Salmon Kayak Tours – the Rollercoaster Ride


I promised myself I wouldn’t check the weather until the morning, but just before going to bed I broke and checked the hourly weather prediction for the next day.

Rain, 18 mph winds at noon coming from the SSW were the predictions. Exactly wrong for my scheduled Salmon Kayak Tour. I groaned out loud and cussed, making my dog look at me with worried eyes.

This would’ve been a frustrating weather prediction for any of the many tours I lead for the Olympic Outdoor Center and, but this particular tour would be especially painful to cancel.

This tour was the culmination of all the outreach I’ve done over the last two months for these tours…press releases, posts, Facebook posts, e-newsletters, fliers, meetings, events and discounts offered to environmental and outdoor organization volunteers. All in all, hours upon hours of outreach. If we didn’t make enough money in these tours, I may not have work through the winter, so the pressure was on.

25 people were registered for the tour, more than I’d ever had at this location, and there were nine others on the guest list. Included on this list were a reporter from Evening Magazine, a King 5 TV editor and videographer, two staff from Visit Kitsap Peninsula and a well-known Suquamish Tribe fisheries biologist who is one of my local heroes.

In addition, I had three other guides, my boss (the owner and founder of the Olympic Outdoor Center/ and as many standup paddleboarders as my co-worker Forrest could gather (to provide better visuals for the Evening Magazine story).

Needless to say, this tour was larger than just the number of people registered.

I went to bed dreading the numerous cancelation phone calls I’d be making in the morning. I had nightmares about enormous groups of people wanting to go paddling as I stood fretting on the side of gigantic, broiling brown rivers.

The next morning I got out of bed at 5:30 with a heavy heart. I made myself wait until after breakfast and a cup of coffee to check the weather report again.

When I finally did check, my heart leapt – winds 6 mph from the east at noon! It felt like I hadn’t really awoken, that I was dreaming of the perfect scenario for the tour.

I giggled like a little girl when, during my morning walk with my dog, Cricket, I realized there wasn’t a breath of wind and there was a blue sky emerging from the dark!

No phone calls needed to be made, no cancelations would be happening.

So now the nervousness set it – Evening Magazine and all these people on a Salmon Kayak Tour in little Grover’s Creek! This was going to be a busy day.

I grabbed the van and trailer, the gear and this photo before heading to meet the other guides:

A private moment of peace before the tour

A private moment of peace before the tour

The guides and I were a flurry of motion as we unloaded and prepared 21 kayaks, 50 lifejackets and paddles, 35 spray skirts and two pounds of smoked salmon.

We each stopped occasionally to look out over the perfectly calm water and utter reverent thoughts about the purrrfect weather. How did we get so lucky?!

Before heading to the Grover Creek Salmon Hatchery where the guests would be meeting us, the reporter from Evening Magazine, Anne Erickson, clipped a tiny microphone to my jacket collar. I said I was going to pretend it wasn’t there so I wouldn’t be nervous, then immediately forgot it was there.

This was just another tour, I had done at least 50 before, and the only difference was that this one was going to be the best ever. That’s what I told myself in my last moments alone on my short drive to the hatchery.

The guests broke a record that morning – everyone was there before 10:00 starting time. I whooped for joy and gathered everyone at the salmon pond to start the day.

During introductions, two brothers said they’d flown in from Arizona for this tour, husbands thanked their wives for telling them about the tour, and I did an inward happy jig as everyone told the group their names, how they heard about the tour and what their paddling experience was (from “never paddled before” to “white water rafting”).

After I explained what the hatchery did and a bit about the salmon life cycle, I turned the discussion over to Paul Dorn, fisheries biologist extraordinaire. Paul helped me put together the flow of Salmon Kayak Tours, he built hatchery we all were visiting, he has been a very involved fisheries biologist for the Suquamish Tribe for over 30 years, and he volunteers his time for these tours.

I personally believe Paul deserves a medal of honor, and the environmental equivalent of the Nobel Peach Prize for his lifetime of important work.

Anyhow, Paul made everyone (including me) ooh and ah as he held up Chum Salmon for everyone to see. As he explained all the interesting, sometimes awe-inspring things about northwest salmon, his intern, Jill, held up another Chum to show us sea lice. A few people touched the large, wriggling fish, many asked questions of Paul, all of which he answered in detail.

