27 September 2014

Paddling trip on San Juan Islands

Sep 2014

After two years of waiting was finally able to do a sea kayaking trip.

Joined a team on San Juan Islands, in Washington State. Pacific Northwest so to speak.  Canada, Vancouver Island, was in sight in short distance.

Day -1 and 0

A flight to Seattle, a bus drive and eventually arrived at San Juan Islands by ferry.  The San Juan Islands consisted of several large and small islands, San Juan and Orcas being the largest ones.

Had some whale watching and cycling exercise first. Islands were fairly high, rocky and green.  Conifer forests with a mixture of cedar trees and some noble trees.  San Juan Island itself had some roads and some summer cottages.

The sea was full of life. Saw numerous Harbor Seals, Steller Sea Lions, Porpoises and a group of five Orcas. Waterbirds were mainly unknown to me. Bald Eagle sitting on top of a pine tree was gorgeous.

The main village, or a small town, Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, was the main attraction of people during the weekend.  Teens had good time late in the evening, providing a peaceful morning. Fresh seafood and fish was offered everywhere.

Mount Baker (3286m) and a Fishing Boat (3m)

Day 1

Met the team at Friday Harbor. Short introductions and off to a Van which carried us, our stuff and kayaks to the west side of island, to Smallpox Bay. Packed all personal and commissary stuff into kayaks. Two seated kayaks were to be used.  Remarked the number of wine bottles.

The weather was beautiful, +18C and a clear blue sky, and practically no wind at all. Forecast promised +25C for afternoon. Flat water though big boats brought some waves to break flat surface.

Water temperature felt cold, really cold.  Learnt that the water temperature stayed almost the same around the year, something like +10 to +12C.

Once security and paddling techniques were covered, came kick off of the trip. Hadn't paddled two years, so there was a slight excitement in the air.  Strange feeling took about 10sec and then paddling felt like there hadn't been any break at all. And it did feel so good to be back in kayak and paddling. 2-seated kayaks were stable and steady like a rock.

Headed north along the shoreline. Didn't have much experience of tide water. Although this area didn't have huge tides, tide was over one meter vertically. What's more, tide empowered streams and currents, specifically when crossing them, felt like crossing a stream on a river.

Passed Open Bay on Henry Island and headed north east. Victoria BC was in sight on west. After passing Roche Harbor was about to stop for a lunch. Landed on a tiny Posey Island, which was a State Park of its own. Our host was more or less famous of gourmet cooking. Lunch was prepared for us, though we all wanted to help on preparing it. It did taste good!

Temperature had raised to +25C. However, due to water temperature, the air didn't feel too warm at all. After a lazy hour back to the kayaks and started to cross a longer open water, some 5-6 km. Challenge was tide and current which we had to cross. Saw first Porpoises. Harbor Seals popped up here and there and then disappeared again.

Paddled towards Reid Harbor, a long safe inner bay on Stuart Island.  Several sailboats were anchored on the safe bay. The Stuart Island had private land in south and in north but the middle part, were we landed, was part of the State Park.  There was a small camping site, a water outlet and an outhouse. The island itself was green, full of forest and high hills.

Setting up tents and other paddling related rituals filled the hour. This was to be our camp site for two nights.

Dinner was fantastic. Nothing to complain Californian wines, too.

It had been a short sleeve shirt day but cold weather arrived once the sun set. A good down jacket was welcomed. First night on Pacific Northwest in tent was about to start. Zzzz ....

The most common view, a Harbor Seal poses
about 10 secs before it dives again

On holiday

Reid Harbor on Stuart Island

Sea Kayaks on Stuart Island State Park

Old Cedar Trees

Red Bark on a Madrone Tree

Day 2

A Great Blue Heron woke me up just before sunrise.  Snipped a camera and tried to follow it in early darkness.  Noticed waterline being far off since yesterday, so low tide was on.  The Heron escaped but was able to catch it later while paddling. A great bird.

Mmmm... that's briefly the breakfast, with dark roast presso coffee and other stuff.

Today's plan was just to paddle along the shoreline of Stuart Island and come back for late lunch. The afternoon was reserved for a short hike on the island.

Paddling weather hadn't changed since yesterday, clear blue sky, some +20C and little wind. Tide and currents in mind started day's paddling trip.

Followed River Otters on shoreline a while. Pretty quick divers there were.

Paddled some hour or two towards north and then stopped for a short break.  High rocks didn't allow much landing but there were small rocky beaches here and there which allowed landing, at least on such an easy weather.

Headed back to camp site. Numerous Harbor Seals were present. Tide and current was noticeable.

After arriving had again a delicious lunch. After some siesta hiked (up and down) together through the island to its north point, called Turn Point.  On our way we passed a school. Nice old building in a middle of the forest.  The school had still old rules for teachers nailed on the door. "You may not loiter in downtown ice cream stores" being one of the rules for women teachers. Tough life.

