Monday, September 9, 2013

Kayaking Seattle: Through the Ballard Locks and Back

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.
Looking directly at the locks.  Watercraft enter and exit on the left.

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.


Lesley said...

Nice! I've been through many a time on larger vessels, but never ever in a kayak. Great photos of the twilight return home.

Dennis said...

Thank you for the post Jill! I have never been through the locks by Kayak, but it looks and sounds like a lot of fun. And the cheese looks delicious!

Dave Wenning said...

Amazing! Is there a chance something big could shift and crush you against the side wall? (Sometimes I tend to over think things).

Jill said...

Thanks Lesley! This was my first time ever through the locks on any type of boat.

Dennis, yes that cheese was quite tasty!

Dave, ha, well I don't think it's happened in almost 100 years, but I might Google that and see. AND the currents run east-west rather than side to side in the locks, so probably the only thing that would shift was be from an earthquake, but then we're all in trouble!

Mary said...

Wow! That looks like a lot of fun!

Suezy P said...

Been through the locks several times via boat, but never kayak. What a fun trip -great shots coming and going. Love the night glide and all the lights. Thanks for a cool story!!

Anonymous said...

Hey, you answered an earlier question. Good for you, my friend with an adventurous heart. Mary lou