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  • Radford Bean

Paddling Fun Around Port Townsend

Updated: May 22

Like so many paddlers, I belong to several paddling groups. Last weekend, I had the opportunity to travel to Port Townsend, Washington, with one of those groups to paddle various locations in the Puget Sound and Strait of Juan de Fuca. I had never been to Port Townsend and was pleasantly surprised, not only with the town, but also with the paddling in the area. The four days I was there clearly was insufficient to see and do all I would have liked to accomplish.

I did manage to paddle three locations: from the beach campground at Fort Worden to the ferry terminal in Port Townsend and then up to the Point Wilson Lighthouse, Cline Spit County Park to Dungeness Spit Lighthouse; and Diamond Point to Protection Island. Each had their own unique character, and I would recommend paddling all of them.

Fort Worden to Townsend and Pt. Wilson Lighthouse

I launched from the beach campground at Fort Worden State Park just north of the marine science center and headed southeast along the beach and the bluffs. Weather was ideal for the trip; waves were less than a foot and light winds. The tide was ebbing when I launched just minutes after 3 p.m., so I was paddling against a small current.

As I rounded Pt. Hudson, a fairly long sailing skiff filled with several passengers passed in front of me heading for Point Hudson Marina. Behind it, tied to the city dock in downtown Port Townsend, sat a three-mast schooner; a crowd of people were busy strolling about the ship. The skiff quickly disappeared into the small harbor wherein the marina sat. I paddled up to the schooner to get a much closer look before journeying to the ferry terminal. The Port Townsend to Coupeville ferry had just departed the terminal minutes earlier.

I thought about paddling past the ferry terminal but opted, instead, to reverse my track and head for Pt. Wilson Lighthouse. This time the tidal current worked in my favor. However, I also noticed it was pushing me farther out into the Admiralty Inlet after I rounded Pt. Hudson heading northwest. Conditions in the inlet were still mild and boat traffic light, so I decided to linger farther offshore to investigate the pigeon guillemots that bobbed in the small waves.

Pigeon guillemots are small diving seabirds with black bodies, a white band on each wing, and red feet. They’re very common in the Puget Sound.

When I finally reached Pt. Wilson Lighthouse, the water conditions were such that I contemplated rounding Pt. Wilson and head into the Strait of Juan de Fuca. However, the tide was still ebbing, and tidal rips are commonplace right off the point. Being out in the Sound by myself, I decided the prudent (and safest) thing to do was to stay south of the point. I am confident in my self-rescue skills, but I chose not to tempt fate.

I had paddled a little over five miles and decided to head back to the put-in to join up with others from the paddling group who had arrived at the campground.

Cline Spit County Park to Dungeness Spit Lighthouse

Day two of my visit started with me having to lash down my tent to keep it from blowing away or being destroyed by 30-mph winds. The winds were so strong, they bent a fellow camper's tent pole. Those of us up and feeling hungry had to congregate in the kitchen shelter at the campground because it was just too windy to cook outside.

After eating a hearty breakfast of scrambled eggs, O'Brien potatoes, and sausage, and after the ritualistic routine of washing the morning's dishes, shaving, and brushing my teeth, it was time for those of us planning on paddling out to Dungeness Spit Lighthouse to gather up.

The strong winds were blowing from the south, so we didn't expect them to be a problem on our trip since the Olympic Range would block most of the winds. We drove 38 miles to the put-in at Cline Spit County Park on the outskirts of Sequim. It's a small park with a small boat ramp not suited for launching large boats, which makes it ideal as a kayak launch. The beach on the west side of the ramp is gravel, while the beach on the east side is sand and optimal for launching composite kayaks.

Five of us set out and headed for Dungeness Spit Lighthouse near the tip of spit. Dungeness spit is the longest naturally occurring spit (at 5 miles in length) in the world. Much of it is also off limits to people because it is also a national wildlife refuge.

Hikers can access the lighthouse by walking along the beach on the Strait of Juan de Fuca side of the spit when tides permit. Visitors arriving by kayak must call ahead to make reservations to land, and landing is only permitted on a short stretch of sand between to yellow posts. Paddlers also must remain 200 yards from shore so as not to interfere with seabird nesting that takes place on the spit.

After paddling three miles, we arrived at our destination between those two yellow posts. Two bald eagles perched majestically atop a tall refuge sign greeted us. I had to stop and take several pictures of them.

Diamond Point to Protection Island

Saturday morning after a quick breakfast of hot oatmeal, I set out for the boat launch at Diamond Point for a planned paddle out to Protection Island. I was to meet up with a group of four other paddlers. I arrived at the launch about a half hour earlier than the rest of the group, so I used the time to scope out the water conditions and listen to NOAA's weather channel.

Water conditions looked great from my vantage point, but NOAA was broadcasting that winds were predicted to pick up to 25 knots later in the afternoon, causing three-foot waves. I hoped we would be back by then. When the leader of the paddle arrived, I discussed with him what I had heard. Everyone in the group at least felt comfortable making the crossing. Once we got across to Protection Island, we agreed to evaluate the water and weather conditions before deciding whether or not to go around the island.

With a five-knot wind from the south and a slight flood tide current, conditions were perfect as we made the one-mile crossing. I doubt it took us more than 30 minutes, even with the current, to reach the southern end of the island. Waves were a foot or less, so we all felt confident about circumnavigating the island.

