Building a Coho Hi : Part 5, First Paddle of the Coho Hi

About the Author: Leif Whittaker is a writer and adventurer based in the Pacific Northwest. His love of the wilderness and wild places has led him to the summit of Mt. Everest twice, once in 2010 and again in 2012, and many places across the globe. Leif also has a great love of the water and we’re excited to share his story of building his Coho Hi here.

Hatches cinched tight over luxurious amounts of gear, seat pad inflated, foot braces adjusted, I slide the shiny hull into the green water for the first time. A flutter of ripples emanates from the polished okoume, bounces against the muddy shore. Mosquitoes buzz and hover, busily searching out nutrients in the sodden air, the rare patches of sunlight. The sky is a grey blanket without pattern or depth. Lake Ozette’s mirror surface is smudged with patchy gusts of heavy wind and a dusting of mist that saturates my life jacket and spray skirt. The water beads and drips between my feet, neoprene dive booties wrapping my toes, pant legs rolled up to the knees.


Boats on roof rack at Lake Ozette put-in.


Freya borrowed the Arctic Tern 14 from Pygmy.


First few paddle strokes in my new Coho Hi.

            I push the kayak further into the water, straddle it, and slip my right foot into the cockpit. I paddle a few strokes into deeper water before twisting my other foot inside and wrapping the edge of my spray skirt around the coaming. Freya performs the same motions with her boat and soon she is gliding up next to me, smiling.
My boat is floating and I’m floating inside it. There are no leaks. The only way I can feel the temperature of the lake is to drag my outstretched hand along the edge of the hull as I move. It feels warm. Months of work have culminated in a nearly silent crescendo, an eruption of calm and simple floatation, a pebble lobbed skyward, polished driftwood being carried away from the verge.
The keel drives between blades of aquatic grass. My unpracticed stroke propels the kayak through inlets, over shoals, around points that are unfamiliar and beautiful. Freya paddles beside me and she comments on how pretty my boat looks in the water. She says the swirly grain matches the ripples. I wish I could get out, walk along the surface like Moses and watch the hull glide. It is already accustomed to the feeling of gliding, the boat. I might need a little more time, but I should get the hang of it after a few trips like this. I splash lake water over the deck and hatches when I sense the kayak needs a drink. The polished grain glints momentarily as I coast into a meadow of sunshine. I can’t believe I actually built this thing.


That swirly grain DOES look good!


Plant life on Lake Ozette.


These pads lined the shore on certain parts of the lake.

We paddle about four miles the first day, keeping close to the rim, watching for wildlife. We spot two deer along the grassy banks and various birds whose names I don’t know. Maybe one of them was a loon. The mist is thin enough that we can see Tivoli Island to the south, but past that, the forest is painted with layers of impermeable cloud. We pull into Ericson Bay, where there is a “boat only” campsite, and drag our kayaks onto the rocky beach.
It is already late in the day because the drive from Port Townsend took hours, so we arrange our tent, string a tarp from the tree branches and begin collecting wood for a fire. We find dry pieces beneath leafy canopies. We bundle dead twigs together with a green branch and light the bundle with a Bic lighter. It ignites soon enough and I hold the bundle on it’s end so the fire streams upward. Freya adds more twigs and, eventually, bigger sticks are burning too. The smoke keeps the mosquitoes away while we unfold the camp chairs that Freya bungeed to her deck. We take a sooty grate—borrowed from John—and prop it over the flame. We begin chopping fresh vegetables and sausages to fill a cast iron pan, which we set on the grate. The vegetables sizzle in olive oil. Garlic fumes intermingle with the clean mist. I wonder if the bears can smell it.


Left: Freya’s Arctic Tern 14 (borrowed from Pygmy). Right: My Coho Hi.


Cooking a wonderful meal on the fire.


The fire gave the vegetables a nice smokey flavor.

Once it comes to a simmer, the sauce is ready, and a bag of angle hair pasta cooks rapidly in boiling lake water. It would be impractical and therefore impossible to have a meal this luxurious on a backpacking or mountaineering trip. The advantage of a boat is deliciously obvious now, as I twirl scrumptious threads around my spork and pop a slice of zucchini into my mouth. We keep the fire burning until it is dark and we can see there are no stars bright enough to shine through the clouds. Then we retire to the tent, falling asleep almost instantly, two glowing bodies tucked into the dusky forest on the edge of the empty lake.
We spend two more days on Ozette, exploring small waves in open water, paddling upwind, downwind and with wind on the side. One morning we paddle to a trail that meanders through the rainforest for two miles until it reaches the coast. We carry a picnic lunch and a hundred-foot length of wedding with which to build a slackline on the beach. The trail is poorly maintained and charming. Ancient cedar planks are laid end to end. They are covered with a slippery layer of moss, and they flex and teeter under our feet. The forest is green and alive. Enormous bulbs of skunk cabbage are like plants from an era when dinosaurs walked the planet. There are cedar trunks too immense to fathom and upturned rootballs that have grown into walls of miniature ferns. The air is dense and nourishing.


Slippery boardwalk on the trail to the coast.


The beach was flat and clean but the water was cold.


Slacklining on the beach. I’m not very good.


More slacklining. Freya is very good.

We arrive at the coast and I’m reminded of the beach in front of my family’s cabin. To the north, there are stacks of dark rock protruding from the breakers that look like a drawing by Dr. Seuss. To the south, there are piles of driftwood and entire trees resting in the sand. We tighten the red slackline between the rootballs of two trees and sit on a nearby log to eat our lunch. The sun comes out and I take off my shirt. We balance on the taught line until our feet are sore and the wind picks up, making the day chilly. It is 4pm by the time we start back on the trail to the lake.

Our kayaks are waiting for us, nestled beneath a tree, napping on dewy blades of grass. The brown wood hulls blend into the forest like they are fallen trees stripped of bark, yet they float and glide and drift like water is their true home, their birthing place. Its fitting that my boat be christened here, in a place where foamy waves splash against ancient trunks. Its also fitting that it is a place I have never been to before. It sets a tone for the kayak. Now I know it will take me on journeys to other remote and unfamiliar locations, to lakes and oceans, inlets and sounds, coves and islands beyond my imagination. I’m just learning about this kayaking life, but already, I am in love.


Story by Leif Whittaker
Photography by Freya Fennwood

For more stories about Leif’s adventures, see his blog:

For more photos from Freya see her website:


Mist on the deck.

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