Snorkelers dive into state's mountain rivers

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LEAVENWORTH -- To Russ Ricketts and Matt Collins, North Central Washington is a snorkeling mecca.

"It's like there's art underwater," says Collins "There are old-growth Douglas fir or cedar trees that have fallen in the water and been there 40 or 50 years. Now there's all this life that's clung to it, insects and algae and all kinds of things."

Says Ricketts, "You're swimming through sandstone that's been eroded away by the river and it forms this giant, swirling landscape."

And then, there's the wildlife.

"It's like bird-watching but I'm fish-watching, and I'm floating right past animals -- I saw a deer and a cougar the last time I went -- because you don't have a profile; you're just a face in the water."

The two Leavenworth men do this all year. Wet suits are imperative, they say, whether it's winter or summer, because the river temperature only changes a few degrees between seasons.

"It's really a matter of air temperature, what you're 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 of 2008, Collins went out snorkeling for fun, and brought along Ricketts, 40, who works part of the year in the Alaska oil fields. Their destination was the Wenatchee River in Tumwater Canyon.

"It was spectacular" Ricketts said. "We saw all these fish and you're 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.

"It's just crazy fun and good times," he said.

You won't find Ricketts or Collins in the Wenatchee or the Icicle rivers during spring runoff, though. The water is too fast and high.

That's when they head to the back country for some float time on small streams.

"The real beauty of nature is in the backwater," Ricketts said. "That's 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.

"It's 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. It's pretty dramatic, and then there's the immense presence of the mountains when you come out.

"One minute, your head is in the water and you're looking at steelhead or rainbow trout, then you pick your head out of the water and you're looking at the Big Dipper. 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.

Ricketts encourages people to snorkel 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.