Northwest Paddling Festival, June 25-26, 2011, in West Seattle, offers stand-up paddleboard (SUP) and kayak lessons, lectures and demonstrations, with a Saturday race along Alki Beach. The festival site at Jack Block Park includes a beach that will open to the public for the first time in 100 years after a successful Superfund cleanup of...

I was up! I was paddling. I was SUPing, for my first time.

On the near side of Alki, with the whole Seattle skyline spread out in front of me like one of those super-panorama photos, I was on a stand-up paddleboard, or SUP. I’d come to get a preview of this weekend’s Northwest Paddling Festival, which heralds a success story in the Duwamish estuary cleanup. (More about that in a minute.)

I’d managed to go from standing next to my board in knee-deep water to clambering aboard on my knees, paddling to deeper water and finally unfolding my lanky, wet-suited legs and standing with feet planted evenly, shoulder-width apart.


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One foot didn’t quite line up with the other. And moving it another four inches forward didn’t quite seem plausible if I wanted to keep my balance.

No matter. I paddled. I was doing it, this odd sport that migrated here from Hawaii a few years back.

Easy-peasy, you say. It’s just standing, something most of us do quite a lot in our lives. Right?

It’s actually a great whole-body workout, because you’re constantly using almost every muscle in your body to balance, Andy Pavone, an Alki Kayak Tours instructor, said as he coached me.

And he was right. In about five minutes, the quads in my right thigh began this odd tremor thing.

“Bend your knees a little and turn your trunk as you paddle,” Pavone advised.

That helped. I tried to concentrate on the amazing view and ignore the bodily weakness. But when the wake of the West Seattle Water Taxi set my board to bobbing, my fate was sealed. The quad tremor grew on the Richter scale, and like the Space Needle with one leg pulled out from under it, I toppled.

With a big, cold, salty splash.

The good news?

“You did that just right, the way you jumped clear of the board,” Pavone said. “Some people try to grab on as they fall and end up injuring themselves.”

My claim to fame: I fell well.

See it this weekend

Curious? Get a good look at more experienced SUPers, along with some of the best local kayakers, in the same waters during a four-mile, round-Alki, close-to-shore race this weekend. It’s just one event during the inaugural Northwest Paddling Festival.

And maybe try one of the sports for yourself. The festival has a big welcome mat out for first-timers.

Based at the Port of Seattle’s Jack Block Park, off Harbor Avenue, and Seattle Parks’ nearby Cove 1 beach, this is a watershed event in the local world of paddle sports, which hasn’t had a major Seattle-based paddle festival.

The biggest regional event, the Port Townsend-based West Coast Kayak Symposium, went under two years ago for lack of funding. Another, at Tacoma’s Point Defiance Park, also failed to make a comeback this year.

“This will be the paddling festival for the Northwest at this point,” said Michael Collins, publisher of Seattle-based Sea Kayaker magazine, a festival organizer. “The hope is that by bringing it to Seattle, it makes it more accessible to beginners. To go to Port Townsend, you pretty much had to already be committed to the sport.”

Unique site

The spotlight is on the location. The Jack Block Park beach — a football-field-wide strip of sand and cobbles, with a border of pink wild roses sweetening the breeze — opens to the public this weekend for the first time in 100 years.

Formerly home to a creosoting plant, which made logs into telephone poles from 1909 to 1994, it became a federal Superfund site. Cleanup involved one of the largest marine sediment “capping” projects in the world, according to Ravi Sanga, project manager for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

With contaminants now buried under three to five feet of clean sand, gravel and rock, and about 700 old pier pilings removed, EPA gave the go-ahead in February for the festival to use the beach. A Friday ribbon-cutting ceremony will precede the paddling festival.

“It’s been a big cleanup, for almost a couple decades,” said the festival’s co-organizer, Alki Kayak Tours owner Greg Whittaker, who’s been based nearby since 2005.

Diverse views and wildlife

On a recent day with puffy clouds and a light breeze, Whittaker led me and others on a tour of the renovated beach by sea kayak (SUPing obviously not being my forté). It’s an interesting pocket of nature surrounded by giant orange containership cranes next door at the Port of Seattle’s Terminal 5.

Along with that in-your-face cityscape, our view took in anchored barges, skittering ferries and the mammoth golfball-white dome of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s Sea-Based X-band Radar vessel, in for maintenance at the nearby Vigor Shipyard, the former Todd Pacific Shipyards.

Our paddle-outing soundtrack: distant backup beepers on loading docks, the occasional hoot of a ship’s horn and the guttural “harf, harf, harf” of sea lions hauled out on nearby buoys.

At the park’s edge, Whittaker led us right up under the bow of a huge sea barge, moored at a pier that he said takes in raw materials for the nearby Nucor steel plant. Above our heads hung a rusty anchor that could flatten a Hummer.

“There’s a harbor seal following us in,” noted Greg Potts, a paddling guide who shared my double-seater kayak.

That wasn’t the only wildlife. At the edge of the sprawling container terminal, atop a towering pole holding enough floodlights to guide the Space Shuttle in for landing, sat a bald eagle, another sign of nature and “not-nature” coexisting in this Duwamish River estuary.

On a map of the area, dotted lines show Superfund sites the way other neighborhoods might have park boundaries. The up side: Superfund designation means toxic wastes are earmarked for cleanup. Cleanup advocates regard Jack Block Park’s beach as a success story.

Green theme

During this weekend’s festival, exhibitors will set up in a plaza by the beach, which will be their demo area. The nearby Cove 1 is the put-in site for Saturday’s Alki Paddling Challenge race, and will be headquarters for the weekend’s SUP and kayak instruction.

People behind the cleanup are happy to see the rehabbed beach get used.

“We see these kind of beaches as really important,” said Mark MacIntyre, local EPA spokesman. “They connect every citizen to Puget Sound — with places to launch a kayak, for example — which is hard to beat when it comes time to ask people to make hard decisions or personal sacrifices to help preserve the Sound.”

Festival promoters like that “green” connection.

“With kayaking and SUPing being very green, self-propelled activities, having the festival right in view of downtown Seattle, and having the opening of the park beach, it was a perfect fit,” Whittaker said.

Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or