Seattle’s seacoast

May 5th, 2016

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.

December 2015

December 25th, 2015

There was possible snow in the Christmas forecast, but it didn’t turn up and in fact the drizzle ceased by mid-morning.  There was no wind, and it seemed like a merry time for paddling.

elfI saw only three other boats moving on all of Lake Union — the two kayaks that you can glimpse in the background here, and one launch motoring up the west side.

 

Lake Washington

October 28th, 2015

On days this year when tides were an obstacle, or if it was just too hot to dress for a dunk in Puget Sound, I would head for Lake Washington. At first it was merely some place I could paddle to from my slip in south Lake Union; but after a while I decided that exploring the entire shore of the big, deep lake was a reasonable goal.

MatthewsMy first trip, in early March, ended at Matthews Beach, the most familiar of destinations.  The Burke-Gilman Trail runs along the hill among those trees you can see in the picture, and we stop here frequently on our bicycles.  And when we were first shopping for kayaks we paddled a couple of Deltas here from the Sail Sand Point dock just to the south and paused on the little beach to swap boats. I used to come here to swim, decades ago.

The presence of big, shady, developed parks every few miles underscores a big contrast with Lake Union, whose character is definitely urban. As I paddled past the waterfront homes of Laurelhurst it occurred to me that a person inside one of them might have difficulty seeing how the world could be improved, much less why it would need to be.

This trip and the next two were made with extensive support from home — after I got the kayak out of the water I called Alex and she brought the car around to the park and we put the boat on top.  At this time, handling the kayak on land even once a day seemed like an imposition. On my next journey I turned south instead of north at Union Bay and got as far down the coast as Leschi, where Alex had anticipated my arrival. There wasn’t an attractive place to land, though, so we both backtracked to the more hospitable Madrona Park.

90The next time, more comfortable with logistics, I had Alex drop me off at Madrona and pick me up on the far side of the Seward Park peninsula.  Here’s a look back beneath the I-90 floating bridge — or two bridges, actually: the nearer one, with the truss, is the older, named for Lacey V. Murrow; beyond is the newer Homer H. Hadley Memorial Bridge, which carries the Mountains-to-Sound Greenway Trail across the lake.  Seen only as little white smudges from this perspective are two of the three major volcanic peaks visible from Lake Washington:  to the left, Mt. Baker (10,781 ft.) and, in the last open space on the right, Glacier Peak (10,525 ft.).

About this time I figured out how to load the boat on the car by myself without hurting it, by padding both stern and roof with dense gray foam. After that, about seven more solo outings were required to make the circuit of Lake Washington’s outer shore, all but one of those out-and-retrace.  The exception was the northernmost part:  near Matthews Beach the lake is narrow enough that a crossing to O.O. Denny Park, on the eastern shore, is irresistible.  From there a loop is easily made up to Kenmore and back down the western side.   I had thought to enter the mouth of the Sammamish River at Kenmore, but chose instead to turn north and west to land at Log Boom Park, avoiding some thick aquatic vegetation that made for slow going, requiring a sort of sword-drawing motion with every paddle stroke to avoid becoming trapped.

Most waterfront houses have docks here -- and many docks have herons. That's Renton's convenient Gene Coulon Park in the background.

Most waterfront houses have docks here — and many docks have herons. That’s Renton’s very convenient Gene Coulon Park in the background at the south end of the lake, and our third volcano, Mt. Rainier (14,410 ft.) .

MedinaMy final leg was from Marsh Park, on Kirkland’s waterfront, down to Medina, where that city has its offices in a park by the water, as though it were just another mansion, with beautifully kept grounds.  By the time I closed my transit here it was mid-October: you can see the kayak parked by what is normally the bathing beach.  The official launch area is far to the left, on the other side of the building.  Along this west-facing shore south of Evergreen Point are some of the most charming structures — villas, bungalows, hunting lodges — which are probably just the boathouses for lavish dwellings higher on the slope (Bill and Melinda Gates live on this stretch of the coast).

The Sea Trails map of Seattle, in their Urban Paddling Series, plots courses and distances around the lake shore, totaling about 35 nautical miles (most of which I covered twice, though that’s still not much to brag about). Several other cities and towns border the lake, so less than half of this length is Seattle shoreline.  A larger project is Seattle’s salty western side, from north of Carkeek Park to down past Fauntleroy, which I have already begun.

