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Started: 2019-08-24 17:20:42

Submitted: 2019-08-24 23:13:07

Visibility: World-readable

In which the intrepid narrator buys a brand-new Valley Etain touring kayak

I fell into the kayaking rabbit hole last year, and I'm still exploring to see just how deep it goes.

Last year I took a two-day Paddling Strokes and Rescue Techniques class offered by Kayak Academy at Lake Sammamish. This year, as I was trying to figure out whether I wanted to buy my own touring sea kayak (and decided yes, I did, because it'd give me access to more water with less hassle than I could access by renting kayaks), I studied Kayak Academy's sprawling kayak buying guides and was well on my way to having choice anxiety about the huge variety of kayaks (and kayak styles) available when I decided to go ahead and buy the boat I used during my class -- a Valley Etain touring kayak, with a skeg for tracking under windy conditions.

When Kiesa went on a week-long cruise to Alaska I decided to take the end of the week off to buy a kayak and go visit Victoria. I drove to Kayak Academy's shop in Issaquah on Thursday morning; and when I reached the location given to me by Google Maps I found myself on a country road with houses on large lots with no obvious kayak shop in sight, and then I realized that one of the houses was the shop, albeit poorly labeled -- the main shop was in a detached two-car garage, with kayaks wrapped in protective plastic scattered around in the yard in various sheds and an office in the back of the attached garage. The whole thing was charmingly haphazard in a way that suggested a lifestyle business intended to support the proprietor's kayak habit (and also reminded me of the garage and shed in which my father-in-law collected ancient computer hardware).

The first order of business was buying and installing a roof rack so I could carry a kayak on the roof of my car to demo it at the nearby Lake Sammamish. There was a Thule roof rack on the floor of the office, apparently waiting for me; I got help installing it on the roof of my car, and then hoisted a demo Valley Etain 17.5 kayak onto the roof and secured it with straps and drove to Lake Sammamish.

Demo Etain Valley 17.5 kayak on Motoko
Demo Etain Valley 17.5 kayak on Motoko

Actually getting the kayak off the roof of the car and down to the water proved easier said than done. I parked a hundred meters from the boat ramp, not sure if I really should park on the boat ramp to hand-launch a kayak. I figured out that I could lift the 60-pound kayak by myself by turning it up-side-down, sticking my head in the open cockpit, and hold it just above my shoulders, balancing it at its center of mass.

Once I got the boat into the water it handled beautifully. The morning was calm and sunny; I paddled effortlessly into the clear water. I was most interested in the balance and tracking; this was a higher-performance boat than a strictly-entry-level sea kayak with a steering rudder. Most rental sea kayaks I've used had a rudder for steering the boat, but this kayak had a skeg -- a retractable keel sticking out from the bottom of the boat into the water intended only for keeping the boat in a straight line when paddling at an angle to the wind. I had no trouble balancing the boat and paddling in any straight line I wanted, so after a brief outing on the water I returned to shore, wrestled the boat onto my roof rack, and returned to the shop to buy one of my own.

Actually making the purchase took more time (and by that point I was nervously checking my watch to hope that I would make it back to Seattle in time to catch my ferry to Victoria that afternoon). I got to pick my color -- I chose yellow -- then joined the guy assisting me at the shop on a hunt through the various sheds filled with kayaks wrapped in plastic from the factory to find my new boat. We unwrapped the boat, and I picked up one accessory that would be difficult to get elsewhere: a spray skirt modified to fit the cockpit. I still needed a PFD, a paddle, and self-rescue equipment; but I didn't want to take any more time than strictly necessary to make sure I made the ferry in time.

I finished buying my kayak and managed to get back to Seattle and drop it off at the house before heading to Victoria for three days.

I had to wait until I returned from Victoria to take my new kayak out on the water. I went to REI on Sunday and picked up the extra gear I needed: a personal flotation device (PFD, formerly known as a "life jacket"), a kayak paddle, and a safety kit containing a paddle float and bilge pump for self-rescue.

Then I had to find a place to launch my kayak. I loaded my kayak onto my car and drove to Magnuson Park and tried to figure out where I could launch into Lake Washington until the boat ramp attendant pointed me to the Concrete Beach at Magnuson Park -- located in an entirely-different annex of the park, accessed through an entrance gate that still looks like the main gate of the naval air station that used to occupy the land. This beach was intended specifically for hand-launching small boats, with a small parking lot and a loading area where I could drive up and unload my kayak within a few feet of the water.

Valley Etain 17.5 kayak at Magnuson Park Concrete Beach
Valley Etain 17.5 kayak at Magnuson Park Concrete Beach

From the Concrete Beach I paddled out into the fresh water of Lake Washington. I didn't have a specific objective -- I mostly wanted to prove that I could use my kayak -- so I ended up paddling across the water to OO Denny Park in Kirkland, then returning to the beach.

The next piece of gear I acquire was a C-Tug kayak cart so I could wheel my boat to the water -- and then disassemble the cart and stow it in one of my boat's cargo holds. In Wallingford I live close enough to Lake Union that I can walk to the lake while pulling a kayak on a cart -- an idea that didn't occur to me until I saw someone else doing the same thing. I checked Seattle's Shoreline boating access list and confirmed that I could use the Sunnyside Ave N Boat Ramp, a short walk from my house.

I was scheduled to be on-call the next weekend, but my shift didn't start until 10:00, so if I left early I could get in an hour or two of paddling before I needed to be available to respond to any pages. I was ready to wake up early on Saturday to kayak, but when I woke up it was raining, and the rain didn't stop until 10:00 (and then my service was cranky for a few hours so I needed to pay attention to it -- which I did while sitting in the sun on my rooftop deck).

I woke up early on Sunday to find the sky overcast but not raining. I wheeled my kayak down to the boat ramp, which worked fairly well -- though crossing N Pacific Street with a kayak on a cart took more care than just crossing on foot. I had no trouble getting my boat into the water and stowing the cart in a cargo hold. I launched into Lake Union next to a long pier where an assortment of boats were docked, including what looked like yachts and some floating homes.

It was early enough on the morning of a weekend that there was not much traffic on the water. I paddled east, through the ship canal under the Ship Canal Bridge carrying I-5 and into Portage Bay, then continued into the Montlake Cut and into Union Bay. I turned out of the navigation channel into Union Bay, past the UW waterfront activities dock, and into the marshes on the north-west side of the bay. I paddled through the birds in the water, then turned back to return to the boat ramp. The wind picked up as I paddled into Lake Union; I passed a group of paddle boarders having trouble making headway in the wind. I returned to the house with my kayak just as my on-call shift started; and then my pager remained silent for the rest of the day.

I'm still discovering what I can do and where I can go with my kayak, and I expect I'll find places to go on the water.