We did have to paddle a little farther from shore to get safely over a sandbar, where we were greeted on the other side by a large group of harbor seals. The seals seemed very curious about us, their coal-black eyes trained on us watching our every move. Several seals popped their heads out of the water within a couple of feet from my kayak, only to plunge quickly underwater with just the slightest splash. Some seemed to follow behind us as we made our way along the northern shore of the island.

High on the island's bluffs and in several of the trees, we could spot bald eagles. Most of the birds we encountered were either seagulls or pigeon guillemots. I had hoped we might see some auklets or puffins, but they were nowhere to be seen.

Because the wind was coming out of the south, the water on the leeward side of Protection Island was very calm except for the light swells. \

Once we rounded the eastern point of the island, we were back in the winds, which at this time were still pretty light. We could see over toward Port Townsend and south over the Olympic Range that a nasty storm was moving in. Threatening dark black and gray clouds draped across the Range, and some even looked as though they might send forth thunder and lightning.

We made it almost back to the launch before the rains started to fall on us. All in all, a very successful and enjoyable trip.

Important information about Protection Island

The small public boat launch in Diamond Point provides the closest access to Protection Island. The launch is nothing more than a narrow road squeezed between two homes on Beach Drive. Paddlers can unload their boats at the launch, but they need to park their vehicles on either the south shoulder of Beach Drive or next to the brick retaining wall bordering the front yard of the home directly in front of the boat launch. It's just a short walk from the boat launch to the water.

It's a one-mile paddle out to the southern side of Protection Island. Paddlers can't go ashore anywhere on the island because it's a wildlife sanctuary and shorebird nesting habitat. They're also required to remain at least 200 years offshore. This means that paddlers might want to use the vault toilet at Miller Peninsula State Park just down the road from Diamond Point before arriving at the boat launch.

Protection Island is home to breeding colonies of rhinoceros auklets and tufted puffins. A fairly large population of harbor seals also hangs out around the island. Paddlers circumnavigating the island are also likely to spot pigeon guillemots, bald eagles and, if they're lucky, whales.

Caution needs to be exercised when paddling around Protection Island. Paddlers need to pay close attention to the weather. Protection Island sits in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and with the exception of the Olympic Range blocking south winds, the western, northern, and eastern sides are unprotected from the winds. Complicating paddling around those sides of the island is shallow water created by Dallas Bank that sits just offshore of the island. Winds blowing from any direction other than the south can cause large waves. There's also a sandbar off the western spit that requires cautiously navigating around depending on the tides and winds.

The Strait of Juan de Fuca is also the major shipping channel for ships heading into and out of Puget Sound and the Strait of Georgia. Those ships can create substantial waves that get amplified as they pass over Dallas Bank. If it's also windy, then paddlers could have a recipe for capsize if they're unfamiliar with paddling in rough water.

A Little About Admiralty Inlet, Fort Worden, and the Campground

Admiralty Inlet—the entrance to Puget Sound— lies between the Olympic Peninsula and Whidbey Island and serves as the main shipping channel for tankers, container ships, and passenger ships entering the Puget Sound on their way to Seattle and Tacoma. It’s a busy passageway. It’s also the main thoroughfare for orcas and humpback whales into Puget Sound. Winds, especially out of the north or south, can be a problem on Admiralty Inlet and the Puget Sound because of the large fetch. Paddlers should pay close attention to weather reports and carry a marine radio. An experienced kayaker capsized just off Pt. Wilson a couple of years ago and had to be rescued.

Fort Worden is a rather large state park that sits at the northeast tip of the Olympic Peninsula and at the mouth of Admiralty Inlet. The fort, established in 1902, served as a military base until the military decommissioned it in 1953. Remnants of the gun batteries that faced out into the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Puget Sound remain. The gun batteries once housed several large guns that were only fired during military training. Most of the gun batteries are a short but rather steep climb up Artillery Hill. Forests surround most of the gun batteries, blocking any views of either the Strait of Juan de Fuca or Puget Sound. The gun batteries are fascinating to explore, with many dark alcoves and passageways. However, visitors must exercise caution when exploring because many of the steps lack handrails, and the structures drop off suddenly.

The other highlight of the expansive park is the remaining 100 historic buildings that once served as enlisted men’s barracks, officers’ quarters, supply depots, and other military functions. Many now function as museums, colleges, lodgings, and restaurants.

There are several trails throughout the park that visitors can hike or bike—on some trails, cyclists are required to walk your bike.

There are two campgrounds in the park, one situated near the beach and the other in the forest near the center of the fort. The sites at the beach are mostly in the open and grassy, but they are large, and each will accommodate an RV. The sites in the forested campground are bordered by evergreen trees, also fairly large, and will accommodate RVs. Everyone staying at one of the campgrounds must check in at the Commons upon arrival. There is a $10/day fee for extra vehicles.

Point Wilson Lighthouse sits on the tip of the state park and serves to safely guide maritime traffic into Puget Sound. The lighthouse has been closed to visitors since the Coast Guard automated the lighthouse, but people can still get up close to it.

There is a small marine science center next to the beach campground. Admission is $5. Also situated near the beach campground is a small canteen where campers and anyone visiting the beach can buy groceries.

Visitors to Fort Worden must purchase a Discover Pass for $10/day or $30/year. The pass is available at several pay stations throughout the park, usually near major attractions.

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