Tubing the Skykomish River: A fun lazy river float that took some scary and unexpected turns. What we learned on our first river tubing adventure and what to be aware of when venturing out onto any river
I waffled at first about whether to write about our adventure tubing on the Skykomish River. We are all still trying to process what happened and it definitely wasn’t the day of fun memories that we expected it to be. However, I think that one of the most important parts about travel and adventure writing is writing about the things that go wrong, and what you learned from them. It can help others learn from your misadventures and hopefully prevent their own.
Here is a cautionary tale of our adventure, and how a fun day on the river turned into one of the scariest days of our lives:
We went tubing on the Skykomish River on a Saturday in August, and the day started perfectly. The weather was sunny and in the high 80’s, nice and hot for a day on the cold Skykomish River just northeast of Seattle. This was our first time river tubing and we had been invited by some friends of ours who go river tubing annually, and we were excited to try it out.
The two organizers in the group did an excellent job of making sure us newbies were prepared. They posted a packing list on the event page on Facebook and gave us the low-down of what to expect and what to bring (and not to bring). The packing list included the following:
Old sneakers or water sandals with straps and traction (flip flops are useless)
Something for lunch, snack for breakfast
Lots of water
Discovery pass for parking if you have it
Change of clothes for after (at least undies)
A sturdy river tube (not a pool floaty)
We were advised not to bring anything valuable as the river has a propensity to make off with people’s belongings.
We brought everything we were advised to, also including a waterproof digital camera with a float strap, our phones in LifeProof cases, and a waterproof waist pack for ID, debit card, and health insurance card, and some sunscreen chapstick. I also packed some first aid supplies in a zip lock freezer bag. (I was dubbed the “Nervous Nellie” of the group for this). My supplies bag included a tube patch kit, a tiny container of rubbing alcohol for said patch kit and any disinfecting first aid needs, band-aids, gauze pads and tape, travel toilet paper, super glue, antibiotic ointment packs, and baking soda for bee stings).
There was also an orange theme, so we were all supposed to wear orange stuff as a fun way to unify the group. Paddy wore an orange rash guard and I wore orange heart shaped sunglasses.
I thought about getting life jackets before we went, but no one else was wearing them and didn’t seem to feel like they would be necessary, so we didn’t buy any.
Our tube was an Intex River Run two person tube with a “cooler” in the middle, perfect for holding water, sunscreen, and some other essentials. It looked just like this:
We had two plastic oars to navigate with, and we had a separate inflatable cooler for extra water and beer which we tied tightly to the side of the tube.
We all arrived at the Skykomish River drop in spot at Sultan Sportsman Park off of Highway 2 around 11:00, inflated tubes and sorted out our gear, and then had a few drivers shuttle cars down to the end spot in Monroe and then come back. There was a slight snafu with forgetting a cooler full of everyone’s lunch and water in a car at the end parking lot. One of our organizers drove back to retrieve it and this added another hour onto our schedule. It wasn’t a big deal, we were able to wait on the river bank in the shade and chat while we waited.
One of our friends wanted to fish instead of float, so she planned on helping us get going on the river, then driving down river to find spots to fly fish from the shore. She would check in with us along the way.
There were a lot of other groups getting on the Skykomish river with various types of floats. We got one of them to take a group photo of us and then got in our tubes and inflatable boats and let the river carry us away. The water was freezing cold at first, but we got used to it quickly. It was refreshing combined with the hot sun. We had one inflatable boat with coolers, extra drinking water, and an extra air pump that we tied along side one of the inflatable boats to be our supplies raft/trash raft.
The water was calm and the pace was slow. People had brought some rope to tie together with, but one of our experienced organizers told us not to tie together until after we went around the first rapid water bend in the river, and that after that it should be pretty calm the rest of the float. It was estimated that we would be floating about 5-6 hours, depending on how often we pulled over onto river banks to have food or take a break.
It wasn’t long before we reached the bend our organizer had told us about, and the water pace sped up. It was shallower here, so we had to lift our butts up in the tubes to avoid bumping rocks as we sped around the corner. I broke my oar trying to shove away from the river bank, so we had one and a half oars after that.
Everyone made it around the bend with no problems, and we were back to lazy float time. Some of the group tied together with the rope, but we opted to stay free but close by.
About an hour in, we decided to pull over at a river bank and have some snacks and re-apply sunscreen. I appreciated our organizer’s reminders to re-apply! Paddy and I burn super easily.
After a quick break, we got back on the river. We were all having a great time and enjoying the scenery.
We came upon another fast moving bend in the river that we wooshed down with no problems. We floated along a while longer. Paddy was a gentleman and gave me the long oar (he has longer arms anyway) and used the half oar to paddle and navigate on his side. We didn’t need to paddle a whole lot, the river was slowly floating us along at a leisurely pace.
Then things took a bad turn.
About an hour and a half in, we approached another bend where the water was moving fast, and we could see a large fallen tree with roots sticking up out of the water. We tried to navigate away from it, but it became clear as we picked up speed that we were going to slam right into it.
