It's high tide at the mouth of the Skagit River, and heads are popping up all over. Harbor-seal heads. There's one right next to Peggy's boat. Another off Jim's bow. Two of them, right...

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ON THE SKAGIT DELTA — It’s high tide at the mouth of the Skagit River, and heads are popping up all over. Harbor-seal heads. There’s one right next to Peggy’s boat. Another off Jim’s bow. Two of them, right behind Gene.

Poking up through the water, the seals’ shiny black heads resemble bowling balls, with their round eyes and snout as the finger holes. Their slightly surprised visage suggests that of the homeowner who’s spotted a patrol car in front of another neighbor’s house: “Hmm, wonder what’s going on over there?”

There are six of us paddling this late winter morning, and the first seal we spotted inspired a kind of silent reverence in us all. After an hour of paddling in and out of the nooks and crannies of the Skagit River delta, something was now checking us out. The second and third seal inspired awe as well. But 15 minutes later when a half-dozen seals surround us on all sides, well, it’s not that we’ve lost appreciation for one of Mother Nature’s more playful creatures, it’s just that we’re back focusing our attention on our immediate surroundings — this odd collection of trees, snags, stumps, logs and Medusa-esque root systems that for all the world looks like a forest that decided to lay down for a nap right here in Skagit Bay.

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“It looks completely different from past years,” says today’s informal trip leader, Gene Davis of Bellingham. “I’m surprised at the amount of new debris; I’ve paddled here before, but I’ve had to take a GPS reading so I know exactly where we are.”

Much of the debris is from last October, when the Skagit crested at more than 14 feet above flood stage and 3,400 people had to be evacuated from communities along the river. But today, months after those floods, conditions couldn’t be any more different. It’s high overcast, upper 40s with almost no wind and, given the high tide, almost no current. Thus the perfect conditions for a late-winter paddle.

“I love to come down here and just putz around,” Davis says.

A birding wonderland

We put in at the Skagit Wildlife Area Headquarters boat launch near the end of Wylie Road, on Fir Island about 3 miles southwest of Conway.

STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Peggy Moore of Bellingham watches a flock of dunlins passing a snag at the mouth of the Skagit River. The waters of the delta, which includes the Skagit Wildlife Area, provide a popular site for kayakers.

Fir is not an island in the gotta-catch-a-ferry-to-the-San Juans sense of the word, but rather a triangle of land carved out of the Skagit Flats where the north and south forks of the Skagit River decide to go their separate ways. We put in at Freshwater Slough, one of the main braids of the Skagit’s south fork just before it dumps into Skagit Bay about two miles downstream.

At high tide, it’s as if the bay has risen to meet the westward flow of the river, so there’s only the slightest current drawing us toward Puget Sound. Our paddle is a study in “leisurely.” We kayak between banks covered in cattails, tall grasses, reeds and scrubby alders. Rafts of mallards high-tail it for sky as we approach, an eagle soars in circles overhead, and through the marshy grasses, we watch a Northern harrier seemingly stuck in place, flapping but not moving as it intently eyes some delectable munchie upon which it’s about to pounce.

The Skagit River delta (in which the Skagit Wildlife Area is located) is one of the most important spots for wintering waterfowl on the Pacific Flyway. Some 27,000 snow geese winter here — they spend the rest of the year on an island off Siberia — along with 300 tundra swans and about 125,000 ducks. During much of the winter, non-gun-toting visitors — including kayakers and potential birders — are better off staying away from this particular 12,000-acre wildlife area, for it’s a duck hunter’s paradise.

There’s a window now, however, during which paddlers can still get a glimpse of wintering birds, and perhaps see the northbound migration. The hunting season, which starts in October, ended Jan. 26.

A trusted guide

After about 15 minutes of easy paddling, we head up a tiny cattail-lined tributary to the left.

STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Gene Davis of Bellingham enjoys an eyepopping view of Mount Baker while kayaking the Skagit River delta near Conway.

“Sometimes when we go up these little creeks, we see great blue herons,” explains Davis, 58, a retired Border Patrol agent. “Or if you come here real early in the morning, we’ll see deer.”

Davis, who’s been kayaking for 15 years, has paddled some of kayaking’s most lusted-after destinations, including those in Chile, Hawaii and Clayoquot Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island. It’s experience that’s earned him unwavering trust from his fellow paddlers. Sorta.

“Uh-oh, Gene’s been known to get us dead-ended up these little creeks,” cracks Dave Peebles, 66, a retired schoolteacher, as we squeeze up the unnamed creeklet.

Also paddling today are Peggy Moore, Charlie Brown and Jim Graeser.

STEVE RINGMAN / THE SEATTLE TIMES
A duck takes flight from cattails in the Skagit River delta.

All are from Bellingham and are members of the Whatcom Association of Kayak Enthusiasts (WAKE). It’s a close-knit, good-natured bunch who practice rescue techniques and go on day and extended trips together. They love to paddle; they love hanging out with each other; they love experiencing wildlife, but maybe they’re not so good on specifics.

“What’s that?” I ask, when an unfamiliar fowl scoots along the water to our right, then takes off.

“Some kind of duck,” is the answer I receive.

