Join paddler Jeff King as he plans a journey down the west coast of the United States in this first installment of a series of articles on this epic journey.
In third grade I realized that the Yakima River flowed into the Columbia River and that the Columbia flowed out to the Pacific Ocean. Up until that point in my life I was neither concerned nor sure to where the rivers flowed.
The world atlas in my grade school classroom showed me how rivers weave into the oceans that interlace with the landmasses and tie our planet together. Even now, when I travel, I study maps so I can know where the rivers are and into what ocean they flow.
My parents grew up on the rainy coast of Washington. We would drive “out to the coast” to visit relatives and to join them for family events that usually included various forms of hunting and gathering. The inky coastal rivers and with their black, muddy bays are where I learned to fish for steelhead and salmon.
I first went out into the Pacific Ocean in a small fishing boat from Grays Harbor, Washington. After that first trip out to sea I went back home and looked at the atlas. I realized that the blue line that ran through Yakima connected all of the way out to the coast and then up the coast to Raymond and Aberdeen. There seemed to be no reason in my nine-year-old mind why I could not travel by boat from my house in Yakima to my grandmother’s house on the coast. Now THAT would be cool I thought. I could also trace a coastal water route in the atlas north to Alaska and south to Mexico. From a child’s imagination come such ideas. We all have had these notions, and for most of us reading this page our best adventures spring from long held imaginings of what it would be like to follow some waterway depicted on a map.
As I entered my teen years I pulled books off the library shelves about Captains Cook, Vancouver and Gray, the early European explorers of my coast. More place names, mental images and history were added to my fantasy. In college I built my first river kayak with a group of equally broke but enthusiastic baby kayakers. Mostly my buddies were drawn to the rivers with their new boats, but some of us also began taking our river kayaks to the coast. We paddled the bays and beach launched into the surf. Getting pounded and swimming in the freezing Oregon Pacific was the incentive I needed to learn my Eskimo Roll. We explored the glorious sea caves, arches and headlands on sections of the coast. We were sea kayakers before it was a named sport.
The imaginings of my childhood grew into a lifetime of adventures on water. Fortunately, my wife is also interested in water travel. We have had a bunch of fine river, lake and sea adventures in our forty years together. However, especially as we age, she is not as obsessed about big expanses of water as I am, nor does she hear the nearly constant voices telling me that I just need one more kayak. She cheers me on but she pursues other interests when I present a trip idea that sounds too rough, or rainy, or has bears on the beaches. She does not spend evenings looking at maps of rivers and oceans.
Molly was not surprised when I announced that I wanted to kayak the west coast of the USA. The challenging surf launches and landings along with the cold dampness of the upper west coast put the paddling part of the trip beyond her interest. I decided to do the trip solo, as a series of day trips, taken on the days when the sea seemed kind enough to let me pass safely alone. She offered to join me last summer so that we could explore the north coast of Washington’s parks and trails on my non-ocean-travel days. She also offered to help get the truck moved around some roadless stretches of coastline that would have presented a logistical nightmare for me if I were to try to bike or hitchhike my vehicle shuttles. The north coast was mostly new land and seascape for both of us, full of long, fascinating human history, wrapped in stunningly marvelous scenery. For me, at age 64, it was time to get started on a childhood dream.
When we travel with only curiosity as our guide it is amazing what we bump into. As we drove up the coast of Washington to begin the journey, Molly and I stopped along the way to scout some of my proposed put-in, takeout and bailout spots. I would need to recognize those places from the sea, maybe in the fog. She would need to find her way to these critical spots to pick me up after long days at sea. Three of those places were on the tribal lands of three different tribes. These are not places tourists go. We felt a little trepidation entering areas that were clearly marked as tribal, however, the journey gives us a reason to be there and it provides an excuse to meet people and see country we would otherwise have missed.
I had not anticipated the fine welcome that we received from the folks who live on the reservations. An example is the picture of Molly standing next to Ferdinand de la Cruz. He is the master carver for the Quinault Tribe, who inhabit the coast on their reservation north of Aberdeen, Washington. On a windy, rainy day we drove out to the end of a muddy road to scout a cove I had spotted on the chart and that I hoped would be one of my take-outs along that cliffy, roadless stretch of coast. There was a large building out in the middle of nowhere that used to be a hanger for the Coast Guard – now abandoned. It was kind of spooky out there honestly.
We clambered down through the dense brush to study the surf, rocks and beach. It looked good. Now all that we needed to do was locate someone to ask for permission to land and launch from this spot sometime in the next few weeks. After our foray, as we approached our car to leave, we heard a voice from the direction of the hanger. It was Ferdinand hailing us. We both thought, “now we are in trouble”, as we were clearly inside of the signs announcing that this was private property. We sheepishly walked over to meet the stalky, strong looking fellow who stood, smiling, inside the huge doorway at the back of the building. He asked if we wanted a Coke.
Inside the building Ferdinand stood among four of the sea canoes that he and his tribal cousins have built over the past 20 years. The first canoe was carved from a cedar log that was gifted to his tribe from the Haida group in Haida Gwaii, Canada. There were no cedar trees left on the Quinault Reservation that were old enough or large enough to carve into a sea canoe. That canoe, carved from Haida cedar, was the instrument with which the Quinaults rediscovered their lost art of constructing and voyaging in open sea canoes. They carved the first canoe with help from other natives from as far north as Alaska. Some of the elders in a few of those tribes remembered fragments of how to shape the canoe. Museums in Canada, the U.S. and Europe house hundred-plus year old specimens from which the carvers took dimensions and gleaned shapes for their new canoe.
As a little boy, Ferdinand had traveled the coast with his grandfather who captained one of the tribe’s last great canoes before decay, neglect and fiberglass erased the old ways of travel. A passion for the traditional sea craft was in his blood. Spurred by a few other carvers in coastal Canada, Ferdinand led his tribe’s efforts to carve the first canoe. Like his grandfather he was the captain of the finished craft. There was obvious and earned pride in his voice as he told us the story of the rebirth of the great canoes all along the north coast. He spoke of the profound positive effects the construction and paddling of the boats has had for the people of his tribe.
Ferdinand regaled us with stories of their first long journey up to Bella Bella, Canada to join several other tribes who also traveled long distances in traditional canoes. His tribe-mates paddled up the west side of Vancouver Island so that they could visit the remaining settlements of their kinsmen along the way. That was more than twenty years ago. He told us that at the 2017 Canoe Journeys Gathering in Port Townsend there had been 150 canoes from scores of coastal tribes. Even a few Polynesian canoes were flown over to join the Journeys Gathering that has become a big semi-annual event. His tribe’s fourth canoe was being shaped right in front of us in that huge hanger under the expert eye of Ferdinand.
When I dreamed of paddling the west coast I thought of the wild land and seascape, and the birds, whales and other sea mammals I would encounter. On maps there is that blue, off-shore space that extends from Cape Flattery to Cabo San Lucas and I wanted to see what it looked like along that coastline. I now realize that I left out a most important aspect of the journey. It is the remnant native human cultures and the existing “locals” cultures that draw us. We contacted two other tribal groups to ask to use their lands for access to the sea. We were welcomed as fellow seafarers and friends. They bent rules to allow us onto beaches and rivers, which are normally off limits to all but tribal members. Now the trip is about the people as well as the places.
In my dreams I did not see this coming. I bet there will be many more surprises as the dream of the child unfolds for this man. I will tell you this story as it is discovered with the hope that it inspires you to live one of your dreams.
Jeff's wife, Molly, with Ferdinand de la Cruz, the canoe master shaper and captain for the Quinnault Tribe.