Puget Sound and Bellingham Bay can be as calm as a sleeping baby on a windless day, but they can also rock even the largest vessels on windy days.
The paddlers who participate in the Bellingham Bay Rough Water Race have to be ready for either extreme. One local man is especially ready after gradually taking on more and more intense waves over his life.
The passion for paddling on the rough, open water started out small for Kirk Christensen, a 51-year-old Bellingham resident of 17 years.
Christensen was a rower in college at Washington State University, graduated to white-water river paddling, and eventually moved onto open-water paddling, which can be calmer or more intense than river paddling depending on where you are. Christensen takes it all the way, almost to the extreme of intensity.
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“Paddling some waves in Hawaii is the most memorable,” Christensen said in a phone interview of his favorite paddling moments. “Fifteen- to 20-foot waves with wind waves on top of that, so pretty big. You have to work the smaller ones so you’re ready to ride the big one.”
Christensen started getting into paddling on a surf ski when he moved to Bellingham in 1998. Since then he’s competed in the United States Canoe Association’s National Canoe and Kayak Championships, raced for three days in South Africa and even Tasmania.
The race in South Africa, the Dusi Canoe Marathon, was one of the more grueling races Christensen said he’s done.
Dusi is a two-person paddling race over three days, where competitors go between 34 and 40 miles each day in two-person canoes, kayaks and surf skis.
“I had only been paddling for a bit and was kind of learning,” Christensen said, adding that he did the race in 2002. “I wasn’t planning on doing it, but I happened to be there traveling and visiting friends. Things worked out.”
Not only did competitors have to endure as many as 40 miles each day, but there were “tight and crazy rapids” and large portages they had to carry their kayaks around. And there were more than 1200 teams competing in the race, clogging the river and making maneuvering difficult, Christensen said.
The community of paddlers in the Bellingham area was what gave Christensen the support to get into the sport.
“We don’t really have a club, it’s just a group of folks that like to paddle,” he said. “We call ourselves the Whatcom Paddlers. The community here is really supportive and I think its the biggest community in the U.S. with the most paddlers. Every Wednesday during daylight savings we race on Lake Whatcom. It’s a 3.5-mile course with an informal race, but there are usually 30-50 boats.”
With so much experience all over the world paddling, Christensen keeps coming back to the Bellingham Rough Water Race for the homely feel.
“It’s the beginning of the season and it’s nice that it’s in our backyard,” Christensen said. “You don’t know what to expect for conditions.”
The Bellingham Bay Rough Water Race starts at 10:15 a.m. Saturday, March 14, at the Fairhaven Trailer Launch on Harris Avenue. There are two races, a long race, which is two laps and about 10 miles, and a shorter, 5-mile race.
Registration is available online at soundrowers.org/BellinghamBay.aspx, or in person beginning at 8:15 at the launch the day of the race. Registration costs $15 for Sound Rower members and $20 for non-members. Awards are given to the top three in each category. Results will also be available on soundrowers.org following the races.