Atmospheric scientist Dave Ortland takes up sea kayaking when he clocks out
Dave Ortland earns a living studying atmospheric waves and tides. Ortland also studies waves and tides of the liquid variety when he’s kayaking, but the latter research is to prevent an accidental dip in the drink. While it seems like the two types of winds and tides would be related, they aren’t very similar, Ortland said. Still, a basic understanding of fluid movement is nice to have when bobbing around on 4-foot swells in 20-knot winds.
Ortland is a senior research scientist at NorthWest Research Associates in Redmond, where he specializes in atmospheric science. The company is co-owned by its employees. He has a Ph.D. in mathematics, and obtains funding from NASA to analyze data from satellites and construct computer models of the atmosphere.
He lives in Bellevue with his wife, Hilary, and his young dog, Hazel, who is learning how to be a good kayak partner. Aside from Hazel, the Ortlands are empty-nesters, with four grown daughters.
Ortland began paddling canoes in the 1970s while living in Michigan. In 2002 and now living on the Eastside, he and his wife participated in a guided kayak tour around the San Juan Islands. “That’s when we started going on the saltwater,” he said. “Since then, it’s become rather extreme.”
By extreme, Ortland means he’s been out in some rather treacherous conditions: large swells, breaking waves, strong winds, and blinding fog. He has capsized, had his cockpit partially fill with water, encountered a grizzly on a beach in Alaska, and been surrounded by pods of whales.
But he’s always well-prepared to handle the various conditions, which can become deadly. When he capsized, for example, he was able to right his kayak and get himself out of the water quickly, thanks to his paddling partners.
Getting out of the water quickly is a life-saving maneuver in itself. “Kayakers don’t usually go underwater and drown,” Ortland said. “It’s the hypothermia that will get you in a matter of minutes.” So he wears a head-to-toe, waterproof suit to prevent hypothermia, even in warm weather.
Hilary also has experienced scary moments in her kayak. She once fell into water that was so cold she immediately began gasping for breath.
“You need to go out there and practice, build skills, and be prepared,” Ortland said.
To prepare, Ortland practices rescues and foul-weather survival by heading out on Alki during gale-force winds, when small boats are advised to stay off the water.
“This kind of practice did adequately prepare me and others for being caught by surprise in a squall in San Juans while making a two-mile crossing,” he said. “We made it safely with smiles on our faces, but it took us two hours.”
Ortland revels in the thrill. “You are on this immensely powerful body of water,” he said. “Feeling comfortable and in control out there is a pretty amazing thing.”
But Ortland also appreciates the serenity of kayaking, as well as the exposure to animals and nature.
“I love watching the wildlife, especially the birds,” he said. “I’ve seen puffins, sea otters, orcas, and Patch,” the well-known gray whale that has returned to the Puget Sound annually for the last 20 years. Last year, he put on quite a show for Ortland’s kayak group.
“He seemed to really enjoy showing off for us,” he said.
After the early San Juans excursion, the Ortlands joined the Washington Kayak Club, a volunteer organization that offers classes and group trips for both coastal and whitewater kayakers.
Ortland now leads his own kayak trips. As a trip leader, he does all the planning. “I start planning six months in advance,” he said. He’s led a two-week kayak trip in Sitka, Alaska, which meant he had to ship the kayaks up separately and plan food for the entire trip.
But even the best plans can’t prepare one for everything. While on the trip, Ortland’s group encountered a grizzly on the beach. In his and his group’s haste to leave the shore, Ortland forgot to reattach the kayak’s spray skirt, and his cockpit partially filled with water. He didn’t capsize, but he surfed the waves to shore.
Ortland has plied the waters of Deception Pass and off the Washington coast, but his favorite destination is the San Juans. He currently is planning a group trip to circumvent a San Juan island in a day, using the tides to their advantage.
“My trips are pretty well attended,” he said. “They always end at a brewpub.”
Hilary often accompanies her husband. Recently, Ortland figured out a way to include his furry friend Hazel by cutting out a dog cockpit in his kayak.
Ortland and Hazel have done a few short paddles together, including runs to the dog park on Mercer Island and even a cross-Puget Sound paddle to Blake Island.
“She’s pretty good,” he said. “She gets pretty excited.”
Kayaking is a sport that can be enjoyed by many —and for a long time, Ortland said. Some of the strongest kayakers Ortland knows are in their 70s and 80s.
At 60, Ortland considers this a good thing. “I’ve still got another 20 years left to kayak,” he said.
This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of “425 Business.”