And I’m not really finished with Lake Washington either — there’s more shoreline in the middle of it, where Mercer Island awaits.

Cape Flattery

June 4th, 2015

Last weekend, for the first time in maybe twenty years, I hiked out to the northwest corner of the old “lower forty-eight,” where you can see the Makah Sandstone giving way to the Pacific Ocean, bit by bit.  Here is a picture of some of the fragments; offstage to the right there’s a bigger one called Tatoosh Island, and then a much larger island named for George Vancouver.FlatteryI was in the neighborhood for the surf class given by the Northwest Outdoor Center at Hobuck Beach, around the point to the south.  Thanks to some practice in the intervening months, and this year’s more manageable surf, I was able to get my boat out through the breakers and back in to the beach several times, in fact getting dumped on only half a dozen occasions, and swimming on only one of those.

The crowd left after lunch on Sunday, but I stayed on another night, to hike and to fiddle with my camping gear.  Here’s a picture taken just as the last board surfers were emerging for the evening:Hobuck

Seacrest Park

May 16th, 2015

In March when a Seattle Port Commissioner joked about a “flotilla of kayaks” poised to oppose plans for oil exploration in the Arctic, he may have made inevitable the protests launched recently from the West Seattle shoreline.

Some of us had greeted the Polar Pioneer on its arrival, but for many paddlers today was the first opportunity to get close to the giant rig.  A well-organized protest launched from Jack Block and from Seacrest Park, a bit further up the coast.  Here’s a picture of some of the early entrants at Seacrest.Seacrest

Jack Block was the center of land-based demonstrations and a close-by launch site for some beginners.  There were lots of boats at Seacrest, including rentals from the local Alki Kayak Tours and other operators; loaners carefully matched with borrowers; paddlers who hailed from at least as far as Oregon; and services like valet unloading organized by Greenpeace and other organizations. Here’s a picture of some of the kayaks parked at Seacrest:Boats on the grass at Seacrest awaiting launch time.

The two groups met north of Terminal 5 to unfurl some banners and chant some slogans before proceeding into the West Waterway for a better look.  The object of our attention can be seen in the right third of this picture:paddles

The Polar Pioneer

May 15th, 2015

Yesterday the Polar Pioneer, the massive drill rig that Shell plans to use to explore for oil in the Arctic, arrived in Elliott Bay, and we were there to meet it.A dozen kayativists await the Polar Pioneer off Duwamish Head in Seatle.The reception wasn’t entirely cordial, for many question the necessity, or the safety, of Arctic drilling, and the legitimacy of the operation at Terminal 5 in the heart of Seattle’s waterfront.

As the vessel proceeded south we were joined by a number of other paddlers, including a big traditional canoe with representatives of both the Duwamish and the Lummi tribes, the latter fighting their own battle against construction of a coal port they see as threatening the health of the Salish Sea.DragonboatThis was a gathering of rapid responders — a bigger flotilla is expected May 16, and protests on land after that.

Jack Block Park

May 11th, 2015

Though my trip along the Duwamish River ended in the tidal zone, our “sea” kayak still hadn’t seen a lot of salt water. Back when we were shopping for our first boats we had paddled the western shore of Elliott Bay, but only as far south as what is now Jack Block Park.  The distance from there to Terminal 105 represented a gap in our explorations that would be temptingly easy to fill.

So a week or two later, on May Day, I set out for West Seattle.  Though it’s fifteen acres in size, Jack Block Park is scarcely noticeable from Harbor Avenue, because of the way that it is nestled within the Port’s Terminal 5 — there’s just a driveway that crosses the bike path and some railroad tracks and then turns out of sight.  After some distance there’s a long-term parking lot near clean, modern facilities.  It’s another drive, or walk along well-maintained paths, to the beach and similar facilities, opened to the public in 2011.  The area had been a wood-treating plant and then a Superfund site, its hazardous sediment now capped with nice-sized pebbles.