This dynamic duo then caught more salmon in the fish ladder and Jill made everyone laugh when a huge salmon put it’s head on her shoulder. A few of us mentioned our sadness at how this salmon was near the end of it’s life, but it was an amazing sight:

Jill holding a large male Chum salmon

Jill holding a large male Chum salmon

From the fish ladder, Mike Huff, the hatchery manager, led us through the hatchery to the eggs and salmon fry (why are baby salmon called that?), letting people touch the eggs and see the fry with their large middles bulging.

Freshly harvested Chum Salmon eggs

Freshly harvested Chum Salmon eggs

Mike Huff (upper left corner) explains how they take care of young salmon

Mike Huff (upper left corner) explains how the hatchery raises, takes care of, then releases young salmon

From the hatchery, John (my boss and OOC’s owner and founder), shuttled everyone to the boat launch the gear and boats were waiting. Everyone was fitted in their kayaks, got outfitted and received a short paddling lesson. I always love seeing everyone spread out on land, outfitted and practicing their strokes!

Paddling lesson with Miller Bay in the background

Me leading a paddling lesson with Miller Bay in the background (I’m the one with the hat on and long hair)

Finally, it was time to launch. As much as I love tours with ten or less people in which I really get to know everyone, I also love larger tours…because I get to launch first and hang out while the other guides launch everyone! Is that evil?

It’s a goal of mine to keep everyone’s feet dry on these tours, so we hold each kayak as paddlers get in and out on land. Then the guides carefully push the boats onto the water and pull them in after the tour.

The highly angular keel of the double kayaks we use make this process a bit like a rollercoaster ride for kayakers, especially if it’s their first time. The process is no small task for me at 125 pounds – the boats weigh about 100 pounds and the paddlers add another 300+ pounds!

I have yet to tip anyone though, and I think we’ve managed to keep 99% of all the feet dry.

Before the kayakers launched, the standup paddleboarders (SUPers) hopped on the water with their sleek boards. Olive the Dog hopped on her owner’s board and they were off to paddle around Miller Bay in search of jumping salmon.


Nick and Dave, Stylish SUPers

Olive the Dog SUPn with her owner, Heather

Olive the Dog SUPn with her owner, Heather

Once everyone was on the water, we started paddling towards Grover’s Creek at the north end of Miller Bay, where I’ve seen salmon jumping on every tour so far this season. Paul had cautioned me that I may not see any this week, but I was working hard to think positive – after all, a salmon kayak tour with no jumping salmon isn’t really a salmon kayak tour, is it?

I didn’t see splashes from afar, as I usually do, and I was trying to just be ok with the idea of not seeing any, but I knew their absence might blow our Evening Magazine story.

So, as I chatted to my paddling neighbors, I secretly and constantly scanned the horizon for splashes.

Nothing, nothing, nothing.

And then…

“Woo-hoo!” and “Did you see that?!” were escaping from my mouth as salmon jumped and splashed near shore. I looked around and was happy to learn I wasn’t the only one seeing them jump (this has happened and it stinks!).

Our guide, Will, quickly paddled ahead with Mike, King 5 TV’s editor, photographer and videographer. Mike had his giant video camera in his lap and, during introductions, had said “I’m Mike and frankly, I’m terrified!” or something close to that. The look on his face said he wasn’t kidding.

Will and Mike hopped out and set up the camera to try getting shots of kayakers with jumping salmon, but I (sadly) learned later that this perfect shot didn’t happen.

We paddled onward and up stream, watching Kingfishers and Great Blue Herons fly by. I smiled as I heard people chatting softly and paddles dipping softly, rhythmically, all around me.

At the head of the stream, I gathered everyone into our snack raft. As soon as I announced our gathering spot, our guide Anthony (who also was carrying my $900 camera to capture this day), called to me quietly and pointed up as I looked at him.

There, right above our chosen snack spot, was the resident juvenile Bald Eagle, sitting 40 feet above us in the top of a tree. It’s head swiveled back and forth, then down on us. I imagined its bewilderment as these strange creatures gathered beneath it’s resting spot.

More than one paddler asked me, jokingly but with a slight twinge of nervousness, “is it waiting to swoop down on us?”

“It’s going to snag the last paddler to join our snack raft!” I said, as the long kayaks bumped their way around me to slide in next to each other. 

Our snack raft, minus the SUPers

Our snack raft, minus the SUPers. Notice Mike, the videographer on the right

Once we were gathered, I pulled a bag of napkins and started handing them out. I hadn’t anticipated the awww’s from people when I said these napkins were handmade by my Aunt Yolande. Thank you Aunt Y 🙂

Then out came the Wheat Thins and Triscuits, then the smoked salmon snacks – some mixed with cream cheese, some plain. I truly and deeply love Crimson Cove‘s smoked Sockeye – what a treat! And Cricket loves the skins she gets after all these tours.

