Bellingham's Melissa Laitsch knew several years ago that visits to the zoo with her two daughters would soon diminish. After seeing some aquatic exhibits, the kids issued a joint, mild complaint: "Mom, we've seen this."
Laitsch, who is board president of the Community Boating Center in Fairhaven, realized that her daughters, now teenagers, had indeed seen much marine wildlife while boating on nearby open waters, and that seeing seals, sea lions and whales in their natural element was beyond comparison.
The "water zoo" represents just part of the special appeal the region carries for thousands of local marine boaters.
Simple geography, though, may play the biggest role, with Whatcom County a beacon to such attractions as the celebrated San Juan Islands and British Columbia's Gulf Islands.
"They're all drop-dead gorgeous," says Kris Heintz, Squalicum Yacht Club's commodore. "Sucia Island is one of my favorites. It's pristine."
Like several of the San Juans, Sucia sits close enough for a summer day trip in Heintz's motor boat, just 18 miles from Bellingham. Proximity counts, especially with gas prices rising.
Whether leaving from a Point Roberts marina or a high-tide-only launch at Larrabee State Park - anywhere along the county's 150-mile coastline - scenic islands await exploration.
"It's like you can reach out and touch them," says Debbie Dempsey, a prominent professional mariner and one of the Boating Center's founders.
Patos, the San Juans' most northerly island, attracts those who don't mind quiet and isolation. People such as Randy Freburg.
A Woodinville resident, Freburg has worked in Blaine much of the past two years. He prefers boating in the northern waters rather than in busy Puget Sound to the south. At islands like Patos, he and his wife seldom see more than a boat or two at shore.
"Our goal," he says, "is to get away from everybody."
MANY WAYS TO ENJOY THE WATER
Access to a remarkable variety of watercraft contributes to boating's popularity in the county. Powerboats, yachts, sailboats, rowing shells, kayaks and canoes, including an occasional dragon boat, all share the open waters.
For people eager to try kayaks and other human-powered craft on Bellingham Bay, the nonprofit Boating Center provides classes, boat rentals and storage.
"Our mission centers around education and access," Laitsch says, "providing a safe and easy way for the community to access our saltwater world."
The approach seems to be connecting with users, who quadrupled in number from 250 in 2007, the center's opening year, to about 1,000 last year.
Boaters who want a more social experience might turn to a yacht club, kayak club or open-water rowing club.
Kayakers can even learn from renowned river paddler Reg Lake, who has been active with Whatcom Association of Kayak Enthusiasts. The club concentrates on sea kayaking, but has members like Lake who paddle on both fresh and salt water.
"You get to set personal goals and attain them," Lake says of kayaking. "And we joke a lot. It gives us a chance to be 9 years old again."
Lake's love affair with kayaks began in 1970 and continues today as the 70-year-old has become more involved designing and building boats.
Dale McKinnon, another skilled senior boater and boat builder, remains active with New Whatcom Rowers, an informal open-water group. Ten years ago, at age 58, she made news by solo-rowing her wooden dory 800 miles from Ketchikan, Alaska, to Fairhaven. Now she often must decide where to row - on Lake Whatcom or on the bay.
"With the lake, I have to be out there by 5 in the morning or I compete with skiers and powerboats," she says. "I can go to Bellingham Bay at 7 or 8 o'clock and not deal with boating traffic."
Waterway rush hours haven't fully materialized quite yet, but county boating numbers remain significant, even after years of a poor economy. Whatcom County had 8,304 registered boaters (marine and fresh water) in fiscal 2013, according to the state Department of Licensing. That's down 1 percent from the previous year, but 19 percent above the bottom-out year of 2010.
BALANCING PLEASURE WITH EXPENSES
Owning a powerboat or sailboat usually demands a serious financial commitment. A small, used boat might cost $10,000 and up, says Nick Ouilette, who co-owns Bellingham Yachts with his brother Dean. A new, larger boat with a diesel motor and accessories would run "upwards of $150,000; sailboats less," he says.
Boaters also face moorage, electricity, fuel, maintenance and repair costs. Freburg says annual expenses for his 40-footer, excluding fuel, can approach $10,000.
"Literally, it's like having a mortgage," he says.
Mike Reese, a Bellingham Yacht Club member who owns five boats, suggests a way to cope with the high costs without giving up the sport - scale back and slow down.
"We're privileged to live in one of the best boating areas in the country," he says. "In tough times, you may not be able to make that extra cruise, whether that means taking a little day trip in Bellingham Bay more often or weekend trips to the San Juans. The big thing is to throttle down and consume fuel at a lot more reasonable rate."
Most powerboats, for instance, can go 18 mph and reach Sucia Island in just over an hour. Cutting the speed in half doubles the travel time, but Reese says boating pleasure doesn't have a clock.
"It's really about the journey, not just the destination," he says. "You're out there enjoying the scenery, and your family and friends."
The saltwater experience provides pleasure in varied ways.
- Freburg says he loves planning for a cruise. "That's the challenge. How well can I plan? How can I be prepared for any contingency?"
- Mick Corcoran, Bellingham Yacht Club's rear commodore, thrives on the excitement of sailing in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. "The waves are something else. You always have a six-foot swell out there, like you're going up an elevator."
- Bill Apt, commodore of Corinthian Yacht Club, remembers having a great sense of freedom when he started. "If I wanted to, I felt I could go through Juan de Fuca and head right to China. Luckily I never tried it."
Bob Carter is a freelance writer in White Rock, B.C.