Autumn in the San Juans


“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones that you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away”. 

                                                                                                                        -Mark Twain

We motor out of Bellingham’s Squalicum Marina aboard Shariyat, a 26-foot long sailboat, bathed in rare and succulent late autumn sunshine. We’re off for a long weekend of sailing in the magnificent San Juans. Life is good.

The skipper is old friend and certified sea salt Lance, an eloquent and poetic soul who lives to sail. He’s sailed to Tahiti and single-handed to Alaska. He lives on the boat, Shariyat and the two of them share a relationship based on harmonizing with the wind and moon. He has offered to take me out into his world for a brief glimpse into his nautical and normally solitary life.

Lance raises the sails and cuts the motor. He hates the motor and the noise it makes and uses it as sparingly as humanly possible. And after all these years he’s become pretty good at not using it. The wind catches the sails and we glide across Bellingham Bay. I am always surprised by how big the sky is out on the water. Lance activates the small pole-mounted wind turbine. Between the turbine and the solar panel, Shariyat generates all of its own electricity.

Ewing Cove, Sucia Island
Ewing Cove, Sucia Island

We slip between Lummi and Portage Island into Hale Passage and set a course to the northwest across the broad expanse of Rosario Strait in the gleaming sunshine. Already this seems like a good idea. The wind is fickle out in the Strait and we alternate between brisk cruising and slow, lazy progress. It’s all good.

As we sail west, the northern San Juans draw closer on the sparkling horizon, bathed in afternoon sun. Seen across the deep blue water, the green islands are an inviting sight indeed. It is easy to see why the San Juans occupy such a special place in the hearts and minds of northwest sailors.

We pass Puffin Island (alas no puffins today) and explore the tiny coves of Matia Island, a sanctuary for sea birds. As the sun sinks toward the water we tie up to a buoy in Rolfe Cove behind a rock islet. Lance fires up the barbecue mounted on the rail and we enjoy a feast of salmon and brown rice in the warm, golden light of evening. A heron watches us impassively. As darkness falls a blanket of stars appears overhead. I crawl into the V berth and sleep a deep and luxurious sleep, rocked by the gentle motion of the sea.

We emerge above deck into a sun drenched morning here in our little cove on Matia. We drink our coffee in the warm early sun, the silence disturbed only by bird calls and the lapping of waves on the rocky shore. Tiny fish splash around Shariyat, flashing in the bright morning light.

Time seems to stand still. Kumbhala: the held breath.

Another heron arrives (or perhaps the same one that visited last night?) and settles on the very top of a gnarled tree at the water’s edge.

Fallen Maple leaf, Matia Island
Fallen Maple leaf, Matia Island

We load gear into dry bags and board Lance’s little blue dinghy for a shore excursion. Lance rows us to the pebbly beach where we don our day packs for some island exploration. The forest is illuminated by shafts of warm sunlight, brightening the yellow leaves of autumn trees. We hike down to a compact little cove and poke around the rocky beach. Ravens call out in their odd Edward G. Robinson way.

By the time we return to the dinghy it’s noon and the sun is high. We row back to the mother ship and set about casting off from the buoy, sails up, towards Sucia Island. The wind is light so we drift with the current towards the west. Lance knows the currents and uses them with a meticulous expertise.

We reach Sucia and drift into Ewing Cove, a splendid little bay dotted with tiny islets of elegantly carved sandstone; the Cluster Islands. After some suave maneuvering in the narrow cove we drop anchor and take the dinghy to shore, towing a kayak. We pull into a sandy beach where I jump into the kayak for a closer look at the Cluster Islands. I paddle among the surreally carved sandstone cliffs in water so clear that I have the sensation of being suspended in the air. A heron stands stoically on a sunlit rock. It gives me that heron stare and I move on, paddling above flowing beds of eel grass.

Exploring the Cluster Islands by kayak
Exploring the Cluster Islands by kayak

We pull the dinghy and kayak up onto the complicated shoreline of one of the islands to explore the exquisite formations. A trio of seals comes by to give us the once over. The sun is sweet and warm. We bask. With autumn here (and winter undoubtedly hard on its heels) it’s important to soak it in against the upcoming months of darkness.

