Thursday, October 24, 2013

Kayaking the San Juan Islands

In Summer 2011, right after I finished graduate school, it was Allyson's turn to lose herself in graduate school. Before diving in, we wanted (desperately needed) an adventure. Several months before, I had entered a lottery to hike the Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier in Washington and we got the permit! We were so excited! And then a week before we were planning on going (with two of our friends), we discovered that much of the trail was still under several feet of snow. Our bucket list adventure was not going to happen in 2011. But of course, we were not going to give up on adventuring and we already had our tickets up to Washington (plus we had to be on Orcas Island a couple weeks later to find a caterer for our wedding in 2012). 

One of our friends had some experience with kayaking, reading tide charts, etc. and we are pretty experienced kayakers (even more so now, after this adventure and our amazing kayaking trips in New Zealand), so we decided to spend several days kayaking in the San Juan Islands. Most kayak rental companies in the San Juan Islands want you to or require you to go on a guided trip, and rightfully so. Honestly, if you have money, the guided trip would be a lot simpler and require less planning on your part. We had to take care of a lot of details last minute and some of them were tricky. 

Also, the trip I'm going to outline here shouldn't be done unless you know what you are doing. At the end of this post, I will outline an easier trip that might be better for people with a little less experience and still plenty of fun! 

Views of Mt. Rainier from Seattle. See all that snow! We spent a couple days in Seattle with family and friends before heading out to the islands. 

Getting to the islands is an adventure in and of itself. You can either fly to the islands on Kenmore Air or take the ferry from Anacortes (about a 2 hour drive from Sea-Tac International Airport). I've done both and both are cool. Both have limited schedules, so it can take some planning to coordinate your flights to Seattle and your travel to the islands. It's worth the hassle, trust me! 

At the ferry dock.

Already worth the hassle. Riding the ferry is one of my favorite parts of going to the Islands. 

We rented a car and drove up to Anacortes to take the ferry to Friday Harbor (San Juan Island). We had reserved two tandem kayaks from Sea Quest Expeditions on San Juan Island before leaving for our trip. We checked in with them on the day we got there, but didn't pick the kayaks up until the following day. 

We camped the first night on the islands at San Juan County Park on the west coast of San Juan Island (this was also our launching point the following morning). This was a great place to camp and look for Orca Whales while watching the sun set. 

We did see whales way off in the distance!

The next morning we had to get the kayaks to San Juan County Park and watch a safety video required by the park in order to launch from there. We couldn't leave our car at San Juan County Park while we were gone, so our two friends drove the car into Friday Harbor, had a taxi/shuttle (they are equipped to move just costs more) take them to pick up the kayaks at Sea Quest Expeditions, and then headed back to San Juan County Park. Allyson and I watched the video, so we were basically ready to go when the other two got back to the park. 

Clearly pumped to get out on the water!

I'm not an expert kayaker, but from what I know we had incredible luck with the currents and tides for our trip. I am not sure this trip would always be as manageable as it was for us. I really appreciated the help Sea Quest gave us in planning the trip. Our trip was 5 days and 4 nights, starting at San Juan County Park and finishing up in North Bay on the east side of San Juan Island. All of our campsites were part of the Cascadia Marine Trail, a network of campsites, access points, etc. from Olympia, Washington to Canada. 

We made stops at Henry Island, Stuart Island (overnight), Point Doughty on Orcas Island (overnight), Jones Island (overnight), Deer Harbor, and Turn Island (overnight). Note: I would cut Deer Harbor out of the trip....we desperately wanted a warm breakfast but there were no restaurants, just egg and cheese biscuits at the harbor store.

Day 1 - San Juan County Park to Stuart Island

We took off from San Juan Island, and paddled for awhile before stopping for lunch on Henry Island. I would never have imagined we would see such a beautiful fox on the beach, especially right after we began! 

Henry Island

A beautiful Madrona Tree, which our friend used as an example when designing our wedding invitations.

After lunch we continued north across the Salish Sea (and the ferry route so kept our eyes open!), to the west of Spieden Island and up through the channel between Stuart and Johns Islands.

Passing by Spieden Island on our way to Stuart Island 

After the channel, we went left/west along the north side of Stuart Island, and the north side of Satellite Island, before turning into Prevost Harbor. We stayed the night in Stuart Island State Park with beautiful views (obviously!) and a campsite right on the water.

Our campsite

Day 2 - Stuart Island to Point Doughty

The next morning, the tide was coming in, so we planned on staying on Stuart Island for the morning. We took a nice hike to Turn Point Lighthouse. The trail is actually a dirt road, but there are few cars on the island. We walked by the Stuart Island school. It was really interesting to see old class pictures of the small number of students that attended the school, and they had some artwork by the children for sale as well.

