Six years in the Northwest and I'd never set butt in a kayak. Not that this should be that surprising. I know people who've been here for 20 years and haven't so much as touched a kayak's plastic skin. A friend of mine in her 30s who's lived here all her life hasn't been on a floating vessel of any kind except for the bridges and ferries.
But I used to edit Fishermen's News, a gig that gave me access to 100-year-old halibut schooners and 100-foot ocean trawlers. I live in Ballard, where one sees intrepid kayakers come through the locks on a regular basis. There was no excuse.
On the kind of freakishly warm, sunny day in late September that makes Seattleites feel as if they're getting away with something illicit, the hub and I went down to Agua Verde Paddle Club to brave the waters of Portage Bay.
At the check-in counter, they make you sign a release form. There's nothing like a release form to up the anxiety meter. Not that I was feeling anxious. OK, a little. The kayaks are small and sit atop the surface of the water, and the ships passing by are very large in comparison. Kayakers look free, but they look awfully vulnerable, too. My kayaking experience thus far in 36 years of existence was limited to the waters off Miami, which were warm as a bath, and a basin in the Florida Keys where the water was actually hot. This Puget Sound water is so cold, I can't stand to be in it further up than my knees, during the hottest part of the summer — you know, that one week in August when you partially break a sweat.
To say that I had a healthy regard for the realities of the situation would be euphemistically accurate. To say that I had a perhaps paranoiac fear of the water wouldn't be inaccurate.
The other intimidating thing about kayaking, and about most Northwest outdoor sports, is the need for expensive gear. I'd priced the kayaks at REI and decided that, once again, the cost of gear would separate me from the enthusiasts. We decided on this first trip to head for the Washington Park Arboretum wetlands, which was our real motivation for kayaking. You can't really see the wetlands as you're whizzing by on the 520 bridge, and you can't really see them on foot, either. Most visitors to Agua Verde head for Lake Union, a jaunt that doesn't require a spray skirt. I'd heard of these spray skirts but wasn't sure what they were for or how they worked.
Our very young attendant — who was himself being trained — pulled out two contraptions that looked like overalls attached to Empire-waist hoop skirts. The bottoms of these slip over the lip of the hole in the kayak through which your upper body protrudes. The "skirt" keeps water from splashing over the hull of the kayak and into your cockpit. It's ingenious, this technique borrowed or stolen from Native Americans. We'd need the skirts because our journey would take us through the Montlake Cut, where we would vie for traffic space with boats and their wakes. If you overturn, you pull a tab on the skirt to release yourself. Yes, I realize this all sounds kind of sexy.
There are pedals in these kayaks, a feature that no South Florida vessel included. Chivalrously, the hub took the back seat and pedals but informed me several times throughout the trip, as his feet kept slipping out of them, that next time, I'd get steering duty. Note to newcomers: You can't take your security blanket backpack with you. What some do is slip the wallet into a waterproof bag that attaches to your waist.
Because we said we'd kayaked six years ago in Florida, our youngster guides assumed we were veterans, so I had to stupidly ask for pointers on paddling. "It's all in the push," said one, demonstrating a thrust away with the ascending paddle instead of a pull toward you with the paddle in the water. Paddling is easier this way, less stressful on the shoulders.
As we glided awkwardly into Portage Bay, I felt the same way I felt the first time I went snorkeling. When I'd jumped into the waters over a coral reef and opened my eyes to find myself surrounded by a school of fish, I panicked. My mind told me I wasn't supposed to be swimming out in the middle of the ocean, and especially not with black-and-yellow striped fish swimming close enough to touch me. I had to talk myself into it. Same thing this time. A part of my brain was rejecting the scenario of sitting in a tiny plastic shell on top of very cold, deep water with large boats in the vicinity. I told myself to get a grip, and not just on the paddle, which I feared dropping.
And it was sublime, fantastically fun, one of the best experiences I've had in the Pacific Northwest. In a kayak, you're one with the ducks, and they know it. They regard you if anything with a bit of boredom, as if they've learned to live with your kind and know you're no threat. The geese don't hiss at you in a kayak the way they do on land. Cormorants flap by without a care. A blue heron stalks prey, and you're a quiet floating observer. You might see a little green heron poking around in the reeds.
Even the treacherous, spray-skirt-requiring Montlake Cut was a blast, as a boat's seemingly innocuous wake ricochets from one cement wall to the other, creating a roller-coaster for someone in a tiny, plastic, people-powered boat.
We kayaked for more than two hours and were reluctant to go back. Afterward, I wondered why I wasn't kayaking every day, commuting to work by kayak, taking long trips by kayak. It seems there's no better way to get around Puget Sound.