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On Friday, Rich and I drove to Marblemount, Washington, an hour east of Mount Vernon in the North Cascades. Barely 2.5 square miles in size with a population of around 250 people, the town is one of the many small towns that dot the highway, including Concrete, which derived its name from the merging of two towns where the Washington Portland Cement Company and Superior Portland Cement Company plants were located.

Our trip to Marblemount was to take a canoe trip down the Skagit River, which is the second longest river in Washington, starting in southwestern British Columbia, Canada, and snaking its way to the Puget Sound. Every few years, heavy rains create flood conditions for town along the river, including parts of Mount Vernon.

The upper Skagit River is controlled by the Ross, Diablo, and Gorge Dams, which are part of the Skagit River Hydroelectric Project. The river is not only an important spawning habit for five types of salmon, but is desirable for white water rafting, kayaking, and canoeing.

Remember the five types of salmon by holding up one of your hands. The thumb represents chum. The index finger can be used to poke yourself in the eye so it represents sockeye. The middle finger is king because it’s the longest or what you’d use to flip someone off to show you’re “king of the road.” The ring finger is silver, like a wedding band. And the pinkie finger represents pink salmon.

We started our trip, through Pacific NW Float Trips, by meeting our river guide, Joe, at a gas station in Marblemount. Several other groups were going out that day, including a flock of rowdy kids, wearing disposable rain ponchos, who were getting ready to white water raft. I was happy our group consisted of Joe, Rich, and myself. Less is more when it comes to water sports.

Glacier Gravel from Concrete to Picturesque Pond

With two aluminum canoes on top of Joe’s car, and hope that the rain, which followed us from Mount Vernon was done for the day, we headed to a series of ponds for the start of our day-long adventure. The ponds had originally been gravel pits, excavated to make concrete. So much gravel had been removed that when beavers created dams, water filled the pits and they became serene ponds, excellent habitats for spawning salmon and other wildlife.

We paddled around a pond, with Rich and I in one canoe, and Joe in the other. It was very pleasant, but a bit sedate for my taste. I prefer a bit more adventure. Having circled the pond, Joe recommended we park our canoes, and walk around to learn more about edible plants in the area.

Joe was a walking encyclopedia of what was edible, along with alternative uses for some of the plants. We nibbled on plantain, shepherd’s purse stinging nettle (after Joe showed Rich what to pick, and what to avoid), and thimbleberries (which I’ve always mistaken for salmon berries). We were also told the leaves of thimbleberries make excellent toilet paper!

After learning a bit about foraging, we headed back to Joe’s truck to pick up two more canoes for the next leg of our adventure. A river guide in Florida during the winter, and also a guide in Alaska, Joe’s housing is portable and temporary. When guiding on the Skagit River, he lives in a large teepee, with a fire brazier for warmth.

Beaver Dam Lead to Tippy Canoe

Our next stop was Illabot Creek, which feeds into the Skagit River. Happily, this time, portage of the canoes was a few hundred feet. Earlier, to reach the ponds, we had to carry the canoes about a quarter mile. While not overly heavy, they’re long and awkward to hold.

Illabot Creek is haven to salmon and eagles, and has been recognized by American Rivers and The Nature Conservancy for its importance in providing a crucial habitat for wild Chinook salmon, steelhead, bull trout, pink, Coho, and chum salmon. The large number of salmon in the creek also make it a popular hangout for bald eagles.

What I immediately appreciated was the abundance of ripe blackberries on the trail along the creek. I wasn’t as elated with the foot-long garter snake Joe plucked from the grass. While pretty, the snake was a little too big for me to comfortably touch. One day I will get over my fear of snakes. One day!

In the meanwhile, later that afternoon, I had no hesitancies about petting the Northern Alligator lizard, sunning himself (or herself) on a concrete barriers. Lizards are cool. Snakes are scary.

No sooner had Rich and I plunked our butts into our canoe, we had to get out to carry it over a small beaver dam. The water came up to the bottom of our calves and was quite cold. As the afternoon progressed, we steadily got wetter…

Several times, we had to get out of the canoe to pull it over a beaver dam. Because the water was low, it wasn’t an issue and it was super easy – at least for me – to get back into the front of the canoe. After navigating over the dam, we came to a picturesque area with many reeds, and ducks hiding out along the shores. You could see small fish in the water, along with a multitude of plant life.

