There’s an idyllic piece of land that borders Lake Whatcom on the eastern edge of Bellingham. Called Lakewood, it’s a 15-acre site that Western Washington University purchased back in the 1920s for student recreation. Only in the 1960s were the first buildings erected on the site, as students began racing watercraft. Many generations of students have come and gone since then but Lakewood remains a timeless, much-loved facility.
I interviewed Jeff Davis, Lakewood’s program manager, on a sunny but blustery July morning as my daughters were preparing for their second consecutive year of sailing camp at Lakewood. The wind was 25 knots that day, a speed that definitely gets the adrenaline pumping when you’re in the water, and Davis sat down for an interview in his wetsuit, still dripping after a stint of early morning windsurfing.
“We have canoes, kayaks, two paddleboats, windsurfers, stand-up paddleboards and a variety of sailboats, from 14-foot lasers to 30-foot solings,” he said. You don’t need special equipment or outdoor wear to use the water toys as Lakewood has plenty of that, too: lifejackets, wetsuits in all sizes, and more.
“On a beautiful Spring day every watercraft we have is out on the water and there’s a long line of students waiting for a turn on it,” he reflected. In summer, when the student population is reduced from 15,000 to 2,000, the demand is not quite as strong, and faculty, alumni and members of the alumni association can also enjoy time on the water, be it swimming, sailing, canoeing, testing their balance on a stand-up paddleboard, or kayaking.
The well-kept secret at Lakewood is the inexpensive nature of alumni membership: $35 per person per year, $50 per couple or $500 for a lifetime membership. What you get for that fee is full access to Lakewood’s riches and unlimited hours of enjoyment of its water toys and equipment.
Some of it requires training. Before you take out a windsurfer, Davis strongly suggests folks enroll in four two-hour classes so they can learn what to do. That, too, is super-inexpensive at $65 per person. The same advice is applicable for sailboats. But for the kayaks, canoes and SUPs, it’s fairly straightforward and the only recommendation is to stay close-ish to shore if you anticipate you might need rescuing.
Davis is proud of the fact that there’s never been a drowning at Lakewood, “and as more people are doing more things here, we’ve grown to appreciate our good record,” he says. “The internet and the weather service keeps us on top of emergent situations when we have to get people off the water. Now, every time we open the door, we know what the weather service says is going to happen and we take precautions accordingly.”
Davis and his team of instructors balance those precautions against the need to let people explore and enjoy the water. “We’ve had storms, rescued folks, and everyone’s come home with big eyes and stories to tell,” he reflects. “Being part of higher education, we’re constantly trying to address the need for people to have healthy, productive lives. Here you can put a paddle in the water, watch out for the waves and wind, and go where you want to go.”
But Lakewood is also a nourishing ground for relationships, and many life-altering ones happen on the banks of the lake, he adds. “Part of it is the age of the participants – the relationships they have tend to have last a lifetime – and a lot of them happen here,” he says. “Many people tell me this has been a very important place for them, as well as the starting point of a lifetime pursuit that’s gender neutral and can be practiced by anyone.”
Lakewood is located at 2410 Whatcom Boulevard. The facility’s hours vary according to the seasons. Summer is noon-7:30 p.m. daily, and Spring and Fall are noon or 2 p.m. through dusk. For information or alumni association membership queries call 360. 650-2900 or visit https://vu.wwu.edu/recreation/lakewood