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Thursday, June 7, 2012

Rafting the Middle Fork

After five years working to develop, refine, and gain support for a proposal to protect additions to the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and Wild and Scenic River protections for the Middle Fork Snoqualmie and Pratt Rivers, the day had finally arrived: I was going to see the forests and rivers I had spent so much time mapping and arguing for, from the most intimate vantage point possible – by raft.

The invitation came from a colleague, Thomas O’Keefe, a Ph.D. and a river ecologist and paddling enthusiast, who also happens to be the regional staff member for American Whitewater. I have worked with O’Keefe on the Alpine Lakes Wilderness and rivers bill (now moving through Congress) closely for the past five years, but this was the first opportunity to raft the Middle Fork with him. I jumped at the chance.

Two other colleagues, Sarah Krueger, from The Mountaineers, and Cynthia Wilkerson, from The Wilderness Society, joined me as we put in the 14-foot inflatable raft about a half mile north of the confluence between the Taylor River and the Middle Fork Snoqualmie River.  The river was running somewhat low - about 2,000 cubic feet per second (cfs)- but we had few problems with rocks.  In general, the raftable range of the river is between 1,500 cfs and 6,000 cfs.

Tom Uniack (front) and Tom O'Keefe
Within a few minutes, I found myself looking over at the Middle Fork Trail on the south bank of the river.  You could barely make out that there was a trail winding along the bank under old-growth trees. The view from the river was such a different perspective: without evidence of trails, roads, or people, we could have been in western Montana or southeast Alaska. In fact, we were just an hour outside of downtown Seattle.

A few minutes later, we passed under the striking arched trail bridge, which, as I understand from my colleague Rick McGuire, was designed by the same architect that built Seattle’s King Dome. Rick is one of the most passionate advocates for this area, and has been critically involved in just about every major conservation achievement in the Middle Fork Valley.

Passing the arched bridge, I could make out the new Pratt Connector Trail, currently under construction by the Forest Service, with significant volunteer support from Washington Trails Association.  When completed, the trail will offer hiking access to the seldom explored Pratt River Valley – the heart of the 22,000 acre Wilderness proposal introduced by Senator Patty Murray and Congressman Dave Reichert.

With a holler from our rafting guide, we began to paddle forward toward the Taylor Rapid. A shot of adrenaline drew me away from the scenic vista for what turned out to be just a class 2 rapid.  We bumped our way through the whitewater and floated with the current. Pulling our oars in the boat, we looked back at a stunning view of the Garfield Balconies, a set of sheer cliffs rising straight up above the winding river.

Preacher Mtn, above Middle Fork Snoqualmie River
Further down the river, we saw our first wildlife, small Least Sandpipers flying along the bank flashing their white marked wings and peeping as they took flight. Later we came across two Common Mergansers, striking river ducks with white, green, and orange outfits that live in river currents. I remember hiking along this river many times, and have never seen so many birds as from the side of our raft.

About a half hour into our float, our guide, O’Keefe, yells out for us to row forward as we approach a larger rapid – the Rainy Creek Rapid. He maneuvers the raft around several large rocks as spray falls on us like rain. What a thrill!

Further down the river, we pause to watch more wildlife that we likely would have missed from road or trail. An American Dipper walked along a log, bobbing its hindquarters. This bird is a drab brown in appearance but actually walks underwater in fast currents to get at its food. Overhead a Belted Kingfisher, a flash of blue and white, flies over making a KKKK-KKKKK call. 

Once we reached the Pratt River confluence, we pulled the raft ashore and ventured up the Pratt River Valley, which is currently only accessible by boat or hiking trail through the Alpine Lakes Wilderness from I-90. Just a few hundred yards up the river, large old-growth trees were obvious in the middle of the valley. This forgotten wild valley is the heart of the 22,000 acre Wilderness proposal currently in Congress. 

Old-growth forest, Pratt River Valley
As we pulled out of the river several minutes later, we got one last look at Russian Butte, a striking peak still flaunting snow that marks the western edge of the Wilderness proposal.
After packing up the raft and shuttling the car parked at our entry location, we headed home. Even though the Middle Fork Road had been recently graded, the ten-mile, unpaved route makes for a long and bumpy ride. There is no doubt that the quality of the road limits the number and diversity of people that come up to enjoy this incredible place. However, as part of a twenty-year effort to improve recreational infrastructure in the Valley, that is about to change for the better, as chronicled in a recent Seattle Times story.

By 1990, facilities in the valley had deteriorated and fallen into disrepair.  Undesirable elements had moved into the valley: wild shooting and garbage dumping reached epidemic proportions, squatters occupied some areas illegally, and at least one major meth lab operated.  Vandalism was rife, and recreationists were discouraged from visiting the valley because of concern for cars left parked at trailheads, and danger from shooters' bullets.  The valley had deteriorated into a "mountain slum."

This was an intolerable situation.  The Middle Fork Snoqualmie is a spectacular valley, the kind of place that would have been a National Park.  Facing this situation, a number of concerned citizens  fed up with these problems, were determined to "take back" the valley from the undesirable elements and develop its great, but woefully under-used, recreational potential.  A group calling itself the Middle Fork Outdoor Recreation Coalition, or "MidFORC,"   began working in cooperation with land management agencies and political leaders to "turn around" the valley, and make it safe for recreationists. 

Perhaps the most prominent face of that effort was Mark Boyar, a Jefferson Award winner for his efforts to bring together local stakeholders to develop a twenty-year vision for the Valley.  This vision included consolidating land into public ownership, increasing enforcement, new recreational facilities like the Middle Fork Campground, identifying new trails, decommissioning old spur roads leading to the river, establishing dispersed camping opportunities, and paving the Middle Fork Road.  More recently, Mark has waged a war on invasive species and noxious weeds, particularly near the Pratt River confluence, to ecologically restore the valley.

While I cannot offer to take you down the Middle Fork in a raft, if you are interested in more history, anecdotes and information about this incredible place and what is being done to protect and enhance it, join us on Wednesday June 13 at 7:00 pm at the Mountaineers. You can view slides and hear presentations and discussion from myself, Tom O’Keefe, Rick McGuire, and Mark Boyar, among others.

Click here to find out how to attend the Alpine Lakes: Wilderness in Our Backyard event. It’s free!

Tom Uniack has served as the Conservation Director for Washington Wild since 2003. When he is not working to protect Washington s wild lands and waters, he is spending time with his wife and three young children. 

1 comment:

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