Seattle’s seacoast

There are lots of stunning destinations for paddlers in the Pacific Northwest, worth enduring long drives and frustrating ferry connections. But there’s also plenty of shoreline close to home — much of Elliott Bay is visible from my window — so I felt that I should at least become familiar with my own neighborhood.  After I finished exploring Lake Washington last year, I turned my attention to the rest of Seattle’s soggy City Limits.

Looking north toward Alki Point from the Emma Schmitz Viewpoint at Me-Kwa-Mooks Park in West Seattle.

Looking north toward Alki Point from the Emma Schmitz Viewpoint at Me-Kwa-Mooks Park in West Seattle.

Glacial geology largely determines the paddling experience here: our hills of clay and gravel tend to meet the water steeply. There aren’t any spectacular cliffs, but there aren’t a lot of  beaches either. Sediment collects at the mouths of ravines, though, and in some places it has been augmented by civil engineering.

A lot of the shoreline has been claimed by private development, but sometimes this process works to the paddler’s advantage.  The first chapter of my coastal exploration began at Golden Gardens, the beach near what was long Seattle’s northern limit. The park came into being as a way to attract visitors to the suburban real estate available uphill at Loyal Heights, but it now entices bathers and picnickers from all over.  So one day last August I launched from the beach there and paddled south.

As I had hoped, I got as far on this trip as West Point, the tip of what is now Discovery Park, a place with a markedly different sort of history.  A military base starting in the 19th Century, busy during World War II with embarking troops and even prisoners of war, this big hill began returning to civilian use in the 1970s.  There was apparently a shipyard at one time too. Today, though launching is not permitted, there are two accommodating beaches, the southerly more attractive to bathers, the northerly to birders.  Facilities are within hiking distance from either.  By the way, the name of the park is not vaguely aspirational, it’s the name of the ship commanded by George Vancouver during his exploration in 1792.

From Discovery Park I paddled eastward into Salmon Bay, toward another important government facility, the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. The locks themselves offer only passage, not rest; but for paddlers wishing to pause near here, there is a City park along the south shore. Launching is not advertised, but there is a little beach near the railroad bridge from which to visit the tourist attractions, such as the fish ladder, depending on how long you are willing to leave your boat.

Commodore Park, on the seaward side of the Ballard Locks.

Commodore Park, on the seaward side of the Ballard Locks.

The trip from Salmon Bay back to Golden Gardens can be made in nearly any sort of weather, as it is possible to paddle inside the Shilshole Bay Marina breakwater for much of the distance.

Later, Golden Gardens was also the put-in for one of my last city-limits trips, north to well within the relatively new City of Shoreline.  I went a couple of miles further than strictly necessary, in order to reach Richmond Beach, a bit south of Point Wells, one of my earliest Puget Sound landmarks, learned on my first sailing trip here four decades ago.  The shoreline in between is almost all railroad tracks built on fill, the one intermediate stop being Carkeek Park, the beach at the mouth of the restored Pipers Creek.  By the time I landed at Shoreline I was thinking of having Alex collect the car and come to get me, so tired I was of the north wind and mild chop; but the return trip seemed pretty easy and I was glad that I had not given up.  By the way, Carkeek Park is another of those historical Seattle oddities:  it was originally located clear across town, but moved (the name at least) when the Navy built the Sand Point Naval Air Station — itself now a city park and renamed for longtime Senator Warren G. Magnuson.

Weather was seldom an issue on these trips: without deadlines, I was free to choose only good days for my two- to four-hour paddles.  The one place where scheduling seemed more important than weather was quite near my home: for the downtown waterfront I picked a time mid-day and mid-week in late autumn, so that there would be fewer ferry crossings and no water taxi or sightseeing boats.  I paddled from Jack Block Park across the bay to the Bell Harbor Marina, seeing only one ferry sailing, then south along the shore and the north end of Harbor Island. A day with some north wind against a strong current from the recently-flooded Duwamish River gave me the roughest water I encountered during the entire project.

Bell Harbor Marina in September

A quiet Bell Harbor Marina on my first visit, in September 2015

One other leg would bring me close to the Washington State Ferries: my last, from Lincoln Park, in West Seattle, south to the border with Burien.  The ferry dock is just south of the park and I had forgotten to check the schedules, but early-afternoon traffic wasn’t hectic.  The picture below shows the ferry Cathlamet departing for Vashon Island and then Southworth; I waited and then passed, carefully, behind the Sealth, just returned from Vashon.  On my return I paddled by the empty dock, just vacated by the Sealth on a later trip.

Seattle’s southern limit intersects a wide beach at the end of Seola Beach Drive SW.  The place looks perfect for street-end water access, but it may have fallen into the cracks between the two jurisdictions.  The road is closed off with chain-link fence, and building construction is taking place.  I slid the boat onto some relatively firm ground, sat on a hatch cover, and popped open a can of apricot juice. A crow began marching toward me, as though familiar with human visitors, but then decided instead to pursue a gull who was flying off with a clam.  The compass confirmed that my Seattle project was complete, but from here I could see parts of Bainbridge and Blake Islands, and possibly part of the Kitsap Peninsula, that are also visible from by house. If this was an obvious stopping point, then there are plenty more starting points too.

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