Kayaking Trip to Upper Priest Lake

Friday, July 4, 2008

I just got back from the least serene evening paddle ever. That's what you get when you paddle over to the Sudden Valley marina on the Fourth of July. The explosions and bright lights joined forces with the paddling cadence to remind me that I forgot to post my little story about paddling on Upper Priest Lake last month. I apologize for the lack of pictures--we all left our cameras home.

So, without further ado, here it is...

Last week I finally did something I’ve dreamed of for years—I went on my first overnight kayaking trip. Considering how interested I am in doing long sea kayaking expeditions along the Pacific Northwest coast, it’s odd that until now I’ve never done anything more ambitious than a day trip. This little jaunt proved to be a perfect introduction to an activity that I always imaged I’d love.

Last Thursday morning I finished the seemingly endless task of loading the moving truck and getting all the crap (I mean valued personal belongings) out of my house. It’s a good thing my wife convinced me to schedule the trip as a break between loading and driving to our new home, because I was so exhausted from the packing and loading that all I felt like doing was lounging around in a stupor. But Joe and Tony were waiting for me that afternoon and I didn’t want to let them down.

We all met at the Albeni Falls dam where they work. (Joe is the bigshot “Dam Administrator” and Tony is a “Dam Engineer.”) We loaded my kayak on the rack next to Joe’s fine new boat, hitched up the trailer carrying Tony’s canoe, and headed north into the drizzly grayness toward Priest Lake. At Lion Head we unloaded our boats and filled the hatches with waterproof gear bags. Joe and I were happy to be wearing waterproof jackets and spray skirts, while Tony get pretty drenched in his open canoe. We set off across the northern tip of Priest Lake toward the Thorofare, a few miles of meandering water opening into the bottom end of Upper Priest Lake.

I last paddled this stretch of water four years ago with a group of scouts. That day the winds whipped up the water for many miles across Priest Lake, forming three and four foot waves at the northern end for the crossing. We had to paddle across them sideways, which made for some very interesting times in the kayaks. I was concerned that day (to put it mildly) because I had my four-year-old son in the back of the boat. He sat in the open hatch with his life jacket on, gripping the sides of the boat and loving every minute of it. I was afraid we’d capsize and he’d be in real trouble, but I managed to get across and behind the breakwater without incident.

On this day there were a few waves, but nothing to get excited about. We paddled into the Thorofare as the rain steadily drenched my hat, ran down my jacket, and beaded up on the spray skirt. Inside the boat and my layers of clothing I was reasonably warm and dry. I wore light wool layers beneath my HydroSkins, dressed for the water temperature in the unlikely event I found myself swimming.

Now, I have no delusions about paddling for weeks in warm sunshine along the coasts of British Columbia. I know the reality is considerably more soggy and overcast. That’s one reason this trip was such a great introduction to the realities of sea kayaking in the Northwest. Lucky for me, I have that peculiar set of crossed wires that makes me truly enjoy hiking and paddling in what others call dismal weather. It’s a combination of the right gear and the proper attitude. I’m not sure you could enjoy multiple days of camping in rainy weather without a healthy dose of both.

Tony motored on ahead in his canoe, knowing Joe and I would prefer the peace and clean air once his engine was far ahead of us. The Thorofare wound around dense forests of cedar, fir and hemlock growing right to the water’s edge. A great blue heron launched from the shallows ahead, his huge wings slowly whooshing back and forth. Canada geese huddled near the opposite shore as the soft splash our paddles sent us gliding up the stream.

After a while we rounded the last corner and the channel opened out to reveal the expanse of Upper Priest Lake. The dim light of evening illuminated the lush green mountains surrounding the water. There was no sign of Tony. We dug in and paddled hard out into the lake. When paddling it’s fun to alternate between a steady, carefully paced stroke and an all-out sprint. My spirit soared as our boats headed into the open water, and I joyfully raced for all I was worth. After some puzzlement about where Tony could be, Joe spotted a campsite in a little cove to our left. We paddled toward the shore and saw the green canoe pulled up onto a small sandy beach. I drove my boat hard onto the sand and climbed out.

The rain had slowed to a moderate mistiness, making it pleasant to pitch our tents and cook dinner. We set up a tarp that we referred to for the next few days as our “blue sky”. Camp food always tastes great, and this dinner was no exception. I was so tired from all the moving and related sleep deprivation, followed by a few hours of paddling, that I crashed right away and slept all the way to about 8:00 the next morning.

My original plan (if you can call it that) was to paddle around and do some gunkholing that day. I don’t spend nearly enough time in that kayak, and here I had miles of pristine lake shore to explore. Joe talked about hiking the three miles to the top of Plowboy Mountain. I decided that would break up the paddling nicely and let me upper body rest a while, so we decided to do the hike.

