Despite living in Seattle for the last 12 years, I'm basically a landlubber. The smallest boat I've been on in years was a small county ferry that holds 20 cars. So I was both nervous and excited to learn that I was going to get to write this review for a sea kayaking company that operates out of Friday Harbor, Washington on San Juan Island. The outfitters are called Outdoor Odysseys, and the name doesn't lie. Before I tell you about the hours spent paddling, the aching muscles, the spectacular scenery, or the gourmet food, let me start at the beginning.
Since I was to meet them at 8 a.m. on a Friday morning, and since San Juan Island is a couple hours drive and an hour long ferry ride from Seattle, they suggested that I drive up the night before and see some of Friday Harbor before the trip. The extra time in Friday Harbor also gave me a chance to get some of the things on the packing list that I had neglected to get in Seattle
One tip: it's pretty easy to leave your car parked in Anacortes rather than driving it onto the ferry. It's slightly cheaper to park, but it's a lot more convenient. The San Juans are notorious for having long ferry lines and waits (I was stuck once on Orcas Island in a six hour ferry line), especially in the high season. If you don't need your car when you're there, don't bring it on the ferry.
The morning for departure finally came! I schlepped my stuff down to where I was supposed to meet the guide and was introduced to the other people who would be on the trip with us. Because it was near the end of the season, there were only four of us on this trip: our guide, Jesse; Melissa and Brandy, two police officers from southern California; and me. Of the three newbies, Melissa had the most experience with kayaks, though she had mostly been in the sit-on-top kind. Melissa decided that I was going to steer, a decision I'm sure she regretted the rest of the weekend as it took me at least a day to get the hang of it. Any time my attention wandered, so would we.
At Smallpox Bay, Jesse showed us how dry sacks worked (basically, waterproof duffle bags, but for the things inside to actually stay dry, you have to do a folding/latching trick with the opening). Then he showed us how to stow gear into a kayak (anywhere it fits, although you want to put things like sleeping bags that absolutely mustn't get wet into certain compartments). Finally, he showed us how to wear our gear, how to lock the skirt into place around the opening that we sat in so that water couldn't get inside the boat, how to paddle, and generally how to manipulate the boats. For safety, we also had a dry run of how to get back into the boat in case it capsized and a few other useful pointers like that.
Finally, after all this preparation, we got in the water. Literally. To launch a kayak, you pretty much have to wade out into the water until the boat is 9/10ths afloat, and then straddle it before lowering your weight into the cockpit. I don't know about the ocean where you live, but the Puget Sound at 8 a.m. is kinda' chilly even on a warm day.
Jesse gave us a choice of destinations, and we all voted to head for Jones Island to the east. Jones is a state park with a few campsites on it and some drinking water that lies between Orcas Island and San Juan Island, or in other words, on the complete opposite side of San Juan Island. Since there is no ferry service, you can only reach Jones if you're in a boat or kayak.
Our route would take us north along San Juan to Henry Island, and then down Spieden Passage (the guides refer to it as Spieden River since the currents are so strong), and finally across to Jones to make camp for the night.
When you're kayaking, you can pretty much go anywhere, but the advantage to a kayak is that you can go as close to the shore as you like. Paddling through inlets and along cliff faces is a whole other way to see the San Juans. That first day, we saw cormorant rookeries, jellyfish, sea otters and sea lions sunning themselves, and even a bald-headed eagle. All while being so close to a cliff face or the waves that you could literally reach out and touch them. The guides at Outdoor Odysseys have a strict policy of minimum impact, so if you see wildlife, you back away far enough so that you can observe without disturbing. We kept our eyes peeled for whales, but all we saw were whale boats - the sightseeing, touristy kind rather than the Moby Dick kind.
Jesse was a treasure trove of information. In his spare time, he sometimes substitute teaches on the island, and his favorite subjects are biology, geology, science, and ecology. We learned that the black band along a cliff face about ten feet above the surf is sometimes called sea tar, and that if you look closely, another orange band is just above that. Both are types of lichen. A bright green patch on a cliff means fresh water, maybe a stream or a trickle. In hiking terms, when you come onto a peak that is clear of trees for what appears to be natural reasons (as opposed to clear cutting by corporate loggers), you say that it is bald. The islands in the San Juan archipelago are mixed with some islands that are completely covered in cedar trees and other islands that are bald. Jesse explained that the baldness comes from something called "glacial plucking". When a glacier recedes, it basically strips the topsoil away as it goes. A glacially plucked island is really pure bedrock. Try building a home or farming the land and you'll soon see why the San Juans are still so sparsely populated.
Since Jesse had timed our trip down Spieden Passage to go with the tides, we basically were carried with the current toward Jones Island. We still ended up paddling about five hours that day, but it was fun rather than back-breaking.
On Jones Island, we set up our tents, and then Jesse sent us on a hike while he got dinner ready. That night we had Smoked Salmon Pesto Linguine and wine. I vaguely recall other things like cheese and crackers, salad, and a Dutch-oven gingerbread, but it was the linguine that really stood out. Luckily, Outdoor Odysseys provides handy recipes on their web site. I'm not sure how the meal would compare with other meals you could cook in a kitchen, but for a meal prepared on a campfire stove, it was incredible.
Up to this point, the biggest concern we had had was riding out the wake of passing boats without tipping over. It was a bit scary the first time, but you soon realized how stable the kayak was and just braced for it rather than panicking. Now we would have to actually negotiate a heavy current complete with a sharp turn in the middle of it without tipping over. Jesse and Brandy went first. It looked difficult, but they made it. Melissa and I were determined to do the same.
