kayamping the san juans
is kayamping a word? A few weeks ago we saw an online deal for guided kayak trips to see orca whales in the san juan islands and knew immediately that we had found our next trip out of town. We've each spent a total of about 45 minutes in a kayak (and that was on top of a floaty plastic fun-yak in a quiet bay in baja), but kayaking between campsites seemed like the perfect way to log some time on the water and hang out with ocean life.
As we looked into the trips we realized that a guided trip with 16 or so other paddlers didn't seem quite our style. We prefer a bit more adventure with a bit less crowd. Instead, we worked with the San Juan Kayak to rent a 2person kayak and had Tim pull together an itinerary making sure we paddled (generally speaking) with the tides and currents. More adventure, less people and for far less money than the guided option...Perfect. Once we had the logistics in place we emailed friends who might have the flexibility to join us...but sadly most just couldn't make it happen.
We left karma with BnD, drove out of town first thing friday morning, racing north to catch the 2pm ferry from anacortes to friday harbor. Sadly, the traffic gods were not on our side and we missed the ferry by a couple dozen cars. Luckily, the fact that we had packed for camping meant we had all the supplies for a cocktail and a tasty steak quesadilla in the parking lot while waiting on the next boat.
We finally boarded, stared out at the sea while underway and arrived at san juan island almost giddy for what was to come. Kayaks wouldn't be available until morning and lodging on the island is anything but cheap so we had arranged a car camping spot for our first night. Easily our most expensive camping spot ever, and it still felt like we had somehow stumbled into a kids' summer camp. Regardless, we got in some campfire and star watching while sorting out our gear and prepping for the morning kickoff to our expedition.
We got our briefing about tides/currents/safety at the office and then headed to the beach for a quick intro on how to paddle, how to re-board in a capsize situation and other fairly sobering tidbits of information. Moments later we paddled out into the sea, mostly hugging the shoreline and staring both at shore and open water hoping for wildlife. We soon came upon our first gleeful sighting of marine life in the form of a group of playful seals. Honestly, we probably could have paddled circles around their tiny island for the next four days and been completely happy with our trip!
We eventually got our fill (realizing there would likely be more seals) and moved on. We had a lot of ground to cover in our first day, were working against the tide and had to cross the channel to get to our destination camp. Note to self- always look both ways for ferries and other fast moving watercraft before paddling into a high traffic channel. I dropped a trolling line every open water crossing in hope of snagging dinner in the deep waters between islands, but we sadly went the entire trip without fresh fish.
After an exhausting channel crossing we continued on from island to island and (after a long drawn out rookie discussion about exactly which island we were supposed to be aiming for on our chart) finally pulled into camp on jones island, basically sitting among and staring at vancouver island and the other outlying BC islands. We came to learn over the next few days that this and other sites we visited are all a chain of campgrounds throughout the san juans called the "cascadia marine trail" which cater specifically to human and wind-powered watercraft only.
Jones Island has epic campsites staring out at a tiny protected bay and the few sailboats moored in it, but we were too late to stake a claim at any of them and camped in the group site, sharing the field with a group of guys we would see at several stops over the next few days. We made a note to come back here, earlier in the day/week and with enough supplies to not have to leave for a week, it was just that kind of beautiful. Lucky for us, we also got to share camp with a crazy canadian who it seemed like we had known for years. We are shared camp, at least for a while with a few deer that have clearly been hand-fed by campers for years. What is it about the human condition that cant simply leave nature at peace and has to touch/disturb/fuck it all up??
We woke in the morning completely exhausted but excited to get back on the water and continue searching for the orca whales we dreamt of seeing all night. Our second day was much shorter and had no channel crossing, so we pulled into camp on blind island early with our choice of campsites. The island is almost completely bald so we spent most of the day dodging the sun and using the ocean to chill our bar. Unfortunately for our zen state of being, a group from the YMCA pulled in before sunset with 14kids and packed like sardines into the last site next to ours (despite a posted 8 person limit). It didn't kill our island buzz, but we definitely were wishing for better neighbors or maybe a little shorter game of island hide-and-seek.
Bailey fits into our camping plan (or lack thereof) perfectly and was quickly nominated as our whale/seal interpreter...apparently taught early and often in the canadian education system. Between she and jen we ate like king and queens every meal. In the morning we set out for what we thought was a fairly simple circumnavigation of shaw island before crossing the channel again and a quick jaunt south to our final campsite. As it turns out, shaw island is HUGE, the channel is even bigger when tired and the final bay we tried to cross decided it would be fun to throw some gale force winds at us on top of our already failing arms. It's a good thing they didn't equip us with flares, or we surely would have set them off hoping for a rescue tow to shore. A quick glimpse of what we presume was a pod of porpoises got our attention and focus, leading us to believe orcas would breach the water any moment...but it was only false hope.
After almost 9 hours of paddling we finally pulled onto the beach, decided against simply letting our boats float away with the rising tide, bitched about our weary (and clearly out of shape) bodies and then finally setup camp in the thicket just off the beach. We crashed early, knowing that we had to get an early start in the morning..our plan was to head all the way to the southernmost tip around sun-up, hike across to the west side and get an orca sighting in before returning the boat and making sure bailey got back in time for the early ferry.
The winds from the day before were back in full force, and the calm/sunny days we had throughout our trip were nowhere to be found. Our pre-breakfast paddle took almost more than we had left in our tanks but we finally reached the southernmost tip of san juan island, dug into our dry bags for warm and dry layers and then walked along the road to the lighthouse. Having never been here before, we cant speak to normal conditions, but on this day the seas were huge, the winds gusty and cold. We hiked to the lighthouse but even despite our passionate desire to see orcas before our departure, we headed back to the shelter of the concrete interpretive center for coffee/breakfast to stay warm while we refueled before the last leg of our odyssey.
We made a slow and steady paddle through strong winds and horizontal spray back to our starting point, stopping only to enjoy a few groups of seals and a giant majestic bald eagle sitting right at sea level along the way. We pulled into shore feeling hugely accomplished, completely exhausted and utterly thrilled to see that two guides were already there to carry our mammoth boat from the water back to the van.
We climbed into the van, asked the guide exactly how many miles we just paddled and then (in the course of excitedly describing our trip experience) were flooded with joy as we remembered having booked a hotel in town for the night and not having to catch the ferry and drive 5hours home. A rare moment of planning genius!
We met bailey in Friday Harbor to share a well-earned seafood platter and a beer before seeing her off to the ferry. We immediately checked into our hotel and took one of the longest showers i can remember. All in, it was an amazing experience that could have only been made better by a visit from the orcas. In full disclosure however... we may have bitten off a bit more than we should have for our first multiple day paddle (especially directly after and still sore from our first backpacking experience in years). Live and Learn.
That said- we have already begun discussing a several week trip to hit every island/stop on the marine trail. There's a good chance that it might be under wind-power rather than human however...time will tell.