Adventure on the Skagit: Eagle Watch

January 24, 2023

I traveled far beyond my normal range of adventure in search of eagles this week. The Bald Eagle Interpretive Center does tours on the weekends in December and January—prime viewing time—but on Tuesday I had the trail along the Skagit River all to myself.

My family went earlier in the month and reported seeing maybe seventy of the majestic birds. But they were in a boat on the river, I was on a trail from which the river was not always in view, the eagles were on gravel bars in the middle of the river. I didn’t see many, and they were only barely in range of my telephoto lens. Ah well. It was fun to be in a new place on a misty foggy day.

I was heading out of Centralia Monday morning, when I got a text message from a friend in another time zone. “I know it’s early there,” she wrote, “but check your email!” I pulled into a parking lot and looked. Both her memoir and mine have made the shortlist for Story Circle Network’s Sarton Award in the memoir category! That set the tone for the day! The award is named for May Sarton, whose book, Journal of a Solitude, changed my life half a lifetime ago. Just to have my book shortlisted for the book in her honor means so much. Here’s the story:

I was sitting on a folding chair in the elementary school gymnasium waiting for a PTA meeting to begin. I glanced at the book the woman next to me was reading: Journal of a Solitude by May Sarton. I got the book the next day. It would not be too strong a point to say it was life changing. I don’t recall now which child’s school I was at, if it was c. 1986 (child #1) or a few years later (child #2), but I know I thought something was wrong with me that I craved solitude with all my being. May’s book helped me understand me, to know that I wasn’t alone; to know that nothing was wrong me other than I didn’t know myself, wasn’t listening to my heart. I’ve read it several times since that year, along with her other journals and novels.

I get a bit of disappointing book news from another front as I arrive in Seattle, but that’s a story for another day. Though, I will say, it feels like more than a personal loss. But I’m well aware that you win some, you lose some, so I’m going to revel in the Sarton honor.

But back to the story at hand. I spend Monday night with my family in Seattle, helping Elliot with his undone homework at 6:30 Tuesday morning. They are studying cultures, beginning with where their families originated (I draw him a very poorly rendered family tree for his Mommy’s side). Among other explorations, he was to list celebrations and events that are important in his family. First one out of his mouth? Camp Gigi! Made my day right there it did.

But on to the eagles. My plan is to wait until after eight o’clock to drive up I-5. It’s a four-hour drive home, but I’m hoping I can miss the worst of the traffic on both sides of my hike. Bonus: I get in a walk with Emma and Lucy Dog before Emma goes to work.

I drive two hours north and east from Seattle to Howard Miller Steelhead Park on the Skagit River.

There’s a light misty rain falling when I get out of the car, and I am dressed for it. Since the interpretive center is open only on weekdays, I’m on my own and know nothing about the trail. I find the trailhead at the far edge of the campground and start off.

These signs are always a bit unsettling at first, but I quickly let it go. Cougars are shy, and I wasn’t exactly outfitted in cammo in my hooded fuchsia raincoat. I enter the mist of ghosty, kind of creepy deciduous trees, their moss and lichen covered fingers reaching out across the trail.

The mowed path through winter’s dormant grass and blackberry vines has offshoots to the river, or the side channels and wetland ponds, but takes its time before actually coming alongside the main body of the Skagit. I scan the tree tops, but see no nests nor eagles. . . nor cougars. I read that the side channels provide refuge for young salmon for up to two years before they make their way to the ocean.

Goatsbeard lichen
Lettuce lichen . . .
. . . or lungwort lichen

Finally, the river. I scan the trees along the shore and spot two eagles sitting on logs on a gravel bar. They are barely in reach of my fully-zoomed lens. I wait for a while to see if they fly off. They do not.

Hoping I can get closer before they take flight, I keep walking. But the trail leaves the river again. When I come back to it, the two log sitters have not moved. Beyond them now, I’m equally far away. Clearly they have far more patience for waiting for fish than I have waiting for them to spot one. (And, besides, they have probably already had breakfast and are just having a digestive sit.)

While focusing the camera on a merganser, clicking on it just as a plump of ducks (bet you didn’t know that term for ducks in flight) comes in for a landing, I miss the shot it’s my dream to catch. My camera takes too daggone long to reset after a click. I love the landings and take-offs, the skid marks on the surface of the water as they fold their wings in and settle for a rest (becoming a raft of ducks) or a meal watch (a diving dopping), then in a great unison flapping take off again.