Let me tell you a little about this current before we dive in. It literally looked like a mountain stream bubbling and churning around the corner of the island. At this point, the island is just a tip that we have to get around, but there's this churning water separating us from our guide. The goal is to aim into the current, but not so much that it catches the front end of your kayak and pushes you downstream. Once you get out into the current, then you turn your boat directly into it and try paddling upstream for a while. If you get to a point where you feel that you've progressed, then maybe you can turn back towards land and end up in the calm area on the northern side of the island where Brandy and Jesse are waiting.
We plunge in and immediately realize that we have to paddle hard - really hard. In fact, we're paddling as hard as we can and it looks like we're standing still. This is good in that we're not moving backwards, but we're also not getting anywhere. Our whole world is reduced to this current and the patch of island to our left that we can see out of the corners of our eyes. The previous day, Melissa had kept reminding me that you push with a kayak paddle rather than pulling on it, and that really had helped. Luckily, I remember this advice at the last minute and start to push on my paddles. The island to our left gradually starts to move and we make it into the calm - out of breath, sweaty, and with adrenalin pumping. Jesse and Brandy cheer.
From here, we paddle along Spieden and the Cactus Islands. Spieden was once a game preserve and four rare species were imported from Japan to live on the island. We catch glimpses of the mountain sheep and deer from Japan. The sheep look almost like antelope. Another interesting thing about Spieden is that the guy who founded/owns some big sports sunglasses company bought the island and now has the sole house on it.
After Spieden and our musings about private islands and James Bond scenarios, we eventually come to Gossip Island and stop for lunch.
Gossip Island is so named because it is a tiny island that is mid-point between several other islands and stands in the mouth of Reid Harbor on Stuart Island. People from the surrounding islands or from boats passing by would stop at the island for get-togethers or to exchange news. It was a great lunch spot since the day was a bit chilly and there are big rocks that trap heat that you can sit on. We actually ran into another kayaking group while on Gossip Island and the island's reputation lives on.
Jesse had planned a shorter kayaking day for us so we would have time to hike on Stuart Island. The big attraction here is a lighthouse from the turn of the last century and Lover's Leap. Stuart Island is shaped a bit like an anchor, with almost matching harbors on either side. Considering that there's no electricity on the island, there is a sizable population and even a small school.
The final day of our trip was a bit shorter; both in actual time spent paddling and in time spent getting back to Roche Harbor, where we would be meeting the truck for pick-up and delivery back to the ferry in Friday Harbor.
We headed back towards Spieden Island and circled around the western end this time. It was here that I discovered one of the least fun things having to do with kayaks. I had to make a rest stop, but we were out in the middle of a channel. When we arrived at Spieden (private property as previously discussed), there really wasn't anywhere to land even if we could. This doesn't sound too serious, but believe me, when the "next rest stop" sign is actually you looking across a body of water and gauging how long it might take you to get across it, and your body is telling you that there's just no way you can last that long, you begin to wonder. Luckily, our intrepid guide, Jesse, knew all the tricks. We pulled alongside Spieden Island in the calm. I was able to sort of balance on some rocks in an inlet while Melissa looked the other way. I wouldn't be sharing this story with you except to say that the guides for Outdoor Odysseys really know how to take care of every eventuality.
Another incident to illustrate this point: On the first day, Brandy didn't wear the bicycle gloves that they had recommended and ended up with blisters. Jesse used scissors and moleskin that he had packed along with some duct tape to allow Brandy to still paddle without a lot of pain.
On our final day, we were really hoping to finally see whales, but we had to settle for another bald-headed eagle sighting. This time, the eagle was a little more playful and flew around a bit before settling down to watch us eat our lunch.
We also paddled past Sentinel Island, where June Burn homesteaded and wrote about it in "Living High". The island is tiny and has no water supply. It took us all of ten minutes to circumnavigate in our kayaks. It's hard to imagine anyone living on it, so I had to buy the book when we got back to town.
Our final paddle across the water approaching Roche Harbor was interesting. I thought I would be eager to get back to civilization and hot showers. Instead, I kept thinking how much I had wanted to see whales and how kayaking was kind of cool. I'm not sure when I'll have another opportunity to try this, but Outdoor Odysseys will be who I call when I'm ready to go again.
And the hot shower at the ferry terminal really was all I had dreamed it would be. - By Kevin Fansler, Seattle Correspondent. Read the Jetsetters Magazine feature on Sailing With the J-Pod, and, The Friday Harbor Inn.
Divers know first-hand what ordinary folks don't see below the waters of our inland sea: there's a world of wonder down there. It's a world of wonder that can challenge, teach, and entertain us for years on end. It's also a world that can change- for better or worse-depending on how we take care of it.
To endorse the Orca Pass goals and to get involved in local site planning, contact Karlista Rickerson at Washington Scuba Alliance (firstname.lastname@example.org), Mike Sato at People For Puget Sound (email@example.com), or Peter Ronald at Georgia Strait Alliance (firstname.lastname@example.org). More information about Orca Pass is on line at www.pugetsound.org/orcapass/defaulthtml or www.georgiastrait.org/orcapass.php. - By By Mike Sato, People For Puget Sound. Mike is North Sound director of People For Puget Sound, a citizens environmental organization, with offices in Mount Vernon, Seattle, and Olympia.