Rent and launch from Port Townsend park at the corner of Admiralty Inlet and the Strait of Juan de Fuca.
PORT TOWNSEND — Eagles nest in a giant bowl of twigs, in the branches of a tree jutting out of a cliff. Underneath, a river otter gambols on a rocky beach. In the water, jellyfish glide silently by as our paddles break the surface.
These are just a few of the memories my family carried home from a morning of kayaking on Admiralty Inlet earlier this summer.
Memory-making is what paddling is all about, according to Steve Hiegel, co-owner of Port Townsend Paddlesports, which rents kayaks and stand-up paddleboards on the beach at Fort Worden State Park.
If you go
Port Townsend Paddlesports
Beginners are welcome. Be prepared to sign a release; receive a tutorial; and follow certain safety guidelines, including staying within boundaries and wearing a personal flotation device.
No dogs. Children under 18 must be accompanied by someone older than 25. All watercraft renters must know how to swim.
Located: Next to the beach at Fort Worden State Park, Port Townsend.
Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, Memorial Day to Labor Day. Weekends and by appointment, weather permitting, through September.
Rates: Single kayaks $35; double kayaks $45; paddleboards $35. All rentals are for two hours. Port Townsend Paddlesports also rents bicycles and beach umbrellas.
Info: 360-379-3608 or ptpaddlesports.com.
“You may not always see wildlife, but you’ll always come back with a story,” Hiegel says.
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From Memorial Day through September, Hiegel and his wife and business partner Amy Recker share their love of paddling and nature with visitors looking for a serene escape from life onshore.
“The water is always changing; the currents are going different ways. I still remember my first three strokes on the water — absolutely magic. That was over 30 years ago,” Hiegel says.
Another magical story unfolded the day Hiegel spied several orcas plying Admiralty Inlet.
“They were jubilantly breaching and spyhopping” — poking their heads above the surface to take a look around — “and flapping their pectoral fins on the water. A group of five or six just joyously went by here.
“I was lucky enough to be out paddling with them and when I left them, they were heading out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca … like sirens of the sea, trying to pull me out with them. It was like seeing a herd of elephants out in the African plain, these wild creatures just doing their thing.”
Before you get too excited about spotting orcas in the inlet, Hiegel notes, “That’s a rarity — I can’t be teasing people with that.” Harbor seals, porpoises and river otters are more common.
Hiegel and Recker, certified kayak instructors with decades of paddling experience, have lots of tips to share for finding wildlife and staying safe on the water.
“Go early and stay close to shore,” Hiegel says. Wildlife tends to be active and feeding in the morning, and the winds are calmest then.
“The wind here is a major factor,” he says. “Between 15 and 20 miles per hour, nobody has a good time. So we shut down in predicted winds, usually in the afternoons.”
The water itself must be treated with respect. Temperatures in Admiralty Inlet may get up to 50 degrees Fahrenheit near shore; offshore, they stay in the 40s, Hiegel says. In that range, you can lose some muscle function in less than five minutes. So you never want to stray far from shore.
Luckily, there’s plenty to see along the coastline, including Fort Worden itself, a former U.S. Army installation dating back to the end of the 19th century.
Some visitors paddle south into Port Townsend bay, with its waterside view of the Victorian seaport.
Or you can take a guided tour, led by Hiegel or Recker. The four-hour Glass Beach tour is particularly popular, Hiegel says.
This area, otherwise only accessible via a 90-minute walk, is just west of Fort Worden on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. In the old days, Hiegel says, “The fort dumped its garbage there, and all that’s left is a beautiful beach and finely polished pieces of glass.” The tour ($110 adults, $69 children) includes a potluck lunch.
Port Townsend Paddlesports also offers customized tours. Suggest your own itinerary — so long as it’s safe. Because every magical paddling story deserves a happy ending.