Bracing for impact, I stuck my arms out to brace us and try to bump us around the tree. We were going so fast that I thought the tree would puncture the tube, or injure us (or both). We hit the tree without injury, but the impact launched Paddy right out of the double tube and into the river. Paddy can swim, but he isn’t a great swimmer, and the river currents were strong. As soon as I knew that he was in the water, I was terrified. It was so fortunate that I had the long oar and not the broken one. I was able to reach the oar out to him as far as I could lean over the tube as he struggled against the current, panicking and trying to keep his head above water. He got a hold of the oar, and with his kicking and my pulling I was able to pull him over to the tube and get a hold of his arm. He had a hold on the oar under the raft and there was no way for me to navigate us to the shore while holding onto him.
Fortunately, one of our organizers and another friend had made it around the fallen tree and had pulled over to the river bank to make sure everyone got through okay. They were able to wade into the river and pull us to shore. Paddy crawled onto the river bank, very shaken up and gasping for breath.
Things then went from scary to terrifying.
I was making sure Paddy was okay when we heard a woman’s anguished crying and wailing from upriver where the tree was. I couldn’t see what was happening, but since Paddy seemed to be okay I grabbed my first aid supplies and ran with everyone else up the river bank. On the way up the bank I noticed that there was an empty inflatable boat and other empty tube from our group floating down the river. Our organizer shoved his car keys in my hand and jumped into the rushing water to help.
One of the women in our group had also hit the tree, and was launched out of her boat. the raft she was in had been tied to others in the group, and according to the people who witnessed it, the rope had wrapped around her neck and was strangling her as she fought to keep her head above the water. Her boyfriend jumped in to help, and yelled for someone to swim out with a knife. Fortunately, he managed to get the rope loose enough to push her head out of it, and swam her through the rushing water to shore.
She was hysterical, as anyone would be after that kind of near death experience. I can’t even imagine how terrified she was. She had rope burns on her neck and there was no way she or her boyfriend were going to continue the float. The nearest road was across the river, and she was adamant that she was not getting back in the river at all.
There was a house across the river, and a lady who lived there had seen what was going on and called 911. We were trying to figure out a way to get the the woman and her boyfriend over to the road on the other side of the river when EMTs showed up. They said that a rescue boat was on the way and it could get her across the river.
While we waited for the rescue boat, we watched another group of floaters come down the river towards the tree. They ended up stuck on the tree, and were also tied together. It took them about 15 minutes to figure out how to get untangled, but none of them had been hurt or launched into the water. Shortly after they untangled themselves the rescue boat arrived and the EMTs got out to assess the woman in our group who had nearly drowned.
While the EMTs were assessing our friend, a family in tubes came down the river with a little boy and the little boy was launched out of his tube after he hit the tree. Fortunately he was wearing a life jacket, but was still in need of rescuing. The EMTs quickly jumped back in the boat and grabbed the kid out of the water before he got swept downriver. The felled tree was a major hazard for everyone coming through.
Two of our friends decided that they had also had enough of the float, and decided to get out as well. They called our friend who had been fishing and gave her the address for the house across the river, and were able to drive the couple to the hospital in Monroe to get checked out after the EMTs ferried them across the river. It was very fortunate that our friend had her car nearby and was able to pick them up.
The rest of us were very far from our cars on either end of the river, and were behind schedule. We had at least three hours of float time before we reached the end spot in Monroe. We decided to keep going, but the mood was somber.
Only a little ways further down the river, Paddy and I got stuck in a swirl current that kept us stranded in one spot. Everyone else had made it through. We were down to one oar, and were paddling furiously to try to get through, but it was fruitless. We decided to try to get to the river bank, which wasn’t too far away, get out, and carry our tube down a ways and then get back in the river near where our friends were waiting for us. We paddled furiously and made it to the edge. I could see shallow rocks under the water next to the river bank, so I thought we were at a place where I could get out and pull us in.
I scooted out of the tube expecting to step down into a couple feet of water, but instead I dropped straight down into the deep river. It was such a deep drop off, I didn’t even feel the bottom when I plunged down. I was still holding onto the raft when I dropped in, so I flipped it upside down.
Before I even surfaced, I knew the tube had flipped and that Paddy was in the water again along with me. I surfaced and lifted the tube up frantically looking for Paddy. He was there, struggling and panicked, unable to get a grip onto anything on the upside down float. I didn’t have a good grip on the float either but all I could think about was making sure he had something to hold onto, so I told him to grab my arm. He did, but it wasn’t enough to keep him up and he let go and grasped for the floating cooler. I knew I wasn’t going to be able to get us out of this current and make sure Paddy didn’t drown by myself. I was also in a dangerous spot. Just as I yelled for help, two guys who were nearby jumped into the water next to us, and I told them to help Paddy as he couldn’t swim that well. I also instantly felt like an idiot for not having life jackets on, knowing that Paddy wasn’t very confident in the water. They grabbed Paddy and got him holding on to one of their tubes and the four of us along with another member of our group who had jumped in to help kicked as hard as we could to get the raft the two feet to the river bank. The current was extremely strong.
