    02 Old pilings.JPG
    02 Old pilings. Although this landscape has been heavily modified by industry and agriculture, nature still finds a home in the gaps.

    03 Entering narrow slough.JPG
    03 Entering narrow slough. At medium tide, it was possible to penetrate quite far inland through the swamp by using these mazes of channels. But maps of this area are useless. I got disoriented several times, despite my GPS, because the channels are constantly changing and were, perhaps, never very accurately delineated to begin with.

    04 Through a slough.JPG
    04 Through a slough. In some places, the channels were so narrow my boat would scrape both sides. Other places, such as here, were much wider.

    05 Flooded swamp.JPG
    05 Flooded swamp. As the tide rose, the entire swamp became a vast, placid water world, perfect for ducks.

    There were indeed thousands of waterfowl. Northern pintails were the most numerous, with perhaps around 3,000 in my part of the delta. There were another 2,000 or so American wigeon, a few hundred mallards, a few hundred teal, around 1,000 trumpeter swans, a few smaller flocks of tundra swans, and the usual smattering of Bucephala. I was delighted to see so many birds—the numbers seemed up from previous years, which always makes me happy.

    My topo maps showed several sloughs that pierced the swamp and connected to permanent waterways on the other side. Each time I tried to traverse one of these passages, however, I would hit a dead end or the passage would peter out in a maze of twisty channels, all alike. After an hour, I realized maps were useless, and I'd have to navigate by feel.

    I was not alone in the swamp. Duck hunting season was in full swing, so I was treated to over a hundred shotgun blasts from shooters concealed around the western margins of the swamp. Luckily I was not hit, and indeed, I saw no ducks get hit either, even when they flew right over a position where I knew hunters were lurking. A flock of a dozen pintails would go whipping past at about 60 yards, a flurry of shots would ring out, and the ducks would keep right on flying. Hopefully they escaped unwounded—I would hate to think incompetent hunters were wounding birds that later died.

    At one point, I became stranded in a slough so narrow that one side of my boat was firmly grounded while the other side was in deep water. Misjudging the distance, I stepped out and plunged in hip-deep, overtopping my boot and soaking my phone in my pocket. I scrambled up onto a mudbank, hauled my boat out of the water, and flipped its nose around back the way I'd come. As I was flailing about, a pair of friendly hunters in chest waders came out to see if I was in distress. What a circus!

    On the eastern side of the swamp, there were many fewer hunters, since there is no public road access, and accordingly, many more birds. Northern harriers swooped over the rapidly flooding fields to catch mice that sought refuge on the dwindling patches of dry land.

    Mixed in with the harriers were a handful of short-eared owls! These diurnal owls love hunting in open, marshy fields, so they were in seventh heaven here. One perched on a piling and trained his fierce, yellow eyes on me as I paddled by. All told throughout the day, I saw at least ten harriers and four owls. I say "at least," because it can be hard to tell if a raptor disappears and comes back somewhere else whether it's the same bird. But at one point, I had three harriers and two owls in sight simultaneously, so there really were a lot out there.

    06 Short-eared owl.jpg
    06 Short-eared owl. This handsome fellow was not perturbed in the least by my passage.

    07 Over the dike.JPG
    07 Far side of the dike. Dikes in this area "reclaim" estuarine land for agriculture. You have to portage up and over if you want to access the more inland channels.

    08 Windy slough.JPG
    08 Slough country. Thanks to the high banks, it was eerily quiet within these channels, which extend quite far into the interior of the mainland.

    09 Wigeon decoy.JPG
    09 Wigeon decoy. The intensity of the shooting was remarkable, and it clearly put a lot of stress on the birds. They were constantly flushing at the slightest disturbance, which they don't do in areas or times when there is no hunting.

    Navigation was a challenge throughout the trip. The rising tide opened up more and more of the swamp to my boat, but I was keenly aware that the tide would eventually fall. When it did, I would stand a real chance of getting stranded. Channels were few and far between, and were hard to recognize during higher tides, and did not always go through, and were not always navigable at lower tides. I kept a close eye on the time, lest I be forced by the falling tide to hump my boat out over miles of sinking mud.

    At one point, my topo map, which I had already written off as unreliable, was showing a substantial channel very close by, but I wasn't seeing anything. At first, I thought the channel might have been filled in since the map was printed, but eventually, I figured out the channel was on the far side of a dike that simply did not appear on the map. I hauled my boat up and over. On the other side, I entered a maze of high-walled channels. I paddled up and down, enjoying the silence and the solitude, and searching for a connection back to the Stillaguamish River, of which my topo showed several.

    Yet again, however, the swamp defeated the map, for the channels all ended in various dead ends, gates, or sudden narrowings. For the second time today, I was forced to lift my boat up and out of the water, turn its nose around, and paddle back the way I'd come. I never did find a useable water connection back to the river, so I carried my boat across the dike again to get home.

    Despite the hunters, it was a wonderful trip. It was great to see all our visiting waterfowl, and the harriers and owls were a real treat. I also liked the difficult navigation, despite my misadventures. So often when I get turned around while kayaking, I just click on the GPS, and it tells me exactly what to do. I have become so dependent on this little device I call it "the Precious." Yet when I first started kayaking, I had no GPS and often used no map. Instead, I would just feel my way through the water, and if I didn't always end up where I thought I would, I always had a good time. The unreliable mapping of the Stillaguamish delta imposed on me a return to those adventurous days, and the result was a wonderful tour of a special and seldom-seen corner of our state.

  2. designer

    designer Paddler

    Sep 17, 2012
    Bend OR USA
    Alex, you were very brave to hold up that decoy of a duck - given all the hunters looking for bird movement in the area. You weren't worried that you'd appear as "something moving" as you paddled in their kill zone?
  3. Astoriadave

    Astoriadave Paddler

    May 31, 2005
    Astoria, Oregon, USA
    Superb report, Alex. Those waterfowl numbers are stunning for an "urban" tidal wetland/swamp.

    The Stilly is a long abused waterway, but those numbers give me heart. They far exceed what one might spot on "The Islands," local parlance for the extensive complex of tide-affected islands, backwaters, and swampy wetlands accessible via the small beach and rustic boat ramp at Aldrich Point, off Hwy 30, some 20 road miles east of Astoria. The Islands have been my go to paddling area for over 25 years, for their convenience of access and their winter bounty of waterfowl. They are wholly protected as the Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge, yet in no way comparable to the Stilly delta.

    Your remarks about the ineptitude of the shot gunners describe the habits of urban gunners, I expect. Hunters out of Aldrich Point, for the most part, are very considerate, pretty good shots, and appear to respect the complex limits on game, the latter probably assisted by the frequent presence of OSP game cops at the ramp. BTW, hunters tell me that past fifty yards, birdshot (all steel, now) has a relatively low chance of bringing down a duck unless the gunner is very skilled, and uses a full choke. I have been peppered once, I believe, by spent shot, falling straight down, from a stand a hundred yards out ( I think).

    Your reports are always A-1. Please keep them coming.