Skagit Valley visit

November 4, 2015 by Rokman61

The Skagit River sources in the rugged Cascade Range mountains in southern BC and flows south into and through the state of Washington.  It eventually empties into Puget Sound, where its extensive delta provides for prime agricultural lands and important habitat for wintering waterfowl and birds of prey – second only in scale to the Fraser Delta.  The upper reaches of the river have been dammed to light the City of Seattle.  The Ross Dam (1949) backs water upstream to just beyond the border with Canada.  It was built so that its height  could eventually be raised, which would have extended the reservoir flooding well into the Canadian section of the valley.  Around 1969 environmental groups began a very active protest against the ‘High Ross Dam’, which eventually lead to cancelling of the project in 1982.  During the years of protest there was a lot of publicity generated, and some time during the 70’s Norma and I went down to the scene to have a look.  It was as advertised – a very wild, beautiful, and interesting place indeed.  We decided then that we would have to visit again.  This came to pass recently, some 40-odd years after the fact, when we headed out one fine sunny day, October 23rd.

Our visit was inspired by reports of others who had visited the valley and raved about the autumn colours and wonderful scenery.  To reach the head of the Ross Lake reservoir requires a drive of more than an hour on gravel road, passing through continuous forest with steep mountain slopes an either side.  My story starts at the head of the reservoir.


Here is a view from where we began our exploration, a short distance inside USA, looking north into Canada.  (Click on photos to enlarge image).

Skagit head of res 2015.10.23 x5972

The level of the reservoir is very low, due to an exceptionally dry summer experienced this year.

When the valley was flooded the forest was removed, with zillions of stumps left to document what was there before.

Skagit stump field 2015.10.23 x5991

Wave action has denuded the roots of the truncated trees, leaving the stumps as if propped up on contorted stilts.  The horizontal lines in the substrate reflect water levels as the reservoir was drawn down.

Skagit stump on stilts 2015.10.23 x5975

More views of the stump field.

Skagit stumps backlit 2015.10.23 x5990

Skagit stumps and fll colour 2015.10.23 x5987

Although the stumps do make for a rather interesting, surreal, and photographic landscape, it would be tragic if ever more of our few remaining pristine valleys were subjected to the same treatment.

Autumn colours in the West are more subtle than what is expected in the East, mostly lacking of the blazing reds we see in all those calendar photos.  Still, our fall landscape is  pleasingly attractive at this time, with many delicate shades of warm colours.  Most prominent are the vibrant yellow tones of the poplar trees (Populus trichocarpa?), which contrast dramatically with our ubiquitous conifers (preceding photo) and the late-changing alders (image below).

Skagit cottonwoods 2015.10.23 x5978

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October is not a particularly birdy time in the woods, as most of the summer residents have left for warmer climes.  The only bird photo I got was of this handsome male Ruffed Grouse that Norma spotted standing on the edge of the road.

Grouse Ruffed male 2015.10.23 x5995

It was very dark in the shadows, and the bird did not wait around until I got my camera settings adjusted. This image was taken at a very slow speed, as you can tell from the motion blur on its undercarriage.

What was flying that day, were dozens of these sprightly dragonflies.  The russet patches on the inner wings indicate that it is a Western Meadowhawk.

Skagit Western Meadowhawk 2015.10.23 x5985

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The highlight of our excursion was a short walk to what is known as Chittenden Meadows, a series of small openings in the forest near the head of the Ross reservoir.  Curley Chittenden was a Canadian logger who was hired to clear the reservoir, and eventually became a prominent figure in the ‘ROSS’ committee (Run Out Skagit Spoilers) who led the protests that stopped the High Ross Project.

Access to the Meadows trail is via this substantial suspension bridge.

Skagit suspension bridge 2015.10.23 x6053

The trail follows an old logging track.

Skagit Chittenden trail 2015.10.23 x6001

One of the features of interest here is the occurrence of Ponderosa Pines (Pinus ponderosa) – a westernmost outlier of a species common on the drier eastern side of the Cascades.

Skagit Norma on meadow trail 2015.10.23 x6028

Another conspicuous conifer tree here is the Grand Fir (Abies grandis), its lush feathery branchlets supplying some vivid green colour to the landscape.

Skagit Grand fir needles 2015.10.23 x6033

Further along, the meadow is rimmed with stands of poplar – I think these are Trembling Aspen (Populus tremuloides), another species more typical of the drier regions to the east.

Skagit grass and cottonwoods 2015.10 23 x6017

The tall grasses add as much colour as the turning leaves.

Skagit grasses 2015.10.23 x6016

Views of tall pointy peaks are a reminder that we are in the middle of a rugged mountainous region, walking over one of the very few tiny areas of flat ground.

Skagit peaks and cottonwoods 2015.10.23 x6014

In parts of the meadows are patches of ground-hugging shrubs with strikingly burgundy-coloured leaves.

Skagit Mahonia meadow 2015.10.26 x6009

A closer view shows these to be a type of Mahonia or Oregon-Grape, of which we have two species; Dull Oregon-Grape typically grows in shady wooded areas and is low-growing; Tall Oregon-Grape prefers sunny locations and can grow to more than two metres height.  The vinaceous fall colour and the veining pattern of the leaves indicate that these are in fact runty Tall Mahonia (Mahonia aquifolium).

Skagit Mahonia aquifolium tall 2015.10.23 x6039

Fall is of course not known for wildflowers.  However, apparently because the daily photo period matches that of the spring flowering season, some species are prompted to put on a late show.  These blossoms of Wild Strawberry (Fragaria viginiana) can never produce fruit, as the plants will soon be frozen like stone.

Skagit Strawberry Wild Fragaria virginiana 2015.10.23 x6027

Here is another flower we encountered that day.  This intricate gorgeous blossom unfortunately belongs to a nasty, invasive, unwanted alien – the Spotted Knapweed (Cenataurea beiberseine – I can’t help but note some appropriateness in the first half of the species name).

Skagit Spotted Knapweed Centaurea bieberseinii 2015.10.23 x6057

Back at the river:  the Skagit is a noted fishery for trout and char.  During the brief time we watched this fellow, he was fishin’ but not catchin’.

Skagit fisher 2015.10.23 x6043

Sometimes it’s good to just sit and watch the water flow by – sort of mesmerizing like the flames of a campfire.

Skagit river flow 2015.10.23 x6049

Here is the last photo I took just before we left – a fitting summary.

Skagit river view 2015.10.23 x6047

A day well spent!

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