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Originally published August 16, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified August 16, 2007 at 12:34 PM

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Kayaking the lazy backwaters of Silver Lake

We'd been paddling for about 90 minutes exploring the nooks and crannies of Silver Lake, down near Mount St. Helens, when it looked like...

Special to The Seattle Times

Summer paddling

Paddling Silver Lake

To get to Silver Lake in Cowlitz County, follow Interstate 5 south to Exit 49 outside Castle Rock. Follow Highway 504 (Spirit Lake Highway) east for about 8 miles to Kerr Road. Turn right toward the lake and follow for about a half-mile to a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife boat launch. To park here, users must display a Washington Vehicle Use Permit issued by the Fish and Wildlife agency. Decals cost $10.95 (free with hunting and fishing licenses). More info: http://wdfw.wa.gov/wlm/vup/.

Guidebook

"Canoe and Kayak Routes of Northwest Oregon and Southwest Washington," 3rd Edition, by Philip Jones (The Mountaineers Books, $16.95).

Finding an outing

If you want to sample the slow life on a leisurely paddle outing, try running a river or maybe race or surf in paddle craft, get in touch with one of these paddling clubs:

Seattle Sea Kayak Club, Seattle: www.seattlekayak.org

Paddle Trails Canoe Club, Seattle: www.ptccweb.com

Seattle Canoe and Kayak Club, Seattle: www.scn.org/rec/sckc

Washington Kayak Club, Seattle: www.washingtonkayakclub.org

Whatcom Association of Kayak Enthusiasts, Bellingham: www.wakekayak.com

Southwest Washington Canoe Club, Kelso: www.resourcehelp.com/sw.htm

Get ski and boarding conditions all winter long with webcams, snow alerts and more at seattletimes.com/snowsports

We'd been paddling for about 90 minutes exploring the nooks and crannies of Silver Lake, down near Mount St. Helens, when it looked like we'd run out of nooks. Crannies, too.

The open water suddenly wasn't so open anymore; it had taken a turn for the solid. Become an impenetrable mass of scratchy shrubs, dense, grassy clumps and small trees whose branches looked like they were itching to reach out and flick the sunglasses off our noses.

The kibosh had been put on our forward progress.

At the head of our flotilla of seven kayaks, Vancouver's Dennis Pennell, not one to give up, poked the nose of his aqua-colored kayak into the closest thing that could be considered nook- or cranny-like. It was more like a narrow slot of water, overhung with branches and limbs, and not much wider than the 22-inch deck of his boat.

"This looks like a good place for a short paddle," Pennell said in his North Carolina drawl, as the front half of his kayak, then his body, then his whole boat slipped through the slot and disappeared.

"I'll see how far I can get," called Pennell's disembodied voice. (Or, were this some bizarre Monty Python universe, a talking shrubbery with drawn-out diphthongs.)

There were eight of us on this Sunday-morning paddle. A Corps of Discovery gathered together by Portland paddling guidebook author and attorney Philip Jones. We were kayaking the eastern reaches of Silver Lake searching for something that Jones had long been intrigued by.

"There's a secret little canal that people have told me about that leads to these two little ponds that are supposed to be really hard to find," Jones had told us in our parking-lot prepaddle meeting.

He had given each of us maps that showed the ponds on either side of something called Hemlock Creek. It looked like once we found the creek, we'd have it made. Except that when we found Hemlock and followed it for a bit, it appeared to resolve itself into this shrubby, scrubby, solid land.

"Come on through; it's clear," Pennell's voice called.

Wait a second. Maybe it hadn't.

Rocky start

One by one, we maneuvered our kayaks though an opening not much wider than our shoulders. Brushed by grasses, poked and prodded by limbs and branches, we pushed on through, and after about 50 yards regained a 25-yard-wide finger of peaceful, hardly moving Hemlock Creek.

On the water's surface, a layer of Frisbee-sized lily pads stretched out in all directions, the stalks of their yellow flowers poking up like periscopes from the depths, checking us out. A red-winged blackbird struggled to maintain its purchase on a gently swaying cattail, and a great blue heron loped on its long legs through the marshy shallows. Overhead, an osprey circled as if considering the buffet below.

"Kayaking is everything I thought it would be," Chris Ohland of Beaverton, Ore., told me. This was only his third time paddling, but already he knew he'd landed an avocation for life.

"It's really good exercise, and I love the peace and solitude and quiet."

Right about then, Robert Plant wailed:

"Hey, hey, mama, said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove-oove-oove-oove."

Which was followed by Jimmy Page's trademark baseball-bat-to-the-teeth guitar riff.

Paddling around a bend, we came upon a couple of fishermen in a metal boat who were casting their lines into the water while a boom box blasted the song stylings of Led Zeppelin. (That was "Black Dog," by the way.) Though not an angler myself, I had the impression that most liked to do their fishing in early morning and in as quiet a manner as possible so as not to scare away the fish. And indeed, the five or six fishermen we'd come across to this point were doing exactly that.

"Maybe they're fishing for rock bass," Pennell suggested.

Lost water, found friends

We'd set out on our excursion that morning from the boat-launch area off Kerr Road near the Spirit Lake Highway at the northeast end of Silver Lake. After putting in, our seven boats headed north, staying close to shore, which is where Jones likes to paddle.

"Silver Lake has some weird little islands that are fun to explore," said Jones, whose third edition of "Canoe and Kayak Routes of Northwest Oregon and Southwest Washington" (The Mountaineers Books) hit stores last February.

"I like paddling close in and checking things out — the vegetation, the birds, the bullfrogs and all the wildlife. There's a real aesthetic feel to it."

Before searching for Hemlock Creek and the mystery ponds, we explored a channel that cut through a residential area — lots of backyard nautical-themed tchotchkes — and passed by something called Goat Island, on which, oddly enough, we actually saw two goats. I quickly checked my map, hoping that next we'd be coming upon Free Money for All Island.

We paddled past Indian Island (no Indians, just a lot of trees and underbrush) and resumed our search for Hemlock Creek, which we found hidden among the acres and acres of lily pads. Up Hemlock Creek, not far past the Led Zeppelin-inspired anglers, our map showed that we should just about be coming upon the mystery ponds.

"We're looking for an opening, so keep a sharp eye, everyone," Jones said.

But all we saw were solid creek banks — trees, shrubs and land with nary an opening anywhere. Pennell paddled ahead to a fisherman passing the day on a small boat not much bigger than the chair he was sitting on, and found out why.

"He said the lakes don't exist anymore," Pennell told us when he returned. "They dried up years ago when they put a dam in."

No matter. It was time for lunch anyway, and just ahead was dry land — a culvert under a gravel road — and a place we could get out, stretch our legs a bit and eat.

Most of our group of eight was from the greater Portland area, but most had never met each other before today. We were together now only through the magic of area canoe and kayak clubs' listservs. Jones posted his invitation on Wednesday and by Sunday had six new paddling friends. (He and Pennell had kayaked together before.)

"One of the best reasons for doing this with a group of other people is safety," Ohland said. "You don't want to be out here by yourself if something goes wrong."

As we ate, we were entertained by the soarings and swoopings of a bald eagle that looked like it was undecided whether it wanted to fly or stay put in a tree. As if it were looking for something that it could've sworn was right here.

Perhaps, like us, the eagle was looking for the mystery ponds.

Mike McQuaide is a Bellingham freelance writer and author of "Day Hike! Central Cascades" and "Day Hike! North Cascades" (Sasquatch Books). Contact: mikemcquaide@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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