I’m wandering around an old-growth forest with two young children in search of our country’s symbol of freedom.
But instead of seeing glorious bald eagles, I’m tripping over craggy roots, swatting bugs out of the my little boy’s hand before he puts them in his mouth and gazing up at trees with moss whipping off their limbs like our president’s coiffed hairdo.
It’s winter in the wilds of Skagit County, the perfect time and place for a pre-holiday outing. Our main goal, or at least my aim, was to get the kids out and catch a few glimpses of the elusive eagles that make their return to eastern Skagit County every winter. Plus, I was in desperate need of some outdoors time away from the yuletide overload in my living room.
So I packed up my two youngest and the family truckster, and headed east on Highway 20. The wife was left to wrap all my presents, I presume.
Every winter, thousands of eagles descend upon the Skagit River Valley between Marblemount and Concrete. The Skagit Eagle Festival celebrates this pilgrimage and takes place every weekend in January, with events and viewing sites around Concrete, Rockport and Marblemount. But December isn’t too shabby for viewing the creature so majestic it was chosen to adorn the Great Seal of the United States in 1782 and later became our national symbol.
With the Christmas music cranked, we snaked through Sedro-Woolley and then breezed through Concrete before finding our destination: Rockport State Park. Along with Rockport State Park, there are a number of great places to view eagles this time of year, including Howard Miller Steelhead Park, Milepost 100 Rest Area and the Marblemount Fish Hatchery.
We found a parking spot, scrambled out of the car and donned our sweatshirts and boots. A bearded gentleman decked out in a dark green park ranger uniform walked over to our car and greeted us.
“Hey, are you guys here for the edible plant walk?” asked Amos Almy, Rockport State Park interpretive specialist.
“We are now,” I answered quickly. Ninety minutes in the car with two children had worn down my will for adventure. Eagles could wait, I thought.
The Discovery Center at Rockport State Park offers Deep Forest Experience guided hikes in the park every hour from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on weekends during the winter. These are easy hikes that take visitors through an old-growth forest and give them the opportunity to learn about the flora and fauna that live under the towering cedars trees and giant arcing Douglas firs and hemlocks.
We set off with our guide, Terri Wilde, who led us down the short Sauk Springs Trail, stopping every so often to point out unique aspects of the ecosystem. We learned about ferns, mushrooms, lichen and the animals that called this forest home. A babbling creek drew the interest of the kids, who also tried a bite of wild lettuce and a warm tea made from licorice root, devil’s thorn branches and turkey tail mushrooms. The tea was fine, but it left me hankering for a hot toddy.
Halfway through the hike, we stopped at a bench overlooking the confluence of the Sauk and Skagit rivers. Almy tried to point out eagles in the river valley far below, but my eyes couldn’t follow through the tree limbs. Even without eagles, the view was impressive, as the sandy landscape showed scarring from recent floods.
At moments like this, I often think of John Muir’s quote about keeping nature close at heart and breaking away once in a while to “wash your spirit clean.” That’s how I felt at that moment: washed clean.
We often take up so much of our time this season, rushing to and fro and making sure we check off holiday tasks, that we forget to stop and take in the grandeur of it all. I’m not immune to it myself. But standing there with a few strangers and a couple of my own progeny, I couldn’t help but feel like time was standing still as the rivers below slowly rolled past on their own journey to the sea.
Or, whatever; maybe that tea had gotten to me.
After Almy gave us a brief history of the trail and area, the group trudged back to the trailhead and enjoyed the warmth of the ranger’s office, where my daughter Grace, 7, patted a stuffed bear and my son Teddie, 4, noshed on cookies.
We soon said our goodbyes and headed to Howard Miller Steelhead Park and Milepost 100 Rest Area in search of eagles. Sadly, we came up empty, the ranger mocking us with his pronouncement that we’d just missed a bevy of eagles swooping past his spot a mere minutes earlier.
On the way home, we stopped at 5b’s Bakery in downtown Concrete to enjoy some cookies and a warm beverage for the kids. Then I had us stop at Birdsview Brewing just west of town. Kid-friendly with taps full of their own unique beers, Birdsview is a must-stop anytime I head east on Highway 20.
While the kids colored and I enjoyed a pale ale, we chatted about what we saw that day and, of course, what we didn’t. “Eagles are hard,” the 4-year-old chimed in, I assumed referring to the act of finding them. I nodded in agreement and thought of Benjamin Franklin’s lament of the bald eagle, that bird of “bad moral character.”
“Well, they have to be stealth so they can dive in and grab the fish in the river,” I said, pretending to be some kind of eagle expert. “That’s what they eat.”
“I don’t like them,” Teddie shot back.
Neither do I, son. Neither do I.
Spotting (or not) eagles
For the most comprehensive information on viewing eagles in Skagit County, check out the city of Concrete’s webpage on the upcoming Skagit Eagle Festival at www.concrete-wa.com/skagit-eagle-festival. Find activities, events and viewing locations.
For info on Rockport State Park’s Deep Forest Experience and the Discovery Center, visit Rockport’s website at https://parks.state.wa.us/574/Rockport.