I MOVED TO this city grossly out of shape. Dead cells swelled in bulbous fruits underneath my painfully tight baby blue XL sweatsuit. Masses of crusting fly carcasses had skeletalized into stalactites and the smell was—OK, it wasn't that bad, but I was definitely in need of some "fresh air."
I dislike people, and I certainly dislike marinating myself in pools of their discarded sweat, so the gym wasn't an option. A migrating whale could drive an SUV better than the motards who tool around Seattle, so no bikes. Whenever I jog, cell phones alert 911 operators of "criminal fleeing on foot." Karate uniforms stink, ballroom dancing makes my bone marrow hurt, team sports require (shudder) cooperation, and hot-wing eating contests aren't really exercise.
Then, after an afternoon of hustling little kids in air hockey at Jillian's on Lake Union, I saw some old folks kayaking around the lake. "Shoot," I figured, "if those fossils can swing it, so can I." Ignoring stares from the people who heard me talking to myself, I wandered over to Moss Bay Rowing Center. A life jacket and a paddle later, I was bobbing in the middle of Lake Union, staring back at the city, suddenly finding new strength in prayer as a 300-foot Argosy Cruiser passed within feet of me. And thus started my kayaking obsession.
Kayaking is the best. Relaxing when you need relaxing, an escape when apartment walls are shrinking in on you, and an ass-kicking workout if that's your deal. And if, like me, you sit on your butt complaining all day, to suddenly be out with pelting rain and biting winds grinding down your face and a lake temperature hanging out at 43 degrees adds a nice element of danger to your day beyond the curdled cream of a renegade latte. When you're two miles from dock with two numb arms, there's no such thing as getting out and walking home.
However, as long as it's a calm day, you don't need to be in shape to cruise the lake for an hour. I've even seen some rock musicians doing it—so you know it's easy. Climb in. Adjust the foot pedals. Steer with your feet. Windmill the double-bladed paddle with your arms. Congrats. You're now a professional kayaker.
Trips around Lake Union
Note: I get my kayak fix from Moss Bay Rowing Center at the bottom of Lake Union, so all trips start from the northernmost urinal of the Fridays bathroom.
You've had a robust day providing business-to-business solutions for dynamic media applications and now have only an hour before Father Dowling Mysteries comes on. A lap around the buoy underneath the University Bridge should run you about 45 minutes, plus you get to gawk through the windows of bordering houseboats.
Go to Lake Washington, underneath the University Bridge, and bear left. You'll pass UW, the Arboretum, and some suspicious swamps, then challenge the rapids of the Montlake Cut which, on a busy Saturday, can throw a few short-soiling moments into the mix. Time it to hit the wake of a 40-foot yacht and thank me when you get out of the hospital. This trip lasts between two and three hours.
Those with a few more hours to kill should take a trip to the Ballard Locks. Go west at Gas Works Park and then straight until you can't. Scores of huge old boats with names like Nordic Fury greet you along the way. Just don't get sucked into the Locks; you'll have to wait an hour to come back, trust me. The trip should take three hours, depending on whether you get sucked into the Locks.
And for the really dumb, kayak to Kirkland—six hours round trip from the tip of Lake Union. Lots of open water gives you the opportunity to enjoy freak storms, get bisected by speedboats, and watch your arms turn black and fall off from exhaustion.
Stick to the sides of the lake. You'll be low on the water, and a sunburned jackass from Redmond with a six-pack in his tummy and a boat bigger than your apartment is an embarrassing executioner. Keep an eye out for big boats coming in and out of their parking spots. Arguing your right of way is pretty hard from the bottom of the lake. Get a flashing red bike light if you're going out at night.
A light rain can be really nice if the temperature is above 55; it's the wind that will kill you. Not only does it blow you around and make it harder to move forward, it'll stir up the whitecaps, which are fun, but harder to paddle through and can dump you if you're caught off balance. The more tired you are, the more likely you're going to misjudge a wave and blow it. Check wind conditions on the Internet (try www.accuweather.com) before you go. Wind speeds up to 15mph are doable by beginners; anything beyond that increases the difficulty. Twenty-five-plus mph isn't very fun and should generally be avoided.
Keep an eye on wind direction. If the wind's at your back on the way out, it'll be in your face on the way home. Wind in your face + tired paddling = you moving backwards. Flags on moored boats will help you judge direction.
And, if you can't be safe, at least be cute.
Lake Union Kayak Rentals
Moss Bay Rowing Center
1001 Fairview N, #1900, 682-2031
Northwest Outdoor Center
2100 Westlake N, Ste 1, 281-9694
$10/hour, $15/doubles (discounts for multiple hours)
Agua Verde Paddle Club & Cafe
1303 NE Boat, 545-8570
$10/hour, $15 for doubles, $4.50 for margaritas!
Paddle—Try going far without one of these.
Life Jacket—Very handy for those prone to drowning.
Spray Skirt—As sexy as it sounds, it connects your waist to the kayak and saves you from a wet crotch, unless you're prone to boating "accidents."
Paddle Float—If you fall out, blow this thing up and slip it on the end of your paddle to brace yourself getting back in. Or throw it at a passing boat and beg them to tow you to shore.
Bailing Pump—Great way to clean spilled beer out of the bottom of your kayak or to save your life if the boat starts taking on too much water.
Water Bottle—It's hard work out there!
Waterproof Jacket—Only really necessary for high winds, rain, or temps below 45. Otherwise, you'll get really hot.
Fish Burrito—This is if you run into me on the lake. Extra jalapenos, please!