Joe shared the difference between reeds, willows and grasses, and pointed out various wild life and plants. Later, while nibbling on snacks, we spotted a beaver swimming across the water.

It was enjoyable navigating in areas, which would be impossible by foot or a larger boat. The canoes glided over the shallow areas, and were easy to paddle in deeper water.

On the way back, we seemed to have more difficulty getting over the beaver dams with my having to wade further out into deeper water to pull the canoe over the dam, while Rich struggled to get a foothold. At one point, the water was to the top of my thighs!

On the second to last dam, I’d already gotten into the canoe. I looked back to see Rich getting into the back when suddenly the entire canoe tipped to the side, instantly filling with water. I turned around again to see Rich sitting on the floor of the canoe. He was evidentially standing in the canoe and rocking it slightly from side-to-side to try to scoot it forward. When he went to sit down, he didn’t realize he wasn’t near the seat.

Joe instructed us to get out of the canoe, walk it to shore, and then tip it over. By the time we got the canoe up righted, I was soak from mid-chest down. Fortunately, it was warm outside, and I had a change of clothes in the car.

After getting the canoes loaded back onto Joe’s truck, returning to our car, and then changing into dry clothes, we joined Joe at Que Car BBQ for a tasty late lunch. I thoroughly enjoyed my pulled pork sandwich, and Rich had their chopped brisket.

It was a fabulous unexpected day with Joe, who proved to be an informative, confident, good-humored river guide. We would recommend Pacific NW Float Trips for canoeing or white water rafting down the Skagit River or other eco-tours and trips they lead on the Nooksack and Wenatchee Rivers. In addition, they offer a trip through the Swinomish Channel through Deception Pass.

Going Scotch

The last Saturday in June, we went to the Annual Pacific Northwest Scottish Highland Games and Clan Gathering in Enumclaw, Washington, east of Tacoma. Rich is half Scotch, which is where he probably got his height and good-looks!

We’d bought our tickets months in advance because I love Scottish heritage, especially the clothing. The performers, and many people in the crowd look dapper and disciplined in their kilts, starched shirts, vests, neckties, stylish tam-o’-shanters, ghillie brogues (shoes with laces and tassels), hoses (socks), and sporrans (bag worn in front… codpiece for Scotsmen).

We arrived earlier and my first thought was “It’s so small. We’ll be bored after a few hours.”

My initial perceptions were wrong.

The first hour or so, we wandered around the many booths in the Celtic marketplace, and stopped to ask questions at a couple of the clan tents. Each tent represents a clan, such as Bruce, Campbell, Craig, Ferguson, Fraser, Gordon, Gregor, Macalister, Macbeth, etc. The tents display memorabilia about the clan, such as I noticed the Morrison tent featured a picture of Jim Morrison from The Doors, who is of English, Scottish, and Irish decent.

There wasn’t a Robertson (Donnachaidh) tent, which is Rich’s heritage. We did locate the tartan designs for Robertson, which Rich didn’t like because they don’t contain enough green. Although, you can probably choose any kilt nowadays without fear of being attacked by an opposing clan. The days of Scottish aggression are over!

Hurling Stones, Sheaves, Weights, and Logs

Our next stop was the athletic competition. These events were originally used by chieftains and kings to choose the best men for their retinue by testing their strength, endurance, and agility. Many of the events were based on based on commonplace activities. For instance, farmers or crofters used pitchforks to toss bundles of straw (sheaves) onto the roofs of cottages that needed to be re-thatched. Today, the sheaf toss consists of using a pitchfork to chuck a 20-pound, burlap bag of straw up, and over a cross bar.

The Scottish hammer event may have derived from farmers’ mauls used to drive in fence posts or blacksmiths’ hammer. The hammer used today is 16 pounds, swung around the head, and then released. Putting the stone, from which the Olympic shot put derived, continues to use a rounded stone, weighing 17 to 23 pounds. The latter is called a braemar stone. The stone we saw used was somewhat oblong, and definitely not perfected rounded like a shot put.