A bit farther on, I see another one in a tree. As I zoom in on it, it takes off. My camera can’t track it, so I just watch as it flies away from me, circles around, comes in for a landing out of sight on the rocks. Then flies back to its tree perch. It doesn’t appear to have found anything.

I spot another eagle in a tree, or maybe it’s the same one. At least it moves its head.

Checking my watch, as the trail edges away from the river again, I decide it’s time to turn back. It’s nearly noon, and I spotted a burger joint for lunch a few miles back in Darrington, and an espresso kiosk at the interstate in Arlington. I have a plan. A few yards back down the trail, I turn and look back just in time to spot the tree sitter flying away from me turning with the curve in the river and moving out of sight. Back where I first spotted the log sitters, I check their status. They are gone.

Driving back toward Darrington, I see an eagle in flight heading up river. Amazing birds. I read now they tend to soar over the valleys on sunny days and roost along the rivers on cloudy rainy ones. And, no surprise, they feed early in the morning. I arrived on a rainy day, mid-morning. I probably should have researched better, but I wasn’t going to leave Seattle before dawn. Besides, I would have missed knowing Camp Gigi was on Elliot’s list of special events! It was a great new adventure just as it was.

I sit in the car with my burger and head back toward I-5. The barista asks where I’m heading and I tell her Olympia, figuring she wouldn’t know where Centralia is. “Do you live in Olympia?” she asks. “Actually in Centralia,” I say, “but I didn’t know if you would know where that is.” “I do know,” she says, “my cousins live there!” Connections.

I’m home at four o’clock with no major traffic issues. As I write this, an eagle is circling above the valley out my window.


13 thoughts on “Adventure on the Skagit: Eagle Watch

  1. Good Grief you are brave! “Recent cougar siting.”You are a woman alone without the opportunity to talk loudly and yet you proceed! Wonderful photos and tribute to this unique Skagit River spectacle every winter. Soon the birds will make their way to Whidbey Island and other places and begin to set up their territories for nests. And so the seasons continue to change. Ann

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    Liked by 1 person

  2. I love the Skagit Valley. Bow, Edison, La Conner. It’s a lively place and a treasure trove of all things raptor. I can imagine that walk and seeing the eagles in the trees. My heart leaps every time. Winter is perfect for those kind of trails. It looks beautiful there. Couldn’t help but smile about Elliott and I am just so excited for your Sarton Award nomination. She gave a kind of permission to many of us to embrace the pleasure of our own company. She also filled her journals with simple truths. Such an honor to be chosen. You’ve already won 💕

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Omgosh! And when I went to look up where Concrete was I see that you pass through a town named Birdsview! How cool is that! Those dippers aren’t the most beautiful birds but they are one of my favorites to watch. Nice capture!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Wonderful Gretchen, you are full of cool new adventures! I keep hearing about the Skagit and want to head up there some day. Not sure if Skagit Valley and Skagit River are different. Wonderful to see even more that one eagle at a time! And one even followed you home. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  4. When I lived in Portland, I developed a working/friendship relationship with Mike Houck, arborist for the City of Portland and the Audubon Society. One very chilly morning in early February he took a conntingent of the Steering Committee of the Columbia Slough Watershed Council out to Sauvie’s Island to withness the eagles as they fly down from nesting in the old growth forest in Portland’s West Hills to perch in the trees along the shore of the Willamette River and feed. There was close to 2 dozen eagles by our count. We also saw a variety of other raptors, including a kestrel, my personal favorite. In spite of the cold, it was a memorable day! If you are ever in Portland, consider rising early and driving out to Sauvie’s Island. It is such a treasure to have that kind of wild-life activity so close to downtown.

    Liked by 3 people

      1. Of course, this was 25+ years ago and Sauvie Island may have changed more than a little bit in that time. My memory is that we turned right from Hwy 30 onto the bridge to cross the channel and went not that far, possibly only a few hundred yards. There was not a lot of space to park along the road. You might look up Sauvie Island on Google maps for reference. I notice that there is now a Sauvie Island Wildlife Center a bit north of there. Inquiring there might be the best source of information on where to watch the eagles’ early morning fly in. Their phone # is (503) 621-3488.

        Liked by 1 person

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