The time I kayaked to Seafair

Seattle, July 29, 2006

I am not fond of the Blue Angels, or heavily commercialized events in general, so Seafair is not, as they say, my cup of tea. I do my best every year to avoid Seafair's crowds and ear-splitting air shows. Occasionally though, I like to challenge my inner indie-culture-snob and delve into the sea of popular culture to see what I'm missing. This year I thought it might be interesting to watch the Saturday Blue Angels show from Lake Washington, bobbing along with the hoi polloi. Since I don't own a boat, or know anyone with a boat, I was already faced with my first challenge. I have had several kayak lessons recently. So why not, I thought, paddle to Seafair?

The first step was to rent a kayak. Since I'm a beginner, it seemed logical to rent from a shop relatively close to the action. I imagined that other people might think of this too and that rentals might be scarce, so I called ahead.

My first call was to Aqua Verde, an upscale kayak shop / waterfront restaurant on the north side of Portage Bay. "Aqua Verde. Can I help you?" asked a gruff voice on the other end of the line. "Yes," I said, "Do you have any kayaks still in?" "They're all in," said the voice, "I'm shut down for the day. It's Seafair. The water's full of drunken idiots." "I know," I said excitedly, "And I want to be one of them. In a kayak!" "My insurance company loves you," was his sardonic reply.

In the end I settled on Moss Bay, a decidedly low-rent shop at the south tip of Lake Union. Moss Bay is the kind of place run by teenage summer jobsters that caters to camp groups and tourists. They're about as far from Lake Washington as it's possible to be on Lake Union, but I was pretty sure they'd rent to me. I told the 17 year-old attendant that I wanted to paddle through the Montlake Cut to Lake Washington for the Seafair show. "Cool," he said.

I left the dock shortly before noon. Ten minutes out I discovered my first error. I had left my hat at the dock, which meant I could look forward to several hours of baking sun on my face. I clutched my one liter bottle of water and hoped it would be enough.

My Lake Union crossing was uneventful, though numerous power boats left criss-crossing wakes, raising chop on the water. Traffic grew into a steady stream of ships as I rounded into Portage Bay. Looking over the many and varied boats of all sizes, I was reminded of the "rag tag fleet" from Battlestar Galactica. As the waves tossed my little plastic kayak, it occurred to me that I must be the ungainly hydroponics ship - the one with the goofy spinning ring that always trailed behind. I clung to the west and south shores of the bay for protection from Cylons and paddled on toward the Montlake Cut.

The Montlake Cut. Part of the Lake Washington Ship Canal, it is the only waterway between Lake Washington and parts west. According to Wikipedia, the cut is approximately 2,500 feet long and 350 feet wide. Due to the cut's narrow channel, waves bounce back and forth off the concrete walls like the raised voices of drunken teenagers in an underpass. Today, it is a high-speed freeway racing with enormous recreational vehicles. I am a single gear bicycle rider caught in the traffic.

I plunged in. Ferocious waves buffeted me from all sides and I fought to maintain control of my tiny craft. It was challenging yet exhilarating. Occasionally I passed other kayakers and we grinned through gritted teeth and said, "Fun, huh?" As I paddled below and among towering behemoths, passengers waved, sometimes stared. Sometimes I stared back. Many of my fellow travelers were overweight and drinking. As I choked on their heavy exhaust fumes, it finally dawned on me that these enormous luxury toys were the equivalent of SUVs. Another pop-culture analogy came to me: the dinosaurs in Fantasia. This boating expedition was a death march. Eventually all these craft would be forced into extinction as global oil supplies dry up. I only hoped that put me and my fellow kayakers in the role of the small, nimble mammals who survive the long drought.

I fought clear of the cut into Union Bay, where I mingled with canoes from the UW waterfront activity center; through the concrete pillars of 520; and south past Madison Park, blanketed with sunbathers. Here were other kayakers. Though the lake here was broad and roomy, the unending flotilla still churned the waters, leaving me and my fellow kayakers bobbing on three foot swells.

