LEAVENWORTH, Wash. (AP)
To Russ Ricketts and Matt Collins, North Central Washington is a snorkeling mecca.
Its like theres art under water, said Collins. There are old-growth Douglas fir or cedar trees that have fallen in the water and been there 40 or 50 years. Now theres all this life thats clung to it, insects and algae and all kinds of things.
Said Ricketts, Youre swimming through sandstone thats been eroded away by the river and it forms this giant, swirling landscape.
And then, theres the wildlife.
Its like bird-watching, but Im fish-watching, and Im floating right past animals I saw a deer and a cougar the last time I went because you dont have a profile; youre just a face in the water.
The two Leavenworth men do this all year. Wet suits are imperative, they say, whether its winter or summer, because the river temperature changes a only few degrees between seasons.
Its really a matter of air temperature, what youre breathing in, said Collins.
Collins, 42, is a fish biologist who works for the Yakama Nation. He snorkels rivers as part of his job, which is assessing the fisheries.
In August 2008, Collins went snorkeling for fun, and brought along Ricketts, 40, who works part of the year in the oil fields in Alaska. Their destination was the Wenatchee River in Tumwater Canyon.
It was spectacular, Ricketts said. We saw all these fish, and youre right in there with them.
While Collins remained an occasional river snorkeler for fun, Ricketts became addicted. He said he snorkeled 135 days in 2012, with about 40 of those days being in the winter.
Its just crazy fun and good times, he said.
You wont find Ricketts or Collins in the Wenatchee or the Icicle rivers during spring runoff, though. The water is too fast and high.
Thats when they head to the backcountry for float time on small streams.
The real beauty of nature is in the backwater, Ricketts said. Thats where the little fish are being reared. The little creeks are just cool.
During lower-water times, the men enjoy a favorite hole in Tumwater Canyon.
Its a large pool above a big waterfall, and when the salmon make it to the pool, they rest there, Collins said. There can be 50 to 60 chinook in the pool for you to look at. Its pretty dramatic, and then theres the immense presence of the mountains when you come out.
One minute, your head is in the water and youre looking at steelhead or rainbow trout. Then you pick your head out of the water and youre looking at the Big Dipper. Its the grand scale of things. It kind of makes you feel humble.
Besides fish, there are interesting items in the rivers. The men have found lots of fishing lures, old bottles and long discarded car bodies.
Nothing is rare, and its not worth anything, but its fun to find, Ricketts said.
Ricketts encourages people to snorkel local rivers with a buddy. And, he said, both should be good swimmers and have a serious respect for rivers and streams.
There are obvious hazards, like drowning, Ricketts said.
Among the potential problems are rocks, stumps, logs and dangerous hydraulics.
The river never stops, Collins said. If something bad happens, youre stuck.
So far, both men say, theyve been lucky. No close calls for them.
Were not a couple of knuckleheads out there in whitewater, Collins said.
Ricketts wife, Leah, occasionally snorkels with him, but only in the summer.
It used to worry me, but now I just think its kind of nutty, she said.
Ricketts said he knows that river snorkeling will never become a popular sport, and thats OK with him.
Its cold and its wet and it can be miserable and it can be scary, he said. Were swimming in mountain rivers. This is not for everybody.