It’s a stunning summer afternoon, and I’m gliding under the Murray Morgan Bridge. Yes, under. The Foss Waterway is sparkling, the Tacoma sky is blue and any street noise is far, far away. And then I see it — a little head, bobbing in the water next to a tugboat.
It’s a seal! No, I can see the feet too — maybe an otter? Or a buoy? Hang on. As I come closer, I realize — it’s a person swimming in the chilly, murky waters of the Foss. And because I’m in a kayak, naturally I pull alongside and ask him why he’s there.
This, in some ways, is the essence of casual kayaking. Not the energetic, ultraserious variety where you chat earnestly on Internet forums about dry bags and repair things. No, for many of us, rental kayaking is just a fun way to explore Puget Sound a little differently on a hot summer’s day, seeing things you’d never notice from the shore.
Like a swimmer in the Foss. As I steer my kayak — rented from the Dock Street Marina — close enough for conversation, I call, “Are you all right?”
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“Yes,” he says smiling.
I pause. “Um, OK. Is it very cold in there?”
“Yes.” He smiles again.
“Um, well, great!” I call. “Have a good swim.” And completely unenlightened, I paddle on.
The Foss might not be your first choice for recreational kayaking in Tacoma. After all, it was a federal cleanup site for a long time, and the water still is oily. There are lots of boats to dodge and, if you go far enough, hulking great container ships. Back to nature, it’s not — unless you count gulls.
But while you can certainly rent kayaks in far more beautiful places — see the list below for some South Sound choices — there’s something cool about paddling at sea level through a busy, working marina.
For starters, I’d never noticed quite how many houseboats there were, lovingly decorated with tomato pots, Buddha statues and the like. I’d never had a chance to really look in detail at the waterfront warehouses on the east side, nor gotten that close to a fireboat. In a kayak, all this is possible. You also get a new perspective on the towering Stadium bluff, with its historic buildings, and realize how divided life must have been in the early settlement days between water and town.
And Martin Blank’s “Fluent Steps,” the glass installation lifted up as with a breath from the reflecting pool outside the Museum of Glass, takes on a new grandeur when seen from that far below.
In short, Tacoma looks great from a kayak.
It takes about 20 minutes of easy paddling to reach the Murray Morgan (which also looks magnificent from below), and then you’ll have a choice: go back, follow the shore (staying clear of the naval vessels) or head right for the Puyallup River.
“You want to time it with the tides,” says John Gilfillian, manager at Dock Street Marina rentals, adding that you also want to look out for fishermen if you go up the river.
Gilfillian is reassuring about other craft: The Foss is pretty busy, but as a small, human-powered vessel, a kayaker has the right of way.
And if you come across an international container ship that can’t even notice you?
“Move,” he advises with a wicked grin.
But on a sunny weekend, you probably won’t be the only paddler. I passed four other kayakers and two stand-up paddleboarders, one of them impressively shuttling along with his hands instead of a paddle. I chatted with all of them — instant friends, thanks to our common mode of transport.
And the swimmer? Well, I left him paddling too, heading out to Commencement Bay with a calm smile on his face.