A trip around Burrows Island, San Juan Islands.
Reid Harbor, Stuart Island. Photo by Katya Palladina.
I'm excited to share this montage I put together with the help of Katya Palladina of her first time touring in her beautiful new Pygmy Kayaks Pinguino Pro 150 out to Cypress Head and Eagle Cliff, San Juan Islands. It's an amazing kayak and a real pleasure to paddle!
Music: "Secret" by Kenneth Ward Lovell Jr., licensed through Audiosocket.
Sea kayaking to Jones Island in the San Juan Islands, Washington.
Music: "The Narrows" by Aaron Saloman, licensed through Audiosocket
Last month Katya and I caught up with Phil Green, naturalist and steward of Nature Conservancy’s Yellow Island Preserve. Yellow Island lies southwest of Orcas Island among the Wasp Islands group and is a short two nautical mile paddle from Deer Harbor. We put-in just north of the Deer Harbor Marina, at a public park on Upper Deer Harbor Road I think called the Deer Harbor Preserve. The park is small and easy to miss. There is also beach access at the marina but they charge a small fee for launching kayaks. The park has a gravel parking lot surrounded by fruit trees and a short trail which leads to the beach. This late in the summer the fruit was ripe, and we spent some time foraging for apples, pears and blackberries before heading out.
I first met Phil on Yellow Island seven years ago. When we arrived on the island, I was surprised to see him still hanging out by the same driftwood cabin. He invited us to walk around and explore.
Phil has been living on the 11-acre island for over 14 years. As island steward, he spends his time collecting natural history notes, recording first bloom dates for the wildflowers, protecting the island from invasive species, coordinating the maintenance and restoration work on the prairies including managing annual controlled burns, collecting seeds, and greeting over 1500 visitors who drop by every year, often arriving by sea kayak. In his spare time he enjoys photography and scuba diving. His photographs have been featured on Nature Conservancy’s website, as well as his blog, “Island Time on Yellow”.
Yellow Island is the centerpiece of Nature Conservancy’s marine conservation efforts in the San Juans. The Conservancy purchased the island in 1979 from the Dodd Family, who originally homesteaded the island in 1947. Lew and Elizabeth Dodd built all of the structures on the island that still stand today, including the central driftwood cabin.
Yellow Island is unique among the San Juan Islands in that it has prairies that were maintained by the Native Americans, possibly since the last Ice Age.The Native Americans burned the foliage on the Island to promote the growth of camas. The camas bulb was a staple in their diet, and was second only to salmon as the most important item used for trade. The land has never been farmed of grazed, so it has remained in its original state. Without the regular fires, Yellow Island would start to resemble the other islands in the San Juans, and become covered in douglas fir, cedar, and big leaf maples. To maintain the prairies, the Nature Conservancy had to continue to do annual controlled fires. After a burn, the shrubs and dead grasses are eliminated, clearing the way for a spectacular display of wildflowers in the spring. The best time to see the island is in the spring, when the flowers are in full bloom.
The waters surrounding Yellow Island are a marine preserve, visited by sea lions, minke whales, and orcas. Harbor seals use a nearby rock as a haul out. Phil captured a transient pod of Orcas hunting the seals on camera. His photographs of the orcas as well as the flowers in bloom can be seen on his 2012 Yellow Island calendar.
Yesterday looked like a good day to do the long paddle to Friday Harbor from Anacortes. It was supposed to be sunny and 73 degrees. There was an ebb current in the morning that would provide a good ride down Rosario Strait to the south end of Lopez Island, and a strong flood current in the afternoon that would propel you north through Cattle Pass and up San Juan Channel. Unfortunately when I arrived in Anacortes the islands were completely enveloped in a thick fog. Although crossing through fog can certainly be done with a compass and chart, you run the risk of being run over by huge tankers, ferries, and other boats in Rosario Strait, so I wouldn't do it. Instead I switched to Plan B and pulled my car into the line for the ferry but was told I would be on the waiting list, even though I arrived over an hour early for the 10:25 AM sailing.