I could’ve told you that myself, I think but don’t say. But who can blame them, really? There’s more than birds out here. As we slide slowly west, past the last row of alders on the mainland, and find ourselves in Skagit Bay, expansive views open up all around. The north end of forested Whidbey Island is straight ahead and beyond that a gleaming white wall of Olympic Mountains. Behind us to the east, regal Mount Baker and the Twin Sisters rise high over the foothills, which are also decked out in winter white. And far to the south, beyond island after island and channel after channel after spit, we can see the top few thousand feet of Mount Rainier, 100 miles away. From here, it’s just a distant pile of dirty snow.

The changing tides

With no wind, the water in the bay is seriously still and flat. When I inadvertently drop my glove into the water, it goes nowhere — it doesn’t sink; it doesn’t drift away. As we paddle a big circle to turn around and fetch it, my glove sticks at the water’s surface and looks as if it’s lying atop the world’s most gigantic glass coffee table. In a few hours, however, conditions won’t be quite the same.


compass


To get to the Skagit Wildlife Area Headquarters boat launch, take Interstate 5 to Exit 221, just south of Mount Vernon in Skagit County. Go west from the freeway to Fir Island Road, following the sign for Conway/La Conner. In 1.8 miles, turn left onto Wylie Road and follow for 1 mile to a T-intersection and a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife sign. Turn left, following the sign for the boat launch; the parking lot is a few hundred yards ahead.

A Department of Fish and Wildlife Vehicle Access Permit is required to park here ($10 per year, or free with purchase of a hunting or fishing license). These can be purchased wherever fishing and hunting licenses are sold, by calling 866-246-9453, or on the Web, fishhunt.dfw.wa.gov.

Waterfowl hunting season at the Skagit Wildlife Area runs from October through January.

Important: If you decide to go kayaking at the Skagit Wildlife Area, it’s best to go at high tide. For more information, contact the Skagit Wildlife Area at 360-445-4441.

Nearby places to paddle: Here are a few other spots in the North Puget Sound region that make for great late-winter, early-spring paddling destinations:

Larrabee State Park: Samish and Chuckanut bays, just south of Bellingham, offer peaceful paddling along amazing sandstone cliff formations, lots of birdlife, and a tiny island for exploration. Put in at the Wildcat Cove Boat Launch, just north of the main park entrance on Chuckanut Drive.

Baker Lake: On sunny days, this reservoir between Mount Baker and Mount Shuksan offers spectacular mountain and water views. Put in at the Kulshan Campground Boat Launch, about 13 miles north of Highway 20 off Baker Lake Road.

South side of Orcas Island: Off-season day trips spent bouncing between Orcas, Shaw and Lopez islands are wonderful experiences not only for their island beauty but also for their relative lack of boat and tourist traffic. Put in at Deer Harbor, west of the Orcas ferry landing.

Other paddlers: The Whatcom Association of Kayak Enthusiasts (WAKE) is an organization of North Puget Sound paddlers who get together for paddling day and multiday trips, safety training, and social events. For more information:www.wakekayak.org

Event: The four-day Coast Kayak Symposium, featuring training, touring and various workshops, takes place May 21-24 on Thetis Island in British Columbia’s Gulf Islands. Cost is $335 and includes accommodations, meals and round-trip transportation from Vancouver, B.C. For more details: mercias@telus.net (e-mail) or www.wakekayak.org/SYMPOSM.html or 604-597-1122

“It’s completely different at low tide,” says Peebles. “The tide changes are so extreme that where we are right now, we’d be out of our boats and having to drag them to shore.”

Moore and Brown paddle near a stranded stump on which lay dozens of strategically placed seashells. But when Moore paddles just a little too close, the shells take flight all at once, revealing themselves to be some sort of shorebird.

“Dunlin,” says Davis. “You watch; they’ll turn all at once and it looks like they disappeared. Then they’ll turn again and when the light catches them, they’re back.”

He’s right. As the flock flies left, it’s a cloud of small white and gray birds, but when it reverses directions and flies right, they’re nowhere to be seen. That is, until they switch directions and fly left again, and they seem to reappear out of thin air. And back and forth they go; the effect is like that of Venetian blinds being played with by a 4-year-old.

After paddling past curious seals and a few stumps and root systems so overgrown with tangles of brambles that they remind me of Tina Turner’s hair during her “What’s Love Got to Do With It” phase, we head back up the river. It’s been a couple of hours since we put in and since the tide has dropped a little, the current isn’t so lazy. We’re forced to put a little muscle into our paddling.

Again Davis leads us up a fun exploratory tributary to the left.

“Hey Gene, where are these herons you keep talking about?” heckles Peebles about 20 minutes later, when none is spotted.

But nobody really seems to mind. It’s just a great day to be out on the water.

Back in Freshwater Slough and on the home stretch to our put-in spot, Mother Nature shows just how fast she can transform herself. The current is noticeably stronger, and both Peebles and Graeser become temporarily stuck atop muddy sandbars, in places that we paddled over just a couple hours earlier. Back at the boat launch, we’re forced to maneuver around a foot-high pile of silt that wasn’t there before.

“That’s one of the reasons you don’t see a lot of kayakers down here,” Davis says. “There’re so many places you can get stuck, and you’d be out there for hours waiting for the tide to come in.”

But if you take precautions, including always checking the tide tables (and, of course, the weather), you’re in for a real treat. And who knows, you might even run into some of those great blue herons that Davis keeps talking about.

Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of “Day Hikes! North Cascades” (Sasquatch Books).