In early afternoon, we took off and headed out of Prevost Harbor, back along the coast of Johns Island, and (I think) to the north of Flattop Island. This was one of the most challenging (and frankly a bit scary) sections of our trip. It took a long time to get across this fairly open stretch of water and there were pretty big waves. It was nothing like our experience on the Mad Mile at Abel Tasman in New Zealand, but it still took a lot of work and was not all that pleasant.

When we got to Orcas Island we took a short break on a beach before continuing up the west coast. I think the beach we stopped at was close to Lover's Cove, but I don't know for sure.

We then paddled the rest of the way up the west coast of Orcas Island to Point Doughty. This place was so amazing! It felt like we were at the edge of the world or something with incredible views all around. In reality, Point Doughty is not that far from Eastsound and really close to a YMCA camp, so we could hear people at night. 

The staircase up to the campsite at Point Doughty (it is located on the south side of the point) 

Love this spot 

Our campsite at Point Doughty. I think there are four primitive sites total. 

Day 3 - Point Doughty to Jones Island

The next morning we took off pretty early and it was raining and foggy. Because I'm a self-proclaimed sun worshiper, most people would think I could not enjoy a morning like this. But quite the contrary in a place like the San Juan Islands. These are their most special mornings. These mornings, the water is like glass and the seals and bald eagles and other creatures are all out enjoying the quiet morning.

We shared the beach with this regal bird for quite some time. He didn't seem to mind. 

We had heard that we needed to be careful with the seal pups this time of year, because they'll follow your kayak and lose their mamas. We were very careful not to paddle away from this little one until we knew she wasn't following us. 

We got to Jones Island on the early side, and we welcomed the easy paddle day. Jones Island had more people than anywhere else we had been so far, but not so many that it was crowded or anything. We paddled around to the west coast of the island and found some kayak only sites (on the north side of the island, motorized boats can anchor and stay the night). We did a lot of just hanging out at our campsite (which was lovely!) but also explored the island a bit. There were lots of little trails around the island, so fun to go out and explore on foot (rather than by water) for a change. 

We shared our campsite with this critter, who was just waiting for us to go to bed before he and his friends came to rummage around our campsite!

Sunset at Jones Island

Day 4 - Jones Island to Deer Harbor to Turn Island

We woke up really wanting a plate of hot food (eggs, potatoes, bacon, biscuit was what I was picturing) and decided to venture off course a bit to Deer Harbor on Orcas Island. The paddle over there was really nice but we kind of had to be sneaky about where we pulled up on shore. Then we discovered there weren't really any restaurants right at the harbor. We were super disappointed, but made the most of it and ate some egg and biscuit sandwiches and drank some coffee before heading on our way. 

This morning/afternoon was the only other sketchy moment on our trip. We had to cross another ferry route, which was a pretty wide channel, with some choppy waves, and several large eddies. I was pretty anxious for moments of the crossing, but it went fine. Again, we went around the west side of Turn Island because there were some people already camping on the north side. We had the west side of the island to ourselves all evening, and I'm now realizing why wouldn't you go with the west side? Best sunset views from there!

Day 5 - Turn Island to San Juan Island

We got up early on the fifth day because Allyson and I planned on catching a morning ferry to Victoria, Canada. This morning was one of my favorite memories of the trip. I have no pictures because it was raining pretty steadily and it was just too magical to take out the camera. The water was, again, perfect glass. We paddled around Turn Point, and along this stretch, I've never seen so many Harbor Seals and pups in my life. With the water so perfectly calm, we could see their little heads pop up really far away from us (and really close). They were everywhere!

I think we took our kayaks out at Jackson Beach Road, but I'm not positive. It was a boat launch (motorized), and the taxi came to pick us and our kayaks up there. The taxi then dropped us off in Friday Harbor and then took the kayaks back to Sea Quest Expeditions for us. (Don't quote me on this, but my notes say this shuttle service cost us $40 per kayak each way, so $160 total.)

We were soggy, smelly, and cold, but Allyson and I hopped the ferry to Victoria, where we had the most luxurious hotel room (sure felt like it after 5 days in the water). After a hot shower, we felt so satisfied with our kayaking adventure and were ready to enjoy the rest of our time in the Pacific Northwest on land!

Just a few of my other favorite pictures from our time in Victoria and on Orcas Island...

Beacon Hill Park in Victoria

Back on Orcas...

We saw Elephant Revival play in our wedding venue and it was the perfect way to experience the magic of Odd Fellows Hall. For wedding photos, see our wedding photographer's (Jonathan Steinberg) blog

Other Self-Guided Kayaking Options in the San Juan Islands

I recommend contacting Outer Island Expeditions on Orcas Island. They will rent kayaks for multiple days and can help you plan out a good trip. From here (you can put the kayaks in here at the north short of Orcas Island), you could go to Point Doughty, Jones Island, Blind Island, and Obstruction Pass State Park. When I last spoke with them, they offered to pick us up at Obstruction Pass. This is a good beginner route. You could even fit Turn Island in there between Jones and Blind, if you were comfortable crossing the big channel.

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