Our bright yellow kayaks bob in the choppy water like bits of cracker cast out for ducks. Paddling slowly around the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks, one of Seattle's most popular tourist attractions, we're waiting for the signal from our guides that it's time to maneuver into the larger of the two.
The massive structures, informally known as the Ballard Locks, help link freshwater Lakes Washington and Union with the briny waters of Puget Sound. Right now the larger lock is lowering its westbound cargo from Lake Union's lofty perch above.
While we wait for the lock to finish its job, our guides Devon and Jay help us keep an eye out for wildlife. We easily spot several seals, whose shiny black heads rhythmically pop in and out of the water, when Devon suddenly shouts that Herschel is at the fish ladder.
We crane our necks to spot the stout, bristly-whiskered sea lion, but all we see is the splash he makes as he swims away. Herschel, Devon says, is a bit of a legend in these parts. First spotted in the area around 1980, the crafty, rather gluttonous sea lion quickly learned he could nosh on all the tasty salmon he wanted if he hung around the complex's fish ladder and trapped them against its cement walls. The salmon congregate at the ladder to rest for a few days before climbing it to spawn in the area's freshwater lakes and rivers.
Herschel was soon downing dozens of salmon per day. Then he got greedy, attacking other sea lions and even kayaks — yikes! — which he deemed a threat to his piscine bounty. Fisheries employees and other wildlife experts fought back against the flappered, 800-pound beast, shooting rubber-tipped arrows and metal pellets at him, and tossing underwater firecrackers into the sea. They also tried tempting Herschel away from the ladder by feeding him other fish — fish they had spiked with nausea-inducing lithium chloride — and even tried frightening him away with a mechanical orca whale, orcas being sea lions' sole predator. But nothing fazed Herschel.
Eventually they tranquilized him and trucked him far out into Puget Sound, but he swam back in a few days' time. So they trapped him again and ferried him some 1,000 miles south to his home in Southern California. He returned 11 days later.
Devon doesn't say what happened to Herschel after that. But as some blamed him for a dramatic decrease in the watershed's steelhead run, the rumor that he ended up at Sea World in Florida might be true. No matter his fate, his memory lives on at Ballard Locks, as any sea lion spotted near the fish ladder is now called Herschel.
I crane to spot the ladder in case Herschel returns, but our kayak has drifted too far away. No matter; the large lock is now open, awaiting its new cargo.
"Let the big boats in first," Jay yells to our group, now excitedly clustering around the lock's yawning mouth.
We patiently wait a little longer as a sailboat glides in, followed by the Hop Aboard, a yacht from Yakima, Wash., and a water scooter. Then our group forms a conga line and streams into the lock, quickly snugging ourselves against its concrete wall like barnacles latching onto a boat hull. A knot of tourists forms on the viewing platform above and watches as the lock's metal doors swing shut and water begins flowing into the chamber, quickly raising our assorted jumble of watercraft more than a dozen feet.
When its 30-ton gates once again open, the various motorcraft sputter back to life and stream away, quickly fading to dots on the horizon. Our group quietly paddles to the end of the lock complex, then turns around and heads right back in for the ride back down to Puget Sound.
Under the sea
For 30 years, my husband, Ed, and I had talked about exploring Seattle. When we finally booked tickets to the city that birthed Boeing, Cinnabon, Starbucks and Zillow, the next step was planning what to see and do.
Pulling up a city map on Google, we were struck by what is clearly the city's major geographic asset: water. Sure, we knew Seattle was perched on the edge of the Pacific. But we hadn't realized its western border and environs are a tangled mass of islands, inlets, bays, peninsulas and estuaries, gifting the city with 148 miles of freshwater shoreline and another 53 miles of saltwater shoreline. In a place so waterlogged, so characterized by the sea, the only way to truly understand it would be from the water.
I quickly booked tickets for two kayak tours: one through the Ballard Locks, since they're so famous, and a sunset tour from the North Admiral neighborhood, which promised awesome views of the city's famous Space Needle-pierced skyline. Later that day, we again climbed into plastic kayaks and paddled into the rather sheltered waters of Elliott Bay, which sits south of Lake Union and Ballard Locks. Many famous city structures hug the bay's belly: Pike Place Market, the Seattle Aquarium and Seattle's Great Wheel, to name a few. Although the Space Needle, created for the 1962 Seattle World's Fair, sits a half-mile away in the Seattle Center, an arts and entertainment venue, it's easily visible, too.
We followed our guide as she led us toward the skyline, which turned a bit rosier every minute as the sun glided toward the earth, and then to the south, where snow-capped Mount Rainier rose in the distance. The massive chunk of rock emanated strength, longevity and permanence, while the water dancing below us whispered of ephemerality.
Back on land, we realized that these two dips into the area's aquatic real estate simply made us thirsty for more. Pulling out a tourist booklet, we were faced with loads of options. We could hop on one of the ferries chugging along the shore; the most popular and scenic trips are over to Bremerton, a city on the Olympic Peninsula, and Bainbridge Island. A variety of sightseeing tours also were available, both on traditional seafaring vessels and "Ducks," amphibious landing craft used by the Army during World War II. We could even book a voyage on one of the local high-speed catamarans and be whisked to Victoria, British Columbia, in two or three hours.
Reverting to landlubbers
Numbed by our choices, we changed course and decided to spend the rest of our time as landlubbers, admiring the water from terra firma. First up: a trip back to Ballard Locks, a complex that includes a museum and botanical garden in addition to the lock-viewing platform. Today no kayaks paddle into the locks; instead, the large lock fills up with a clutch of small white boats and the 104-foot-long M/V Puget, a debris recovery vessel operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Puget patrols the inland waters of the Sound, plucking various items out of the water that might pose navigational problems for other boats. Today, her deck is loaded with logs and tree stumps.
As the boats stream out of the lock into Lake Union, fish leap out of the water ahead of them as acrobatic escorts. We head downstairs to the fish ladder's underwater viewing area. Sadly for us, we're visiting in between salmon spawning seasons so all we see through the windows is murky water. Back on top, Ed points out a display, asking, "Have you heard of Herschel?"
For the next two days we drink in the views of Seattle's various bodies of water from every vantage point. We admire sparkling Elliott Bay from Victor Steinbrueck Park, a grassy patch of land just west of the city's famed Pike Place Market. We peer down on pretty Lake Union from the Space Needle's observation deck 500 feet up, then at eye level while traversing the trails at Gas Works Park, a nubbin of land at the lake's northern end.
Our final night in town we head to Kerry Park, a tiny plot in the city's Queen Anne Hill neighborhood. The green space overlooks Elliott Bay and offers the quintessential view of the city skyline. In fact, most of Seattle's promotional materials feature shots of the city taken from this very spot.
We lean against the stone wall overlooking the bay and gaze into the inky night. The Space Needle is lit from head to toe, a regal, elegant presence commanding attention. Flowing behind it are innumerable city lights, clustered together in a gauzy blanket reminiscent of the Milky Way. Down in the bay, tiny lights wink merrily from various vessels. The view is simply breathtaking.
We stand in silence for several minutes, and then Ed turns and looks at me. "We're coming back," he says.
Just like Herschel.
Melanie Radzicki McManus' book "Thousand-Miler," about hiking Wisconsin's Ice Age Trail, has recently been released. She lives near Madison, Wis.