Arrived at the Turn Point. There was suppose to be a lighthouse but we only found a house and a light.  The place itself, northern point of the Stuart Island, was gorgeous, nice scenery towards Canada in the north.

While having lazy time there, suddenly noticed whale watching boats approaching us. Then we saw few Orcas. Bloody hell, they were arriving directly towards us! We were about 20m high on the edge of the island. The Orcas passed as just under our feet, 20m down. The boats had to stay much further from them, respecting rules.  The sight was something unbelievable. Their heavy 'breathing' was so visible. Soon their passed us and boats followed them.  We were on front seat. What a luck. Since our arrival, it all had happened in 10mins.  Seeing Orcas live in their natural environment was spectacular.

Almost shaken what we'd witnessed, we returned back to camp site. Something 12km altogether. Worth every millimeter.

Dinner with Chilean red wine. Not my favorite and was acceptable with such delicious dinner. Remarked numerous packages of butter consumed for preparing the dinner.

Crystal clear water, there's about 50cm deep water here

A Great Blue Heron

Massive Rocks on Haro Strait

Old Warehouse

Outhouses of School House, Stuart Island

An Orca on Turn Point

Night Sky on Reid Harbor

Day 3

Again woke up by some strange sound. Like someone laughing with a sound of a horse? Possibly there were horses on the island, but at this time of the day?  Didn't see anything. Walked a bit on beach but now sounds vanished. Weird. Later learnt from other fellow kayakers that the sound maker was a Harbor Seal. How strange sound.

These island didn't have any bears in them, but food and anything having any odor had to be packed well and put into kayaks under locks.  Raccoons.  Those cute looking bas.....   Didn't see them at all but other fellows told they were hanging around near our tents all night, on ground, on trees etc.  Hard to imagine those cute looking animals were something we had to work for.

Back into kayaks and headed back south. Our camp site was on Jones Island. Passed Gossip, Cactus and Spieden Islands. Arrived at late lunch time.  Temperature had dropped a little bit. Had first drops of water.

After setting up camp and a kitchen enjoyed the lunch. Mmmm....

Short siesta and time to explore the island. The island itself was again a State Park, providing similar primitive services than other islands we had stopped so far.

There was a small trail which went high edge on shoreline around the island. Steep rocks, old cedar trees. Black Tail Deer walked in front of my camera. Thanks!  Turkey Vultures and Kingfishers kept some noise. River Otters dived, swam, dived, swam and dived, easy life they had, or had they?

No real rain so far but it went cloudy shortly after we had arrived.  Wind had raised slightly (was hoping a little more wind for tomorrow's final paddling stint).  Drizzling filled the afternoon.

Ah, the dinner. Still red wine left. Thanks so much!

Observing Raccoons was pending as sleep arrived early.

Woke up at night as raindrops hit the tent.  Cool! Finally Pacific Northwest weather had arrived.


A Black-Tailed Deer on Jones Island

A Belted Kingfisher

Jones Island and Orcas Island

Rough Shores on Jones Island

Turkey Vultures

'Sail Away'

A Jellyfish.  Don't touch it!

A Lonesome Tree

A Black Oystercatcher

Lots of driftwood on every beach on every island

Day 4

Some drizzling few times on the morning.  Heard from fellows that Raccoons had stayed on a tree next to our tents. Okay.

Clouds were hanging low on islands. Looked quite different to weather in Southern California.

Delicious breakfast, packing and off to kayaks. Waves were remarkably bigger than any previous days. That's good!

Crossing open waters on a foggy and windy conditions required some concentration. Tide was against us.  Passed first Yellow Island. Leaving Shaw Island on east continued paddling towards San Juan Island. Soon arrived near the Friday Harbor. Didn't stop but continued paddling south, passing Brown Island.

Landed on a tiny Turn Island, which was a State Park of its own, too.  Observed first shores and the island thoroughly.  A Harbor Seal laid on a beach. Quick photos. Thanks!  Waterbirds swayed on waves near shoreline. Click, click, click.

Saw something for the first time, a Bald Eagle stormed into sea and quickly came up and continue flying towards our island.  Was too late with a camera but managed to get few shots while it hold a fish and flew close to us.  What a bird and what a catch!

Good lunch and off we went back just to paddle a short stint to San Juan Island. This was an end to our paddling trip. Carrying empty kayaks and our stuff into Van and off to Friday Harbor.  Quick goodbyes and our fantastic trip was over.

Paddling trip on cold waters in Pacific Northwest was an experience not to forget easily. Great host and fellow kayakers crowned the trip. The show local nature presented was really worth seeing.

Pacific Northwest

A Goldeneye on full swing

There must be something interesting

A Bald Eagle carrying a fish

A Harbor Seal on Turn Island


  1. What a trip! Orcas, seals, birds; a great kayaking after a break. Thanks for the story!