I am paddling one of the most beautiful and challenging passages of Washington State’s Cascadia Marine Trail–the crossing from Fort Ebey, on Whidbey Island, to Fort Worden, on the Olympic Peninsula. Over my left shoulder rise the high sand-and-clay cliffs of Whidbey. Ahead to my right are Port Townsend and the 7,000- and 8,000-foot peaks of the Olympic Mountains. Directly beneath me flow billions of cubic feet of tidewater that this morning gaily surged down the Strait of Juan de Fuca into Puget Sound and now has reversed itself, moving seaward, squeezing between headlands three miles apart at speeds that at full ebb can reach five knots. Even at “slack” it is a confused sea for my kayak to negotiate, and I have to work to reach the protected waters off Point Wilson. The last few strokes are made in silence as the cliff that harbors Fort Worden rises up and reveals a secluded beach and a CMT site sign marking my home for the night.

Once my kayak is above the tide line and my tent is up, I settle against a beach log to look back over the waters just paddled. This crossing is not only one of the toughest routes on the trail, but also a transition point from the open fetch of the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the relative protection of Admiralty Inlet and northern Puget Sound. Tomorrow will be an easier day of exploring.

I rummage in the food bag for the Swiss Army corkscrew and note yet another transition–that this trail defines the maturing of our sport. Back in 1989, a group of kayakers and canoeists met to discuss the increasing difficulty of paddling safely through Puget Sound and the San Juans. The state parks were just too few and far between. Today, this campsite is like a stagecoach outpost amidst the wild western sprawl of Seattle and Tacoma, Vancouver and Victoria (Fort Worden, which was built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is roughly equidistant from both major metropolitan areas). I toast my refuge and the Washington Water Trails Association, the organization formed by these paddlers that brought legislation forward in 1993 to enable the state’s parks to support the Cascadia Marine Trail.

Tracing its routes through a decade’s worth of meetings, proposals, legislation, construction, and maintenance, it is a delight to see the initial route maturing into a network of marine pathways and shoreside campsites. From 20 initial Washington State park sites, the CMT has doubled in size to its current 43 sites. A boatload of public and private communities, cities, counties, and authorities are now involved in aiding and donating sites and access.

So, with all these new sites, where do you paddle on the CMT? The trail runs from the bottom of Puget Sound to the Canadian border. Within this 90ish-mile distance lies 1,800 square miles of sea and shore, creating to my mind five distinct and separate paddling environments: the Central Sound, the South Sound, the Outside Route, the Inside Route, and the San Juan Islands.

South of here lies the heart of the Sound. With Everett, Seattle, and Tacoma crowding its shores, one should be skeptical about paddling here, but there are a surprising number of wild to elegant trail sites to enjoy. Taking out the chart and the Cascadia Marine Trail Guidebook, I consider the Central Sound options. Beyond Port Townsend is Fort Flagler, on Marrowstone Island, and seven nautical miles (nms) south is Oak Bay County Park. Together with Fort Worden, this set of sites is a perfect round-island route.