Chuckanut Bay is a kayaker’s lazy dream
Unique scenery and a visit to a quiet island make for an enchanting day on the water.
Seattle Times staff reporter
If you go
To get to the boat launch at Wildcat Cove, drive from the south on Chuckanut Drive toward Bellingham. The boat launch is on Cove Road, about a quarter mile north of the main entrance to Larrabee State Park. Discover Pass required to park.
The bay gets strong winds and the water can be rough. It can be dangerous for a novice paddler or if you have a flimsy kayak. It’s highly recommended that you use a kayak guide and/or rent a sturdy kayak.
• Moondance Sea Kayak Adventures, half-day paddle from Wildcat Cove: $65; 360-738-7664 or moondancekayak.com.
• Salish Sea Kayak School, 888-858-8411 or www.salishseakayakschool.com.
Learn more about Larrabee State Park: parks.wa.gov
Northwest travel guides
BELLINGHAM — I’m a reformed East Coast tailgater, though still an impatient driver at heart. I don’t go at what you would call “Driving Miss Daisy” speed.
But Chuckanut Drive? It can slow me down like no speed bump or speed-limit sign can.
Those peek-a-boo views you see — of Lummi Island, of the crystal blue water and the amber backdrop at sunset. I inch along the cliffside road and gawk when there’s no car in my rearview mirror.
A beautiful drive, yes, but I couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to be down on that water instead of looking down at it.
So it was with much excitement that I found myself on a kayak off Larrabee State Park one recent morning, paddling parallel to that scenic Chuckanut Drive.
My guided group launched at Wildcat Cove, with the San Juan Islands to our west still sleepy under a fog.
We started under an ash sky morning and ended up under an eye squintingly bright afternoon, the water so clear and low we could see Dungeness crabs hiding in the eelgrass.
The best treks, they relax and invigorate. They reveal all the natural wonders you had expected but also surprise you. And they have sun, because you can never get enough of that in Western Washington.
Chuckanut Bay gave me all that.
I’ve been around this water off Chuckanut Drive before, in piecemeal. I’ve watched windsurfers illegally launched south of Clayton Beach, and I damned near fell in, the water splashing so hard against the slippery rocks.
I’ve kayaked at night on Bellingham Bay, at the north end of Chuckanut Drive. There, the bay roars with motorboats that rock your kayak in their wakes.
But south of Bellingham, around Milepost 14 of the 21-mile Chuckanut Drive, that’s where I wanted to be. That’s where you would want to be.
From the roadside, between the trees, the cove teases, baring a shoulder of blue water here, a midriff of cliff there. But out on the kayak, the view is unobstructed, panoramic. The water — wrinkled and beautiful — sparkles like soda cans on the roadside.
It’s quiet here, off Wildcat Cove, with none of the touristy kayak traffic like you’ll find in the San Juans. There’s parking, a restroom and a launch area. And if you are a novice paddler, you can kayak along the bank to avoid strong wind gusts.
We paddled toward Chuckanut Island, my sea kayak guides and I, circling the famed Whiskey Rock, where rum runners purportedly hid booze from authorities during Prohibition. “I’ve yet to find any. Trust me, I’ve looked,” quipped guide Kristi Kucera. Instead, we found a handful of harbor seals sunbathing there.
Behind them was the most unusual landscape I’ve encountered in all my years of hiking and kayaking around Western Washington.
We paddled closer to get a glimpse. The cliffs were covered with golfball-size cavities. “Honeycomb Formations,” the locals call it.
The saltwater eats into the sandstone and over time algae colonize those holes and coat them to prevent further cracking, leaving honeycomb patterns.
“The Chuckanut coastline has some of the most spectacular honeycomb weathering in the world,” says Bellingham geologist George Mustoe.
It’s a must see: an odd, brown, barren landscape, made odder juxtaposed with the lush Douglas fir forest. It’s as if Mother Nature had plopped the Mojave Desert between a conifer forest and the Sound.
My guide told me to look at the diving bald eagle snatching prey out of the water. But my eyes were glued to the honeycomb patterns.
Look at the rows of purple sea stars suctioned to the rocks, the oystercatchers on shore. I didn’t bite.
Two miles further north, to Chuckanut Island, we kayaked. We didn’t paddle that hard, and after a while, we didn’t paddle at all, content to just float and watch the gulls hovering above.
I squinted to see Lummi Island to my west, Cypress Island behind me.
Slow time. Hardly anyone out. We could see but not hear what looked like tiny cars on Chuckanut Drive.
We stopped on Chuckanut Island. It doesn’t take long to hike around this five-acre preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy. The trail isn’t maintained, so you have to brush back the salmonberry and huckleberry bushes with your hands to get through the narrow, dirt path.
We cut through the island and walked along the edge of the cliff on the eastern front. Fifteen feet below, bright red-footed pigeon guillemots paddled around the sandy patches.
We watched them. We snacked. We rested. We were in no rush to race back to Chuckanut Drive.