Friday, September 28, 2012

Thursday: Back of Beyond on Bainbridge Island, WA

If it’s hard to find decent kayaks to rent, it is nearly impossible to find swan boats.  Despite knowing that a swan boat would be painfully slow and tedious, I wanted to have the experience of using it, at least for a half hour.  It was a race against the clock, but by 5:30PM we found ourselves on Back of Beyond Exploration's barge in Eagle Harbor on Bainbridge Island(Just off shore of Seattle).  The swan boat was there, but without any propulsion device.  There was also an array of boats that you dream of rental services having; canoes, tandem kayaks, fiberglass kayaks, racks of plastic boats.  But the barge was not staffed; instead there was a phone number to the shop.

   I called the number, got a man with a slight accent on the other end and learned the swan boat was not available for rental anymore.  With that dream dashed, we took a quick picture of me by the boat, and headed to town.

  We wandered about, did some window shopping and came upon the Back of Beyond store, where we met one of the owners, Janet Nicholson, a petite woman. Like many Bainbridge Islanders, Janet had hair which looked like it was ready to be worn under a bicycle helmet or kayak hat.  In her case it was a long tidy braid.

   Janet told us the sad story of the swan rentals; how there were once two (Louis and Betsy according to this article) one had been sold and taken far away.  The other had an electric motor, making it perfect for a short putter about the harbor.  However a vandal had stomped the solar cell, so they'd replaced that with a pedal mechanism.  When a second vandal had seen fit to break the pedal mechanism, the swan was put on hiatus, though they still planned to someday install a motor.
Houses along Puget Sound on Bainbridge Island

   We admired some of the boats they had for sale, including a Maelstrom Vital, and noted that we had its sibling, a Vaag at home.  Janet mentioned that her husband, Udo, paddles a Vaag (and I suspect many, many other boats.) 

A houseboat in Blakely Harbor
   There was no paddle for us that night, but the next morning we were back, shortly after 10.  Back of Beyond opens at about 11 so it was shut tight.  But the rentals start earlier.  A tall, bespectacled man with a tidy beard, Udo Wald, came to the door and let us in.  In short order we had a fine set of boats to use.  I had a Current Designs Gulfstream (the fiberglass version of the Sirocco.)

Mark in an Isle
       Mark had a Current Designs Isle to test. The Isle has a large capacity, making it great for expeditions; however it was a bit stodgy for day trips.  Also the back was too high for the layback rolls.

Leading the ferry back to Eagle Harbor
  I had no trouble finding a purple sea star, probably they line the entire Puget Sound seabed.
Mark heading out of Blakely Harbor, Seattle in the distance
  And once again, I have a photo of Mark heading out of a harbor, leading me to wonder:  Are there medrona trees on every point?  Am I always that far behind?   Is there something about land to the left which makes a photo seem better to me?
Heading back to his boat shelter
   It was a relaxing paddle with some very nice boats.  Back of Beyond Explorations is the type of store and rental agency you wish every town had.  Udo and Janet are both fascinating people with strong opinions.  Udo told us he'd been trained by Ed Gillet, (the first person to paddle to Hawaii) and that he felt the disdain for rudders to be beyond ridiculous.  While we were down at his barge he pointed out some of the many canoes he has on hand, and his love of that sport shined through.

   The bits of information that he offered up made me wonder about the many adventures Udo and Janet must have had.  Unfortunately he did not have a biography for sale. A quick search online revealed that Udo and Janet have run Back of Beyond Explorations for ten years.   Before he was on Bainbridge Island Udo lived in San Diego, and he is originally from Germany.  He began paddling canoes, and Janet converted him to kayaks (or perhaps just added kayaks to his interests.)  He does amazing things for his town, hosting community paddles on Thursday, taking schoolchildren out to see petroglyphs.   I hope they have great success with their businesses and no more troubles with the rental swan or any other vandalism.  And maybe someday they'll record some of their adventures to share with others.

Odd growths on a float
Summary:  Paddle: 8 miles, around Eagle Harbor and through Blakely Harbor.  Rental Agency:  Back of Beyond Explorations.  Boats:  Current Designs- Gulfstream and Isle.  Wildlife spotted:  cormorants, heron, purple seastar, fuzzy barnacles??, limpet.


  1. What an awesome trip!

    If you're still in the Seattle area, maybe check out Rogue Wave Adventures for a tour or a course and say hi to instructor Christine for me.

    Wish I could have joined you on some of your paddles out west. I think you make a good guide for a ferry!

    Cheers from Canada!

    1. Sadly we're back and have been for almost two weeks. Pictures of Maine paddles are piling up, waiting to be sorted...
      It would have been fun to have companions on the trip. Where did you meet Christine??