The Distant Shore

As Seattle’s coastline became more familiar, we shifted our gaze to those farther shores that lie on the other side of Puget Sound.


Here a ferry returns from one of those lands — Bremerton, or maybe Bainbridge Island –passing West Seattle on its way downtown.  In this picture Alki Point appears as just a little spit, pointing west toward Blake Island. Beyond that island lies the Kitsap Peninsula, to the north as far as Manchester and Orchard Point. Still further north the more prominent mass of Bainbridge Island hides the channel that separates them, Rich Passage.

Actually, this isn’t quite the view from our house. For composition and clarity, the photo was taken from a spot a couple of blocks north — and four hundred feet higher — revealing some detail not normally available to us from home. Still, we consider all of this to be part of our local landscape.  Who could resist taking a closer look?

The Sound can’t be much more than five miles across in most places hereabouts, certainly not a stretch for an intrepid solo paddler, but I have chosen practicality over the thrill of the “purist” approach.  I figure it will take about seven ferry trips to different launching points to cover all the visible shoreline.  The first two are already done, and are described in the next entry.

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The Kitsap Peninsula

I decided to start my examination of the distant shore at Manchester.

The big peninsula that gives Northwest Washington its odd shape, the peninsula with Mount Olympus and the famous rain forests, is the Olympic Peninsula. Protruding from it, or, perhaps more accurately, within it, is an arrowhead-shaped land mass called the Kitsap Peninsula, separated from the rest by a long narrow channel called Hood Canal. Islands flank the eastern side of the peninsula like little bits broken off from it, hiding much of it from Seattle; but a few miles are exposed to us, and this stretch of the skyline offers attractive facilities and a chance to reconnoiter some places that will be important later, like Blake Island and the southern end of Bainbridge.

One day in July I picked up the boat at Salmon Bay, put it on the car and arrived at Fauntleroy before 9:30, in time for the one of the last reverse-commute ferry sailings. Even with an intermediate stop at Vashon Island it was a quick and pleasant crossing to Southworth.

Driving north from there, following my recollection of the map I had sketched the night before, I soon arrived at Pomeroy Park. I wasn’t sure whether the Port of Manchester expects people without boat trailers to pay for parking, but I bought a ticket just in case, for $7, from a machine that takes credit cards. There are two docks, one attractive to kayakers but still high enough to require some effort getting in and out. The deck grating provides useful finger-holds.  A small adjacent beach would be an alternative.


I chatted a bit with a fellow who was fishing for crabs, and then paddled off to the north. The first landmark is a big pier with signs warning that it belongs to the government and to keep away. This is Orchard Point, which appears on the charts without much explanation, perhaps not to attract the attention of evil-doers. The Navy has a lot of facilities between here and Bremerton; they also had a very big ship anchored off Manchester, but there seemed to be plenty of space for me to go between.

I paddled past Clam Bay, skirting an array of buoys there. arriving at the beach at Manchester State Park sooner than I was expecting, and paused for a snack.  There was a selection of logs for seating, complete with a neighborly ground squirrel. Upland there was some kind of event organized for youngsters, but they seemed mostly occupied with food and games.


I took a good look across Rich Passage toward Fort Ward. I had chosen this day in part for its small and well-timed tidal exchange, thinking that I might try crossing to Bainbridge Island. But exploring the other park looked like a bigger project than I wanted, so I topped off my water bottle and just headed back. I had come further than necessary already: my part of Seattle was well out of view until I was back at Clam Bay. I glimpsed a marine mammal spying on me there. I think it was probably a seal, but it didn’t wait around for introductions.  There were also many jellyfish along the way.

That first trip to Manchester took care of only a very small portion of the visible coast.  I returned just before the end of September to paddle a few miles south toward the mouth of Curly Creek, and then followed the shoreline east just a bit to an old pier where I was sure that Seattle was well hidden behind Blake Island.  Each way I kept a respectful distance from a float where a number of seals were resting and sunning themselves; but both times one of their number launched to follow me and make sure that I left their area safely.   The ship is one of several, probably idled by a shipping company’s bankruptcy, anchored near Seattle.


Back at the Southworth ferry dock I took some time to examine the facilities there and especially the parking arrangements.  This will be the place to launch for an eventual overnight trip to Blake Island.


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Salmon Bay

Last winter the Moss Bay Rowing Club stopped offering storage space, so I went looking for a new home for our boat. There were waiting lists for the marinas on Lake Union, and the Port of Seattle didn’t have anything convenient, and the obvious place anyway was at the Salmon Bay Marina.

Salmon Bay is the westerly part of the Lake Washington Ship Canal. The name was bestowed by the Old Settlers themselves, William Bell and and the Denny brothers; later generations turned part of the tidal reach into fresh water by first draining Lake Washington through what had been Ross Creek, and then damming it up with the Ballard Locks. The pleasing result was a protected waterway that served commerce and industry and just about anybody else who enjoyed messing about in boats. One prominent example is Fisherman’s Terminal, where picturesque vessels pose for tourists between voyages.  Here’s a photo I took a couple of decades ago, looking west from the south end of the Ballard Bridge:

On old picture of Fishermen's Terminal from the south end of the Ballard Bridge.

The marina lies beyond the terminal, on the other side of the blue ship near the top center of the picture. It’s not a convenient walk from my house, but a bus goes near, and it offers a lot of advantages over South Lake Union. There’s a little lounge that is available 24 hours a day, and plenty of free parking.

By the time of the move I was already mostly car-topping the boat, and carrying it from the Moss Bay dock up to their not-inexpensive parking lot was a nuisance. At the marina though, I could back the car up to the rack and wrestle the boat directly onto the top.  After just a few weeks, access was blocked by another, bigger boat that came to dwell nearby; but by then I had bought a set of stern wheels for use on long, paved approaches, so I simply switched to a ground-level spot that would have been unthinkable before.  The boat actually hangs in a pair of slings, and it takes only a few minutes to fit the little dolly on the back and roll it out to the car.  This arrangement solves two other problems: I can get the boat from the storage area to the car without bothering anyone, even when the office is closed; and the wheels keep the stern from scraping on the ground as I put the boat on top of the car. It’s even possible to leave the wheels attached while driving to the proposed launch site, if wheels will be required there; and, so far, that has not proved unwise (I attach them by three separate means).

It’s also possible just to roll the boat down to one of the marina’s docks and launch from there.  I have already done that more times than I expected to — this is a pretty interesting part of Seattle. And by the way, many of the boats in the picture above still appear regularly here, as seen in this view from a few days ago:


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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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December 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.


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Lake Washington

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.

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Cape Flattery

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

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Seacrest Park

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. (Our objective can be seen on the skyline beyond the water taxi dock.)


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

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The Polar Pioneer

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.

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Jack Block Park

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.


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.

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