Longtime Paddler Brings Kayaker’s Appreciation to Southwest Washington Waters

Lee First seeks better protection for the region’s largest estuaries—and its fish and wildlife

Longtime Paddler Brings Kayaker’s Appreciation to Southwest Washington Waters
Lee First
Lee First, the co-founder of Twin Harbors Waterkeeper, has been out on the water since her first expedition in northern Ontario at age 12. She’s out kayaking or canoeing around southwest Washington every week, rain or shine.
Lee First

Lee First recently wrapped up four months of chemotherapy for bone-marrow cancer—which kept her off the water for the first time in decades. “It’s kind of like torture,” First, co-founder of the nonprofit organization Twin Harbors Waterkeeper in southwest Washington, says of chemo. “It’s scary too.” The chemotherapy regimen that forced her to temporarily hang up her kayak has a 20% mortality rate, and the average lifespan of people who undergo the treatment is seven years. She also worried she wouldn’t be able to take any more of the epic boating trips—month-long canoeing and kayaking expeditions—she’s been doing most of her life.

Since late November, she’s been back on the water, exploring and protecting rivers and estuaries. This interview about her passion for paddling and her conservation work has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: Where was your first paddling trip post-chemotherapy?

A: I went to the Humptulips River, near the Pacific coast and about 125 miles southwest of Seattle, in my little creek kayak. It’s in the best shape of any of the rivers that flow into Grays Harbor. There’s great bird watching. And we saw a bear. I had two friends keeping an eye on me in case I keeled over, but I ended up having to wait for them!

Since then, I’ve been out every weekend, sometimes twice. I couldn’t care less what the weather is like. I have dry suits, wetsuits, gloves. I’m more concerned about getting sunburned than about getting wet.

white pelican
The thought of white pelicans such as this one inspired First during her four months of chemotherapy.
Madeline Kalbach

Q: What kept you going during your four months of chemo?

A: A friend gave me some picture books about the white spirit bears of British Columbia. That kept me going. So did thinking about the Humptulips estuary, in the North Bay of Grays Harbor, and all the white pelicans and eelgrass beds there. I needed to go to these places again. My friends kept me going, too; I had a huge support network. I also forced myself to walk to and from the clinic—about a half-mile each way. Some days, that was all I could do.

Q: How did you get started canoeing and kayaking?

A: My parents sent me to Lorien Wilderness Camp in northern Ontario the summer when I was 12. My first expedition was four weeks paddling a circle of lakes. The following couple of summers we did eight-week trips on lakes connected by rivers. The last two summers involved two different long river trips that ended at James Bay. Then I worked there as a camp counselor.

Q: That sounds idyllic. Was it?

A: There are a lot of portages up there, through muskeg and around really bad rapids and waterfalls. That part was kind of miserable—especially the mosquitoes. Once we got back on the water, it was fine.

Q: You grew up in New York state. So how did you land in the Pacific Northwest?

A: The last summer I worked at the wilderness camp in northern Ontario, I met someone from Bellingham who talked about Mount Baker and the North Cascades. I quit college on the East Coast and went to Western Washington University in Bellingham for one quarter. Then I joined a tree-planting crew, where we mostly followed the snowline, late fall to late spring. In the summer, we climbed trees to pick cones for seeds and did trail maintenance.

After five years, I went back to Western and got my bachelor’s in environmental studies.

Q: Then what?

A: I did all the groundwater and surface water monitoring at the Centralia landfill for almost 10 years. After getting my professional certification in wetland science and management from the University of Washington, I moved back to Bellingham and worked for the Lummi Nation, followed by working for the North Sound Baykeeper and then Spokane Riverkeeper.

Lee First with fallen tree
First checks out a massive tree during a kayak trip on the upper Wynoochee River, a tributary of the Chehalis River. The Wynoochee was dammed in 1970 to supply power to two pulp mills in Aberdeen/Hoquiam that no longer exist. Here, above the dam, there is still a free-flowing river.
Lee First

Q: Why did you start Twin Harbors Waterkeeper in 2018?

A: There are about 350 nonprofit Waterkeeper organizations around the world, aiming to keep local water clean, but there was no Waterkeeper covering Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor, which are the largest estuaries in Washington state. There’s a lot of industry in that area that’s not getting scrutinized. And the Chehalis River is like a paddler’s heaven. It has the healthiest salmon population of any river in Washington and it’s a stronghold for steelhead.

Q: What are the most significant threats to the area?

A: The proposed flood-control dam on the Chehalis River, which flows to the Pacific Ocean via Grays Harbor. That headwater area should be a national park, not an impounded reservoir behind a dam. There’s also a lot of industrial pollution and legacy contamination sites along the waterfront in Grays Harbor. And the Port of Grays Harbor is trying to attract more businesses. The last two were an oil export terminal and a potash export terminal. Some of these projects will impact eelgrass beds and other valuable habitat. 

We’re also doing a lot of outreach on seabed mining. If that started in the black sands in Grays Harbor, it could ruin the oyster industry and be devastating for crabbing and fishing—which are essential to the coastal economy.

Twin Harbors Waterkeeper
Twin Harbors Waterkeeper volunteer John Shaw (in back) joined Waterkeeper staff (left to right in front) Alexa Brown, First, and Sue Joerger at Willapa Bay’s North Cove in mid-January to separate yellow ropes, used in oyster farming, from other ocean trash. Working with volunteers from Surfrider, an ocean protection organization, they recovered more than 16,500 of the plastic ropes on 5½ miles of beach in one day. The ropes will be recycled.
Lee First

Q: What other types of hands-on projects are you doing?

A: We’re trying to educate people, and we’re working to get cleanups of old industrial sites started. And last summer, we launched a project to collect the plastic ropes used by some oyster growers that wash up on the beaches. We’re working with a company in Seattle called Net Your Problem that recycles fishing nets and other marine debris and that has a recycler in British Columbia that can reprocess nets and ropes into reusable pellets. And Werner Paddles, based in Washington, is interested in the possibility of using the mechanically recycled yellow ropes to manufacture plastic paddle blades. We haven’t worked out the details yet.

Q: Are you optimistic?

A: I’m encouraged because last July the governor’s office directed the Office of Chehalis Basin to find a nondam alternative for flood control on the Chehalis River. We’ve been part of an effort to defeat proposals for an oil terminal and a potash terminal for the Port of Grays Harbor. And I think we might have a chance to ban seabed mining given that state Senators Kevin Van De Wege and Christine Rolfes just introduced a bill (S.B. 5145). I’m hopeful that local folks will see the value of protecting fishing, crabbing, and shellfish farming.

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