Story and photos by CASSANDRA PROFITA
Kayaking guides who are worth their salt will tell you flat out: You can’t just paddle out to sea.
Unless you’ve spent hours learning to brace your boat against the breakers and roll sideways like a sea otter in the surf, they’ll say: Stick to the rivers and bays.
The ocean along the North Coast is riddled with rip currents, eddies, overpowering winds and, of course, crashing waves.
“You really do need a good foundation of skills to go into the ocean,” says Mark Whitaker, who manages Columbia River Kayaking in Skamakowa, Wash. “It’s also good to go with an experienced person. You really need to be able to negotiate the surface.”
It’s sound advice that I’ve dutifully followed for six years – even though I own a 16 1/2 foot sea kayak. Seeing as a 12-footer is really all you need to paddle around inland waters, I’ve always wanted to step up my game and get my sea kayak into the sea. Even one trip would justify all the years of hauling four unnecessary feet of hull into waterways up and down the North Coast.
But I still don’t have the skills. And I don’t know an experienced person who’s dumb enough to take an unskilled paddler into the ocean.
So, I’d just about given up on going out to sea – at least until I had the time and energy to take a class.
Then I found a loophole. Or maybe it was a loop tide.
Either way, I made it to the open ocean without getting pummeled by waves or risking life and limb. Without learning to roll or brace. I would say it was cheating the system, but it wasn’t. It was using the system – the ever-present ebb and flow of the tide – to sneak a brief but glorious paddle in the Pacific.
It wouldn’t have happened without the guidance of Kayak Tillamook founder Marcus Hinz.
“I have this sea kayak,” I whined to him over the phone from Portland, “and it’s never seen the sea.”
I suppose if kayaks could “see” things, mine has seen plenty of the Pacific: From the roof rack of my Subaru, swerving around the curves of U.S. Highway 101; From way out in the mouth of the Columbia where the river gnashes its teeth on the bar; From Nehalem Bay as it necks down toward the beach; and from the sweeping saltwater in Willapa Bay, where the ocean drapes foamy white tongues across the horizon.
Sure, my boat has “seen” the sea.
But I wanted it to feel the might of the ocean under its royal blue frame. I wanted it to ride those massive swells and slice through their choppy peaks. I wanted my sea kayak to be a sea kayak – and do the things it was made to do.
I just didn’t want to spend four hours flipping the thing around in a swimming pool to get there.
I’d bought the used boat right after moving to Astoria in 2006. One look around the inland peninsula and I knew I was going to need a vessel. There’s water everywhere!
And the tides are fierce – even in the bays and estuaries. I took a salesman’s advice and bought a long and slender plastic boat that slices through current like a knife and easily withstands the occasional run-ins with rocks and concrete (oops!).
It paid off immediately. I could race alongside freighters in the Columbia River shipping channel or slip through sloughs with blue herons and bald eagles in the Lewis and Clark National Wildlife Refuge. I could circle around East Sand Island and gawk at the terns or paddle out to Long Island in Willapa Bay to camp and rake my own steamer clams.
“I like getting into places most people will never get to and having this intimate connection with the water itself,” says Hinz. “How it moves on its own time on an annual cycle really makes me fall in love with the entire planet.”
Of course, you can fall in love with the planet without paddling out to sea. Hinz floated behind a coyote for a full minute without being spotted and watched a baby black bear playing in the woods. He snuck up on a herd of elk and felt the ground shake when they ran off.
“It sounded like the forest was coming down,” he says.
You don’t even have to be on the ocean to see hundreds of jellyfish swimming in a rainbow of yellows, pinks, purples and blues. The tide sweeps them right into Pacific City’s Sandlake in the fall.
“I’ve had salmon bounce off the hull of my boat,” Hinz says. “I’ve had a river otter growl at me. It sounded like it was choking.”
I don’t think Hinz set out to show me how to sneak up on the sea. He took me and several clients on a plodding paddle through Nestucca Bay and never mentioned going into the ocean.
But the trip was perfectly timed so that we reached the mouth right as the tide was turning.
The ocean looked like the Red Sea after Moses parted its waters. To the north, waves were breaking northward away from us. To the south, the waves turned southward. In between, the water was fantastically flat and glistening in the sun. The Pacific had left a window open, and we floated right through.
We paddled past the mouth of the bay, past the beveled edges of the beaches on either side. Soon I was able to turn my boat around to face east, and I looked in on West Coast from the outside.
For 10 minutes, I paddled the Pacific in a real sea kayak.
Then the window closed, and a wall of waves pushed me back into the bay where I belong.
About the author:
Cassandra Profita is the environmental blogger for Oregon Public Broadcasting. Her work can be read at ecotrope.opb.org. She is a former environmental reporter for The Daily Astorian