Coldwater Kayaking near Mount St. Helens

Lake reveals even more beauty when viewed from surface of the water

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Coldwater Lake's fjord-like beauty can be appreciated from its shore, but gliding across the lake on a kayak leads to more stunning scenery.

To one side, the snow-capped summit of Mount St. Helens looms in the distance. The green cupolas of the Mount St. Helens Science and Learning Center sit atop the ridge on the other shore, above a park-like expanse next to the shore.

Snow also decorates the top of jagged Minnie Peak, which towers 3,000 feet above the lake's upper end.

Rental access begins

Though Coldwater Lake has been open to the public since 1993, this is the first year people who don't have a watercraft of their own can behold the scenery.

In March, the Forest Service awarded permits to two companies to provide guided kayak trips on the 750-acre lake.

One of the companies, NorthWest EcoExcursions, is based in Longview, the hometown of co-owner Tracie Driver.

Driver's company started kayak trips in May, and she took family members out on a short trip on the lake last week.

She uses open-topped kayaks that are more water-worthy than they look -- and easier for beginners to use.

Customers "are pretty (eager) to get on the water," she said.

With the sit-on-top kayaks, she does not need to tell customers how to extract themselves if they were to roll over.

Driver does give a short, volcano-specific safety briefing.

"Earthquakes and eruptions and ash plumes are definitely something to consider here," she said.

In case of an eruption, kayakers will get back to the launch ASAP and drive away.

"There's a lot of wind that kicks up," she warned about the 3-mile-long Coldwater Lake. "Don't panic. The (kayak) bottoms are designed to hug the water."

After the safety spiel, the little fleet of bright orange and green kayaks glided across the lake, circling what's known as Hummock Island.

Purple lupine covered the top of the ash-gray island. An eagle swooped overhead; later, an osprey flew by with a trout in its talons.

The EcoExcursion trips on Coldwater Lake last about two hours; how far people paddle depends on their ages and levels of experience.  Children as young as 3 can ride in two-person kayaks with an adult. Those 8 and older can paddle on their own.

Driver limits groups to 10 participants.

"We like to keep our groups small and informal because we provide a lot of education on the trips," she said. "If people want an adrenaline rush, we're not the people to call on. The environmental education part is more important to us."

Experience in education

Driver brings years of experience as an environmental teacher to the enterprise. Her savvy showed after the kayaks had returned to the dock. When someone spotted a snake swimming near the shore, Driver waded right in and grabbed the reptile, which hissed at the gathered onlookers.

She knows the outdoors, having worked as a ranger for Washington and Oregon state parks.

Driver has also worked as a wildlife rehabilitator, and spent six months in Mississippi cleaning up birds after the 2010 BP oil spill. Her career as a park ranger ended when she suffered a broken neck after a drunken driver hit her car (the accident did not sever her spinal cord), but she soon regained her energy and love for outdoor trips.

In 2008, she and Linda Osborne started NorthWest EcoExcursions in Depoe Bay, Ore. Last year, they moved the business to Longview to be closer to friends and family.

"I was very connected to the mountain," Driver said. "My family has always been. I'm pretty passionate about sharing it with visitors."

Driver said she and Osborne hope to move their home-based office to a storefront for better visibility.

In addition to Coldwater Lake paddles, NorthWest EcoExcursions offers kayak trips on Lake Merwin, the East Fork of the Lewis and on Coal Creek Slough, and hiking trips on the north and south sides of Mount St. Helens.

Patience to get permit

Driver is as passionate about expanding Mount St. Helens tourism through ventures like hers as she is about teaching clients about nature.

She said the future of volcano tourism is increasing the number of concessionaires like hers.

Already, her trips have generated media buzz. Driver has appeared on Portland television and has gotten calls from journalists in other countries, she said.

Even so, she said, getting a permit from the Forest Service was like paddling upstream against a formidable current.

After Driver was initially denied a permit, Cowlitz County Commissioner Jim Misner became involved. Misner said getting the permit required "a little bit of pestering on my side. Tracie is ambitious and she's smart. She's not going to take no for an answer."

Misner said he called the Forest Service and was told that the federal agency had decided a decade ago to stop issuing concessionaire permits at the volcano because it lacked the staff to process them.

He called U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler's office and continued discussions. Eventually Mount St. Helens National Volcanic Monument manager Tom Mulder "pulled some strings and he cut through a myriad of federal red tape and he made it happen," Misner said.

The Forest Service found a way around the impasse by issuing NorthWest EcoExcurions and Cascadia Adventure Education School one-year permits for kayak trips.

Lisa Romano, the national volcanic monument's community engagement specialist, said the agency will evaluate the program at the end of the season.