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Eagle Questing on the Stilly
posted by John : January 24, 2009

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Through the debris

The "fun" started the night before we were supposed to head north for a hike and eagle spotting expedition. Even though it was only at 1,000 feet the trail I had chosen was reported to be snowed in. So instead of a leisurely night packing for a snow-free, lowlands hike I was searching for alternatives and considering brining snow gear. In the end I found a backup in downtown Arlington, but Daryl and I agreed we'd go up to the road (or thereabouts) to check out the conditions.

Well... plans change. Mostly because Clara, after about an hour in the third row, brought up her breakfast. To be fair, she did give me about 30 seconds warning, though finding a spot to pull over took about 35 seconds. The cleanup took about 20 minutes, but she felt great after that.

(While I was cleaning up Daryl and Lex spotted the first bald eagles of the day across a field.)

So rather than look forward to another half an hour on the road we pulled into the alternate hiking area, but found the gate closed. Rather than park in front of the gate or on the busy street we got back on the road and headed toward Darrington.

Highway 530 looks like it runs right along the North Fork of the Stillaguamish, but it's a bit deceiving. Usually there are big trees in the way or private property between the road and the river. We saw a couple of lumps in trees, but few that were worth stopping. Just past the dot on the map marked "Hazel" we pulled over where the river came really close to the road. There were a bunch of kayakers suiting up (and you thought I was crazy), but there was space for the truck in the middle of them all.

They asked if we were going fishing. "Nope, eagles," said we excitedly. Oh, all the birds have the left the rivers because the fish are gone. They're all down in the lowlands chasing ducks. "Oh," we said not at all excitedly.

However, looking downstream and across the river we could clearly see a bald eagle in the trees. Daryl hustled the two reasons we'd come 100 miles north to look for birds, Lex and Jack, down the "trail" so they could at least see one eagle in case there were no more. I hurried as best I could, but by the time I had all three of my kids ready to go the eagle had moved upstream and wasn't clearly visible. (I pointed it out anyway, just to be on the safe side.)

The trail was a fisherman's path in the truest sense of the word. There was even a little trailhead sign with a fishing fly on a plaque marking the spot. The trail wound through an area of downed trees and other debris clearly left from the last flood. We climbed over logs and jumped down the other side, snaked through thick stands of alder, and avoided the biggest holes carved by the river. Finally, we emerged onto a large rocky beach right on the river.

Put aside visions of palm trees and bikinis because this beach was frozen solid. The kids had a hard time prying loose rocks to throw in the river and there was hoar frost scattered in patches all around. We could see another eagle downstream, but to get there would be a major challenge and it would likely flee before we got there anyway. We ate lunch, collected cool rocks, and headed back.

On the way back to Arlington we detoured onto the Oso Loop Road that I had seen on the way out. It followed the south side of the river before crossing to rejoin the highway. Farms filled the lowlands and our vision until we spotted an eagle on the other side of the river close enough to justify getting out the cameras. (Yeah, I know. It doesn't take much to get out my camera, but Daryl actually got out his, too.)

A little beyond that, where the road crosses the river, we stopped on the bridge and marveled at as many as five bald eagles and two golden eagles congregating around a pool in the river. The goldens were in the water and the bald eagles were messing about in the trees. As a bonus, jagged peaks stood against a lightly clouded sky behind the trees. Finally, we had found our supreme eagle spot.

On the way home we scored Slurpees and saw the closest eagle of the day just standing in a field preening. I was reminded that the whole Arlington Darrington area isn't that far away when it only took an hour and a half to get home. I dropped Daryl at his car in Issaquah and took all five kids back to our house. Michelle showed up a little while later to sit for us so we could go to wine club. She was either going to have it easy (because they were so tired they couldn't cause trouble) or really hard (because they were so tired they couldn't help but cause trouble).

In total we drove a million miles, saw a dozen eagles, and hiked 0.7 miles with a stunning nine feet of gain according to Mr. GPS.

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