United by a distinct lingo and a love for water and wetsuits, the Bellingham kayaking community is comprised of a tight-knit group of friends who strive to ride white water rapids as often as possible.
Bellingham local Japhy Carpenter-Dorworth has been kayaking for nine years and describes his love for the sport as a form of religion.
“We are going to run the stouts. Go to church out here in Bellingham,” Carpenter-Dorworth said. “Church is everything. It’s that place that you go to that brings you purpose and is a real righteous feeling.”
Sophomore Teague Manley has been kayaking for 10 years, and was attracted to the rivers and mountains surrounding Bellingham. His decision to attend Western brought him to a new group of friends with a shared passion.
“Bellingham has a super strong kayak community. The sport of kayaking is super small and there is a pretty large portion in Bellingham,” Manley said.
“One of the best things about kayaking—that we all love—is just getting to explore new places that nobody else gets to go.”
Western alumnus Andrew Swisher now lives in White Salmon, Washington, but has roots in Bellingham.
“It was great to get back to Nooksack living,” Swisher said in an email. “I hold that place near and dear to my heart.”
While at Western, Swisher took an environmental history and ethics class taught by Huxley College of the Environment professor Gene Myers. Swisher and Myers bonded as they conversed about kayaking and got the opportunity to run the Nooksack River together, Myers said.
“A lot of the younger paddlers these days are very geared towards upping the level of challenge,” Myers said.
Myers has been kayaking since 1975 and over the years observed how the sport has progressed.
“One thing I think has changed is the way people paddle and the kinds of stuff they paddle. There is a one through six class rating of whitewater difficulty. Six is the most difficult and technically is unrunnable. Tons of things we used to consider class six, people are running now,” Myers said.
Freshman Liam Field has been kayaking for five years, but a change in terrain has pushed him out of his comfort zone. Field said the rivers in Bellingham have more volume, pushier water and bigger features than those in Oregon, where he grew up.
“It is really cool to try to improve all of your different skills and all your different disciplines,” Field said. “Coming to Bellingham has really helped me out with that.”
Before arriving at Western, Field graduated from the World Class Kayaking Academy.
WCKA is a boarding high school offering education and kayaking through a program in which students attend classes in the morning and run the local rivers afterwards. Class kayaking trips allow them to travel to different locations around the world including Chile, Costa Rica and Mexico.
WCKA teacher Brendan Wells said 12 out of the 15 students currently enrolled at WCKA listed Western as their top college choice.
“Western is an awesome place to go to school and has really good white water,” Wells said. “It is a good match for kayakers.”
Wells has been kayaking for 11 years and graduated from Western in 2014. Since then he has been traveling the world pursuing both his love for kayaking and filmmaking.
“One of the best things about kayaking—that we all love—is just getting to explore new places that nobody else gets to go,” Wells said.
Wells documents his kayaking trips for his production company, Mountain Mind Collective. He used the first feature length film, “For The Love,” to inspire others to pursue their passion for kayaking and adventure outdoors, Wells said.
Kayakers like Wells have moved out of town to follow new adventures, but Bellingham’s local rivers and strong kayaker community pulls them back in.
For kayakers today, it is all about the chase for faster rapids and bigger waterfalls.
“Mellow rides is not even a word I know. We always keep it hyphy,” Field said. “Always run it fast and loose. We like to go big. We never go home.”