Wet and Wild Watersports in Western Washington
With the warmer temperatures becoming more prevalent, outdoor enthusiasts will undoubtedly find themselves looking for a “watering hole” on many a hot day. Boating in Western Washington is one of the many highlights of living in this region and we are inundated with a plethora of choices. Whether it be a whitewater adventure in the mountains or an evening sail in the San Juans, a quick cruise on Lake Whatcom or a sunrise kayak tour along the coast, we are guaranteed to have a memorable experience.
From river to bay
Spring and early summer is the perfect time to get the adrenaline flowing as the snow melts, the rivers flow and the whitewater awakens from its winter slumber. We are fortunate to have tons of options for river recreation. The closest river to Bellingham is the North Fork of the Nooksack River. This river contains everything from vein popping, do-or-die whitewater kayaking (above Nooksack Falls) to relaxing, slow-going floating.
If you’re craving a fast-paced cruise through a gorgeous canyon, I highly recommend a rafting trip down the North Fork, just a few miles up Mount Baker highway from Glacier. The rapids in this canyon are fairly mild on the danger factor but still have enough push to get the heart rate pumping.
While the canyon is open to anyone with the know-how and gear, it’s advisable to use a guide company. You’ll find a couple located in Maple Falls.
The Nooksack is a meandering river, which means that its shores and riverbeds change all year long – the same goes for the location of logjams. So the path taken last year is almost certainly not an option this year.
A slightly slower-paced option is to put in at the bridge just east of Glacier (be sure not to park on Mount Baker Highway) and pull out just before Maple Falls. While this section of the river is much mellower than the canyon, it’s notorious for river-wide logjams and infamous strainers that can be deadly. As long as you heed the dangerous areas, this can be a better option for those looking to canoe or for a more relaxed float.
Pay attention to the amount of water that flows through these rivers as well. You can find real-time data charts via Internet on all of Washington state’s rivers, and it’s a good idea to check the levels before any kind of trip. The higher the flow, the more action, and the more chance for logjams.
I advise avoiding any sort of river in flood stage, as these can be very unpredictable. Also, avoid very low flows as you’ll do more walking than paddling.
The Skykomish, Sauk, Stilliguamish and Wenatchee (just to name a few) all offer amazing mountain scenery along with epic rides. All can be kayaked or rafted, and all have guide services that run rafting trips.
The Wenatchee is a good bet. Tumwater Canyon is world known and takes an experienced kayaker to run the canyon, yet anyone visiting will enjoy plenty of opportunities to enjoy the vistas. The local guide services operate out of Leavenworth, and while they don’t run commercial rafting trips on the upper portions of the Wenatchee (Tumwater Canyon) they do offer trips down the lower sections, which still provide a big-water rafting experience.
While action-packed trips can be immensely fun, the hottest summer days require a more relaxed approach. Bellingham happens to be blessed with its beautiful location on the North Puget Sound, and unbelievable sea kayaking is found within its reaches.
Chuckanut Drive is a good choice for easy access to amazing inlets abundant with sea life. Larrabee State Park along with Cove Road allow for easy in-and-out access to amazing paddles. This area is dotted with the unique Chuckanut sandstone formations associated with our dynamic geology. Depending on the tide, an awesome amount of tide pools and wildlife can present itself along the way, offering the kayaker with a pleasant jaunt.
A handful of companies in Bellingham offer kayak rentals, and the nonprofit WAKE (Whatcom Association of Kayak Enthusiasts) provides the experience needed to safely enjoy a trek in the bay.
If you’re looking for more of a middle ground between action and relaxation, chartering a sailboat might be the path to choose. The San Juan Islands are renowned for bountiful, beautiful sailing. Trips can take you far, like a journey to the Northwest Passage, or near, like a loop around Sucia Island.
I personally have found an affinity for sailing on catamarans. Their wide breeches offer a smooth ride on choppier days and they are much more kind to those who haven’t quite earned their sea legs.
Speaking of which, a nifty trick I learned to combat sea sickness while crewing on a sailboat is to always look at the shore when feeling ill, and avoid stowing in the hull, as the rocking motion without a point of reference is what causes the vertigo associated with sea sickness.
While catamarans offer a gentler ride, some folks desire a more dynamic experience. For those people, mono-hulls are the way to go.
Chartering a sailboat will surely leave one with an amazing experience, but it also can hurt the wallet. Be prepared for the heftier bill when chartering a sailboat, but the payouts can be worth it. And if it’s a group splitting the bill, it can be much more economical.
Along with sailboating, Puget Sound also offers a wonderful place to jump into the relatively new sport of kite-boarding. This is a much more personal way to get to know your bay and it will definitely get your adrenaline flowing. A few companies in Bellingham offer kite-board sales, rentals and lessons. A starter lesson is a must because just learning how to control the kite has a learning curve of its own, let alone getting used to wakeboarding while attached to the kite. The sport is fairly dependent on specific conditions, so make sure that the weather is up to par before you go.
Lovin’ the lakes
If neither salt nor whitewater are your “cups o’ tea,” then maybe a lounging float at Lake Whatcom or a day on the water-skis might be right up your alley. Lake Samish and Lake Whatcom both offer easy access to boat ramps and beautiful power boating, lake kayaking and float lounging. Both lakes, however, are extremely popular during the hot summer months and parking can be an issue, as their lots fill up quickly. Lake Padden can be a bit less chaotic and it doesn’t allow power boating, so it can be a mellower option for someone just looking to relax.
Lake Samish is the only local lake that still allows two-stroke motors, while Lake Whatcom only allows four-strokes due to being our watershed. Also, keep in mind that as of 2011, everyone under the age of 35 is required to complete a water-safety course and carry the card on him or her while boating. Information regarding this course can be found online (www.bellingham-usps.org) or through the city of Bellingham.
Play it safe
Boating and summer are synonymous to most of us, but always remember that there’s an inherent risk with watersports. Moving or rapid water carries an immense amount of energy and has to be respected as such. Even a foot of water traveling at five miles per hour can knock a full-grown adult over. And with the dynamics in river flows, the amount of water in our rivers is always changing. Check out river levels and ocean tides before you go boating. Tides can create rip currents similar in strength to river currents, and they can easily pull a swimmer far away from shore, so always know the day’s tide schedule and plan accordingly – go out with the tide and come in with it.
Also, be sure to adhere to Coast Guard, state and city regulations. And make sure to have all the appropriate safety gear, life jackets, whistles, etc., before you go boating.
Last but not least, have fun. After all, that’s what watersports are all about.