The Interurban Paddle

It was possible, a century ago, to travel from Seattle south to Tacoma or north to Everett on an electric street railway.  Then the automobile took over, and for decades “The Interurban” existed only as history — or in a few places as an excellent bicycle path. Today it’s again possible to make a parallel railroad journey, via Amtrak.

A map of the central Puget Sound area, showing some places of interest to paddlers.But of course the traditional means of travel between these places was by boat: hundreds of years ago, by canoe; later, on a steamship of the so-called Mosquito Fleet.  In my case, by kayak.

The elegant way to accomplish this human-powered journey would be to pack some gear, set out from one end or the other, and camp along the way — that’s the kind of thing that the Cascadia Marine Trail is for. But by the time I had finished paddling Seattle’s seacoast, in 2016, I had already covered about a third of the total sixty miles, so I chose instead to keep working at it piecemeal.

In Seattle I usually had the luxury of paddling from one familiar, well-appointed park to another; now I was venturing into unknown territory, across distances without convenient rest stops. I finally resigned myself to making many of my day trips without proper shore leave in the middle, paddling from a launch site to a landmark and then back again.

A kayak rests on a concrete slab near the beach at Seahurst Park.

I started with a trip from Seahurst Park, shown above, to Seola Beach, where I had finished my Seattle project. The next segment, south to Des Moines, looked like quite a stretch. I ended up visiting the halfway point at Normandy Park twice: once from Seahurst, and then later by paddling north from Des Moines. After finishing one leg I would go home and look at the map and stew about how to accomplish the next one.

The Port of Tacoma, from south of Point Defiance

The southern part of the project got my attention first because it offers relatively convenient water access. When the Northern Pacific chose Tacoma as its western terminus in 1873 it left Seattle high and dry (and with a lasting grudge); but in between, some version of Marine View Drive links many of the communities that sprouted along this part of the coast. The two cities later actually buried a symbolic hatchet at Saltwater State Park, another excellent put-in.

Between Seattle and Everett the picture is very different. The Great Northern Railway reached Seattle from the north in 1893, on right-of-way running along the very shore of Puget Sound. Because of the tracks, the shoreline itself is primarily riprap instead of beach; I think that this steep wall, by reflecting waves instead of dissipating them, may encourage choppiness on windy days .  Even where there’s public access to the water, parking may be a long ways off.  Meadowdale, for instance, a former country club, is an excellent place to stop, and even to camp, but not a practical place to launch, at least before its recent renovation. The most likely spots are near ferry terminals — I paddled north and south from both Edmunds and Mukilteo. The people who publish the recreational charts for kayakers don’t even bother to show a course between those cities — there’s a fine view of the Olympic Peninsula and Whidbey Island to the west, but the near shore is not mostly not very inviting.

The BNSF railroad tracks and a bit of the shore of Puget Sound, south of Everett, WA.

Tracks along the shoreline under the bridge at Picnic Point.

There’s quite a nice beach at Picnic Point, but launching from there — once south to Meadowdale and once north to a place called Big Gulch — would mean getting the boat across the tracks on the footbridge shown below, four different times. I pondered how to do this, literally over the course of years. Once I saw a fellow carrying one of those Oru folding kayaks down to the shore, and wondered if I could rent or borrow one. I’ve also seen guys with an inflatable raft.

Kayak sits beside a bridge across railroad tracks, at the end of a leafy path.

A sensible traveler would wait for a friend to share the work of carrying. Little strap-on stern wheels usually compensate for the lack of companions. Here, though, the corners present a problem quite the opposite of squaring the circle: the width of the space is about half the length of the kayak, and there’s a chest-high fence around the walkway.

After a couple of years, near the end of 2023, I finally decided to give it a try.  I waited for a day cold enough, and short enough, that I thought there would be little foot traffic on the bridge. I perseverated with single-handing my boat across, though with each successive pass I relied less on cleverness and more on physical strength.

A kayak on the beach at Picnic Point, with Puget Sound and Whidbey Island beyond.

My second, northward trip was on the day before the solstice. The winds were light and the tide was well in.  As hoped, there weren’t a lot of people about, but on my way back from Big Gulch I encountered a bunch of seals headed the other direction. They’re used to seeing fishing boats but I think they may have been a bit  surprised to find a kayak along their route. One of them made sure that I got a look at his impressive size. I count this a nice finale to the Interurban Paddle.


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