By Britta Folden
Chances are you’ve cruised west along Highway 12 on some sunny Friday afternoon, dodging through the herd of minivans and RV’s making the great summer exodus to the beach. Upon your descent down the hill and around the bluff into Aberdeen, just as you see the sign to “Come As You Are” you’ll also catch a glimpse of the Chehalis River and harbor, showing you the way to the ocean. Most visitors, as you may suspect, zip right through the little harbor towns of Aberdeen and Hoquiam with the intention of hitting the Pacific Ocean as quickly as possible, but those folks you see with the kayaks strapped onto their vehicles know there’s more water here to explore.
Hidden beyond the trees on nearly every nook and cranny of Grays Harbor, you’ll find an expansive web of rivers. 100 years ago, these rivers made Grays Harbor a prime location for logging and shipping. Today, many pilings and remnants of industry past still stand in the rivers swirling through the old forests, which makes for an interesting paddle through history.
Hopping in the river at the 8th Street Landing in Hoquiam, you can paddle your way north up the Hoquiam River. This river will take you through downtown Hoquiam, past old ship yards, office buildings and riverside homes. Continue the path up the river to the fork where the West and East Hoquiam Rivers meet and you’ll see a railroad bridge, now going unused, just across from pilings and half sunken industrial shipping remains. For the record, we don’t recommend getting out of the kayak to climb any of these contraptions, tempting as the idea might be. The farther north you venture, the more rural the landscape becomes.
This Wishkah River is one of the more well known rivers of the area. Putting in from the gravely boat launch on the west side of Walmart, you can float up the river, past sunken ships, under the famed “Kurt Cobain” bridge filled with graffiti from fans and further north past homes and the Aberdeen High School football stadium. You’ll often be accompanied along your trip by flying heron who like to keep watch over those who enter their territory. Take some time to explore the smaller water routes that branch off the main river. You’ll find lush landscape, low hanging branches and probably some wildlife rustling in the bushes.
If you’ve got a more adventurous spirit and a spray skirt, to battle a little choppy water, check out the Chehalis River. There are many launches spread throughout Grays Harbor including Friend’s Landing (further East), the Cosmopolis Launch behind the gas station in town, and the 28th Street Landing in Hoquiam. From the Hoquiam launch you can even head straight out to explore Rennie Island, a muddy island inhabited only by deer.
A paddle through the Ghost Forest on the Copalis River might make for a good moonlight trip during the warm summer nights. The fairly slow paced river winds north, just slightly inland from the ocean, through a marshy land full of tree trunks from trees that died in an earthquake and tsunami many years ago. Head out in the Copalis River at the right time and you’ll also find plenty of salmon. So many that you might actually get one to jump right into your boat.
There are multiple kayaking clubs and meet ups that occur year round in Grays Harbor, though these groups are most active in the warm summer months, when daylight lasts longer. The Grays Harbor Canoe and Kayak Club meets monthly for group outings. Formed by a group of friends in their 20’s and 30’s with an interest in exploring the local rivers, they now invite anyone to join them on their excursions, which often happen on the evenings and weekends and typically end at a local pub or restaurant for refreshments. If you don’t have your own kayak, rentals are available through Waterway Adventures in Ocean Shores. Owner, Douglas Dempnock, also leads group outings for anyone to join.
For an added challenge, in July, the Polson Museum hosts a River Festival Kayak and Canoe Race in downtown Hoquiam. You can also join the Sound Rowers on their yearly Elk River Challenge.
Photos courtesy Henry Gallagher.