Lake Cushman lies just outside Hoodsport, a sleepy seasonal town overlooking the Hood Canal on Washington's Olympic Peninsula. It's an impossibly beautiful, 7-mile long lake nestled in a valley just outside Olympic National Park. North Lake Cushman Rd (aka 119) connects Hoodsport to Staircase Campground, following the lake's eastern shoreline. The road is mostly bumpy, mostly windy and throat-cloggingly dusty throughout most of the area's dry season. And it's worth the drive.
Living and working seasonally in Olympic Park, I have access to endless world-class outdoor recreation opportunities, yet I find myself drawn back to this spot in my free time more often than any other.
As I approach the lake access to log another evening in this idyllic spot, I steal glimpses of the water through the trees while dodging tire-swallowing potholes that have been uncovered by weeks of travelers' comings and goings. It's evening now, and the day trippers have all headed down the hill for pressure-cooked fried chicken to soak up the day's booze. The lake is my own again.
As I park and click off the key, the orange evening light gives me a dull sense of urgency. The sun won't stay up forever, and darkness comes a bit earlier each day as the summer marches on. My gaze follows the water to the opposite shoreline, where the houses disappear and the mountain's face becomes a solid wall of forest; an uninterrupted green behemoth which makes my 2 ft. wide boat seem barely big enough to register. It reminds me of the importance of feeling small.
I drag my durable companion, my most beloved possession, my well-worn, bright yellow 16-foot sea kayak to the water's edge. When I reach the shore, I snap my paddle together, hop into the cockpit with attempted grace and take a few firm shoves with my paddle to get water bound.
This is a man-made lake, capped off at its southern end by the Cushman Dam. The trees that used to comprise the valley forest are now well below me as I paddle across the mouth of the Skokomish River and into the main body of the lake. Weathered, broken logs of all sizes jut out of the water, endlessly lulling and bobbing. To the west, Mt. Rose and Mt. Ellinor (both popular hikes) stand tall and provide protection from the wind.
I continue on, the splash of my paddle the only audible sound. I practice paddling with my eyes closed to sharpen my feel for the wind and water. I keep my eyes scanning the tops of the trees for my nightly bald eagle sighting. As the sun goes down, things get a bit more active. The fish begin jumping, making delicate splashing sounds while looking for a twilight meal. The sparrows swoop hurriedly and in all directions over the surface of the water. Nobody seems to mind the intruder in the bright yellow boat.
I make my way diagonally across the lake, chasing the sun's rays while the light tries to hide under the towering horizon before me. The moon is rising and the stars are beginning to appear. There is a deafening silence in such a dense, lush valley that makes the stars seem brighter and the air smell sweeter.
The sun line runs higher and higher up the face of the opposing mountains, a familiar signal that it's time to head back. I paddle straight toward the launch, in that place of ease and rhythm that I fall into in every time I am on the water with a paddle in my hands. I seem to always fail to realize how far I've gone until I'm trying to beat the darkness back to my car. Chugging along at full speed, time warps a bit and before long I am, regrettably, back where I started. I charge toward the gravel landing at full speed and lean back as my bow hits land and glides partway up onto the shore.
Once on my feet I pause, admire the lake one last time, take a moment to feel gratitude and drag that (suddenly much heavier) boat up the hill and load it up on my old, faithful Jeep Cherokee. Time to start anticipating the next paddle...