The paddle over to the trailhead was the roughest water and the most fun of the entire trip. Strong winds at our backs pushed up some good swells, and at one point I was riding in four-foot waves. I yelled with delight as my boat surfed briefly over a view of them. I love the exhilaration of paddling in big water, watching the whitecaps all around me and feeling the boat rise and fall to the rhythm of the swells. I hope to improve my skills to the point that I can take on the surf along the Oregon coast. I’ve swam and body-boarded in that water many times, but today as I paddled the waves I longed to take a kayak right out into the surf and see the familiar coastline from the outer side.

All too soon the roller-coaster ride was over and we beached our boats at Navigation Campground. Changing from the HydroSkins into dry hiking clothes was chilly for a moment and then felt great. The sun even showed itself for a little while as we started our climb into the forest. The trees were lush and green and there wasn’t another person for miles. We hiked above a deep canyon with a roaring, rushing creek falling all over itself to get to the lake below. We set a fairly easy pace and enjoyed each step of our walk through the moist forest air beneath the great trees. This is truly the way to hike. I’ve been on too many trips with “ego climbers” (see Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) where it’s just a race to the top and you can forget all about the journey. We enjoyed breathing the musty forest air, heard the sounds of water, watched the occasional bird, and admired many wildflowers.

At the top the clouds obscured the waters of the lake far below, but the wind blew the mist aside for a few moments, allowing us to see far out across the lake to the green wilderness beyond. We ate but did not linger, as the cold winds whipped along the ridge, urging us to get back on the trail. The rain returned as we descended and was falling steadily when we reached the boats. Our wish of calm waters was granted, and we were grateful, because paddling against the kind of wind we’d had at our backs that morning would have been grueling. While the others headed straight back to camp, I paddled to the far northwest end of the lake and around the far shore. Before this trip I’d never gotten out into the lake at all, and I wanted to see the whole place. I rested for a while and actually dozed for a few minutes in the middle of the lake, and then started the long paddle back. The wind came up to some degree, making the going harder, but eventually I slid the boat back into the cove and climbed stiffly out of the cockpit.

Once again dinner tasted better than ever. My MaryJane’s Farm Organic Kettle Chili was fabulous. Tony and I gave Joe a hard time about his “Jose’s Chicken Mole”, which sounded nasty and evil to me. But I’ll try anything once, and I decided to try some so that I could heap on more ridicule. To my great surprise, this dehydrated chicken mole stuff was quite good! I’m still not sure I’ll want to order it next time I darken the door of a Mexican restaurant, but I’d eat it again in the woods.

Once again I slept like a log all night as the rain splashed down on the tent. A scout troop arrived at dusk. The other guys said they made a lot of noise, but I never heard them. We ate and broke camp in the rain again, loaded our boats, and heading back out into the lake. Across the lake we checked out a sandy beach with a nice campsite above it. High on a gigantic fir tree we spied a makeshift sign labled “Buccaneer’s Cove”.

We paddled out toward the Thorofare and then back into its serpentine waters. Tony caught two beautiful Mackinaw trout, which he kindly offered me. (They were incredibly delicious a few hours later, skinned and fried in butter.) Joe and I found a little tributary and paddled up a short way. The water there was incredibly clear, even though the surface was speckled with raindrops. The clearness of the water reminded me of pictures of Nootka Sound off the west coast of Vancouver Island, the place at the top of my list of adventure plans. Floating down the Thorofare we made good time, probably too good, and then it was across the lake and back to the car.

As we loaded our boats, a couple came walking by, and the man asked if they could give us a hand unloading. When we explained we were heading back in, not out, and had been there since Thursday, he shook his head and said, “You’re a lot tougher than me.” We didn’t feel all that tough, and we certainly didn’t suffer. Sure we would have enjoyed more sunshine and warmth, but we knew what we were getting into, and I can honestly say that I loved every last minute of it. The paddling, the camping, the forest climb, sleeping in the rain while the Swainson’s Thrushes sang their beautiful spiraling songs in the trees above us—I was in heaven, and I’d gladly sign up for the same trip again in exactly the same marvelous northwest weather.


Annalea said...

What a well-written account. It was like being there. ;o) Thanks for taking the time to write it!

Nitram said...

Wow... reading this post makes me regret not doing any kayaking while I was in Hawaii. Then again, the mere thought of kayaking after wiping out my arm and shoulder muscles learning to surf made me want to cry.

You paint a very lovely picture and make it sound as if you spent a few days in paradise (and I know you aren't far off on that). Thanks for sharing!

Jarodious Badger said...

Vern, I greatly enjoyed reading about your kayaking trip! I wish I could have been there. Don't stop writing. You definitely have talent and I enjoy reading what your write!

Rachel B said...

You're an amazing writer, Vern. Thanks so much for sharing this experience. It sounds wonderful. If only more of life could be like that. I need to get out into nature more, and I'm not talking about my backyard or the street where I live. I miss you and would love to see you guys. I should call you soon. Love you.

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