ROCKPORT, Wash. – The same sturdy rubber raft that had floated through the Grand Canyon and down rivers in Alaska rolled easily down a Skagit River that was surging just a little from recent rains.
Guide Jon Turnbull knew just what angle to point the raft to ferry his passengers from one side to the other, to reach a point of interest on the eight miles between Marblemount and Rockport.
The rain sputtered on and off. Turnbull’s thermometer read 36 degrees. Those on the rafts reminded each other to “think warm thoughts.”
Still, the Nov. 16 trip beat another day in the office by a mile.
A lot of river experience was behind this trip. Guide Shane Turnbull – Jon’s older brother – operates Chinook Expeditions and claims on his website to have logged more than 100,000 river miles.
The trip’s primary guide was Dave Button of Pacific NW Float Trips. Shane Turnbull said Button was the first commercial rafter in the state, having started in the early 1970s.
That’s when bald eagle watching from the river took off and made commercial rafting viable year-round. The bald eagles come to the Skagit starting in November to feast on the carcasses of spawned-out salmon.
Button said he gets customers from all across the United States and from foreign countries. When the bald eagles that winter along the Upper Skagit are at their peak – in mid-December to early January – visitors can see hundreds of the birds on this particular stretch.
The guides noted that surprisingly few of the people on their trips are locals.
Shane Turnbull kept saying the eagles were “skittery” about the rafts at this early point in their winter feeding season. They will eventually become more tolerant of the slow-moving rafts, he said.
The guides operate under a permit from the U.S. Forest Service that comes with certain restrictions. Boats may not launch before 11 a.m. between Dec. 26 and Feb. 26, and they may not beach onto gravel bars.
“We feel the guides do a good job of educating about the eagles and watching them, and doing so in a considerate and safe manner,” said Greta Movassaghi, a Forest Service natural resource specialist.
Shane Turnbull has an interest in seeing both the eagles and the salmon that attract them protected. It’s a business interest, to be sure, but it also comes more organically from a lifetime spent between Marblemount and Diablo.
“Every winter we see the rhythms of the fish and the eagle numbers correlated, and we also see the decline of the salmon overall,” Turnbull said.
The eagle has bounced back so that the bird has been taken off the endangered species list. Recent salmon runs up the Skagit have been larger than the years immediately before but still are part of a long-term decline in the population.
“We can’t just sit back and think that it’s good because it’s not,” Turnbull said.