Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Monday on San Juan Island, Washington

8 AM:  Exploring the shoreline at the Anacortes ferry landing
 The tides in Washington State are different from Maine’s; although there are two tides each day, one tide can overwhelm the other.  Plus, in Puget Sound, the timing of high tide varies drastically from location to location.  Still, 8AM is what our tide chart showed for the lowest low of the day, so at 8AM I was at the Anacortes ferry terminal scouting fruitlessly for sea stars on the pilings and among the rocks.  Our plan was to take the 9AM ferry to San Juan island, meet up with our guides from Outdoor Odysseys, get driven across the island, spend the day paddling along the shore, then get back in time for the evening ferry from San Juan. 

For the past week, the weather had been reporting that it would rain on Monday, but they were wrong- the skies above were blue!  The ride to San Juan was magnificent, the ferry quite spacious.  It's huge windows were being  freshly cleaned as we boarded. 
There was plenty of room on the ferry
 We chatted with other travelers on the trip across, a pair of women from Whidbey Island on a day trip to Friday Harbor (the one town on San Juan Island) and a woman from Oklahoma who was housesitting in the area and taking a small boat tour to see killer whales.
View from the ferry
Given the emptiness of the ferry, and the expected rain, I thought our kayak tour might be sparsely attended, but I was wrong.  There was a van full: twelve “sports” and two guides,  Kaitlyn and Sarah.  The San Juan Islands are a hot spot for kayaking.  Our fellow paddlers had come from all across America: North Carolina, California and Virginia.  Most intriguing were a couple in their 30’s, who had taken a month off work and were driving across the country and back.  They’d just finished camping in bear country and were looking forward to camping on bear-free San Juan.  Specifically, they were hoping to camp in San Juan Park, where we were launching.  Unfortunately no spaces were available there (another reminder of how popular this area is for kayakers), but there was another campground on San Juan they could stay at.
Carrying the boats to shore.
 Mark and I have been in tandems many times, but it’s been years since we’ve been in a tandem together.  Usually it's one of us and a child.  Even though tandem kayaks are often called “divorce boats”we were interested in exploring how fast two strong paddlers could go and how quickly we could turn.  I suspect if we got our rhythm down and could finalize on a left or right side, we could roll a tandem, but we weren’t planning on trying that.
Suited up and listening to instructions
 Of course, tandems have their downsides, chief among them weight.  We managed to get the boats to the beach by putting four people on each.  After some introductions and instruction we were on our way, launching out into wind and waves.
Gathering in the kelp
 We stopped by the first bed of bull kelp.  Gathering in the kelp is what the guides wanted us to do if conditions became hairy.  The kelp provides a dampening effect to wind waves and current, and if we were tired of paddling we could just grab the kelp and hold on.
Close up of bull kelp, which can grow a foot per day
 Both the wind and the current were against us on our projected route.  Based on how fast the water was traveling over the kelp, I would say we were fighting a 1-1.5 knot current.  And considering that a few of our tour group have never been in a kayak before, you can probably imagine the progress we were making.   And this was inside the bay, around the corner ahead the wind waves and current were likely to increase.   It wasn’t long before a decision was made to turn back and have lunch at a closer beach.
Heading out.  Note the container ship in the background
 Waiting for lunch I was fairly subdued. It was a lovely location, but it was pretty obvious that we weren’t going to complete the intended route.  
Lunch view of Canada

Kayaks parked in a cove, kayakers parked on the hill
 After a wonderful lunch, things seemed brighter.  There were lion's mane jellyfish in the water and an unexpected close encounter with a harbor seal that bounced between our kayaks.  

  Still, some of our group had had enough of waves rolling over their decks.  So the group was split, with Sarah taking folks back to sit in the sunshine, and Kaitlin taking the rest of us further along the shore.  And of that group, some bounced in the waves, and others stuck to tamer waters.
Cruising across the sea
 It might not have been a good day to paddle south, but it was a great day for testing boats.  Tandems generally come equipped with rudders.  I always figured that was due to their length, but as Mark and I puttered about, I realized it was also so that you didn’t have two paddlers correcting the kayak angle, then discovering they’d over corrected, etc.    That time and energy savings becomes more important if you’re taking a tandem out for twenty or thirty miles.  But, on this short run, Mark was in no hurry to use the rudder.   Rudder up, the Esperanto handled well, though we were kept busy paddling.  And as a team we could go pretty fast, and spin right about using sweep strokes.
Kaitlin paddles by some Madrona trees (with the spotted bark)
 All too soon it was the end of our tour.  
Playing in the waves
 It was a tough day for beginners; the current, wind and water temperatures all created significant challenges.  On the plus side, they learned a lot about boat capabilities and their own capabilities.    And they learned the most important lesson: the ocean (or lake or river) doesn't care if you've come across town or across the country.  The conditions are what they are, and sometimes the only wise choice is to change your plans.   Thanks to Kaitlin and Sarah for coming up with a fun alternative.
Exploring Friday Harbor after kayaking
 Summary:  Tour -  Outdoor Odysseys. Boat - tandem Boreal Design Esperanto.  Front pedals locked in place.  The tandem was entertaining enough that we might need to add one to our fleet. 
Wildlife spotted:  Harbor Seals, cormorants, sea gulls,  guillemots, vultures, limpets, whelks, lion's mane jellyfish.  Also spotted: lots of container ships (from China?)  No sea stars.  Odyssey Outdoor did a great job with the conditions.

If you were on the tour, and would like any of these photos, or for us to look through for photos of you, please write us at:  The photos used in the blog are trimmed and re-sized to allow them to load faster.

A couple other companies also doing a great job:
Anacortes Ship Harbor Inn:  walking distance to the ferry.  The owner, Linda, marked up a map with parks we could explore in the area, noting which ones opened early.  And this was the view from our room.
Hotel view Ship Harbor Inn Anacortes

The Washington State Ferry System
Spotting another ferry while enjoying a sunset ride back to Anacortes


  1. Damn! I'm jealous. Nice pics. Wish I could have done that one. Tandems can be a lot of fun, especially if you get to sit in the back and decide where you go with the rudder.

    With two paddlers, you can really move the boat and have someone to chat with. Or you can sit in the front with the camera and let the guy in the back ferry you about.

    Cheers from Canada!

    1. I think it would be nice to sit in the back and say, "Yes, I'm paddling Mark; it's just such a big boat that it feels slow." Which is probably why he has me sit up front.

  2. Rachel and I always tandem when we paddle together. You get both the stroke and rhythm down pretty quickly in a tandem as long as the back seat person lets the front seat person set the paddle stroke! While I do like the togetherness of a tandem, I have starting looking for another single seat kayak so both Rachel and I can enjoy some together time, but separate, if you get my drift! ;-)

    1. It's nice to paddle together, but its also nice to each be able to set your own stroke. Good luck on your search for a second single kayak!