Photo: Ramblin Lamb Photography

By Rob Casey
Published: March 8, 2011

It was 25 years ago when Washington state whitewater kayaker Sprague Ackley founded the La Push Pummel as a casual gathering for paddlers seeking to surf large winter waves. Washington Kayak Club eventually took over the reins, and in 1998 Ken and Ellen DeBondt became the organizers. Photos from Joel Rogers show kayakers perched atop gnarly wind-blown storm waves up to 20 feet tall.

La Push is a tiny fishing town squeezed between the two coastal strips of Olympic National Park on the Quileute Indian Reservation fours hours outside Seattle. Jagged sea stacks and tree-lined islands with vertical cliff faces line First Beach, the main surfing area. A steep beach, First Beach is known for its pounding shorebreak at higher tides preventing paddlers from getting out without injury, broken fins, or both. The Pummel was previously held in January, but due to wild conditions in recent years, it was moved to late February in 2009.

Thirty surf kayakers, sea kayakers and standup paddleboarders made the trek to La Push the weekend before last, Feb. 25-27, through slush-covered roads and high winds. Tsunami Ranger and filmmaker Michael Powers traveled from Northern California to shoot footage for a documentary on the gathering. Waist-high waves greeted paddlers Friday evening, with light offshore winds, and a beautiful sunset. The SUP crowd surfed 'til dark as sea kayakers took advantage of the small summer-like swell to paddle around James Island at the mouth of the Quileute River. Saturday morning was flat with air temperatures in the lower 30s but a northwest swell and strong onshore winds picked up mid-day giving paddlers mushy head high waves. Sea kayakers paddled to rock garden in sea stacks south of La Push. Ken and Ellen provided local dungeness crab for the annual Saturday evening pot-luck, which was well attended.

Sunday morning greeted paddlers with gale force winds, horizontal rain, and huge shorebreak, making surfing impossible. On the journey home, many surfed glassy chest high waves in several locations along the wind protected Strait of Juan de Fuca.

Tragically, La Push’s co-organizer, Ellen DeBondt, was killed in a traffic accident Sunday morning, March 6. Story from the Peninsula Daily News here. Look for further remembrances here on this week. Meantime, our condolences go out to Ellen’s family and friends.

Photographer and writer Rob Casey is author of "Stand Up Paddling Flat Water to Rivers and Surf" by Mountaineers Books. He teaches standup paddling and kayaking in Seattle through his business, Salmon Bay Paddle.