We thanked the two guys profusely for saving us. Another member of our group had miraculously managed to grab almost all of our stuff that fell out of the cooler in the tube–Paddy’s phone (in a LifeProof case in a ziploc bag), sunscreen, and my water camera. As we were explaining what had happened, we looked down from the shore and saw another girl in a tube stuck in the same current spot we were stuck in. Fortunately she was still in her tube and not in danger, just struggling to paddle out.
Paddy and I were done tubing. Both of us were too shaken up to continue, and with all that had happened, it wasn’t fun anymore, anyway. I also didn’t want to go on without life jackets, in case there was another incident. We got across the river in a shallower, calmer spot, deflated our tube and put it in the extra inflatable boat that the group was towing along, and walked through someone’s property and up to the road. Our organizer gave us his house key (our car was parked at his house with our keys and stuff inside their house in north Seattle) and a bottle of water and told us to keep in touch to let them know we got back okay.
We made it to the road, dripping wet in our bathing suits, and managed to get the one Uber driver in Sultan to pick us up. I was glad I had opted for a conservative bathing suit with a skirted bottom and full coverage tankini top, instead of a bikini. Both of us were a bit emotional and shell shocked.
Our fishing friend with the car who drove the woman who almost drowned and her boyfriend to the hospital was able to meet us at the hospital in Monroe along with two other friends who had decided to go home as well. We got a ride home with her, stopping at our organizer’s house to get our stuff out of our car (our car was blocked in by two other cars at their house, so we opted just to come back and pick it up in the morning). We were exhausted and just wanted to go home.
The remaining nine members of our group continued down the river, and they said it was mostly calm the rest of the way. They ran into a few girls who had lost their floats. They were crying and stranded on the river bank. Our friends had an extra inflatable boat from the couple that went to the hospital, so they gave it to them to help them get home. They were all so far behind schedule at that point that the last part of the float was in the shade, and everyone was getting cold and paddling hard to get to the end. They all made it out at about 7:00 PM and everyone was okay.
I think we’ve all been replaying that day over in our heads. There are so many “whatifs” that will drive us crazy if we think about them too much. What if Paddy hadn’t given me the long oar and I wasn’t able to rescue him from river in time? What if the woman with the rope wrapped around her neck wasn’t rescued in time? What if the people who had jumped in the river to help her and us were carried away by the current and drowned? What if someone was seriously injured on that tree or a sharp branch under the water? Fortunately, we are all okay. We didn’t even get sunburned.
I was just given an update that the woman in our group who almost drowned is doing better. She has rope burns on her neck and is finally able to turn her head after two days of rest. She plans on returning to work in a couple more days. Her emotional scars will take much longer to heal.
What we’ve learned
When I had asked the experienced river tubers in our group how dangerous tubing on the Skykomish River was, I was told that the accidents that happen are usually with white water rafters in the spring, and drunk people being stupid. I think for the most part, that is true. However, rivers in the summer are like domesticated wild animals. They may seem tame most of the time, but they are still wild. Remember when Sigfried and Roy’s tiger attacked Roy? You can’t ever be too sure about nature.
Here are the three most important things that we took away from this experience:
1. Don’t underestimate the river
2. WEAR LIFE JACKETS
3. Don’t tie your floats together
We have also determined that sturdy, individual inner tubes are easiest to navigate. The double tube with the cooler might be awesome for a very lazy river or a day on the lake, but both of our accidents may have been prevented (at least for one of us) if we hadn’t been in the same tube. Individual tubes with an oar are also much easier to paddle than a double tube with an oar on each side (or in our case by the end–one oar).
What happened with the rope around the woman’s neck was a freak accident that I’m sure is rare, but it happened. It would not have happened had the floats not been tied together. Rope can very easily get snagged on trees and rocks and debris in the river and the impact of a caught rope on a fast river can throw you out of your float. Not to mention tangle you up in it.
I read some articles about the Skykomish River when I got home, and there was an article about some kayakers who had to be rescued back in June because they ran into some felled trees in the river. The article said that this last winter there was a lot of flooding which caused soil erosion and a lot of trees to fall into the river. Even if you have been tubing down the same river every year, you never really know what the river has in store for you. Each winter brings storms and floods and intense water flow and the river is always changing. Rivers can even erode away banks and change course or create new bends and turns.
The most dangerous part of river tubing or rafting is the debris, rocks, and log jams that you may run into. Rivers can also be deceptively deep and currents are very strong. The water is also very cold, and even the strongest swimmers can get into trouble in water that cold with currents that strong. That is why life jackets are so important.
We would like to go river tubing again, but we might want to go elsewhere than the Skykomish River. Something calmer would be nice, with a slower pace. I don’t think anyone in our group is ready to do it again this summer, but probably by next year.
Be careful out there. Mother Nature is unpredictable.