Touring Lake Chelan by Surfski

The Lake Chelan wilderness is a wonderful place to find fresh air, cold clear water and wild open country. AND IF YOU'RE LUCKY, MAYBE YOU'll FIND YOURSELF TOO. 

A little over 50 miles in length, the lake presents a variety of paddling opportunities, and yet the two hemispheres of the lake couldn't be more different from each other.

I spent 12 hours paddling upwind... It was hard. 

The southeastern aspect of the lake is a water sport playground for power boat and resort types, and has a bit of a high desert feel surrounded by orchards, vineyards and matching villas with breathtaking views. As one travels the lake north west, the resorts and waterfront mansions give way to towering mountains and eventually... absolute wilderness. No roads, very few boat accessible landing sites and a couple of remote villages that are only accessible by boat, trail or airplane (Lucerne and Stehekin). 

One thing both ends of the lake have in common: heaps of wind that can blow in virtually any direction and create rugged, ocean like conditions and very little chance of immediate rescue if you get in over your head once past the Twenty Five Mile campground (which is not at the 25 mile point of the lake, fyi). The steep mountain terrain and sheer cliff sides tend to funnel and amplify the wind, and the sheer rocky shoreline can make for sections where wind and water create hay-stacking rebound water conditions. All of which is totally alluring for the viking minded but an absolute no-go for the less prepared or skilled. Most lake forecasts that I have found are not accurate forecasting the wind conditions on the water up-lake. I suspect this is because the data comes from either town of Chelan or the nearby mountain tops. On the other hand, I have had trips to Chelan where the water is simply glass flat for days on end (more likely in August). 

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Lake Chelan has a water composition similar to Lake Tahoe; the high mineral content keeps the lake water incredibly clear and limits plant growth. The lake is is also very, very deep (1486') with numerous kayak accessible primitive campsites, but you'll need to be skilled enough to land in potentially rough water next to granite slabs. Not a big deal if you paddle a plastic boat, but very much a big deal if you paddle a delicate surfski.

There are several small docks and formal campsites along the lake, but they require a bit more planning (getting a permit) and might limit your itinerary for the trip. There is also the fact that you'll be around other campers, something I prefer to just avoid when going to the wilderness in the first place. 

This dock was missing a slat in just the right spot for a surfski rudder to fill. 

Another fantastic aspect of paddling by the shear cliffs and discovering some of the numerous hidden waterfalls that plunge hundreds of feet directly into the water below. In a kayak or SUP, one can get quite close to them. 

The little luxuries: I brought some Bear's Breath to brighten up my breakfast options. 

The little luxuries: I brought some Bear's Breath to brighten up my breakfast options. 

Rounding each point presents a new, breath taking horizon. And more miles to paddle. 

The Epic Envy in her prime. What a joy to paddle. 

I don't often take selfies, but when I do they involve surfskis, waterfalls, and giant cliffs. The world needs more of the latter if not the former. 

I don't often take selfies, but when I do they involve surfskis, waterfalls, and giant cliffs. The world needs more of the latter if not the former. 

A word about the power boats: In July / August the south eastern aspect of the lake is a big, rowdy party and some of the boats can be aggressive to paddlers (just like cars can be to cyclists). The tension is particularly high around boat ramps. Up lake is a totally different mindset, and you're likely to get a few surprised looks and friendly wave's if you're out on a big day up lake for an adventure. Up lake, a VHF radio is your best bet for any type of rescue or help, and there are forest service ranger boats up there on a regular basis. 

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