Float On

Never Have I Ever: Traveled by Seaplane

Taking off from an airport with no runways.

By Allecia Vermillion September 16, 2021 Published in the Fall 2021 issue of Seattle Met

Image: Jane Sherman

“See you next week,” the passenger ahead of me tosses off as a friendly farewell to the gate attendant as we file out of Kenmore Air’s tiny facility on Lake Union. As airports go, it’s more of a glorified gift shop with an intercom than Sea-Tac’s large-scale slog of parking shuttles, security line indignities, and $18 snack packs. The guy in front of me appears to be a regular, living his best life in the form of back-and-forth seaplane commutes between the heart of Seattle and the remove of Orcas Island.

But this morning flight to the San Juans is my first time experiencing a seaplane as anything other than a cool airborne novelty in the backdrop of city life. A handful of daily routes lets vacationers trade ferry lines and hours of traffic for a 40-minute jaunt on an airline that specializes in destinations too remote for an airstrip.

In lieu of a runway, the terminal has three small float planes tied to a single dock. Don, our pilot (or is he a captain?), assembles his small gaggle of passengers and leads us toward one of them, like a teacher shepherding kids on a field trip. He stows everyone’s previously weighed luggage inside one of our plane’s two floats. Climbing inside via a decidedly minimalist ladder over the water, I fear for the phone and water bottle sticking out of my purse.

Our 10-seat DHC-3 Otter has in-flight magazines and complimentary earplugs, but little legroom. Air conditioning, drink service, and bathrooms are nonexistent. External navigational aids include some ropes and an oar, just in case. But show me another commercial flight where the pilot will let one passenger sit up front in the cockpit. And where the most tedious part of leaving town becomes as memorable as the destination.

Liftoff is smooth and loud enough that I dig for those earplugs. Suddenly we’re swooping over Gas Works Park; our path out of town doubles as an insider tour of Seattle’s many maritime personas. I take in houseboats and the unusual sight of two lakes, Union and Washington, glittering in unison. Ballard’s industrial boatyards give way to the recreational marinas of Shilshole Bay. And then—so much water, in every shade of blue. Even the most scenic drive can’t convey the wild lattice of land and waterways that constitutes this corner of Washington. I quiz myself on the formations below me—is that a strait or a channel?

Less than an hour later—after a quick stop at Rosario Resort—we land not with birdlike circling, but an aggressive beeline toward Friday Harbor. Our wake gently displaces some gulls who don’t bat an eye, much less a wing, at our noisy splashdown. Even if you ignore the breeze, it’s nearly 30 degrees cooler than the history-making heat dome we left behind in Seattle that morning (ugh, another first).

Sure, this magical form of travel has its prosaic downsides: limited luggage; no car or bike; ticket prices comparable to a round-trip to Chicago. Prices drop during shoulder season, but whatever the cost, it’s a particularly Northwest indulgence. Luxurious, yes, but not at all fancy.

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