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Originally published Saturday, February 23, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Lummi Island to add kayak launch

Hale Passage can be a daunting and dangerous waterway for kayakers trying to paddle to Lummi Island. Wind and tricky currents work together...

Hale Passage can be a daunting and dangerous waterway for kayakers trying to paddle to Lummi Island. Wind and tricky currents work together to whip up waves as tall as 6 feet — seemingly out of nowhere.

"It's a very difficult paddle across," says Tom Barrett, a Bellingham resident and kayaker of 10 years. "It's a risk most kayakers would not take."

They won't have to come summer, when a new public kayak launch will be created on the north side of the Lummi Island ferry dock.

It will be 3 feet wide and up to 110 feet long, and it will be made of crushed gravel and run from the ferry parking area to the shoreline. It will cost less than $5,000 to build.

On paper, it's a small project.

Not so to paddlers.

"It's a big deal for kayakers," says Jennifer Hahn, a Bellingham resident and longtime kayak guide who worked with Barrett to push for the launch.

"It's neat to see the enthusiasm," says Lynne Givler, parks operations manager for Whatcom County Parks and Recreation Department.

Givler announced last week that the project is a go, after 1 ½ years of effort spearheaded by Barrett. He is a member of the Whatcom Association of Kayak Enthusiasts (WAKE).

Currently, the only public launch on Lummi Island is the Department of Natural Resources site near Inati Bay, for which WAKE acts as steward. But that one can't be accessed by vehicle.

That means kayakers either have to know someone living on Lummi Island who is willing to let them launch from their private beachfront, or, in instances that upset private landowners, launch without permission. The other option is to brave Hale Passage.

"There are fluke conditions that can happen in Hale Passage," says Hahn, referring to nasty chop and swells that catch kayakers who paddled in under calm conditions just hours earlier by surprise.

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"Fishermen have known about this for a long time. It's dangerous local waters," she says.

As part of the project, two existing parking spots near the start of the new launch path will be set aside for kayakers dropping off and picking up their gear.

Public launches are becoming rare in the San Juans and British Columbia as increasing development and fish farms eat up available beachfront, liability issues force closures of existing sites and decreasing public funding threatens the sites out there now, according to Hahn.

That's why this new launch site on Lummi Island is a big deal, Hahn says.

Plus, private landowners should be happy with organizers' plans to educate paddlers about the new site. And Lummi Island businesses might see more kayakers stopping over to eat or stay in their bed-and-breakfast inns.

"The beauties of paddling around Lummi Island are incredible," Barrett says, "and we could open that up for a lot of people."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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