An Overnight Paddling Escape in the San Juan Islands

Sunrise from a sea kayak in the San Juan Islands, Washington.
Sunrise from a sea kayak in the San Juan Islands, Washington. Jeff Bartlett
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The San Juan Islands, off the western coast of Washington near Bellingham, had been on my bucket list for quite some time when I finally strapped a couple of sea kayaks to the top of my SUV and set out for a weekend in August. Adjacent to the northwestern boundary of the contiguous United States, this cluster of 128 named islands (and hundreds of unnamed ones) is renowned for its abundant marine wildlife and exquisite scenery.

It’s typical to take the ferry from Anacortes to Orcas Island or Friday Harbor, then stash a vehicle and set forth from there. The ferry trip itself is scenic and quite pleasant, and an effective way to leave the mainland behind for any number of adventures in the San Juan Islands themselves.

Exploring the rocky coastline of James Island State Marine Park. 
    Jeff Bartlett
Exploring the rocky coastline of James Island State Marine Park. Jeff Bartlett

My partner in crime and I, though, have a way of looking at popular outdoor activities and adding our own twist. What if, instead of the ferry, we simply dashed across Rosario Strait in our kayaks? We’d both been wanting to nose our boats further away from land than usual, and the physical challenge of the longer paddle might be good training for… something, probably.

It was settled. We’d cross the open water, camp on a tiny speck called James Island, wake up at dawn to catch photos of the sunrise, and paddle back. We would trade the lovely quietude of the San Juans’ many placid bays for a dash of adventure, dodging monstrous vessels across a shipping channel and battling tidal currents while navigating to distant landmarks by deck compass.

Unfortunately, our abundance of enthusiasm is not always matched by an abundant supply of time, so it was after lunch on a Monday when we found ourselves starting the two-hour drive to Anacortes. A late afternoon start would have to do, and our goal would be to reach James Island in time to watch the sunset.

Author’s Note: after arriving in Anacortes, we stopped at a local outfitter to purchase navigational charts and discuss the projected currents for the next 24 hours. I cannot over-stress the importance of this step; it’s far too easy to get in over your head if you don’t know the hazards and anticipate tides, currents, and wind forecasts. We planned our trip itinerary to avoid the times of day when significant tidal currents would have made portions of our route dangerous—or simply impossible!

Watching the Anacortes ferry on its way toward Friday Harbor. 
    Jeff Bartlett
Watching the Anacortes ferry on its way toward Friday Harbor. Jeff Bartlett

At long last, we pushed our heavily-laden boats into the water and paddled toward the mouth of Burrows Bay, riding a three-knot current out through Burrows Pass and into the Strait. Some jagged, standing waves where this flow met the main watercourse gave us a white-knuckle moment or two (what had we managed to get ourselves into?!) but we soon found ourselves in calmer water. We used compass and chart to pinpoint Bird Rocks, and pointed the kayaks squarely toward that faraway point.

Above, I mused that our plan was to "dash" across Rosario Strait. This proved both uncannily accurate—with a 2kph broadside current trying to push us off course, and container ships growing large and ominous on the horizon, we paddled hard—and wildly inaccurate. One does not simply dash across expanses of open water! The 4-mile crossing to Bird Rocks took 90 minutes, followed by a northward turn and a more leisurely paddle to James Island.

A quiet evening from a seaside hammock. 
    Jeff Bartlett
A quiet evening from a seaside hammock. Jeff Bartlett

James Island Marine State Park is shaped like a dog bone, and the neck at its narrowest point hosts 13 primitive campsites (in two clusters, each on opposite sides of the island) along with dock and buoys for sailboats and powered craft. Our destination, however, was a diminutive beach just to the south: the Cascadia Marine Trail campsites, set aside specifically for human-powered watercraft like kayaks, canoes, and paddleboards.

Many of the CMT’s 66 sites are scattered throughout the San Juan Islands complex; there are three on James Island. On a Monday night, even in late summer, we found all three unoccupied upon arriving. We beached our crafts, secured them to a tree, and carried our camping gear up a steep wooden staircase to our home for the night.

Short on daylight, we hiked along a well-worn footpath to a rocky overlook on the southwest corner of the island, set up a hammock, and watched the sun set. Harbor seals splashed and played all around, though our romantic setting was disturbed somewhat by the loud, gagging hork hork noise of one gobbling a live fish whole just a few feet away.

Watching the sun go down from the banks of James Island.
    Jeff Bartlett
Watching the sun go down from the banks of James Island. Jeff Bartlett

Daylight gone, we retreated to camp, set up our tent, and went to sleep. Not for long, though, as we were back in the boats before dawn to paddle around the northern side of the island and watch the sun rise over Mount Baker on the eastern horizon!

With few ships about, save for a ferry in the distance, the setting was serene and magical. We watched the light change as the morning sun burst into view, snapped as many photos as I could manage without dropping my camera in the water, completed a lap around the island and once again arrived at our tiny, private beach.

Waiting for the sun, with Mount Baker visible in the distance. 
    Jeff Bartlett
Waiting for the sun, with Mount Baker visible in the distance. Jeff Bartlett
First light over the waters of the Salish Sea. San Juan Islands, Washington. 
    Jeff Bartlett
First light over the waters of the Salish Sea. San Juan Islands, Washington. Jeff Bartlett

After breaking down camp and loading the boats—there is no garbage service here, so leave no trace and pack it out!—we opted to circumnavigate Lopez Island before negotiating Lopez Pass and returning to Anacortes. We took our time here, pausing at several sandy beaches and rocky inlets along the way to stretch our legs and snack.

One might hesitate to call the minor passages of the Salish Sea "open water," especially in that island-riddled region between the Strait of Georgia and the Strait of Juan de Fuca. It’s hardly as if we were adrift in the Pacific Ocean somewhere, sky meeting water at each horizon. Anyway, that’s what I told myself as we piloted our tiny plastic toys across this dizzying expanse of water again.

Do you want to feel like a very small fish in a very big pond? Hop into a sea kayak and paddle as far away from shore as you can stand. On our second crossing, wind and current conspired harder than before to push us off course. At one point, a 900-foot-long oil tanker passed by us uncomfortably close. We could see it coming for 45 minutes but couldn’t tell if it would pass thousands of feet in front of us, thousands of feet behind us, or run us over. Thankfully, it wound up passing about 500 feet behind us.

Progress toward the distant coast was agonizingly slow. The previous evening’s 7-mile paddle had been a jaunt, but at the end of our 21-mile second day we were cooked. On the way back across Burrows Bay, we encountered several pods of harbor porpoises surfacing for air. Soon, our kayaks slid smoothly into the sandy beach and our trip was complete.

The end of a long day in the boats. 
    Jeff Bartlett
The end of a long day in the boats. Jeff Bartlett

Would I recommend skipping the ferry? Perhaps not for everyone, and I suspect the next time we bring our kayaks to the San Juans we’ll simply ferry to Friday Harbor and push off from there. There are no shortage of longer paddles and grand adventures to be had from that central starting point!

It was a great introduction to open water for a couple of intermediate paddlers, though, with an eye toward future adventures in the open ocean. Even if you stick to the calmest inlets, the entire San Juan Islands archipelago is especially beautiful, and comes highly recommended.

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