It was so crowded getting on the ferry that I realized that it could be nearly impossible to get a spot on the return ferry Sunday evening. So I quickly changed my mind, pulled out of line and got a refund. Now for Plan C: park my car and walk on the ferry with my kayak. Of course the parking lot was completely full so I couldn’t even do that! I just want to warn you that even if you want to walk on the ferry to go to the San Juan Islands during peak season you might have trouble. This just illustrates the two big problems traveling in the San Juans during the summer: 1) fog. 2) crowds.
The San Juan Islands on the east side of Rosario Straight are easily accessible by kayak from Anacortes, including Burrows and Allan Islands. These two islands are essentially uninhabited and their exposed rocky shores, kelp forests, and seal colonies give them that characteristic San Juan flavor.
Burrows Island is a favorite kayaking destination because of the lighthouse. It also has a Washington Water Trails campsite. As far as I can tell, Allan Island is still owned by Paul Allen and has been on the market for some time now. The price has come down quite a bit from $25 million to $13.5 million, which might interest any bargain hunters out there. It also comes with a 1200 square foot log cabin built in 1985, landing strip and dock. It would be a nice place for a evil villain’s secret lair, except that it is pretty close to the mainland. By the way, Allan Island was named after a Navy hero, not Paul Allen.
I shouldn’t need to remind you that Paul Allan is a very rich man. So keep that in mind if you feel the need to stop to pee on his island. I didn’t see any “No Trespassing” signs, roaming guard dogs or armed patrols. In fact, the log cabin looked vacant and there is no evidence at all that the island was occupied. Locals say that it has remained untouched since Allen bought the island in 1992. Apparently he much prefers Lopez. Who knows −− there could be a high tech hidden security system with perimeter cameras and laser−triggered booby traps all over. On the other hand, the super−rich in this country have little to worry about: working class stiffs do a good job of keeping themselves in line without their help, due to the sense of awe and deep respect we have for obscene wealth, and our own self−loathing. Evidence of this can be found by how the class war of 2009 failed miserably. My, aren't we all such pathetic slavish losers!
The Burrows Island Light Station is undergoing restoration. Built in 1906, the lighthouse is the oldest effectively intact wooden light station in Washington State. In April 2011 the Northwest Schooner Society became the custodians of the property and began work cleaning it up. Previously, the 2 storey wooden lighthouse keeper’s house was boarded up but now it is accessible. The warning posted outside the backdoor entrance reads, “Visitors are not permitted inside the buildings, but we know there is no way we can keep you out. If you must go in, be aware that there is lead based paint contamination, asbestos, bats, and falling hazards throughout.”
Another reason the Burrows and Allan Islands are a good destination is that you can usually find some exciting tidal rips along the way. I almost always run into one at the west entrance to Burrows Channel. This time I also found one in the channel between Allan Island and Burrows Island and just in front of the lighthouse. The flood current was at its maximum and was stirring up some waves. They are ephemeral though so spend the time to play if you run into them. They don't last long.
This was a spur of the moment trip. I hadn’t put a lot of effort planning around the tides and currents. I didn’t want to do a lot of sightseeing but just pull off a quick and dirty circumnavigation instead. The marine weather forecast sounded a little unpleasant −− mostly wind and rain. But if you wait for perfect conditions in the winter around here you will never go anywhere. The point is to be flexible. Listen to the forecast but see what it’s like for yourself and have a back−up plans and escape routes.
I hadn’t been camping in a while so it took me about 4 hours to sort through all my gear and get packed. My tent suffered from a touch of mildew but was otherwise OK. I had to throw out my Garmin GPS which had corroded and was beyond salvage. My knife was hopelessly rusted out too, but I found a spare. I gathered together 3 used Isopro canisters, but were they full enough? I didn’t have a tide and current table so I collected all the data I needed off the NOAA website and jotted it all down in a waterproof notebook.
Fortunately the currents were weak. One thing I don’t enjoy is keeping a tight schedule, breaking camp before sun rise and having to reach a certain destination before the current changes. Weak currents give you the flexibility of sleeping in, taking your time, and going any direction, even against the current.
