The Wild Stillaguamish

This 4 mile round trip hike is a Summer favorite of families and occasional hikers. There is a short drop down to the Stillaguamish River then a nice walk along the old Monte Cristo railroad grade. The river is squeezed into a narrow and deep canyon and the trail goes through several tunnels. What most hikers do not know is that when there are floods in the lowlands this is one of the most wild and exciting places you can hike to. I was there on one of the most extreme high water days on record. In early November of 1990 it began to snow. The snow piled up and then a big warm storm blew in. The ensuing rain and melted snow led most of the rivers in Western Washington to flood. A flood disaster was declared. More information on the flooding is here: Flooding. At that time there was a recorded phone message which gave the stream flow for each of the rivers in the state. This was well before the advent of the Internet for the masses. In the weeks before the flood the South Fork of the Stillaguamish was flowing at about 1500 cfs. That was about twice the flow averaged during the Summer months. When the rain began the flow started to surge. On the morning of the 25th the flow reached 25,000 cfs. I grabbed my camera and headed out into the rain to see just what that much water in a narrow canyon looked like.

On the drive out I crossed over the Snohomish River near Everett and it covered the valley from side to side. When I reached the trailhead I was not surprised to find that there were no other cars there. Who else would be crazy enough to go out on a day like this. The trail is flat for a very short distance then reaches a viewpoint where it begins to drop down towards the river. From this point I could both see and hear the river. On previous hikes here I could do neither from this distance. The trail drops down then heads straight to the river. When I reached that point I was amazed at the amount of churning brown water. At this point the river bed is wide and usually has a great deal of gravel on each side. Not this time. Even at this wide spot the water was near the top of the bank. I would guess that it was at least 6 feet above the Summer level. From this point on the trail is on the old railroad grade and never far from the river. In several places past floods had carved out pieces of the grade and the trail made small detours back to the grade.

As I hiked down river the canyon began to narrow. There were two small streams which empty into the river. In the summer they are dry and you simply drop down one side and back up the other. This time it was a little different. At the first one the stream was running backward and pouring water inland. It looked too deep to ford so I followed the bank inland. I slogged through muddy sticker bushes and found a log I could use to get across the creek. It was easy to head back to the trail from there. Soon I ran into another smaller creek and this one I decided I could long jump. I ran full speed and just about made it across. After this crossing the canyon began in earnest. The wide channel of the Stillaguamish narrows rapidly. The canyon is both narrow and deep. Water was pouring over the top and splashing down the canyon walls to the grade below. I had never seen water in places that were now 100' waterfalls. I had an umbrella but with the rain and the waterfalls there was no way to stay dry. farther into the canyon the old railroad was set on a rock bench with concrete set around the ties. Many of the ties had rotted out but the depressions they once sat in remained. At this point it is usually at least 20 feet down to the river. Not this day. The river was surging by only about two feet below the grade. My greatest fear was a rising river leaving me no escape. I watched the level very carefully. The water was not a clear pristine color. It was a brown churning monster. In the canyon the noise was tremendous. It was like being on the tarmac at Sea-Tac (I've been there too back when security was not as tight). It would have been very difficult for two people to talk over the noise of the river. Occasionally a full grown tree would be carried by. The canyon narrowed down to where I could easily throw a rock across. I really needed a video camera with sound as my still photos do not do the spectacle justice. If ever I was to witness the power of nature from a front row seat, this was it.

I continued through the tunnels to the old arch that once was a retaining wall. It is wide enough that I have crossed it a number of times, looking down at the river. This day I did not have the courage to give it a try. The water came well up on both sides of the arch. By now I had finished with a full roll of film. I sat and watched and listened as the river flew on by. Soon it was time to head on back. I have returned when flooding has brought the river to high levels but have never again seen anything close to the fury the river displayed that day. Perhaps some day I will be so fortunate again.

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