Where to live in Pacific Northwest

I’d just as soon live somewhere else, but when my wife and I are both retired, I think the most we can hope for in terms of common ground is a move from the east coast (Atlanta) to the PNW. I know it is a bit of a kayaking mecca but what I mostly like is poking around in salt marshes and protected bays and estuaries, watching birds, relaxing in my boat after a long day on the water and sipping coffee…that sort of thing. I see lots of videos of PNW kayakers doing more energetic paddling (the kind you probably shouldn’t be doing on solo outings), playing in surf or crazy tidal currents, or washing in and out of coastal caves and stuff. As I will have a lot of freedom to live where I want, if I live in that part of the country at all, I am wondering if any one here has some specific thoughts on places to live that have the kind of paddling I like nearby. For example, parts of the Columbia River close to the coast or some of the protected bays near Seattle. I like sun (my wife likes gray skies oddly enough), so I know I’m SOL on that front, but I was thinking that the San Juan Islands get a bit more sun than other areas. However, that seems like lots of open water paddling that requires a lot of planning vis-a-vis tidal fluxes and so on. But maybe I overstate it. I just know I have found paddling along the open coast a bit boring (and infrequently a bit scary).

I would be especially interested in hearing from anyone who started kayaking on the east coast and then moved to the PNW, and what you thought of the transition.

Thanks a bunch

Well I’ve never lived on the east coast, but I have lived in Washington State for most of my life. My personal preference is the Columbia River. The lower Puget Sound isn’t that far away if you like salt water and then there is the Pacific. To be honest you really have to be quite selective of locations when you pick the ocean.

For me the Columbia has it all with none of the negatives of the ocean. Where I live, there are also a bunch of lakes to choose from. We paddle year round and seldom have to deal with ice, but this past week has been kind of cold. Right now I’m sitting looking at a very angry looking Pacific Ocean, but at least this little storm is blowing in some warmer air to get us back to normal.

I grew up on the east coast, moved to CO and lived there for most of my adult life, started kayaking, moved to the PNW, and recently moved baaaaack to CO.

The sea kayaking where I lived in the PNW for about four years was fantastic. No ifs, ands, or buts about that. We were in Port Townsend, on the Quimper Peninsula on the Olympic Peninsula. (Say that three times very fast!) The great sea kayaking was a major reason we moved there, and it was a major factor in considering what we would lose by leaving the PNW. I launched by portaging the kayak on a cart right from my house, down to a sandy public beach with bathrooms nearby. Heaven!

From just that one launch spot in portaging distance from home, I had several routes to choose from, ranging from a sheltered paddle into the town waterfront, to short island crossings (Rat, Marrowstone), to more exposed and wilder-feeling paddles out the Strait of Juan de Fuca or across Admiralty Inlet. You can make the trips as tame or as wild as you like, with crossings to Whidbey Island or even to Victoria, BC possible (only for strong, skilled, knowledge paddlers). And that’s just the stuff without having to drive to another launch area, of which there are many.

If you like lake paddling, one of the prettiest lakes around, Crescent Lake, should be on your to-do list. It is in Olympic National Park.

Port Townsend, Sequim, maybe a little of eastern Port Angeles, and the San Juan Islands sit in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains. Briefly, this means that although the PNW overall gets moderate to heavy rainfall, it gets much less than Seattle and its surroundings. Average precip amounts in PT are less than 20" per year. Summers in the PNW are dry and sunny. The other seasons are when the rain comes, for the most part. It tends to be intermittent drizzle rather than all-day rain, though winter does bring some days of stay-indoors heavier rain.

You do need to understand tidal flows and their effects in this region. It can make for great fun, but if you mess up the timing in some places, you will be shoveling concrete, or at least that’s what it might feel like. It can also be dangerous. Not to scare you away–just learn about them and plan ahead. It will become second nature to figure out what your best paddling envelopes are for that day. And in some places it doesn’t matter a lot, other than making it more effort to paddle.

Since you are talking about retiring there, the lack of good job prospects is of no concern. That is one negative aspect of the north Olympic Peninsula. If you need more info, send me a private e-mail. Good luck.

Hey Pikabike, when did you move back to CO? What area?

My youngest son has lived in Olympia and Portland for going on 7 years, I’ve visited the coast in both states and Vancouver Island in Canada, and he has lived right next to the Puget Sound and Columbia River, but he is not into kayaking or waveskiing, although he is talking about taking up SUP paddling next time I visit. I visit my son a couple of times a year and I like the area, but to be honest if you are a sunshine person it’s not the place to be, The Pacific is pretty wild and cold on the coasts, requires good ocean and surf kayaking experience, plenty of paddling opportunities in the more sheltered waters.