I left my car in the lot in Washington Park in Anacortes and loaded my kayak on the deserted beach. No room for my kayak wheels −− so no possibility of taking the Friday Harbor Ferry as an escape route. No room for extra immersion wear, a real luxury anyway. I would be fine as long as my old drysuit gaskets hold up. Damn, I forgot to bring duct tape!
I left a little later than I expected, around 1300. The ebb had just started in Rosario Strait, and would reach a max of −2.5 knots at 1606 at Peapod Rocks. But I enjoyed a strong southerly tailwind, so I didn’t notice much of a current against me all the way up to Doe Island. Distance about 10.3 nm.
I found the Cascadia Marine Trail campsite at Doe Island along a small rocky beach. A path had been cleared of rocks in the water for kayaks −− a nice touch. There was a campsite on the point close to the beach with a gorgeous view of the Strait but I chose one further in the trees because a Small Craft Advisory had been posted for the night and it was going to be breezy. Twelve dollars a night: put the cash in the paybox.
I brought along a big tarp as well as my tent. It’s great to have when it’s raining because it extends your dry living space outside of your tent. It’s not as nice to have when it’s windy though because it will flap like crazy and might even break loose in the middle of the night and force you to get out of your warm sleeping bag to cinch it down tight again. I learned my lesson that night. I even went to check on my kayak to make sure it hadn’t blown away. The wind was that bad. You have to be especially careful with those ultra lightweight kayaks. From now on I’ll always tie my boat down so I don’t lose sleep over losing it to the wind or tide. Yes, that’s an Epic wing paddle as well as a wooden Greenland paddle on my deck. I use them both to mix things up a bit.
The wind was still blowing in the morning but it was going in my direction and the water looked fine. It pushed me quickly all the way up to Point Lawrence, where I turned westward in the lee of Orcas. By the way, if you have time be sure to stop at the funky Doe Bay Resort just north of Doe Island. They are home to the famous clothing−optional outdoor hot tubs and a great café serving fair trade/locally grown/organic food. I would usually drop in but really wanted to put some miles behind me.
Tall cliffs make up the undeveloped northeast shore of Orcas. Along the way you pass the outer islands, Clark, Barnes, Matia, and Sucia. Clark, Matia and Sucia have campsites and are possible stops along the way. With its unusual sandstone rock formations and hiking trails, Sucia is a destination unto itself.
I didn’t stop until I got to Point Doughty on the northwestern tip of Orcas. Once I rounded the point I got a little blast of the south wind again. The park has a small rocky beach exposed to the south. The only way to reach this park is by water. The rocks keep out the big boats. A steep staircase leads up to the Cascadia Marine Trail campsites high above the beach. I originally thought I would stop here for the night, but stayed for a long lunch instead. The forecast called for the wind to pick up on Sunday, and I wanted travel as far as I could today so I could be done before then. I paddled south another 7.5 nm to Jones Island before setting up camp.
By the way if you plan on doing any kayak camping around Puget Sound or the San Juans and don’t have the Cascadia Marine Trail Guidebook yet I highly recommend joining the Washington Water Trails Association and getting one. Be warned though that it does not list all of the campsites available. It says nothing about the campsites on the outer islands, for instance.
I was very tired by the time I got to Jones. I had paddled about 20 nm. Fortunately I found the campsite quickly. I had been paddling against the wind and had also gotten a little chilled. There was a pile of firewood next to the firepit that seemed dry enough but I figured it was too much effort to make a fire. My priories were hot tea, dinner, and then lots of sleep! Oh yeah, I also had to hike around the island to find the paybox and drop off my $12. I think it was only about 6 PM but I had slept poorly the night before.
In my experience, you can paddle all over the San Juans in the winter and not run into another kayaker. In fact, I didn’t see another person the whole time, except an occasional a passing fisherman. It’s great if you want privacy and your choice of campsites. Unfortunately there wasn’t not a lot of wildlife around either, just a porpoise and a few seals.