I watch the boats go in and out of Echo Bay, the island’s main moorage. The sun, reflecting off the water casts a shimmering light on the undersides of the fanciful sandstone, like phantoms dancing. Across the water, Orcas Island rises in the hazy blue distance to the summit of Mount Constitution. Seabirds sing their end-of-summer songs. We are enraptured by the sandstone sculpture garden, glowing orange in the golden light of evening.

I shove off in the kayak and dip my paddle in the placid water, causing the end of the day reflections to dance. We return to Shariyat in the cool purple of evening as darkness falls. Seals pop up now and again, regarding us curiously in the last lingering light of dusk. We listen to Chopin nocturnes and the breathing of the seals as darkness falls.

Leaning overboard to rinse out the pee jar I’m surprised by a flash of light in the water. I swish the jar and sparks of light erupt where I break the surface – bioluminescence!   Lance jumps in the dinghy and rows madly around the boat sending streamers of light swirling from the oars, a magical sight. It’s like the northern lights underwater.

Tranquil evening, Patos Island
Tranquil evening, Patos Island

The morning dawns grey and misty with a soft somber drizzle muting the surrounding islands. We make a big breakfast and drink our coffee in the morning hush of  Ewing Cove. It’s like being in an impressionist painting. We decide to go ashore and spend the day hiking the trails of Sucia Island. We don our rain gear and row the dinghy in to the gravelly beach and transfer our provisions for the day from dry bags to day packs. The day is spent in exploration and reverie as we wander the cliff tops, stopping often to contemplate the green world. The rain falls softly, stops and falls again but we are warm and dry in our rain gear. We marvel at herons (the totem of our trip, we decide) and fantastic tangles of madrones, their fleshy wood gleaming wetly in the dark woods. At the head of Echo Bay we cross over to the north side of the island and walk along the Lawson Bluffs, stopping to eat our lunch on a cliff with a view out to the mist shrouded islands of Canada.

Sandstone, Sucia Island
Sandstone, Sucia Island

After lunch we make our way down to Shallow Bay with its moss gardens and tide pools and then to the China Caves, a sandstone labyrinth of shadow-filled pockets and cracks. At days end we retrace our steps along the cliff tops beside Echo Bay and back to the little blue dinghy waiting on the lonely rain-washed beach. Lance rows us along the rocky shoreline above cold clear pools inhabited by starfish, resplendent in purple and orange.

Back at the boat we sit on the deck enjoying the small sounds of lapping water and the poetry of birds. The rain has stopped and there are patches of blue overhead. Darkness falls as we prepare a celebratory stir fry and play with the bioluminescence like delighted children. It is late in the night when we succumb to the siren call of sleep, rocking gently in the inscrutable night.

We rise early; today we sail back to Bellingham. We exit the cove under sail and head out into the open water where muscular seas soon have us bobbing like a cork. Making coffee in the lurching cabin is not without its difficulties. Lance raises the spinnaker and we round Matia, tossing and turning towards Lummi beneath skies crowded with tumultuous clouds. Rounding the north tip of Lummi we eat our morning gruel, bracing in the cockpit with our feet against the opposite side. The water before us in Hale Passage is gun-metal grey, undulating in the steely morning light.

Lance works the sails
Lance works the sails

We glide between Lummi and Portage islands and swing in a wide arc around the reef and into Bellingham Bay. The clouds part and the noon sun shines on the water. A pair of porpoises pass, dark forms appearing and then disappearing beneath the waves. Lance hauls in the spinnaker as Bellingham quickly draws closer. Really in his element now, he tweaks the lines constantly, occasionally emitting an odd little satisfied laugh as some adjustment pays off in another tenth of a knot of hull speed.

As Bellingham grows larger we reflect on a satisfying sojourn amongst these magnificent islands. We’ve had warm, clear days filled with sparkling sunshine and also experienced the misty, mystical ambiance of archetypal northwest weather; a true sampler of autumn in the beautiful and elegant San Juan Islands. In the lazy light of Bellingham Bay, Lance’s maritime life looks very good indeed.

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