San Juan Islands
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This trip report describes a terrific sea kayak trip from Cap Sante on Fildago Island to Obstruction Bay campground on Orcas Island in Washington State's San Juan Islands.
But first I must make a confession, over the past dozen years I have paddled several hundred miles along Canadian shorelines - Vancouver Island the Queen Charlotte Islands and Desolation Sound. I live in Washington State but to be honest, I have avoided Washington's San Juan Islands, fearing the experience would be like paddling in a sea festival - kayakers and boaters as far as the eye could see - accompanied by the sounds of motors and smells of gasoline and diesel fumes. I assumed it would be impossible to find solitude, beauty, and peace on a sea kayak paddle in the San Juans.
I am pleased to report that it is possible to find beauty, solitude, uncrowded camping and uninhabited beaches in the San Juans. Furthermore, this was our experience during peak season (late July and early August).
My wife and I joined a guided trip consisting of just four guests and a guide. The other couple on our trip paddled a tandem kayak, my wife and I and our guide each paddled a single. We paddled from Cape Sante, near a marina in Anacortes, carrying our gear, food, camp and kitchen supplies. Water was not available at the two campgrounds we would spend our nights at so we had to carry a full three-days' supply.
The plan for this three day trip was to paddle East toward Hat Island just enough to safely cross to the east side of Guemes Island, then north up Guemes, around and down the west side of Guemes far enough so we could safely cross Bellingham Channel to Cypress Island. We would spend our first night at Pelican Beach recreational area, one of the Cascadia Marine Trail sites.
After a hike to Eagle Cliff the next morning, we departed Pelican Beach paddling around the north end of Cypress, down to Strawberry Island and then across Rosario Strait at a north west tact (this crossing was approximately three miles). We continued paddling north along the east side of Blakely, west through Peavine Pass, around the west end of Obstruction Island, and north to the southern tip of Orcas Island arriving at the Obstruction Island campground for our second night of camping. This trip was a one-way paddle with a return via water taxi.
Although my wife and I are experience paddlers, it was great to have a professional guide with us who was experienced with the tides, currents, and weather patterns. We encountered some challenging water and wind conditions and our guide's expertise was perhaps quite literally a lifesaver.
Our first camp spot was Pelican Beach on the northeast end of Cypress Island. From this spot, Mount Baker can be seen directly to the East. Pelican Beach offers a pebble beach landing, room for about a dozen tents, a great pair of solar outhouses, a large log-built shelter with a vast expanse of cooking shelves and nearby fire pit, several great hiking trails but no fresh water.
Our guide told us that this site could be unpredictably busy. When we arrived there were five tents setup but plenty of room for our small group of five (three tents).
Cypress Island is an incredible place offering extensive hiking and nature activities. You can explore shoreline or a mountaintop all in the same day. We did the hike to Eagle Point Bluff, where our guide told us, if we made the climb all the way to the top of the bluff we would have a spectacular 360-degree view of the San Juan Islands. One couple in our group made the trip to view the sunset and described a breathtaking view. We made the trip the next morning - hoping for a sunrise view but instead had a 360-degree view of dense fog.
During our paddle we observed harbor seals, river otter, bald eagles, blue heron, a very healthy looking ocean full of fish, starfish, sea cucumber and sea anemones. We did not encounter mosquitoes or gnats, which was a nice surprise in late July.
The shorelines along our route were interesting and varied, some towering shear cliffs, lots of rocky landscape and heavy tree coverage. There were signs of inhabitants on some of the islands and a few small communities visible. After departing Anacortes we didn't encounter any large resort or industrial areas. The west shoreline along Cypress (above Tide Point) was quite interesting with shoals and openings in the rocks large enough to paddle through.
We spent our second night at Obstruction Pass campground. Located on a bluff above the shoreline you must carry your gear up to the campsites and tether your boats. Again there was no fresh water available but the campground does have outhouses (not solar).
A water taxi was scheduled to pick up our small group at Lieber Haven Resort and Marina just east of Obstruction Pass campground. We had most of the day for a paddle so headed down the west side of Blakely Island. There is an old cannery at Thatcher bay which we paddled by and a scenic spot for a picnic lunch near Willow Island. On our return paddle north along Blakely we took advantage of the Blakely Island General Store for a scoop of ice cream and a soda. Tastes of civilization!
It was a short paddle from Blakely back to Orcas and to Lieber Haven. Our water taxi arrived on time, we all loaded up gear while the crew expertly loaded our kayaks on top of the taxi and, after a few stops to pick up others passengers, we arrived back at the marina in Anacortes.
If you are a sea kayaker and concerns about crowds, fumes, noise and traffic have caused you to avoid the San Juan Islands, I can assure you, as one who shared that concern, there are vast, open waters, full of beauty, with little traffic (especially mid-week) in the San Juans. Will I return to the San Juans for more paddling? You bet.
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The San Juan Islands (Afoot & Afloat) by Marge Mueller and Ted Mueller. The guide to boating and activities in Washington's San Juan Islands. New sidebars on wildlife and history, best side trips and the best places and times to view birds, wildlife, wildflowers, and intertidal life. Driving directions and other data reformatted for "find it at a glance" use. Order now...
A Dreamspeaker Cruising Guide: Vol. 4 - The San Juan Islands, 1st Edition by Anne Yeadon-Jones and Laurence Yeadon-Jones. Detailed, hand-drawn charts illustrate safe approaches to anchorages and marinas. Descriptive text provides vital information and local knowledge about each destination plus fun tips to enhance the cruising experience. Order now...
Washington River Maps & Fishing Guide by Doug Rose. Detailed maps covering over 1200 miles of river. Included for each river are the best seasons, species, available illustrated fishing methods, best flies and best gear for individual rivers and species, fly hatches, knots, launches, parks, number of hookups per year, size of runs, parks, services, guides. Order now...
A Cruising Guide to Puget Sound and the San Juan Islands: Olympia to Port Angeles, 2nd Edition by Migael Scherer. An innovative "Cruise Planner" section with prepackaged itineraries for cruises of various duration, 120 full-color photos, 75 color chartlets and larger size and lay-flat binding for ease of use. Order now...
Moon San Juan Islands, 5th Edition (Moon Handbooks) by Don Pitcher. Learn about the best of the San Juan Islands' details on everything including accommodations, dining, whale watching and activities. This guide has all the information needed to plan a fun-filled trip to this popular destination. Order now...
The Essential San Juan Islands Guide by Marge Mueller and Ted Mueller. Twenty maps help you locate sites, and the Lodging at a Glance table saves you time and clarifies your overnight options. Information about how to get there and what to do once you arrive are categorized by island, and include icons. Order now...
Frommer's Washington State, 7th Edition by Karl Samson. This expert author tells you where to find great places to stay in every price range, the best outdoor recreation and much more. Utilize the planning tools to maximize your next adventure in the Evergreen State. Order now...
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