Monday, May 12th, 2014
Get Out There and Paddle or Row on Lake Whatcom
Todd Elsworth

Lake Whatcom in Bellingham offers an immense waterscape for you to get out there and have some fun- in all kinds of watercraft. We went out in our kayak on a Wednesday to see what all the local hype was about. Before we get into the fun side of getting on the water, there’s something you must know:

New Rules РBe Prepared: Before you head out to the lake, you need to be prepared for the new Whatcom Boat Inspections in place to help control Aquatic Invasive Species in our water supply (and playground). Boat inspections and permits are required for boaters using boat ramps at Lake Whatcom and Lake Samish. Boat owners can choose either a 3-day pass or annual permit. See Inspection Fees & Locations. All kinds of watercraft can transport invasive species, even kayaks, canoes, and rowboats. See Preparing your boat and Take the Certification Training. Where zebra and quagga mussels have become established, they’ve done billions of dollars in damage and estimated annual control costs are at least $1 billion nationwide. See Aquatic Invasive Species 101.


We chose a sunny Wednesday to join the regulars who come out weekly for the camaraderie and friendly competition of racing.¬† This free, open gathering began over 30 years ago and has evolved over the years- mainly due to the advancement of technology employed in today’s competition watercraft. The 3.5 mile loop takes about 30-45 min. Just show up, get in the water and make it happen. Everybody lines up, there’s a countdown…then GO! Those with slower craft or newer to the sport are encouraged to give themselves a head start so they can finish with the pack at the end.


Bellingham/Whatcom County has many options for organizations/clubs to choose from to get involved with to get out on the water- see the list at the bottom of the page. At the start line, you’ll see a couple traditional sea kayaks, but it is largely racing surf-skis and a handful of outrigger canoes.


While all in good fun, there are also the elite athletes who are part of the mix. Local legend, Brandon Nelson, is usually found leading the pack around the lake. Nelson’s most recent claim to fame comes from setting the World Record for traveling 151.3 miles around Lake Padden in August 2013. You will find Nelson, his wife Heather, out every Wednesday enjoying the competition and companionship that the paddling community provides.


It’s not only the racers who come out to enjoy the open-water of Lake Whatcom. There are so many types of crafts that are appropriate (and fun) for paddling around on a sunny day it’s hard to pick the right one, some days.


Back to the world of competition. The lake also provides training space for local youth athletes in rowing shells with the Whatcom Rowing Association.  I like their motto- Row happy. Race hard. They offer local programs for both Juniors and Masters.


Paddling has a long tradition in the area. Below is a youngster from one of the local tribes warming up in a racing canoe. The local tribes support their youth, providing them with the opportunity to get out on the water while enjoying activities their ancestors have over the centuries.


The more common sight is to see larger tribal canoes, filled with teenagers, chanting and paddling together in unison as they make their way across the water.


Below is a group of young men just getting started as they head out for a lap around the lake. While I didn’t talk with them about their endeavors, I imagine that they are preparing for the “Week of the Warrior”- Lummi Stommish Water Festival¬†


Being on the water with your friends and family is a relaxing and fun way to spend the day, the afternoon or just a short spell after a long day at work. Get OUT THERE and enjoy it- however you choose.

Bellingham Paddle/Row Resources:

Community Boating Center

Wake Kayak Club

Bellingham Bay Outrigger Paddlers

Whatcom Rowing Association

Bellingham Canoe and Kayak Sprint Team

Kite, Paddle Surf

Salish Sea Kayak School

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About the Author:

As the co-Executive Director of Recreation Northwest and the founder of the Bellingham Traverse, Todd promotes outdoor recreation and brings people together to enjoy, preserve and improve the places where we play. He enjoys biking, hiking, paddling, skiing and will try anything twice. Get connected at

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