Kayaking into the new year: ‘Free Hike Day’ event draws 40 to Ike Kinswa State Park


The drive caused a bit of a concern.

Shrouded by low-hanging gray clouds for much of the trip, I wondered what exactly I got myself into when I pitched a kayaking trip as my first story of 2024.

Part of Washington State Parks’ “First Day Hikes,” Monday offered recreationists the first of 12 days to visit one of the state’s roughly 140 state parks free of charge. Throughout Washington, park staff and volunteers designed engaging activities to encourage starting the new year surrounded by nature.

A traditional polar plunge didn’t offer much appeal, and I thought a kayaking trip would offer an opportunity to be surrounded by nature while remaining dry. However, for much of the 40-minute drive to Ike Kinswa State Park, I wondered if poor weather would mean a dreary affair or change the event altogether.

Right around Silver Creek, though, the clouds parted, with unusually mild and dry weather following. During the event, a volunteer told me the state park was covered in a dusting of snow during the event last year.

The crowd of roughly 40 was evenly split between novices and more experienced kayakers. While the divide meant I would be rescued in case of emergency, it also left me with fear I would fall behind the pack.

“It was really good to have that mixture, and I agree it was a really good team-building experience for folks to feel safe,” said Alysa Adams, a Washington State Parks interpretive specialist who coordinated the event.

The event began with a safety lesson on entering the kayak, ensuring properly fitted life vests, general safety procedures and what to do if someone fell out.

While not unfamiliar with kayaking, if I selected a difficulty level, it would  be “beginner mode.”

Case in point, about three-fourths of the way through the trip, I learned I had spent an hour and a half paddling in a manner that somehow both slowed me down and tired me out. Throughout the trip, I paddled as quickly and violently as possible with deep strokes.

Seeing I was a novice, two more experienced kayakers showed me the proper technique, which entails gently skimming the water, rather than the aggressive, canoe-like form I attempted.

After shifting to the new technique, I used less energy and traveled faster.

During the trip, a bald eagle perched itself on a tree limb while Adams passed around muskrat and beaver pelts during a nature lesson. Much like a bundled up kayaker, a beaver has two layers of fur. One, an outer layer, wicks away moisture, while a second inner layer keeps the creature warm.

While on the lake, some paddled closer to shore to watch the tributaries empty into the lake.

While the lake bottom was visible for much of the trip, parts of the water sank far deeper.

A man-made body of water, Mayfield Lake was created in the 1960s when the Mayfield Dam was built. During a pre-trip lesson, Adams said remnants of the vacated town of Mayfield sit about 200 feet below the water line on parts of the lake.

After roughly two hours on the water, the group returned to shore without any unexpected polar plunges. Free life jackets were provided to attendees to keep, and Adams credited the State Parks boating safety program for their help in ensuring everyone remained safe.

“This event would not have been possible without the Washington State Parks Boating Program. We are tremendously thankful for their support,” Adams said, adding she hopes to host additional events during the summertime. “They provide water safety programming in parks across the entire state, and we look forward to partnering with them in the future for more paddles at Ike Kinswa.”

The Washington State Parks will offer 11 other “free days” in 2024, which include:

• Monday, Jan. 15 — Martin Luther King Jr. Day

• Saturday, March 9 — Billy Frank Jr.’s Birthday.  Frank Jr. was an environmentalist and tribal leader who served as chair of the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission.

• Tuesday, March 19 — State Parks’ 111th birthday

• Monday, April 22 — Earth Day

• Saturday, June 8 — National Get Outdoors Day

• Sunday, June 9 — Free Fishing Day

• Wednesday, June 19 — Juneteenth, which became an official federal holiday in 2021.

• Saturday, Sept. 28 — National Public Lands Day. The day was established in 1994 and takes place annually on the fourth Saturday in September.

• Thursday, Oct. 10 — World Mental Health Day. Established in 1992, the free day seeks to recognize the power of nature to restore mental health.

• Monday, Nov. 11 — Veterans Day

• Friday, Nov. 29 — Autumn Day

Adams said the free days are a way to “remove a barrier of entry” into state parks, adding the parks also provide a learning opportunity for visitors.

“We love to host events on days like that when families may not be able to join us otherwise,” Adams said. “It gets people aware that parks exist, that we’re here for them. It’s more than just hiking or picnicking, there’s a lot of opportunities.”