Apparently the hike around Jones Island is very nice but I wouldn’t know because after sleeping what seemed like 12 hours I broke camp and packed up to go. It was a calm, pleasant night.
By the way, I figured out a way to land and launch my fully loaded kayak easily by myself while minimizing scratches to the hull and damage to the rudder (and to my back). While landing I’ll pull my kayak up to shore as far as possible until the stern starts digging into the sand. Then I’ll find a small driftwood log and kick it under the bow. With the driftwood in the place I can either pull or push the kayak up the shore further. Usually it will slide over the log but sometimes the log itself will roll up the beach with it. By repeating the process with another log I can move a fully loaded kayak by myself as far up the beach as I need to.
My plan was to make my way east through Wasp Passage at slack. A great stop in the Wasp Islands is Yellow Island, a Nature Conservancy preserve. If you're lucky you might even get a tour from the island caretaker who lives there year−round. If you need to resupply, take a hot shower, pick up an espresso or even do your laundry, it’s a short paddle up north to the marina at Deer Harbor.
The wind was channeling from the northeast though Wasp and Harney Passage, so it was a bit of a slog all the way east to Obstruction Pass. I stopped for lunch at one of the campsites on Blind Island just south of the Orcas ferry terminal. It is known for having great views of the ferries coming and going to Orcas and Shaw Islands, especially at night. I had also planned to stop at Obstruction Pass State Park but was off a few degrees on my navigation and ended up at the entrance to Peavine Pass instead. I didn’t want to make the extra effort to head north. If you do go that way there is a little resort called Lieber Haven were you can pick up supplies and see the 72 ft schooner Lieber Schwan. Once I was through Peavine Pass I was done with the circumnavigation. Distance from Jones Island about 10 nm.
I still had to get back to Anacortes, another 7.5 nm. I had one last break at Strawberry Island before crossing over to Anacortes. Strawberry used to have 3 great Cascadia Marine Trail campsites but due to budget constraints they have been closed, along with the vault toilets. It’s still a great site with beautiful views up and down Rosario Strait and one of my favorites places to stop.
I'm a little late posting this report. This is the trip I took on Monday, May 25th. I had wanted to try paddling from Anacortes to Friday Harbor for a while. My friends have called this the "ultimate day trip". It can involve challenging conditions in Rosario Strait and south of Lopez Island, and paddling through a large tidal race in Cattle Pass between San Juan and Lopez Islands. Experienced kayakers will spend time playing in Cattle Pass as the current hits its max before continuing on to Friday Harbor to catch the ferry back to Anacortes.
Since fares are only charged going west on the ferries, the return trip is free! That's a great deal considering the fare for a car and driver is over $50! You will need to bring wheels to cart your kayak if you plan to walk on to take the ferry back to Anacortes.
Memorial Day weekend happened to have perfect currents for this trip: an ebb in Rosario Strait in the morning predicted for 3.4 knots, and a flood in San Juan Channel in the afternoon at 4.9 knots. But the southerlies, predicted for Sunday and Monday at 15-20 knots, had me worried. The "wind against current" phenomenon would steepen the waves in Rosario Strait and stir up reflecting waves off the cliffs on the south end of Lopez Island. If you haven't read it already, this is a good time to read Rob Gibbert's excellent incident report in the August 2008 issue of Sea Kayaker Magazine about this very same trip that turned into a total disaster.
As it turned out, Warren Williamson planned to do the same trip the day before I wanted to, on Sunday. Sunday evening I asked him how conditions were and he wrote:
... there was a little wind out in Rosario, not bad. The waves were just starting when I got to Davis Point [Cattle Pass]. They got big. I surfed and worked out in the waves for over four hours. Mat and Djuna [from Body Boat Blade] were there. We had a blast... I think you'll have the same conditions tomorrow.
Actually, the forecast called for the wind to lighten up to between 10-15 knots in the morning so I expected to have an easy time of it on Monday.
I arrived at the Anacortes ferry terminal a little before 9AM. I was the only kayaker there. "Where is everybody?" I thought. "Don't they know that this is the perfect day to do this trip?" I got a parking spot in the upper parking lot of the terminal right next to the trail that goes down to the beach. It costs $10 to park for 24 hours. If you plan to do this, be prepared to carry or slide your kayak down the steep bank to the water.