@SeaDart said:

to be honest if you are a sunshine person it’s not the place to be,

Yeah, I know. My wife and I have diametrically opposed ideas about what would make a great place to live. For me, somewhere on the outskirts of Tampa/St. Pete…maybe Clearwater or Sarasota. I like sun and warm water. For her, Seattle or Portland. She likes gray skies, doesn’t mind rain so much and could care less about water temperature. I hope I have enough $$ to have a modest home in the PNW, and something else down in FL.

Oh, no; that set of opposites will be tough to compromise on. There is NO warm water in NW WA, except maybe shallow ponds in summer. Even that isn’t warm compared to Tampa/St. Pete area. Summer sun is ample, with many hours of daylight. From October through April or May, not so much.

Maybe a condo in both places? Or take a long vacation. I met someone from WA who drove to FL every winter and spent four months there. That’s another option, but the long drive would get old after a while.

Seadart, check your inbox. We moved back to CO in November and are happy to be in the Rockies again.

I live in Anacortes (so basically San Juan Islands). As far as sunshine goes, we are much much much better up here in the islands than Seattle and Portland. We get twice as many sunny days and half the rainfall. There are some days that the water is as glassy as a lake. Today we had 50 knot winds so there was no paddling today haha! You just have to get the right gear (drysuits!!!) and learn about the tides and currents, but the paddling will be as calm or as treacherous as you want it to be. There are a lot of options like rivers and lakes too.

Kenai Peninsula or Kodiak would be my choices

AK has warm water?

@pikabike said:
AK has warm water?

In summer, lakes are pretty warm

I live in Portland and paddle the Columbia about twice a week, on average. It’s fine, but I hope at some point to have easy access to less-commercial waters.

The Columbia, by volume, is a HUGE river but its flow is regulated by several dams. In that way, it’s a pretty mellow place to paddle. Downstream from Portland are many great put-ins that enable access to the wildlife refuge system along the river. With a relatively short drive eastward from Portland, you can access mellow paddling with the added benefit of getting into the rain shadow of the Cascades.

Out towards the mouth, paddling opps are endless. Among my favorite destinations is Cathlamet Bay. I use a rough put-in in a little place called Svensen, which provides easy access to the bay, much of which is designated wildlife refuge. It’s 13 miles to cross the river to Washington there (which is a really fin, challenging and long day). There are several better put-ins (just a little further from the bay) on both the OR and WA side of the river (check out Skamokawa, Washington) in the vicinity of the mouth.

It’s important to note that the Columbia can quickly become treacherous for the ill-prepared. It’s influenced by the tide – the river’s flow reverses several miles inland from the mouth – and the water is cold. Currently (January), the water temp in the Portland area is about 39 degrees, which will kill you quickly. Wind is a factor, too – less so in the winter, but summer afternoons typically see steady 8-15 knot north winds. It’s easy to find sheltered waters when the wind is up, (I frankly love hope for wind because in long fetches, 10-18 knots generates fun wind waves).

There are several coastal estuaries – all obviously influenced by the tide, but generally they’re mellow and certainly beautiful places to paddle. Living on the Oregon coast, you’d get the full brunt of annual precip, which is between 145-200" / year, depending upon locale.

I can second comments above about Pt Townsend. It’s a great little town in a beautiful part of the world that offers diverse paddling opps, as well as relatively easy access to Seattle and Vancouver Island. On the west coast of VI is Clayoquot Sound – definitely a journey to get there, but holy cow what an epic place.

Also consider Bellingham, WA. It’s about 45 mi south of the BC border, and an absolute playground. I cannot speak specifically to the paddling it affords, but certainly it’s a mecca, and a very pleasant place to be. It also benefits from the rain shadow cast by the Olympics, with annual rainfall roughly equivalent to Portland but with about 10 more days of overcast, in comparison.

You might also take a look at some of the paddling clubs. Here in PDX is the Oregon Ocean Paddling Society, and here’s a good list of other clubs in the PNW: http://www.northwestpaddling.net/paddle-clubs


Hey pnwer,
Have you ever launched at Rainier, Oregon, or Kalama, Washington. Those are probably my two favorite areas. Kalama is great for surfing in the summer. Rainier is just an all around great place to put in. Do not use the regular boat launch; go to the downtown city dock. There is a little kayak launch area right next to the walk ramp that goes down to the dock.