The most anticipated event is the caber toss, the rules for which have changed little since the fifteenth century. The event starts by standing upright a 16 to 20 foot tall log, weighing between 80 and 130 pounds. The competitor then grasps the bottom of the log, and walks forward or backwards a couple of steps before flipping it end-over-end, with the hope it lands in the twelve o’clock position. If it lands to the right, the score would be one o’clock or three o’clock it’s 45-degrees from where the bottom of the log was originally positioned. Falling to the left of twelve o’clock could get a score of 11:30 or less.

First, the ability to balance a log vertically is crazy. And then rapidly walking, and for some competitors, running, with the caber is unbelievable. And for many of the men we watched, flipping the caber over is extremely difficult. When the caber is correctly tossed, the crowd bursts out in cheers.

We spent a considerable amount of time watching men and women compete in the various events. We were most fascinated, however, by Kristy Scott, an elite woman competitor who is super buff, and easily flung weights, stones, and sheaves as if they were as light as feathers. She may have set a world record that day for weight for height, which consists of tossing a 28-pound weight over a cross bar.

Googling her, we discovered she’s a weight lifter. In July, she lifted over 500 pounds. Her tossing a 26-pound weight is probably like me lobbing a cherry at Rich.

Actually, all of the women competitors were tall, muscular, and incredibly strong. And the men made Rich look like a dwarf. They were huge. Tall, stout, and muscular. All of the competitors wore kilts with tee-shirts and athletic shoes. One couple, Todd and Lyman Asay, work dramatic kilts with flames insets. Both had flaming red hair with Lyman’s hair in a thick braid, which extended past her waist.

Bagpipes, Drums, Dogs, and Dancing

We didn’t want to miss the opening ceremonies so we headed over to the main field, where we watched several pipers perform for judges. The judging is quite stringent with the tuning of pipes and playing ability being judged. Four pipes need to be tuned, the chanter, which is the small pipe the player blows, and the three drone reeds, the wood shafts on the shoulder.

Playing ability focuses on fingering, along with ability to regulate blowing in the bag. The latter creates a steady tone, which complements the melody pattern of the chanter. The bag piper is considered one of the most difficult instruments to master.

The competitions included individual piping and drumming, drum competition with entire drum corps, and pipe bands, which consists of drummers and pipers. For the opening ceremonies, all of the bands line up and parade together onto the field. The beauty of the uniforms coupled with the steady drone of the bagpipes and rhythm of the three types of drums (snare, tenor, and bass) is very powerful.

Check out this video from the 2012 Scottish Drumming Championship. View as full screen, and watch the drummers twirl their sticks, and their exaggerated arm movements.

After the opening ceremony, we wandered over to the barns to check out the Scottish Highland Cattle and other farm animals native to Scotland. In another areas, dogs that originated in Scotland were competing and showcasing their skills in herding, agility, barrel racing, and more. Represented were cairn terriers, Welsh corgis, golden retrievers, Shetland sheepdogs, Irish water spaniels, collies, Gordon setters, Irish setters, Scottish terriers, white terriers, and hounds.

My favorites are the terriers, collies, and shelties; all three I’ve previously owned. Rich liked the corgis.

Our next stop was to briefly watch the highland dance competition with children and adults dancing the Highland fling, Sean Truibhas, Flora MacDonald, Scottish Lilt, Full Tulloch, Pas de Basque, Sailor’s Hornpipe, Earl of Errol, and other traditional dances. The dance steps are very intricate and performed in groups so if someone is off a step, it’s very noticeable.

Of special interest to Rich was the displays of Scottish artisans and crafts from long ago, including carding and weaving wool, blacksmithing, and woodworking.

We also watched the group 1916, which melded punk rock music with traditional Celtic music, including bagpipes and whistles. They have a cool, infectious sound that makes you want to dance (or at least rock to the beat).

On another stage was the Bog Hoppers, a Seattle-based Celtic folk punk group. They were super fun to watch because of their hill-billy clothes, wacky lyrics, and fabulous strings, including banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle, and bass.

When we walked out the gates, nearly nine hours after we’d walked in, our spirits were refreshed. It had been a great day in a beautiful location, seeing weights and cabers tossed, hearing and watching performers, petting dogs, learning about Scottish heritage, and much more.