It was a lot windier than I expected. I could see whitecaps all over the confluence of Rosario Strait and Bellingham channel. I had second thoughts about continuing but I decided to go ahead and see what conditions were like in the Strait. Just off of Green Point the waves were at least 4 ft. As I continued west across the Strait they got a little smaller but then got bigger again. I was paddling with a strong wind blowing at my beam toward James Island and somewhere in the middle of Rosario Strait I decided that I wasn't having fun anymore, and wondered what was I doing out here alone while everyone else was at home planning their holiday barbeque. Actually, I wasn't completely alone: a sailboat passed by fairly close, double-reefed. I am sure the wind was blowing at least 20 knots!
I almost turned back on this trip. I felt like I wasn't making any progress in the wind and waves. I figured that it could be a very long and tiring journey if conditions were going to be this challenging all across the Strait and especially south of Lopez Island so I decided to head back to Anacortes. The current had carried me far south off of Burrows Island. Since there was no way I could make significant progress against a current that strong I just paddled with the current, hoping to duck in between Burrows and Allan Island for protection. But further south the waves became smaller, so I changed plans again and decided to cross the Strait after all.
I was traveling at 6 knots down the Strait. When I reached Point Colville at the southeastern tip of Lopez Island I slowed to a crawl. I suspect there is a large back eddy all along the south end of Lopez Island between Point Colville and Iceberg Point because I didn't go much faster than 3 knots. I parked in the middle of a kelp forest to eat lunch.
Beyond Iceberg Point my speed picked up as I approached Cattle Pass. Even from over a mile away I could feel it sucking me in. I struggled to bring my kayak close to shore when I realized I was headed straight into the raging whitewater. I found a relatively protected path between Lopez and Deadman Islands and hauled up on Deadman Island to take a closer look at the chaos in the Pass. The flood wouldn't reach its max for another hour and a half. Well, I really didn't care to stick around to see that, and decided I would get out as soon as possible. With help from the current, I was doing 7 knots just north of Cattle Pass toward Friday Harbor.
I paddled into Friday Harbor with just enough time to put my kayak on my NRS C-Tug wheels, take a shower at the marina, and walk right onto the ferry along with a large crowd of tourists returning home for the holiday weekend. Unfortunately I had a bunch of really great on the water pictures from this trip, but can't find them now and I think I erased them all!
[My GPS track: start at the ferry terminal on the mainland, clockwise around the island, 18.4 nm]
I arrived at the mainland Lummi ferry terminal not having done a lot of research on the island. It's considered one of the San Juan Islands but isn't featured in the Afoot and Afloat guide to the San Juan Islands. Apparently it's home to a few sustainable fisheries, historic inns, organic farms, excellent restaurants and cafes, and many artists and artisans. You know--typical San Juan Island stuff!
The chart I had showed a public boat launch by the ferry terminal on the mainland. When I arrived I couldn't find a launch ramp but saw a small parking area on the beach surrounded by concrete barriers.
I waved down one of the locals who was paddling a long, narrow wooden canoe nearby. His friend had built it. He said it was a little difficult to handle in the wind, and was still trying to find out which end was the front. It looked like wood strip construction, very sleek. Put a deck and a rudder on it and it would be perfect!
There was 10 knot breeze blowing from the southwest and mild currents predicted for the day. I crossed Hale Passage to the island and paddled close to shore to stay in the lee.
The southern half of Lummi remains undeveloped. Very pretty, except for one big open wound made by an active gravel mine. See what you have to look forward to, Maury Island?
On the southern tip I saw some oyster catchers diving at an eagle that had probably invaded their nest and eaten their young. That was the first time I had ever heard oyster catchers cry out or seen them flying around. Usually they are just standing on shore... looking for oysters.
Lummi stands out among the San Juan Islands because of its tall cliffs. They are even more impressive up close. As I craned my neck to look up I saw more eagles soaring around the peaks.