Since I was planning to begin and end in the same spot, I tried out the idea of handling the boat entirely by myself.  Having to move the car after freeing up the boat is a nuisance, and my choice of low tide didn’t make the carry any shorter, but there were no real problems.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI had also chosen a day with a north wind, which got started earlier than expected.  Inside the West Waterway though the chop diminished and I paddled along happily amid the tugboat traffic there.  One barge, nudged along by a couple of tugs, bore shipping containers, a crane and some other equipment, and, at the top of the stack, another boat that might have looked fairly good-sized anywhere else.

I paddled beyond T-105 and then turned east past the south end of Harbor Island, once only a spot in the mouth of the Duwamish for trading ships to dump their ballast but now the heart of the City’s working waterfront. There’s a marina at the south end.  The bike route runs very close to here and in fact I paddled right out underneath the fishing pier where we often stop, into the East Waterway.

LelaJoy

Visible from here are a number of landmarks familiar to Seattle tourists, but probably in an unexpected order.

I moved respectfully aside for the boat coming straight toward us, the Olympic tug Lela Joy, and then watched her tie up to the left of the picture and behind.  After a bit I turned around and retraced my journey, getting, for the day, four really good looks at the underside of the West Seattle Bridge.

*                     *                  *

There’s another reason for interest in Jack Block Park.  It’s in the eye of the storm of protest over oil exploration in the Arctic.  Shell Oil plans to base its drilling rigs at Terminal 5 during the winter season.  The arrangement with the Port of Seattle drew fire from environmental groups and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has suggested that permit conditions may not have been met.  Citizen protests, including a kayak flotilla, are expected.  The Stranger describes the situation in this article.

Two Faces of the Duwamish River

May 5th, 2015

The winter in Seattle was good for paddling and by Spring I had already explored much of the area that could be reached from South Lake Union without portage, including some of the western shore of Lake Washington, north and south from Montlake.

So one Tuesday in April we loaded the Ikkuma on the car from its berth on Lake Union for the very first time and Alex dropped me off at a spot in South Park called simply Duwamish Waterway, promising to pick me up later if I rang.

I wanted to see if I could get a ways upstream first.  An earlier start would have made this part of the trip quicker:  high water in Elliott Bay slows the river’s current.  Nonetheless, a couple of hours later I found myself four miles south at Codiga Park on the eastern shore, which I figured would make a good place to stop and have lunch.The beach at the foot of Codiga Park viewed from upstream.This view downstream was taken during a bicycle trip a few days later, from one of the three wooden shelters standing on the other side of the river.  The land is a former dairy farm that escaped development and has been enhanced as wildlife habitat.  It’s a fitting place for sea creatures, since a side channel has been excavated to make a safe place for juvenile salmon.  More visible to human visitors are the ospreys that have claimed the nesting platforms provided high above, the occasional great blue heron, and the crows that meet on the beach every day to discuss current events.

Above this point, past a golf course and a couple of casinos, at Fort Dent, now a Tukwila city park devoted largely to soccer, the river loses its name to the longer Green River and enters a complex and fascinating hydrological history. The fort was at the confluence with the Black River, which was the outlet of Lake Washington before the lake level was lowered by the Montlake Cut.  The Cedar River, which had emptied into the Black, now flows directly into the lake.  In the nineteenth century, this stretch of the Green would have been called the White River; but following a major flood in 1906 the White no longer joins the Green, finding its way instead to the Puyallup, which flows to Commencement Bay in Tacoma.  The original inhabitants may have considered the Cedar-Black-Duwamish to be the one river into which the others flowed.

I may try someday to make my way further upstream, and Codiga Park would be a fine starting place, boasting a good parking lot and dependable sanitation. The Green River Trail, at least, is navigable all the way to Kent, with bus and even railroad stops along the way, and we have seen much of the river from our bicycles.

It was on the way back downstream that I had many of my wildlife encounters, including a Bald Eagle who swooped down to the riverbank and then back up to his perch as I passed, and my first Canada Goslings this year.  In the morning I had not been surprised to see three little bunnies amid the brambles near the water.  We glimpse them on the upland side, mostly near the big USPS facility, descendants doubtless of pet-store stock liberated at King County’s Cecil Moses Park.

