Paddling Paradox: Autumn Paddling in the San Juan Islands

We paddled around the small headland and entered a glassy pool that reflected dark conifers.

 It was another world entirely than the one we just departed. The early evening light softened the scene into lazy shadows and rich colors. We relaxed when we heard the soft crunch of sand as our kayaks come to rest on the beach.

Just an hour before, we had found ourselves crossing the southern end of East Sound off Orcas Island in conditions which could best be described as tempestuous. On one side of the headland, calm, on the other, complete chaos. Blowing directly out of the northwest, the wind had howled a steady 15-20 knots, down five unobstructed miles, kicking up three-foot waves. An ocean swell twice as high would have been far kinder than these steep, short pulses of energy pounding us in rapid succession. Just as we crashed through one crest and slamming down into the trough, another battered us.

My wife and I had stayed connected by tow rope during the crossing, which proved helpful at keeping us moving together at the same speed but had also hindered her maneuverability. At least we wouldn’t  get separated should one of us capsize in the 52-degree water.

The soft sand of the protected beach was welcome indeed.

Sunset, Jones Island. Photo by Shari Galiardi

In a recent article in Adventure Kayak, Neil Schulman compares sea kayaking to ‘old school’ alpine mountaineering, with its combination of endurance, skills, judgment, and attitude. According to Schulman, both involve repetitious movements, with heavy loads; interspersed with brief moments of adrenaline and all-out effort. “Exposed crossings, tide races, surf zones and boomer fields are our headwalls, crevasses, and knife-edged ridges,” he postulates.  Few activities offer the schizophrenic adrenalin-juiced swings from tranquil to tumultuous the way sea kayaking can.

Moments before the crossing, we’d been enjoying the wind-sheltered south shore of Orcas Island on a glorious day with epic views of Mt. Baker. As an east coast paddler, I’d never experienced the thrills of navigating a complex network of islands with challenging tidal currents and boat traffic, all within view of an almost 11,000-foot glacier-covered volcano. I was fully under the San Juan spell!

This is the lure of these islands, one of sea kayaking’s holy grails that had been on my bucket-list for nearly two decades. It was worth the wait. The San Juan Islands are a fascinating contradiction. We could just as easily paddle into a harbor for a hot cappuccino as we could slide up to a tiny island camp that left us feeling like the only people in the world. Few other places offer this unique balance of wildness and civility.

I am certainly not alone in my enthusiasm for the these islands. The number of people boating, sailing, paddling, or just ferrying from the mainland to the San Juans is staggering. But when to go, just as much as where to go and with whom, is worthy of careful consideration

Jellyfish Dance. Photo by Shari Galiardi

My wife and I travel for about four months each year in our vintage camper trailer, and we always include some extended backcountry adventures, but we rarely go anywhere during the peak travel season. We chose our paddle pilgrimage to the San Juan’s during the shoulder season, just after Labor Day weekend—when the weather was still warm, and the crush of humanity was already on its way to somewhere else.

Watching the sunset from Jones Island. Photo by Shari Galiardi

Traveling during this time of year doesn’t mean total solitude, but it does allow us to wander at our own pace and still find a spot on many of the “first-come, first-served” camping islands. We always prefer to travel sans reservations, and we are especially zealous about it when it comes to sea kayak camping. Too many things can go awry in timing and weather that will challenge a rigidly-planned itinerary. Many wilderness recreation areas require permitted reservations (and we understand why), but I’m pleased that Washington State Parks hasn’t extended this to their boat-in locations. The flexibility, in addition to the smaller crowds, allows us to have a loose plan but still make changes based upon conditions and unforeseen opportunities.

Our launch, in the heart of the archipelago, is lovely Lopez Island. During our few days of pre-paddle preparation and exploration, we fell in love with this little piece of rock and almost hated to paddle away. Our first crossing from Lopez to Turn Island State Park offers a taste of boat traffic, and we keep our head on a swivel and the VHF radio on channel 16. Paddling up to Turn in the early evening, we have our choice of campsites and our only companions are the resident racoons, who try valiantly to get into the hatches of our overturned boats on the beach.

San Juan Sunset. Photo by Shari Galiardi

We wake to the haunting sounds of a fog horn, the basso profundo of a Washington State Ferry moving  through the pass from Friday Harbor toward Anacortes. Emerging from the tent, our  world is reduced to a 50-yard radius of thick fog, increasing the intensity of the sound. It is both an eerie and beautifully slow start to our second day; and the fog diminishes soon enough. We paddle into Friday Harbor for a leisurely coffee break and a visit to the Whale Museum, eventually arriving on Jones Island where we grab the last campsite in the south harbor on a Friday evening. It’s a perfect rocky perch from which to watch the sunset and observe the stirring of wildlife. In the indistinct light of dusk I see something large disturb the water out in the pass between the islands, but I can’t completely make it out. Was it a transient Orca?

We opt to linger for another day to explore the island on foot. Jones is home to a few miles of wandering trails as well as a small population of miniature, black-tailed deer who are nearly as tame as house cats.

On Day Five, we head to the Doe Bay Resort on Orcas Island to indulge in a well-earned soak in their famous hot pools. It’s an odd mix of adventure— going from such an exposed, isolated place out in the middle of the Salish Sea to soaking in a hot pool with a dozen other people. Our sore shoulders welcome the indulgence.

Doe Bay offers excellent camping and seaside yurts, but none can beat the view available from tiny Doe Island. After our afternoon soak, we paddle the 200 yards back to our island for the night and watch the strong currents ebb and flow through this magical place. With space for only a few tents, we are the sole inhabitants tonight, and the solitude is delightful. We feel miles away from anywhere.

We launch in the morning, with just enough time to grab the current flowing in our direction. We make our final crossing between Blakely and Lopez Islands, arriving  both exhilarated and exhausted from a week of paddling in these spectacular islands at this spectacular time of year.

Sometimes, we agree, timing is everything.

Sunrise on Doe Island. Photo by Shari Galiardi

David Hutchison and Shari Galiardi are a traveling freelance writer/photographer couple. Both are outdoor and environmental educators who have explored, volunteered, and worked across the country. They write the (almost) weekly Full-Time Campers column for The Dyrt. The Pacific Northwest has a special place in their hearts.

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