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Cold Weather Paddle on Willapa Bay, WA

Cold Weather Paddle on Willapa Bay, WA

Rick’s terrific story reminds me of another cold water paddle, but one with an entirely different flavor. It’s burned into my memory, and an experience which surfaces regularly in bull sessions about paddling. Those who have camped on Long Island in Willapa Bay (SW Washington) in winter will appreciate it.

My long-time paddling partner and I set out from the Refuge launch ramp on a brilliantly sunny morning — January 1, 1995 — into a brisk east wind, which turned into a 20 knot tailwind as we rounded the southern shore of the island, heading west towards High Point. We were surprised at the intensity of the wind, as there had been only a 10 – 15 knot downriver breeze in Astoria, and we have always thought of the eastern side of Willapa Bay as relatively protected from the drainage winds common to the Columbia River in clear winter weather. It was more of a following sea than we had ever been in, and Gary had to brace quickly several times to avoid capsizing, with his Orca (broad, fat stern and microcephalic bow), though I was not having much difficulty in my Wind Dancer, with its higher volume bow. Gary was even surfing involuntarily, at times.

After rounding the point into the lee of the island, we serenely sailed upisland to our favorite campsite. A garguantuan stir fry and a couple bottles of wine put a couple of old guys into a pretty mellow mood, with an intense fire made possible with Gary’s splitting maul to deter the chill … Hmmm, the wind WAS picking up … Oh, well, it can’t blow all night AND all of tomorrow.

WRONG! After rattling our cage and the alder/spruce forest around our ears all night, the east wind was even more intense the next morning. Even from our vantage point some 2 1/2 to 3 miles away we could see constant spuming and spindrift ripping around the southern end of the island at High Point, obscuring everything across the Bay. In the lee, life was pretty nice, but the freight train wind in the distance had an emotional impact like a pack of pit bulls on the sidewalk outside your door.

We set off, slowly working south in the lee, making our way to High Point, where we slid ashore and hid in sun-filled rocky crevices to watch the wind’s fury. After a couple hours, it abated some, with no more continuous spindrift, so we sprinted around the corner into its maw — WHAM! We both paddle unfeathered, so it had a full purchase on us and we were barely able to make any headway around the point. After fifteen minutes of near maximum effort, we pushed forward around the Point into some lee and began working our way along the southern shore. (Some may wonder at our judgement. Well, we were adjacent to a hospitable shoreline where we could land any time. The wind would have pushed us onto shore in the event of a capsize, we were equipped for cold water, and could have stayed on shore for another day if we had to. We felt strong.)

We stroked and stroked, sometimes gaining a little ground, sometimes blown backward despite pulling with our maximum effort. Gary had a tougher time of it. For some reason, my yak fares better in strong head wind situations, so soon I was a couple hundred yards ahead of him. He stopped on shore and rested once. I paddled continuously, breathing hard even, which paddling never demands of me. It is one nautical mile along the south shore of Long Island, a stretch which is a pleasant fifteen minute paddle under “normal” conditions. This day it took me two and one half hours of hard effort to travel it. When I hit the lee, I was exhausted, spent, beat. I went ashore at the nearest place to watch and wait for Gary, who arrived fifteen minutes later. It was sunny, nearly windless, and brilliant, with dramatic sidelight illuminating the cedars and sprucers on the Island. Sunday drivers were passing by, nodding and waving pleasantly at my slumping figure on the shoreline. All I could think about was how tired I was as the adrenaline faded away.

Later, from the sea conditions, we estimated that the wind had been a 30 to 35 knot gale, with gusting to 40 knots which drove us backwards. We also realized that these conditions are common in winter down here in clear weather, with the NOAA weather broadcasts warning of easterly “drainage winds” through “gaps” in the Coast Range. We haven’t been back to sample those winds again, but I’m glad we had the experience. It humbled me. It made me respect the wind. I learned that even familiar, “easy” water can be a demon under the right conditions.

Dave Kruger
Astoria, OR

Copyright 1996 by Dave Kruger.
May not be reproduced or redistributed without author’s permission.
Originally posted on WaveLength mailing list in Jan. 1996. Republished with permission.