Neither the bunnies nor the brambles are native.  The Himalayan blackberries that carpet much of this area, though now virtually iconic, are considered invasive as well, and the work of conservation groups largely involves grubbing them out and replacing them with indigenous plant species.  The luscious fat berries in August and September will be missed, but I agree that there’s no point in having a patch of these more than a dozen feet wide anywhere.  You’re not going to get the berries in the middle no matter how much you want them.

Cecil Moses Park is a popular stop on the trail for its plumbing and I paused there on both legs of my journey, landing the second time on the east bank at the end of the footbridge.  Paddlers are not expected here though and mud may render both options undesirable.

The trip downstream was quicker despite a little headwind.  I floated by my launch site and then another three miles or so, down to Terminal 105, a  nicely landscaped park provided by the Port of Seattle with a little overlook and a hand-carry launch site.  Along the way the river began to look more urban overall, though official landing spots become if anything more frequent.View of the Duwamish downstream from South ParkHere’s a view of the new South Park Bridge.  The old one was deemed unsafe several years ago and for a while the neighborhood was hard to get to by car, but the bridge was eventually replaced.  Within its arch we see the First Avenue Bridge too, carrying State Route 99, just closing.  Both spans would open for the fishing boat Ocean Storm,  whose crew waved as we passed.

One other site on the western shore is worthy of mention.  Where Terminal 107 should be, there is a park instead, saved when construction revealed important human artifacts.  There are trees, grass, nice beaches and, across the street, the Longhouse and Cultural Center of the Duwamish Tribe,  from whose great leader Sealth the city of Seattle gets its name.  Not to mention a lot of its real estate.

Polar Plunge

November 15th, 2014

GasworksArctic air gripped much of North America starting last week.  For many that meant snow or thundershowers, but here in Seattle, on the edge of the Gulf Stream, we saw weather that was bright and sunny.  It was colder than we expect it to be in November, but for us that means barely freezing.

I walked over to Lake Union and got out my new kayak. Its only prior trip had been from the Northwest Outdoor Center across the lake to the Moss Bay Rowing Club.  Now, on a chilly Thursday, I had the big urban lake pretty much to myself.  I encountered three other kayakers and one single shell, and chatted with the captain of a Duck half-full of tourists launching at the Sunnyside Street End; but on the whole there were more seaplanes than boats.

With no other errands, there was time to take a few pictures.  Above is the new kayak, with Gasworks Park across the lake to the north.  Below, a view of a few nearby neighbors, featuring the blue sky that can’t last for long.hulls

Once you’re committed to wearing a dry suit, cooler temperatures are a blessing.  You need to dress for the water anyway, so winter just matches the air to your wardrobe.  I was warm when I launched so I started out with half-finger gloves, but switched to the waterproof kind halfway across. As the afternoon warmed, there were fewer options:  I paddled slower, and dampened my cap.  In Loreto of course we adjusted our temperature by wearing progressively less, the practical limit being sun protection.  That’s not going to be a problem for a while.

Into the surf

July 4th, 2014
The north coast of the Olympic Peninsula, from Washington 112

The Straight of Juan de Fuca, near Bullman Creek

Our life at Loreto Bay had lulled us to some extent. Sure, there were exotic-looking destinations, but they were reached across water that, at least if you arose early enough, was pretty placid. Northwest Washington offers conditions that, if they don’t exactly raise the stakes, at least change the odds when it comes to traveling. The water is cold enough to kill you by itself, and there are places where it moves really fast or gets really big.  I decided to explore some of these possibilities, with the help of my friends at the Northwest Outdoor Center.

My first trip with them was to Deception Pass, where a group of us practiced playing in the tidal currents and nearby eddies.  Then, last weekend, I drove out to Hobuck Beach, on the Makah Reservation south of Cape Flattery, to learn about dealing with surf.

The setup is perfect. The beach is sandy and gradual, the campground above is comfortable and now boasts of some modern amenities, and the experience, both in the camp and in the water, was well orchestrated. I have now had a little success at surfing. As for heading out through the waves, I now understand the problem well enough that I may not just be stupefied the next time I punch through a wave that’s taller than I am.

A surf log and a long stretch of gradual sandy beach, south of Cape Flattery

Hobuck Beach