When you get to know the river, the tides are of little consequence. If you paddle downriver from Rainier, yes it is helpful if you return on an incoming tide, but don’t worry about it, because if you paddle upstream on the Oregon side, it’s not a problem. Don’t worry about ship traffic; they have to stick to the channel and that is marked with buoys and range markers and sometimes their wake is surfable.

Yes, the Columbia can get very rough at times, but the beauty of it is that you are almost never more than a quarter mile from a nice friendly sandy beach and the waves always diminish near shore, so no rough surf landings.

I have paddled all over on the lower Columbia, but for me, the very best is from the county line west of Longview to a few miles above St. Helens, Oregon. Hope to see you out there sometime.

One caution; the sea lions are about to start showing up and will probably be in the river until late spring, or longer. Most of them will leave you alone, but don’t trust the Stellars.

I was born and raised in the St. Pete area. I grew up in Seminole. My sister still lives in Palm Harbor. I could not wait to get out of there. Hot, humid, crowded (even 29 years ago). I admit I wasn’t paddling back then, but I was heading west at every opportunity for my outdoor adventures. After 29 years, I am still 100% happy that I moved to Salt Lake City. It’s just now getting to the point growth wise that St. Pete was when I left. I don’t ski anymore due to a messed up knee, but I do snowshoe a little. I discovered backpacking, fly fishing, mountain biking, whitewater rafting, and now kayak touring in my time here in SLC. Water sports fit my life best now. SLC has good college sports, an NBA team, MLS team, minor league baseball, and decent cultural activities. Then there’s the access to mountains, deserts, lakes, rivers, and national parks in Utah and 6-8 hours away in neighboring states. I don’t drink alcoholic beverages much anymore, so the odd Utah liquor laws don’t bother me.

I have spent plenty of time in the PNW and have friends and family there. I’d choose the PNW over Florida in a heartbeat.

Thanks for all of your great, specific comments and thoughts. They are going in a file.

In terms of having lots of sheltered saltwater with a high ratio of coast to water, and also lots of trees on land, from what I can tell from google maps, the areas southwest of Seattle also look kind of interesting. Not in the rain shadow, but can anyone comment on the paddling and/or the living environment in places like Lakewood, Artondale, Tacoma, Boston Harbor, Olympia, etc.? Are they nice areas to live, to paddle? What kind of feel do they have?

I don’t like big cities, so Tacoma and Seattle are out of the question. Olympia isn’t too big, but I wouldn’t live there on a bet. As others have mentioned, Port Townsend, Sequim, Anacortes, Bellingham, or even Everett would be where I would look. I’ve only been to Oak Harbor a couple of times, but I thought that was a very nice location. In fact that whole Fidalgo-Whidbey Island area is very interesting. It’s close enough to big cities, yet remote in some ways. I think the weather there is somewhat better than some of the mainland. I was told one time that the Navy chose Oak Harbor for good reason.

As I have already mentioned, I much prefer fresh water to salt water, so the Columbia River suits me. Other than the terrific paddling variety, there are lots of islands (almost all are free) and free sandy beaches everywhere.

I agree completely with magooch. No way in heck you’d find me living down there in Seattle/Tacoma/Olympia. I dread it when I have to even just make the trip. Toooooo much traffic, tooooo many buildings, and much more rain and gloom than where I live. It’s the epitome of dreary and industrial. As magooch hinted and others have already commented, I cannot stress how much better the weather is in the rainshadow in Anacortes/Whidbey Island, even Port Angeles out on the peninsula.

Thanks Magooch and sonnyjane!

@magooch – I have not put in at either of the places you mention, but will put them on the list. For sure, a hot summer afternoon makes for great times on the river,

Agreed on your comments regarding wind, tide, etc. My comments about the conditions in the Columbia are relevant to everyone, because it is cold, it is big, and the wind can create chop, but mainly I meant them for a person from Florida trying to draw a comparison between what he is accustomed to and what he’d find here.

The place I’ve visited that’s a contrast to your comment about tides is Cathlamet Bay and south among the islands of the wildlife preserve. Tidal currents aren’t much of a consideration (except closer to the mouth), but in among the preserve’s islands, channels at high tide can become muddy trenches at low tide. The tidal fluctuation out there is huge – at peak times of year as much as twelve feet – and under those conditions parts of the river become too shallow for small boats very quickly.

PS – I’ve had many a visit from sea lions while paddling in the river. Some really fun encounters, like when a small group and I paralleled one another for a while with about 50 feet between us – it was fun to hear them surface and breath. I’ve also inadvertently startled a napping sea lion – they’ll nap stomach up in the river sometimes, holding their flukes in the air (presumably to warm them up). Never have I had an unpleasant encounter – though some of them are huge animals.