The shortage of crackers was the only complaint I heard about the trip – why didn’t I bring 4 instead of 3 packages?! Ah well, at least everyone got a taste (I hope!). I’m enjoying the leftovers as I write this…

Finally it was time to head back. We said goodbye to the young eagle, broke up our raft, and started paddling back towards the sun.

We said hello to the young eagle again a couple minutes later, some paddlers having been lucky enough to have it swoop over their heads (where was the video camera then?!). It landed in a tree next to one of it’s parents, where they watched these strange creatures paddle by.

It was a peaceful paddle back, with a visit from a Harbor Seal just a few feet away from some paddlers, and almost no breeze in the beautiful afternoon light.

Too soon the trip was over and I was packing up all the gear.

But before everyone was shuttled away, Anne from Evening Magazine gathered paddlers together. Some shied away, but others were willing to be filmed them as they talked into the microphone, telling about the tour and their experience.

I have to admit I blushed a little when I heard the positive responses from people, and I tear up a little now as I remember the feeling of accomplishment and gratitude I felt at that moment.

I was also asked to talk into the gigantic microphone (it must’ve been a foot and a half long!) in front of the even larger camera. Until that moment, I had effectively forgotten about the little microphone that had been attached to my collar for the last three hours. Now I straightened my shirt and silently chided myself for not paying more attention to my braids – I was sure it looked like a little kid had put my braids in.

Too late now, I was speaking into the camera, trying to pretend I was on the phone answering someone’s question about what they might see and do on a Salmon Kayak Tour. When she asked if there was anything else I’d like people to get from these tours, I said something to the effect of “I hope everyone understands how they’re personally connected to the lives of these salmon,” then quickly added that I hoped everyone learned how fun it is to kayak and standup paddleboard.

I’m such a cheeseball. But no one can say I’m not an honest cheeseball. I don’t know whether I want to see the footage when this show comes out…

After the obligatory photo with the fisheries biologist, the Visit Kitsap manager, the journalist, the videographer and the Evening Magazine vehicle, I finished packing up.

evening magazine car and group

From right to left: Anne Erickson, Patty Graf-Hoke, Mike Hays, Paul Dorn, John Kuntz, myself

I finally made it to Bella Luna Pizzaria at 4:30 to meet those from the group who were left. I was overjoyed to see a few paddlers still there…with delicious pizza slices for the guides!  

I love this ending to Salmon Kayak Tours – eating a tasty slice of pizza at a local restaurant, my cheeks pleasantly burning from the hard work of the day, a million dollar water view, and getting to know people from the tour more personally. 

But my day wasn’t over. I still had a trailer full of kayaks to lock up and take back to their resting spot in Port Gamble. As I made my way back on the forested roads, I marveled at my luck and my tenacity, at the perfect day almost behind me, and at the overwhelming beauty of “this one and precious life,” as the poet Mary Oliver puts it.

I found John in Port Gamble, putting away gear in the evening light. The enormity of the day’s undertaking hit me as I looked took in the trailers full of kayaks, and I breathed a giant sigh of relief…right after I took this photo:

Kayaks ready to rest on their trailers until the next Salmon Kayak Tour

Kayaks ready to rest on their trailers until the next Salmon Kayak Tour

Thank you to ALL who joined this most perfect of Salmon Kayak Tours (minus the too-few crackers)! I’ve written this post with all the details so that I can look back on it and remember how amazing this day was.

I will do a future post on the salmon life cycle, in case you’re interested.

If you’d like to see more photos of this and other Salmon Kayak Tour trips, visit the Olympic Outdoor Center Facebook page.

I will do a post if Evening Magazine gives me a heads up on when the show will air. Honestly, I never believe anything will happen until after it does…

If you’re interested in joining a Salmon Kayak Tour, visit the Olympic Outdoor Center website and click on the Adventures tab. We offer them from mid-October through the last weekend in November.

If you have photos of this trip or any other trip with me, please e-mail them to me as I love to see others’ photos.

If you need paddling equipment, we ship high quality gear around the world every day through our on-line store, and we have a store in the wonderfully quaint, northwest Washington state town of Port Gamble, and there’s a Cafe across the street with incredible, homemade, organic and local food!

If you have ideas, questions or photos, please contact me any time.

Happy Paddling!


Spring Courtright

Olympic Outdoor Center

Program Director

w: 360.297.4659

c: 360.265.2477

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