The Lummi Rocks, just off the western shore, mark an approximate midway point for the circumnavigation and a convenient place to stop for lunch. I ate while sitting among the wildflowers and gazing at the cliffs on the island to the north and down Bellingham Channel and Rosario Strait to the south.
Sea stars and Dungeness crab cling to the rocky shore all around Lummi. All you have to do to get a crab is reach down into the shallow water and pick one up. Do you think crabs suffer and experience pain? I had to ponder this question as I plucked a crab out of the water and watched it struggle vigorously and foam at the mouth. I personally consider it an important scientific question with profound philosophical implications and of special interest because of my background in anesthesiology, but if you are like the vast majority of people and don’t care to think about how the animal on your dinner plate lived or died then just forget I said anything, you speciesist!
[My GPS track: Start at Jackson Beach, departure path in green, overnight at Roche Harbor, return path in red]
I happened to have a couple days off and decided that I would circumnavigate San Juan Island. The day before my trip the weather turned out to be much windier than previously forecast. A Small Craft Advisory had been issued with a southwest wind blowing at 15−25 knots, predicted to shift to the west in the afternoon. This would make for challenging conditions along the exposed rocky western shore of San Juan Island. The waves would reflect off the cliffs and I could get tossed about in the clapotis. So that night I decided against the circumnavigation and resigned myself to an alternative trip in more sheltered water. But in the morning the winds lightened up a little and the Small Craft Advisory had been lifted. I saw this as my window of opportunity and decided to go for it.
I put in at Jackson Beach just south of Friday Harbor around 9:00 AM. A group of kayak guides were unloading kayaks for Outdoor Odysseys as a busload of school kids arrived. Were they really planning on taking those kids out on the water on a day like this?
I paddled with a headwind into Cattle Pass. It would be at my back after I turned west and then north. That was the plan anyway. After I made it through Cattle Pass, the wind had turned westerly, and then northerly, so for the entire day I had it blowing in my face.
The water at Cattle Pass was completely flat. But (just as I was afraid of) along the western shore the waves were reflecting off the cliffs and I faced miles of clapotis. I paddled far from the shore to avoid the worst of it, paddling from point to point. I didn't really have the chance to do a lot of sightseeing here. My attention was focused entirely on the water directly in front of me and especially the waves blowing in from the west. I weaved around in the troughs between the waves, not really keeping track of the shore landmarks or knowing exactly where I was. Of course, my pictures don't do justice to the conditions, because when things were bad I was too busy trying to stay upright to attempt to use the camera! I think that what kept me going was the thought that just around the next point conditions were going to be better -- the water smoother, the wind calmer, and the current going in my direction.
For lunch I ducked behind a rock. There was an shallow sandy area with just enough space to walk on so I could get out and drag my kayak out of the water. I was somewhere south of False Bay.
Just to the north at Pile Point I ran into a tidal rip and a patch of nasty clapotis. The waves were 4 ft high, tall, pointed, and breaking. I paddled far away from shore to keep out of it but couldn’t avoid it completely. The unnerving thing about clapotis is the randomness of the waves. Somehow I passed through without being thrown up into the air on top of one. In the middle of it though I was quickly losing confidence in my ability to recover if I happened to capsize in this washing machine. The knowledge that I came prepared with the phone numbers of the two taxi services on the Island in case I needed to bail out gave me some comfort. But wait a minute, where did I put my cell phone?
My experience in that tidal rip put everything else in perspective. The rest of the trip was easy in comparison. The sun broke through the clouds and the wind finally died down when I arrived at Roche Harbor. I checked into a room at Quarryman Hall, enjoyed a long hot shower, put on some dry clothes and had a leisurely dinner at the McMillan dining room (locally harvested mushrooms and a vegetable au gratin). All−day paddling is so much more enjoyable when you have a wonderful meal, glass of wine, and big soft bed to look forward to at the end of the day!
Not much to tell about the return trip except that I enjoyed light winds, sunshine, smooth water and a gentle ebb current that carried me down San Juan Channel all the way back to Jackson Beach.