Tom Robbins has called the Pacific Northwest “…this spectacularly mildewed corner of the American Linoleum.”
Of course, there is the rain. Weather forecasters long ago ran out of synonyms for rain and its associated conditions. Many visitors and transplants from brighter climates despair of it. An Esquire article once described “…dusk on a November night, the sky, the water, the mountains all the same color; lead in a closet. Suicide weather.” Far from despairing, I find it to be an essential part of my sense of place; the mountain ranges, the seemingly endless conifer forests, the smell of an alder fire when the air is already heavy with rainfall.
And it’s not just the rain. This is a topography surrounded by water. Fresh water. Salt water. Water is everywhere here.
If I time-travel back to my second-story bedroom at the house where I grew up, I can hear the foghorns from the West Point lighthouse two miles away in the predawn darkness, aids to navigation for ships on the vast inland sea.
Another destination in time, a small beach on Lake Washington. It is summer, warm, early evening. Home from work, Dad rounds up my sisters and me. Mom has prepared our picnic dinner. Beach towels and an olive drab Army-surplus wool blanket go into the trunk of the car. At the small, sheltered, crescent-shaped beach, Mom spreads the blanket out on the lawn. My sisters and I scamper from the lawn, through the sand, to the water’s edge. And incredibly, so does Dad. It’s the only memory I have of my Dad swimming. The water is still mid-summer warm, even though the evening sunlight is receding. Shadows are growing long. Dad is doing his version of a backstroke in the refreshing water. I never saw him so carefree.
Where there’s water, there’s boats.
Reset the time machine and we’re aboard the Ingenting, a cabin cruiser, as she motors through the Ship Canal. Dad works for a marine engine business on Lake Union. His job is behind the parts counter, where he is well known to many of his customers. Every once in awhile, he gets offers from them to go out on their boats. He accepts very few, so the short evening cruise aboard the Ingenting with my parents is rare. It is my earliest memory of being on a boat.
Turn the dial again, and we’re at the shipyard where Jack Davis works. He and his family live across the street from us. He builds boats, all made of wood. The entire boat shed, a cavernous space, open at the ends, smells richly of yellow Alaskan cedar. Today I’m here with my family, invited by Jack to the launch of a new fishing boat. We watch as it slips down the ways into the waters of the Ship Canal.
At a young age, I became mesmerized by boats.
My mother always enjoyed telling the story about me at Lake McDonald campground in Glacier National Park. Dad had just pulled the car and camp trailer into a campsite. I remember bounding out of the car after the long drive and running through the campground to the lake. Pulled up on the beach was a boat, deck over the bow, windshield, bright red and white paint and an outboard motor clamped to the stern; a runabout, as Dad called them. In memory, the next image is of being in the boat, life jacket on, out on the lake, boat up on a plane, spray flying, wind in my hair and a big grin on my face. What happened between, as my Mom tells it, is that I chatted up the couple who owned the boat, promoting them for a ride, but was told I had to get my parents permission. I ran straight back to the camp, where everyone else was still getting things set up, grabbed them by the hands, dragged them to the beach to meet my “friends” (my parents bewildered at the idea that I had “friends” in this place, knowing we’d been there for less an hour). The men shook hands, the wives introduced themselves. And off we went in the runabout, out onto Lake McDonald. I still remember it.
In our 40s, Jeni and I each had good jobs, a home in the suburbs and a certain amount of what economists refer to as discretionary income, for things like“….luxury items, vacations and non-essential goods and services.”
One of the non-essential goods was a sailboat. It had a simple but proper sloop rig and a cuddy cabin.
Some boat owners are said to suffer from Two Foot-itis, a restlessness which informs the boat owner that if only the current boat was two feet longer, life would be perfect. Most boat ownership gravitates from smaller to larger. We, however, seemed to be heading in the opposite direction.
After owning the sailboat for a couple years, I was smitten by a newspaper ad for a canoe. It turned out to be a Stowe Mansfield, made in Vermont; classic recurved bow and stern, snowshoe-laced seats, ash thwarts and gunwales, cherry ribs. The canoe was not only a beauty, it handled like an extension of us. Jeni set the stroke in the bow, I set our course from the stern.
One September, we strapped the canoe on top of the truck and headed for a week in the Cascade Lakes area of central Oregon. Base camp was established at the shoreline at Elk Lake, largest of the chain. We launched the Stowe almost as soon as the truck was parked. Gently, silently, we glided around the lake; leaves on the shoreline trees beginning to color, views of Mt. Bachelor dramatic, a flock of mergansers matching our pace alongside.
The launch site at Hosmer Lake is near the end of one of many fingers, a location favored by fly fishermen. We paddled the narrow fingers of clear water, only a few feet deep a few yards wide, and filled chockablock with trout. Astonishing. I had the feeling of canoeing in an aquarium.
