Sunday, January 8, 2012

Cherry Point Paddle Trip

One of my favorite kayaking day trips in my home waters of Whatcom County starts at Sandy Point and ends in Drayton Harbor. It’s a long paddle with stretches of undeveloped shoreline, and with good conditions I'm blessed with a gentle tail wind and the push of an incoming tide. I love this trip because of the variety and the huge expanse of the Georgia Strait. This area is home to a once-great population of late spawning herring, and large numbers of winter shorebirds, sea ducks, and raptors. But what makes it especially interesting to me are oil tankers, an aluminum smelter, abandoned landfills, and the site of the proposed Gateway Pacific Terminal.

The first jaw-dropping experience yesterday was paddling around the 273-meter double-hulled oil tanker Polar Endeavor at the ConocoPhillips loading dock. We could tell that an oil transfer was underway because the vessel was low in the water, and we could see that the loading arms were engaged. My paddle companion and I took a minute to contemplate the magnitude of the oil being transferred here, and quickly realized that every item of clothing we had on, and our boats and paddles were made out of oil. We were humbled.

When we got closer, we were happy to see that a preventative boom encircled the vessel. This is required for any transfer of oil and some refined fuels when the transfer is over 500 gallons a minute. If the wind is blowing over 20 knots, which is very common in the Strait of Georgia, booming oil transfers is not required. They’re not required because it’s not safe for crew to deploy the boom, and because the boom is not effective in high seas.

Next, the loading pier at Alcoa Intalco. In my half dozen trips out here, I’ve never seen a vessel loading alumina ore, most of which comes from Australia. Along the top of this pier is a covered conveyor belt, and under it are huge pipes. Once, I took a look at some of Intalco’s wastewater discharge permits to see what was discharged from these pipes, and I got overwhelmed, and had to stop reading. But I do know this: the pipes suspended under the pier discharge process water and stormwater into the Strait of Georgia. Among other things, the process water contains suspended solids, fluoride, aluminum, and other pollutants in accordance with their permit, and the covered conveyor belt system helps keep the alumina dust out of the water while loading is underway.

This ravine used to be a landfill! In 1961 when the aluminum smelter was built, nobody thought too much about pollution, and so construction waste got dumped into this ravine, and until around 1984, so did industrial solid waste. The sign at the bottom of this ravine, where one of the landfills used to be, says “Former Landfill: Do Not Drink.”

This is the area where SSA Marine wants to build the biggest coal terminal in North America, which includes a massive pier that would dwarf all the others (the pier in the distance is the BP refinery). I like to stop here to admire the amazing variety of the cobbles, and the striking giant erratic boulders on the beach. On a calm day viewing the cobbles from the cockpit is mesmerizing, and all of a sudden, I’ve arrived at the next pier!

This is a Crowley barge and tug at the crude oil unloading pier at the BP Refinery. Although no oil was being transferred while we watched (we could tell because the oil transfer arms were vertical) we were glad to see that protective booming was in place. Perhaps they had just finished or were about to begin a fuel transfer.

Our last surprise was dozens of these rickety staircases on the unstable bluffs around Point Whitehorn. Some looked brand new! These stairs lead down from large, empty looking houses to the beach. Sure, everybody wants beach access, but these staircases look even more dangerous than kayaking! What’s holding them up? Some were just hanging there, but just to make sure nobody was tempted to use these, many of them had a “no trespassing” sign hanging from the bottom. In several places, large areas of the bluff had collapsed, leaving the crushed staircases in heaps along the beach.

We arrived at Drayton Harbor at dusk, just in time to meet our trusty kayak taxi driver Lynne, who picked us up and took us home. Thanks Lynne, and thanks for reading!


  1. Good show! I like your approach of showing both the good and the bad and how bad can be made good (and how good can be kept good)using lots of pictures and explanatory words.

    I think the Puget Sound Partnership should use that approach more in engaging the public.

  2. Thanks, RG! I'm always on the lookout for the good examples, so I hope folks will let us know when there's good ones to see. I'm looking for a comparable adventure in Skagit County...have any suggestions?