Through the Ballard Locks

The Ballard Locks, from the sea side.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Fred and I planned to meet up Saturday for some kayaking. We wanted to go some place new, so we had decided on Olympia’s Boston Harbor. However, he texted me Wednesday night: there was a change of plans. We were going to meet up with a Facebook group and kayak through the Ballard Locks.

Seattle skyline from Lake Union.Sweet! REI’s kayak trips through the Ballard Locks always looked fun. But, the timing was never right. Now I had a chance to do it, and for free!

Fred and I still aren’t comfortable paddling our new Eddylines, so I loaded up my Inuit and headed over to his house Friday night. We transferred my kayak and gear to his truck and kayak trailer, and were all ready to go. All I had to do was head over first thing Saturday morning, which I did.

We met up with the rest of the group at Seattle’s Sunnyside Avenue Boat Ramp on Lake Union at 11:00 a.m. There were 15 of us in all, with a variety of kayaks, from little recreation kayaks to longer, sleeker craft that would be at home in Puget Sound. There was even one that was pedal powered. Fred’s and mine were, for a change, middle of the road. Usually, we have the low-end kayaks, the paupers of the group.

Rafting up for a trip through the Ballard Locks.We took time for a group photo, and then headed out into Lake Union. This was my first time on this lake. There were lots of boats. Lots and lots of boats! Little ones, big ones, massive yachts that cost more than I’ll earn in my lifetime, Bering Sea crab boats and fish processors, tug boats, and wonderful, amazing, creative house boats. All towered over our little kayaks. Most tied up at marinas. Few were out on the lake. Some were pristine, without a speck of dirt or rust, while others had seen better days. A beautiful yacht fit for a movie star had a for sale sign in the window: $4,999,995.00. Yes, five million dollars. And price reduced at that! We had fun gawking and enviously admiring the house boats. It would be hard to work from home if I lived on a house boat.

We took our time paddling to the locks, making sure we didn’t leave anybody behind. After almost two hours and four miles of paddling, we arrived.

Rafting up for a trip through the Ballard Locks.We hung back while they loaded the bigger boats, and then it was our turn. They called us in, and we rafted up, three kayaks to a row, five rows deep, hugging the southern wall. Fred hung on to a cleat in the wall, I hung onto his cowling, while another kayaker held onto my paddle. A huge craft towered over us on the right, blocking the sun.

As soon as we were all in and the gate behind us closed, the water level started falling. And falling. And falling.

The southern wall rose above us as we sunk closer to sea level. It was weird! Like watching the tide go out super fast. Seaweed and barnacles appeared, clinging to the wall, growing thicker as we sank. Finally, after dropping about 16′, we reached sea level, and the gate in front of us opened slowly. Lake water churned into sea water, creating a latte-colored foam, spilling out into the channel.

There's about 16' difference between Lake Union and Puget Sound.We continued to cling to the wall as the boats slowly exited, one by one. And then it was our turn.

We pushed off from each other and excitedly paddled through the foam into the canal. A seal popped up its head, checking us out, while a tall, lanky heron fished along the shore. Just beyond the Salmon Bay railroad bridge, Shilshole Bay and Puget Sound lay before us, with Bainbridge Island far off on the horizon. Woohoo! We followed the trip organizer under the bridge and out into the bay. He knew where we could find tacos, and we were all hungry!

We pulled our kayaks up on a public beach, just before Shilshole Marina, and headed out for food. We didn’t find tacos, but we did find some excellent Caribbean take-out at Un Bien. Mmmmm!

Time for lunch!After about an hour break, we hopped back in our kayaks for the return trip. Again, the bigger boats went into the locks first, and then us last. This time, we entered in at sea level, and then rose about 16′ to lake level.

The paddle back was pretty exhausting. It is still early in the season for kayaking, and most of us were pretty out of shape. I was surprised how tired I was. After all, I spend my weekends building a cabin, clearing brush, and playing with chainsaws. My arms should be used to hard work! But, apparently not. I was so happy to see the boat launch! I tried to convince my fellow kayakers to carry both me and my kayak up onto the beach, but they just laughed and shook their heads. I’d have to get out and walk like everybody else. Boo!

In all, we paddled just over five hours and close to eleven miles, with a one-hour break for lunch. By the time we got our kayaks loaded up, it was close to 7:00 p.m., and we were hungry again. Paddling burns a lot of calories! This time, we swung by Dick’s Drive-In for burgers and shakes. I’ve never eaten at Dick’s, so this was another first for me.

Group photo at the Ballard Locks.We had a ton of fun! Anybody can go through the locks, and it doesn’t cost anything. We didn’t make any prior arrangements or let anyone know we were coming; we just showed up. The workers saw us coming and communicated to us when to enter, where to put our kayaks, and when and where to exit. The other boaters were happy to see us, and both times, people on the other boats took photos of our group and texted them to us.

It was a fabulous day, and Fred and I returned home happy and exhausted. My Inuit, which I wasn’t particularly happy with last year, performed tolerably well. I discovered if I just paddle slowly, it tracks OK. It’s only when I paddle fast that it swings to one side or the other. So, I’ve decided to keep it. It’s a good middle-of-the-road kayak for when I need something other than a light recreation kayak or the sleek, seaworthy Eddyline. Plus, it’s plastic, and I can beat the crap out of it.

I videoed almost the entire trip with my little action camera, so as soon as I get it edited down to maybe an hour or so–because who wants to watch five hours of someone paddling in Lake Union?!?–I’ll post it up on YouTube.