When in Rome... or Seattle: Eagle Watching on the Skagit
This post is one in an intermittent series on places and activities favored by Seattle locals when they want to “sightsee” their own backyard. In every city there are activities and landmarks promoted to tourists that locals avoid, because of the crowds, the cost, the “cheesy” factor, and/or having done it every time family visits from out of town. In Seattle, these include the Space Needle, the Underground Tour of Pioneer Square, and riding “The Duck,” among others. Ever wonder how a New Yorker sightsees in Manhattan or a Parisian in Paris? Here is a look at what Seattlites do when they want play tourist.
One of the most raw yet beautiful events of nature in Cascadia is occurring right now on the upper Skagit River, approximately 2 hours north and east of Seattle. A major salmon spawn is in full swing, attracting hundreds of bald eagles. This year, the Nature Conservancy counted over 500 balds along an 11.5 mile stretch of the river. This is a record for the Skagit and is the largest gathering of the raptors in the country.
Cascadians, in turn, flock to the area to take in the amazing sights of both the salmon run and the convention of eagles and other large birds that converge to feast. Each year thousands of visitors arrive with binoculars, cameras, boots, and raincoats to watch the spectacle of this cycle of life.
Left: Bald eagles dining on spawning salmon in the upper Skagit River. Photo from the Skagit River Bald Eagle Awareness Team, taken by Bradley Husick.
The upper Skagit is an intensely beautiful area with dense forest laced with moss and carpeted in ferns, salal, and other evergreen undergrowth. The small towns of Concrete, Rockport and Marblemount which line the Skagit River host the annual Upper Skagit Bald Eagle Festival” which happens next weekend, February 3rd and 4th. Events range from the “biscuits-and-gravy” breakfast feed at the local senior center to scientific presentations, guided tours, and entertainment in the form of storytelling and musical concerts. The locals put their heart and soul into the festival. They are very proud to be stewards of this part of the region and to be helping to preserve this annual rite of nature.
There are many ways to see the eagles, from guided hikes to float trips. However, you don’t have to be an outdoorsman to catch the action. Highway 20 parallels the river in many places and it is common to see folks pulled over on the shoulder of the road, taking pictures of the feasting birds from inside their cars.
Here is a link to a couple video clips of eagles feeding on salmon in the Skagit.
How to Get There:
Head north on I-5 one hour to Sedro Wooley, then east on Highway 20.
Where to Eat (and stay):
There are many little local cafes and restaurants in the area. Most are of similar casual, family-style quality. For a little piece of history and local color, stop in at the Buffalo Run Inn in Marblemount. This restaurant/hotel used to be the area’s brothel (many, many moons ago). Last time I ate there, the waitress told us about shooting a bear in her back yard who had started rummaging in the trash cans. Generally, shooting bear is illegal except for when one becomes a “public nuisance and danger”. “And,” she told us, “bear’s good eatin.”
An eagle-watching trip can easily be a one day outing. However, if you want to make a weekender of it, there are many kitschy, little places to stay along the way.
Delving a little Deeper:
If you do make a weekend of it and want take a break from the Festival, check to see if any of the other hiking trails in the area are open and hikeable.