Being on a boat is fun, but being on a kayak so close to the water you’re a part of the swells is better.
When you can feel the waves raising and dropping the kayak, feel kelp strands bump the bottom of the boat as you glide over them and take a break in the shadow of a 50-foot sea cliff, you get a completely different perspective on the environment.
That was my experience during a kayak trip to Freshwater Bay with Mark Palmer, a guide with the Port Angeles-based Adventures Through Kayaking. On our short, 2.5-hour cruise out of the bay, we saw harlequin ducks, herons, river otters and even bald eagles. The trip took us out to Bachelor Rock, an isolated stack at the north end of the bay. Turning west, we explored several small inlets and even checked out a small sea cave.
While Palmer joined Adventures Through Kayaking seven years ago, he’s been active in the sport for much longer. “It was about the mid 1980s that I took my first paddles,” the Michigan native says.
Palmer also says that kayaking has changed dramatically in the 30 years since he started.
“You used to get a boat and that was your only boat,” he laughs.
Today, the sport has diversified to river and sea kayaking, stunt-oriented play boating and even kayaks designed to tackle drops from waterfalls. Waterfall kayakers regularly “drop 40 to 50 feet, which is just insane,” Palmer explains.
The varieties of modern kayaks can be daunting at first glance, but Palmer says that newcomers only need to worry about buying a few pieces of important gear. Getting a kayak can wait.
Palmer recommends getting cold weather clothes, a paddle and a life vest to start. Clothes can be a wetsuit or drysuit with fleece layers underneath. The life vest should fit comfortably, but he reminds buyers that it only needs to float, so buy a cheap but reliable vest to save money for a paddle. Getting a personal paddle is useful because it will be matched to your stroke style and body.
Take your time buying a paddle, Palmer says, because different paddles use different types of strokes, and your stroke depends significantly on your body type. Some people use a long-bladed paddle and a deep, drawn-out paddle stroke that provides more power over time. Others use a short paddle that requires more shorter, fast strokes but is more maneuverable.
Palmer stresses getting a paddle that feels good to grip and isn’t too heavy. While six ounces might not seem like much, it can add up after hundreds of paddle strokes over a few hours. “The easier you can make it for you, the more you’ll enjoy the experience,” he says.
“I look at paddles like I look at tires,” Palmer emphasizes. “That’s what makes direct contact with the road for your car. Your paddle makes direct contact with the ocean, you want to have a good paddle.”
Brian Orr, with Sound Bike and Kayak in Port Angeles, says newbies should expect to spend between $400 and $750 for kayaking gear. If you’ve got money left over, you also can pick up a kayak, but they can cost anywhere between $600 and $1,000. For beginners, renting a kayak for $50 a day is an easier financial commitment.
Finally, Palmer says that it’s always a good idea to start out with a guide to make sure you’re doing everything right. He says that it’s easy to get into bad habits and having a guide for the first few trips helps new kayakers get their bearings. Guides also can teach some of the important skills all kayakers should know, such as how to exit and enter a kayak in the water, how to handle emergencies and paddle technique.
Palmer emphasizes the importance of paddle technique. Instead of pulling forward with just one arm, it uses less energy to engage your whole upper body. Under his guidance, I quickly learned to rotate forward and backward using my core to drive the paddle, instead of lunging forward to pull with my arms.
“It can really make your experience much more enjoyable because you’re much more efficient,” he says, but more importantly, correct technique protects the wrists, elbows and shoulders, which poor technique can easily injure.
Get on the water
There are several kayaking guides in the area, including Adventures Through Kayaking, Olympic Raft and Kayak, Dungeness Kayaking and the Dungeness Paddlers. Kayak clubs like the Olympic Peninsula Paddlers or the Olympic Kayak Club complement these businesses. The clubs can be great sources of information, whether it’s skills practice in a pool or learning about new paddle sites on the coast.
There are several great kayaking sites for beginners around Port Angeles and Sequim. One of the best introductory sites is Freshwater Bay, according to Palmer. It is so popular that National Geographic listed it in a feature on things to do on the peninsula.
The shallow bay is a great location to start training, as its slow drop-off allows new kayakers to get a feel for maneuvering and paddle skills with a “safety net” if they fall out of the boat. As they get comfortable with kayaking, they can paddle out west to Saltwater Creek, a five- or six-mile trip.
Palmer also recommends the Dungeness Spit to intermediate kayakers, so long as they check tide tables and currents beforehand. While the spit can be a great trip, he warns that sudden winds and tides can turn a good day sour. “It can get a little crazy out there in no time.”
With experience, kayaking trips can shift from a day or half-day to multi-day tours of the coast or a river. Palmer suggests Ozette Lake’s Tivoli Island as a place to practice a multi-day trip. The island sports two campsites and the lake allows kayakers to test carrying gear with a park ranger only six miles away if something goes wrong.
Those interested in getting into kayaking can stop by any of several shops and guide services along the peninsula. The Puget Sound and Strait of Juan De Fuca have become increasingly popular kayak regions over the years.
Olympic Raft and Kayak will hold its 13th annual Kayak Symposium in Port Angeles from April 13-14 and Palmer recommends it as a great starting point for newcomers to the sometimes relaxing, sometimes intense, and always rewarding sport.
Reach Ross Coyle at email@example.com.