A kayak chat with the floating home neighbors

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I paddled my kayak past the floating homes lined up along the shore of the Lake River. A slight wind rippled the water and generated mini waves. The afternoon sun lit up the tips. I studied the Ridgefield, Washington, homes floating next to me. There was an entire co-culture living on the water, and as a curious writer, I wanted to pen their history.

I placed my double-bladed paddle across my kayak and half-leaned my body over the rounded edge. My cupped hand gathered a small amount of cold, river water and splashed it on my bare legs. Refreshed, I kicked my feet from inside the kayak and propped them onto the multi-colored plastic nose in front of me. 

The first kayaks were not massive pieces of rotomolded polyethylene - plastic - or fiberglass. Earlier kayaks, created by the Inuit (an Arctic people), were Eskimo light boats with a wooden frame covered with hairless sealskin, used as hunting equipment. Kayaks - or ‘qajaq’ as said in Greenland - became an essential part of Greenlandic culture and migratory roots. The literal translation for qajaq is “small boat of skins.” 

I floated and allowed the river’s current to guide me. The call of a bird broke a serene silence. Straight ahead, a man stood on a buoyant deck attached to a floating home and monitored a dropped fishing line. How does the home float? I thought. I shifted in my seat and began to glide past his residence. My curious nature would not allow it. I had to stop and talk. 

“Hi,” I said. I dragged the paddle forward into the water and turned the nose of the kayak to face the fisherman. “Do you mind if I interrupt your fishing? I was wondering how does your house float?”

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The man smiled, stood up, and shuffled toward one edge of the deck. He pointed and said, “Do you see the large logs under the house?”

“Yes,” I leaned slightly forward, squinted my eyes, and looked at the old-growth cedar logs supporting his home. 

“Well, the logs keep the house afloat. The wood can last fifteen to fifty years. Part of the log has to be above the surface, the other part submerged in water. That allows water to soak into the wood from below and evaporate into the air." He took a couple of long strides back to his fishing line and added, "I purchased this house two years ago. I had eleven logs replaced.”

“Wow!” I said. “How do you do that?”

“Scuba divers placed the logs under the home," he said. 

 

According to the website Portland Waterfront Properties: "Many of the older floating homes in the Portland market were constructed using "old growth" cedar logs, which were cedar logs of unusually large diameter.  Today's floats are built using the largest diameter logs the builder can obtain. The logs run the length of the float and are tied together using wood or steel "stringers" that are installed perpendicularly across the top of the logs to create a building platform.  
Older log floats were usually built by cutting "notches" into the top of the logs to accommodate the installation of the stringers.  This notching method made it difficult to level the float. It often became necessary to add "shims" below the stringers to help level the float." - portlandwaterfrontproperties.com
 

I brushed a stray piece of hair away from my face, and thought, I wonder how much that cost? My newfound friend continued to speak. "Most of my neighbors have some connection to the water," he said and proceeded to talk about them. I listened. After a time, he changed the topic. “Have you ever been to the Big Paddle? It’s the first Saturday in June?” he asked. 

“No, I’ve wanted to go in the past, but couldn't make it. I’m hoping to go this year.” I said and backpaddled the kayak away from the dock.  

“You should. The Chinook Indians have a long, wooden boat they bless before the event. After, they ride along the river. About three hundred kayakers participate. The city breaks everyone into small groups and provides them a guide. The guide will show you where the ospreys nest." His hand waved down the river. 

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“I would love to write about that,” I said. “I’m a travel writer and photographer.” 

“I traveled the world when I was young,” he said and delved into a tale of globe-trotting excursions never recorded. I thought, There were no social media accounts or travel blogs when you traveled. For years, people have sold everything they owned and traveled the world. It isn’t a new thing.

“You said your name was Kirk, right?” I said and started to back paddle. 

“Yes, it’s Kirk. Like Captain Kirk.” he smiled, then turned, distracted by his dropped fishing line. 

I chuckled and said, “It was nice to meet you, Captain Kirk. Maybe I’ll see you on the first weekend in June.” 

He yanked on the line and pulled a small fish out of the water. "Look! I caught one." 

"That's great!" My voice trailed off behind me as I paddled away. 

Later, I spotted another resident on his dock. He was working on a white wooden boat. His radio blared. I raised my voice over it, “Did you make that boat?” 

“Yes,” he said standing above me and my kayak, his shirt wide open. 

“It’s beautiful,” I said. “Can I see the seats?” Earlier I had watched him place a finished seat in the boat.  

“Thank you," he responded to my compliment. "You have to come up here to see the seats.” He pointed to the dock and flashed me an amused smile. 

I looked around for somewhere to climb out of my kayak but thought better of it. “I’m afraid I’ll tip my kayak,” I said. The craftsman nodded and walked to the boat and lifted up a long, natural wooden seat. He turned it over in his hands and looked down at his excellent work. I acknowledged his artistry. 

“Is the boat for fishing?” I said. 

“Yes,” he said. It’s the Chesapeake Bay model.” He paused for a moment, then continued, “I used to work for a man that made wooden boats. He always made me fix them. It’s how I learned."

He placed the seat in the boat and said, "Why don’t you paddle around and look at the front?" 

“Okay,” I said and shifted my weight, dropped my paddle, and glided my kayak past the side of his home. He strolled to the front of the boat. I gritted my teeth and concentrated on turning my kayak. He waited. 

After I was situated, he said, “It looks different from the front, doesn’t it?” Pride flashed across his face. 

 The front of the craftsman's boat. 

The front of the craftsman's boat. 

“Yes, it’s beautiful. Do you mind if I take a photo?” I said and lifted my phone. 

“Not at all. I’ll get out of the picture,” the craftsman said, and the tail end of his sentence disappeared around the side of the house with him and his dog. I snapped a few photos, paddled my kayak to the middle of the river, then shifted my body to see if he had come out of his house. He stood on the deck. “Do you mind if I share the photos on the internet?” I shouted over the tunes playing on his radio. 

“Go ahead” he shouted back. 

“Thank you! Have a good day.” I said and waved goodbye. 

The sun sank into the horizon as I glided across the river's flowing water. A fellow kayaker drifted past me. A large dog sat between his legs. Birds flew overhead. A slight breeze cooled the air. I moved my head side to side and stretched my neck muscles. I imagined myself at my computer that night. My fingers typed a story about the people who lived in the floating homes of Ridgefield, Washington. 

- Ingrid


Knowledgeable Tidbits: 

As I continue to post on my blog, one of my goals is to always provide a bit of knowledge throughout my posts, or possibly at the end of each piece. Here's an article by The Oregonian about the different types of homes located on the water: Floating House Living Perks and Pitfalls

*All photography for this story is copyrighted and was taken by me with my iPhone (or in the future, a GoPro). I don't like carrying my professional camera when I kayak. For me, it takes away from my experience.

**All sources are linked within the article. 

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