Seattle and the Puget Sound region are blessed with many scenic sea kayaking destinations, but I think the most unique is a trip through the historic Hiram M. Chittenden (Ballard) Locks. Some say you haven't really kayaked Seattle until you've done this quintessential Seattle boating experience.
The Ballard Locks, which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places, are a part of the region's maritime history but of course are still operating as they have since 1916. They consist of a series of concrete "locks" that maintain the water level of freshwater Lake Union and Lake Washington to the east while boats pass through from Puget Sound.
On a recent late summer evening I joined several people from the Seattle Sea Kayaking Meetup Group for a paddle from Salmon Bay in Ballard to West Point and back. What a great way to spend an evening after a day sitting at a desk in front of the computer!
We meet at 6:30 at the 14th Avenue NW boat launch, two blocks south of Trader Joe's, and start paddling west past industrial-becoming-sorta-gentrified Salmon Bay boats and houseboats.
|Passing waterfront digs, Salmon Bay in Ballard|
|Heading west under the Ballard Bridge|
As we near the locks, our trip organizer Lara tells us to hold up and wait for instructions over the PA system at the locks.
|Waiting outside the east side of the locks.|
"When you get inside the locks, grab a hold of the wall or a kayak next to you that's against the wall, and hold on tight," she says. "When the water drops, the hydraulics are strong."
I do what I'm told. Pretty soon the locks operator instructs us kayakers to enter, and we squeeze in behind larger craft (like that gorgeous blue wooden sailboat to our starboard). And then I grab the kayak beside me that's next to the wall and hold on.
|It feels a little like a party in the locks.|
When the water drops and the locks open westward, the pull of the incoming water is indeed strong for a couple minutes. I really do have to hold tight to the kayaks on either side of me.
Then it's a beautiful, windless evening as we paddle out of Shilshole Bay past residences on the south in Magnolia and restaurants and condos on the north. Soon we're out in the Sound angling along the shoreline of Discovery Park toward West Point.
|Nice beach on the north side of West Point.|
We all land at the smooth sandy beach just north of the West Point lighthouse and enjoy snacks that a few have brought to share. It's a Mexico meet Europe theme, with chips and salsa, beer, and good cheese and Toblerone chocolate. In this setting, anything would taste great.
With the days getting noticeably shorter than earlier in the summer, we head back to Ballard as the sun starts a quick slide down to the Olympic Mountains on the western horizon. By the time we get back into Shilshole Bay, it's fast becoming dark.
For about 10 minutes or so we just hang in the bay outside the locks, waiting for our instructions to enter.
|In Shilshole Bay calm.|
As we paddle east back through Salmon Bay in the dark, it's like passing through an altogether different, enchanted world within the city, rarely seen by those of us who don't live on the water. I didn't realize how many people lived on boats at the south end of Ballard.
Around 9:30 we arrive back at the boat launch, a bit late for pizza afterwards since it's a week night. But that's okay. I'm refreshed after this evening on the water, and our trip through the locks added an extra spice of adventure.
When You Go
The Seattle Sea Kayaking Meetup Group is actually having another evening paddle through the Ballard Locks on Thursday, September 12, although the trip is already full. If you decide to take a kayak through the locks, please pay careful attention to the lock operator's instructions over the loudspeaker. And if you paddle at night, bring a headlamp or other lights to make yourself visible on the water.