The Skagit River Full Circle

Lizzie Bridges | Skagit River-North Cascades National Park

Last month alongside a few fellow guides of Orion river rafting I had the pleasure of guiding a trip with American Rivers down the Skagit River to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Wild and Scenic River Act. It was also the 50th year of North Cascades National Park, the 40th year the Wild and Scenic designation of the Skagit River System, and the 40th year of Orion River Rafting! This event was a great celebration of Wild Rivers alongside various stewards and biologists involved in research projects, community projects, and advocacy of wild rivers in the United States. This was an amazing experience to have on a river I’ve known and loved since I was a kid.

Growing up in Seattle I attended Boys and Girls Club summer camp from 8-13 years old. I was always most excited about “water week” because I got to go rafting. Water week, along with other overnight adventure trips I had at Boys and Girls Club in the summers and Alternative School #1 the rest of the year shaped my love for the natural world from a young age.

The truth is, I had a pretty rough city upbringing in a single parent household surrounded by poverty, alcoholism, and mental illness. I was lucky enough to receive tons of scholarships for overnight trips due to my mother’s socioeconomic status. We moved around a lot, and things always seemed chaotic, probably the worst was a short period of abrupt homelessness as a 6-year-old. Needless to say, I had to grow up very quickly.

For me, river rafting, and experiences in the great outdoors allowed me to not only escape, but actually be a kid. Although the wilderness can be “wild and unpredictable” I always felt it was more predictable then my home life, I always felt more at home on these adventures. These contrasting experiences of dualism between the wilderness and city life fueled my lifelong curiosity and passion for the outdoor world. This led me to dream big, and maybe someday attend a university. After a friend told me about a program I’d “be perfect for”, at WWU, I decided to pursue a BA in Recreation and minor in Environmental Studies from Western Washington University at age 23. I heard about Orion River Rafting a lot during class, as it was a company started as an internship through WWU’s recreation program in 1978. This led to a rafting trip on the Methow River with my program, and it was then I decided I wanted to do my internship with Orion River Rafting through the Recreation Program.

As many river guides know, the river goes in a circle right? Only kidding of course, but this leads into my full circle experience on the Skagit River. Soon after doing guide training and beginning my internship with Orion, I discovered that it was the same company I went with every summer with the Boys and Girls Club.

At 13 I had what I thought would be my last trip with Orion (last summer with the Boys and Girls Club due to the age limit). I told my guide I wanted to be a raft guide when I was older, so they let me sit in the guide seat. That experience made my summer, it stuck with me, and after doing guide training and finding out I had sat in that seat as a kid I was a little blown away. It wasn’t until I led a girls leadership group on the Skagit during the summer of 2014 that a series of events sparked a new thought process in my mind.
As I sat with these adolescent girls I saw a part of myself in them. I felt it was my responsibility to offer these girls a chance to take the guide seat on a flat water section and try it out. A few girls were eagerly interested, and they were naturals! I followed up by saying things like, “wow you’re really good! I think you’re ready for guide training when you’re older! It’s a great summer job during college. You’re planning on going to college right?” you know things like that. Then I thought to myself – I have no idea what any of these girls’ home lives are like, and if that moment has the potential to have a positive effect on even one of their lives, resulting in a lifelong love for wild rivers as I had the pleasure of experiencing in my youth, I know it was more than worth it. As Lynn Noel, author of Voyages: Canada’s Heritage Rivers put it so wholeheartedly, “The first river you paddle runs through the rest of your life. It bubbles up in pools and eddies to remind you who you are”. For me, returning to the river truly feels like coming home.

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