DON TINKER has a saying about kayaking, which he relayed to me as we paddled along Lake Union’s quiet waters on a sunny Sunday morning in May. “If you catch the kayak virus, there is no cure — only treatment.”
He would know. When he bought his first kayak three years ago and started paddling regularly, he was hooked.
Paddling is one of my favorite forms of recreation, too. A bonus during the past year and a half: It is the perfect socially distanced activity. It’s outdoors, you stay at least a few feet apart to avoid entangling your paddle with anyone else’s, and constant breezes skimming the water carry your breath away.
I was paddling with Tinker and a handful of other folks from the Lake Union Pancake Paddle meetup. They gather on the first Sunday of each month for a pancake breakfast at the Swedish Club, then hit Lake Union for an hour or two. Most bring their own vessels, but the Northwest Outdoor Center also rents kayaks at the dock where the group launches, just off Westlake Avenue.
On this morning, the group’s founder, Pat Dolan, had worried about possible wind — a hazard for him as a stand-up paddleboarder. But the morning was mild and just warm enough we didn’t need jackets.
Lake Union is uniquely urban (how many lakes in the middle of a city include an airport?) and is steeped in history, from generations of Duwamish people to cutting-edge tech companies. But it’s also a place to see wildlife (the people chugging along in floating hot tubs might qualify, but the birds certainly do). We paddled past houseboats, yachts and fishing vessels, making our way toward the Ballard Locks.
While the Pancake Paddle is the group’s signature, these paddlers also have visited lighthouses and islands in Puget Sound. They float the Duwamish River when it is at its lowest so they can go over its single 1-foot rapid.
This is just one of a few paddling groups in the area, each with its own niche; the pancakes are part of the appeal here. The Seattle Area Sea Kayaking meetup, for example, sometimes does longer paddles around the Puget Sound region. The Casual Kayaking meetup keeps things, well, casual, with unhurried flat-water paddles.
Since Dolan founded Lake Union Pancake Paddle in 2015 as a way to bring more people to a pancake breakfast (he was on the Swedish Club’s board at the time), the group has met more than 100 times. It draws a variety of recreational paddlers from all walks of life — mostly in kayaks, but some on paddleboards.
And while paddling keeps them at a physical distance, participants still can get to know one another. “You’ve got a lot of time to talk on a paddle,” Dolan says.
While the pandemic halted outings for a few months, they resumed again a few months ago. The group typically goes out all year, with different types of people showing up depending on the weather. Some people join once and are never seen again. Others keep coming back. “I’ve got friends that call me regularly that I’ve met in this group,” Dolan says. “Some people you stay in touch with forever; others are there for a season. They’re all interesting, and I guess that’s why I keep doing it.”