Whistle Lake: Reflections from the Back of a Canoe

Reflections from the back of a canoe  ||  story & photos by ADAM JEWELL  ||

I walk out into the garage and in passing I notice my canoe is dusty. “That’s odd,” I think to myself, “it hasn’t been that long since I last used it.” Or has it? I start counting backwards: “One…ah, two… three…four…No!—it can’t be—eight months?” With my hand I brush across the incriminating layer of dust, and the resulting streaks look like freshly plowed furrows in a potato field. “Don’t I like to canoe anymore?” I shake off the momentary doubt and remind myself just how much I absolutely love canoeing. “We passed fifty canoes in the Ski to Sea Race once! And the trip on Diablo Lake—that frigid spray from three-foot waves was a blast. So was dodging rocks down the Swanson River, and.…” I realized I still love canoeing, but because of things in life changing I just haven’t been out.

Regardless of our particular outdoor sport, we all wrestle with waning interest from time to time. It can be as a result of any number of things. One of the biggest setbacks is the loss of a good partner: Whether that loss is a leg or an arm to a roadside bomb when on active duty far away, an indelible 1982 Subaru wagon to the rusty ravages of time, or a dear friend of many adventures to a sudden death—it takes a while to rebound. Duane was a great canoe partner and a reliable guy to have in the bow; his death last winter certainly contributed to the dust collecting on my canoe. I am thankful for all of the adventures we shared and I know that he would have wanted me to keep canoeing.

Lack of a partner doesn’t mean you have to quit doing the sport you love. You just need to be more persistent, show some tenacity. In my college days I had free use of the club canoe, a veritable Bismarck of aluminum and rivets that went about as straight through the water as a penguin with only one flipper. I wanted to go fishing with the canoe so bad one time that I resorted to putting a tire in the bow seat in the absence of a paddling partner. I was so proud of myself because not only was I able to achieve my goal, but no one could steal my truck either, since it had only three tires. I had achieved the coveted old axiom of killing two birds with one stone. Tenacity at least makes for some good stories.

Explorer Christopher Columbus summarized it this way, “By prevailing over all obstacles and distractions, one may unfailingly arrive at his chosen goal or destination.” And that is the real lesson—that perseverance pays off, even though, ironically, Christopher arrived at the “wrong” chunk of sand. It might take a little while and it won’t be exactly what we expect or how it used to be, but when we persevere—after losing a partner, after having shoulder surgery, after someone steals a beloved road bike—we will eventually find a new groove.

We unload my canoe at the parking lot to Whistle Lake, our destination deep within the Anacortes Community Forest Lands. It’s a split-personality March day, alternating between sunshine and clouds every fifteen minutes. The puffy cumulus trek across the sky like cars making the afternoon commute on Interstate 5.

“Man am I glad I am not driving home from work,” I tell my partner, Dave, then I point to the canoe, “Think that will hold?” We both stare at the ratchet strap holding the boat to the “high-tech” dolly we had devised to tow it up the trail to the lake.

“Yeah, I think it’ll make it,” Dave replies.

“At least to the lake and back,” I reason. And so up the trail we go with our aluminum canoe in tow. Shafts of sunlight beam warmth through the arching Douglas fir trees, and sweat starts to trickle down my forehead from the effort to lug the battleship up the trail. I promptly shed my beanie.

Aside from sounding like a sack of tin cans falling down three flights of stairs, the dolly survives the trip. (It’s patented lest any of you begin to scribble notes to yourself about its complex components of lawnmower wheels, lag screws and a two-by-four.)

Quickly we loosen the ratchet strap, slide the canoe into the water, toss in the paddles, and shove off. A slight breeze breaks the lake surface into tiny waves fracturing the reflection of the sun into a thousand little mirrors. We flex our forearms and dig the paddles into the clear water, turning the bow windward.

Whistle Lake is just plain fun to paddle and explore. There are islands, reefs, bays, narrow channels, and cliffs of all heights. We take the canoe deep into the back corner, past the big island, where we pause to take in a good view of Mount Erie. Completely surrounded by acres of forestland void of any houses to look at, cars to listen to, or Jet Ski wake to contend with, it’s as remote as going fifty miles into the heart of the Cascades.

“This is sure a cool lake isn’t it?” I say as we glide silently along the big island.

“Yeah—it is,” Dave agrees, staring into the distance at I’m not quite sure what. We point the bow toward where we launched and reluctantly begin making our way back. It has been a fantastic day, one that you hate to see end. Sitting in the stern I smile to myself as I realize my canoe isn’t dusty anymore.

“We should do this again,” I tell Dave.

“How about next Saturday?”

The boat won’t be
collecting dust anytime soon, since next week we will be taking it to Skagit County’s remote Day Lake, the following week down the lower Snohomish River, and the week after maybe down some “Good-God-Almighty Rapids.” If I live to tell about that, my dust-free canoe and I will be on to crossing the Straits of Juan de Fuca….

Adam Jewell is still contemplating the sharp branches underwater at Whistle Lake and wondering why anyone would jump off a 60-foot cliff toward pointy objects. After honing his improvising skills in Alaska for 25 years, he is now considering mass marketing his Canoe Dolly® as the world’s longest wheelbarrow.


  1. Nice article. It really leaves me longing to get back on the water by paddle or sail & reminds of how much I miss it. Thanks for the reminder that time flies & that we need to make time for the people & things that matter most to us. Oh, on that note  "I could use some Mt Vernon wintervention".

  2. Adam,
    Great to meet you at the NWCWR.  Glad you liked the bear article. Keep writing, and keep the dust off.

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