I had reached a point about halfway between the floating bridges when exhaustion set in and I began to feel nauseous. I felt that I had traveled enough and ought to watch the air show from dry land. I looked for a public access point to take out. I passed numerous docks adorned with conspicuous PRIVATE PROPERTY signs. I recalled the old sailor's adage of "any port in a storm" and wondered if it applied here. It seemed to me selfish and arrogant to claim property rights over waterways and deny the use of a landing to a sailor in need.

I pulled out at a tiny public landing next door to a tremendous cement condo and sat on a bench. By some providence, I had landed just as the air show began. I watched the Patriots Jet Demonstration Team trail colored streamers and perform "their signature 'Tail Slide' maneuver."

Sadly my nausea did not abate and due to my exhaustion I was unable to locate my internal reserves of childlike awe. My native cynicism was in full effect. Rather than enjoying the air show, I was imagining scenarios involving overland routes back to Lake Union, with the kayak perhaps stowed on the roof of a taxi. Unfortunately I had left my wallet and phone on land.

I decided that the smart thing to do would be to turn around and head back early in hopes of beating the reverse rush through the cut. I launched my vessel and began the long journey home. Or tried to. On my first attempt, my kayak was swamped by a tall breaker and then dragged across my bare foot. I pumped out the bilge, watched for a lull in the waves, and launched again. I slogged past Madison Park and heard the Blue Angels roar into performance behind me.

And now I was Odysseus, hopping island to island, trying to re-gather my forces at every stop, stymied at each turn by the forces of man and nature. I rounded toward Union Bay, and felt sick. I needed to rest, but was frustrated by the ubiquitous PRIVATE PROPERTY signs.

Eventually I disregarded one of those signs and pulled into the calm harbor of a large estate with a rolling lawn leading a hundred yards to a private manor. As if to reinforce the lack of welcome, the lawn consisted of some prickly, tuberous variety of grass that poked my bare feet. Regardless, I lay down in the stiff grass beneath the unbroken sun while the Blue Angels screamed overhead. The lawn seemed to become more prickly as I lay upon it, and I sat up to find that I was covered in biting red ants. While I was slapping at them I stepped on a spiny weed. At this point I got the hint, and fled back to the sea. I ruefully regarded the PRIVATE PROPERTY sign, and considered that I might have respected it more had it said ANTS WILL DEVOUR YOU.

My next stop was a piece of public park, and I was able to grab a brief but crucial power nap on the ant-free lawn, despite being licked by passing dogs.

And then I was once more faced with the Montlake Cut. By now, the show was over and the exodus had begun. I gritted my teeth, bore down on the oar, and fought through the cut. I made it through without incident, and then through Portage Bay (where I reconsidered the manager of Aqua Verde, so much wiser than me), and at last returned to Lake Union, where I was forced to make one last rest stop. At this stop, another public launch point, a family played with their dogs. They greeted me in a way that suggested they expected polite conversation; I had nothing for them. I slouched upon the ground until I was minimally prepared for another charge.

I passed Gasworks park and faced the last leg of my journey - I was approaching South Lake Union. Though the rest stops had helped to quell my rising queasiness, it had finally grown beyond any management. With my home port in sight, I was going to be sick.

This was something I had feared since the first pangs of nausea in Lake Washington. The question is this: HOW does one vomit in a kayak? I was afraid that if I leaned over the side, I'd tip the kayak and then wind up in the lake, drowning in vomit and lake water. Nature answered that question for me. I turned my head as much to one side as I was able, and projectile vomited over my oar and into Lake Union.

I did not tip over. I cleaned the vomit off my oar, my life jacket, and the kayak as best I could; all the while imagining the horror of the attendant when faced with a puke-filled kayak. I returned the kayak to a different teenager, who seemed suitably impressed that I had taken the boat through the Montlake Cut. I do not think he noticed anything awry.

I imagine I was not the only person to throw up on the lake that day, but I bet I was the only sober kayaker to do so. I had been on (and off) the water for over five hours. I was severely dehydrated and badly sunburned. I cursed the Blue Angels and everything they stood for.

Anybody want to give me a ride in your gas-guzzling SUV next year?