Sunset tour

  • By Linda Lumsden / Special to The Herald
  • Friday, July 30, 2004 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

The sun is a plump dandelion just beginning to droop when guide Lanie Mason returns her afternoon kayak group to the Crystal Seas Kayaking dock on the Edmonds waterfront.

Everett resident Jo Harris clambers out of the sleek touring craft she shares with a friend. She had never been in a kayak anywhere when her best friend from Tennessee came calling in July. The Pine Street homemaker and ice hockey player can’t even swim.

Harris was casting about for ideas on how to show off the area’s natural splendors when it struck her that a sea kayak cockpit was the perfect vessel for drinking in Snohomish County’s heady panorama of water and mountains.

So, like the proverbial New Yorker who never climbs the Empire State Building until nudged by out-of-town guests, Harris finally experienced one of the most sublime ways to enjoy the great outdoors right in her own backyard.

“I loved it,” she says.

Harris saw seals and jellyfish. She showed off the Cascade and Olympic ranges with a mere twist of her head. She felt safe. “Serenity” was the word she chose to sum up her maiden kayak voyage, even though frisky winds and ferry traffic unexpectedly delayed the group’s return from the three-hour tour.

Serenity is exactly what guide Mason shoots for when she takes people out on the water. Most have never kayaked, she said as she scrambled to ready two double kayaks to take three more customers out for a sunset tour. Many live nearby.

“If you’re looking for an easy way to get out of the city, this is it,” Mason says. “When you float on the water, the stress just goes away.”

Relaxation is a fairly new concept for the 34-year-old Bothell resident, who was the 2001 and 2002 women’s masters world champion in mountain bike racing. When Mason retired last year after five grueling years on the international circuit, she sought an outdoors job on the water. A romantic reconnection with an old friend steered her from her Arizona home back to her native Washington. When kayak season ends, she’ll strap on snowshoes and head for the mountains.

Cascade Crags 2820 Rucker St. Everett, WA 98201 425-258-3431

* Cascade Guiding Services, LLC 18701 Snohomish Ave. Snohomish, WA 98296 306-346-9302 www.cascadeguide.com

* Crystal Seas Kayaking Kiosk at Port of Edmonds, just north of Anthony’s restaurant Or P.O. Box 3135 Friday Harbor, WA 98250 877-732-7877 or 360-378-4223 www.crystalseas.com

* Popeye’s Marine &Kayak Center 814 13th St. Everett, WA 98201 425-339-9479

The sun casts diamonds on the water’s dark velvet by the time Mason begins the sunset tour. She starts as always, stuffing customers into life jackets tight as corsets and showing them how to step into the ungainly spray skirts that hang from suspenders like punk ballet costumes.

Next comes a brief lesson in efficient paddling – push more than pull, rely on abdominal muscles instead of shoulders, take longer rather than shorter strokes – and adjustments to the foot pedals by which paddlers control the rudder.

Finally, Mason recites the obligatory mantra about what to do in case of the unthinkable, capsizing: “Keep calm, stay by your boat and wait for me.” She has yet to fish any customers out of the Sound in her two-month kayak guide career but promises to plunk paddlers back in their boats in under three minutes.

Stealing out of the marina, the kayaks’ low profile barely a foot above water mocks the moored powerboats’ linebacker-sized motors and the snooty sailboats’ tall masts as the kayaks glide by, slick and unassuming as a pair of otters.

The biggest difference between kayaks and their gas-guzzling cousins and wind-addicted big sisters is that kayaks are designed to be as unobtrusive as possible. They blend with nature; the best rides make their skippers one with the water. Sometimes a kayaker will fall asleep in bed after a day of paddling still mentally rocking to the boat’s rhythmic lapping motion.

The boats’ silence and nonthreatening appearance let paddlers get close to birds and animals. As they need so little water to float, kayaks can hug shorelines. Paddling a kayak can be like taking a nature walk on water.

Or it can be as strenuous as three sets around a universal gym. Speed up the pace and paddling ranks as a mid-level aerobic workout that supposedly, if strokes are executed properly by using the abdominal muscles, can trim tummies.

Another happy surprise about touring kayaks – not to be confused with stunted, tipsy whitewater kayaks often photographed diving kamikaze-like over waterfalls – is how stable they are. Doubles are practically impossible to tip over. And kayaks generally move faster and turn easier than canoes.

Mason advertises none of these practical advantages as the party paddles north up the coast. She is more interested in telling the kayakers about the Lilliputian colonies of tens of thousands of kelp-encrusting bryozoans that make their home in bull kelp.

Mason holds a crepe-paper-like strand of the gelatinous green plant up to the sinking orange sun to illuminate the shining city of invertebrates it shelters. The onion-like bulb near the end of the kelp is full of gases, she explains, to keep the kelp afloat so the sun can fuel its photosynthesis. American Indians cut the bulbs in half to use as drinking cups. They pickled and ate the nutrient-rich kelp.

These are among the bio-nerd fun facts Mason relates throughout the tour. Others delve into the geological soap opera roiling beneath Puget Sound, the pigeon Guillemont’s fishing prowess and the absence of orcas off Edmonds since increased boat traffic and noise have chased them away. Occasional horn blasts from the M/V Walla Walla ferry and the wail of the Amtrak train whistle wail punctuate her point.

In contrast, the only sound the kayaks make is the slight slap as their bows hit the water. Seagulls skitter against a Windex sky streaked by clouds. The water is smooth as silk as Mason begins the return trip a couple of miles back to the marina.

The sun pauses behind the Olympic Mountains before speeding up its descent, nature’s version of the ball dropping in Times Square on New Year’s Eve. Mason and her kayak partner, an amiable teenage boy visiting from landlocked Kentucky, form a lyrical silhouette as they paddle in tandem against the saw-toothed peaks taking their last bite of the sun.

The light show swirls into high gear after the sun disappears. The sky oozes pink and gold, orange and purple, refracted by the molten sea. The Impressionist masterpiece fully deserves all the cliched accolades it inspires.

One paddler says, “It just keeps getting better.”

The kayak business likewise keeps getting better for San Juan Islands native Johannes Krieger. He founded Crystal Seas Kayaking in Friday Harbor in 1993 to concoct the perfect summer job: making money while barely having to leave his kayak. His wife of eight months, Angie Krieger, has been helping run the expanding business the past four years. Besides Washington, the couple operates kayak tours in the Florida Keys and Everglades, Maine and Costa Rica.

“It’s a great way to introduce people to kayaking and show them they really don’t have to leave their own backyard to enjoy it,” he said of the Edmonds tours, which are in their third season. “It’s a great way to exercise, check out nature – and relax.”

The curtain falls on the evening’s show as Mason bids her customers good night back at the dock. It is nearly dark as she locks up the paddles and kayaks. She’ll be back with the sun tomorrow.

Linda Lumsden is a journalism professor at Western Kentucky University. She spent a six-week fellowship on staff at The Herald.

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