The morning at Little Lava Lake was overcast and cold, the 5000 ft elevation and end of summer defining the change in weather. Wearing all the outerwear we had packed, we launched and paddled down the Deschutes River outflow, until the roar of water over rocks sent us back to the lake. Along the opposite shore, we spotted a roil disturbing the otherwise still surface of the water. Fish vigorously schooling? Aquatic mammals feeding? We proceeded as quietly as could, so as not to disrupt a possible wildlife sighting, but the roil never abated, never changed. As we set a course close to the edge of the disturbed water, still with no fish or animals visible, we looked into the center of the roil, finally realizing it was inflow current, which enters the lake not the surface but through underground lava tubes. Incredible.
During the 90s in the Pacific Northwest, the presence of sea kayaks flourished. As natural as the canoe felt, the effort used by people in their kayaks appeared even more fluid. I was intrigued.
The sandy beach at Fort Worden on Puget Sound forms a long, graceful arc between the pier and the Point Wilson lighthouse. It is near a mile between these two landmarks. We were there for the West Coast Sea Kayak Symposium. Easily a thousand feet of the beach was covered with kayaks and gear of all kinds. Twenty bucks bought us each a colored wristband which allowed us to try out any boat, any paddle, anything at all on display. We arrived in the morning, intending to use the entire day to sample as many boats as possible. I had a few brands and types in mind, boats I’d either rented or read about, boats which had made favorable impressions during my research.
We each wandered about the beach. I first went for a fiberglass kayak I’d rented recently. It seemed a good entry-level boat. The more I paddled, the more it struck me as a product of compromise. Not bad, but not soul-stirring. I then sought out one of the wood stitch-and-glue Inuit style boats I’d admired. Traditional lines. Varnished wood gleaming in the sun. Beautiful. But the visual appeal did not translate to confidence once I’d pushed off from the shoreline. Disappointing.
After a couple hours of this, we found each other and headed back to the truck for some lunch. Sitting in the sun on the tailgate, we compared notes and impressions, before continuing the kayak test drives.
After lunch, back on the beach, I wandered, speaking with dealers, manufacturers, other folks like us, trying out boats. I crossed certain boats off my mental checklist, returned to others for a second try. By afternoon, I was beginning to feel what each boat was trying to tell me, soon after shoving off. Some I took further off shore, gauging stability, responsiveness to turns, ability to hold course. Others were returned to the beach moments after the first few paddle strokes. Some felt like highly tuned race cars but took all my concentration to keep upright or on course. A 17 foot fiberglass model felt exactly like paddling a truck. Yet another was a bathtub toy, useless for anything more than play at a swimming beach.
I learned that day that the appearance, design, shape, length, beam, volume, construction or materials of a kayak provide no indication to how it will feel or handle. Each boat differs, as does each paddler. There is no one right choice.
I no longer remember what I was looking at, standing a few feet from the water’s edge, when I heard Jeni’s voice:
“You gotta try this.”
She beamed from the cockpit of a kayak I’d not yet noticed, a brand I’d not heard of. She paddled ashore, so I could try it.
It was a QCC 400XL. Kevlar construction. White hull, mango-yellow decks. Watertight hatches fore and aft. Deck webbing to secure gear for easy access. Cockpit coaming. Rudder.
Jeni was right. The QCC ticked all my check-boxes. Before I had finished my test paddle, I was sold. As I learned later, so was she, literally. While I was taking my turn on the water, she was back on shore with credit card held out to the reps. The deal was done. Her 400XL was loaded onto the truck and came home with us that day. I called the QCC factory the following week and ordered an exact duplicate for myself.
The John Winters design is stable enough to inspire confidence, responsive enough to inspire enjoyment, even playfulness at times, comfortable enough to take the mind off the mechanics of paddling, to trust the innate ability of boat and body to perform as one, to be consumed by the pure experience of simply being on the water.
“Before starting the design of any kayak I like to get a mental image of the person in my mind because I prefer to ‘fit the kayak to the paddler’ and do not expect the paddler to ‘fit the kayak.’ For the Q400X I had a good, but not fanatical paddler in mind, a person who enjoys kayaking but doesn’t feel any compulsion to prove themselves with paddling gymnastics or constantly paddling at the outer limits of their abilities. In short, a paddler who places a greater value in their experience on the water than their experience in the kayak. The Q400X fits this need by providing good stability even at high angles of heel, superb directional stability and a forgiving nature in confused seas. Its long waterline gives it a good turn of speed that will help you cover a lot of water on those trips where you have limited time to reach and return from your destination.” (http://qcckayaks.com/Q400X.aspx)
We’ve now had our twin 400XL’s for seventeen years. Our boats are perfect for enjoying the in-city tree-lined Fremont Cut, ten minutes from home, Lake Union with its views of the city skyline, or for exploring the inlets, bays and harbors of our vast inland saltwater sea. We’ve ghosted along silently on millpond-flat water and, on other days, worked into current, headwinds and two-foot seas with quartering wind waves. We’ve even played in the outflow of Thunder Creek up in the Cascade mountains, where handling fifteen feet of kayak in swift river current was wicked fun.
These are the end of the line for us. These are the boats we will keep.