Kayaking the San Juans

Sea Kayaks

I've kayaked in the Pacific Northwest for about 15 years, and conclude you can be exposed to a lot of great scenery with a low 'hassle factor' in several places throughout Oregon and Washington, without the added expense or time of venturing up to Canada.  That being said, if you do want to invest the extra time and money, Vancouver Island, B.C. and the myriad of islands that surround it is a great kayaking destination.  If you want a little summer in your winter, the Sea of Cortez in Baja, Mexico is a good trip, too.    But more on that man`ana.

Focusing on the premier sea-kayaking locale in Washington, the San Juan Islands, you will find a sea kayaking experience here that will rival anything else.  Orca whales, salmon and seals, deep forest and rocky shores, good weather and a challenge when you want one – that's the San Juans.

There are over 450 islands in the entire San Juan archipelago, but this article focuses on a few you might start with on a 'first trip'.  Each of these highlighted are unique, and exhibit distinct geography.  Orcas Island includes high mountain lakes, the densest forests, and incredible viewpoints from the highest point in the islands:  Mt. Constitution. There is good camping here, hot springs, hilly terrain and narrow roads.  Orcas experiences some of the worst weather in the San Juans it seems, though you can usually escape it if you know where to hide.

North of Orcas Island, are Patos, Sucia and Matia Islands.  There is no ferry service to any of these – a formal dock (but no services) at Sucia and Matia, no dock at Patos.  Camping is available at all three, but check with local guides on the Sucia situation – the main campground can get crowded, even after Labor Day.  The best camping site for kayakers on Sucia is located north of Echo Bay – it is surrounded by several barrier islands in a small cove (read: not generally accessible by large craft).

You should plan on a minimum 3-day paddling trip to really see all three of these, and more if you've got the time.  Be aware that paddling north from Orcas to the outer islands is an open-water crossing, but the currents aren't too bad here – get a tide table to time your trip for slack tide, and when in doubt, ask the locals.  The wind can pick up quickly on the north side of these islands, and paddling the north sides of Patos and Sucia should be done only if things are pretty calm (count on 3-4 hours paddle).



Lighthouse on Patos Island, Mt. Baker in the background

Kayaking from Doe Bay on the far west side of Orcas is very nice.   There is a rocky beach right at the resort, and they charge a nominal fee for launches.  Check out the lodge / hot spring web-site at:  www.doebay.com.  They don't do kayak rentals anymore, but their tours are good for beginners, and there's a hot tub (community, clothing optional) awaiting you at the end of the day!  The downside:  look for camping elsewhere (i.e. Moran State Park), as the 'cabins' at Doe Bay are pricy for what you get.

Not quite out to Doe Bay, but away from the bustle of East Sound, is Lieberhaven Resort.  The word 'resort' is a stretch.  It's low-key, the staff know the area well, and they do rent kayaks:  www.lieberhavenresort.com In the off-season, their room/kitchenette prices drop, and you can haggle with them for extended stays.  Check out the "town" of Olga – between Lieberhaven and Doe Bay – there is a cool art gallery right by the post office and grocery store there.  The place is small, quiet, and has a dock.  Some B-n-Bs are located near here.

Lopez Island is commendable for ease of access and cycling.  You'll find a slower, easier pace than the other islands, the topography is flatter, and the weather is generally calmer.  A well-outfitted store and bakery (really, there is only one of note on the whole island) are in the town center.   Spencer Spit State Park has good camping, is an easy bike ride from the ferry terminal, and one could do some nice kayak day-trips from there.  Outer Bay or Aleck Bay are good if you want a little more adventure – but watch out for the weather coming in from the Strait of Juan de Fuca. 

Kayaks can be rented at: www.lopezkayaks.com.  Practically next door is www.lopezbicycleworks.com if you want to rent bikes.

San Juan Island is the economic epicenter of the islands, and thus, the most crowded.  Auto traffic from Friday Harbor out to Roche Harbor is pretty heavy on weekends, and not recommended for a bicycle, though early weekday mornings are not so bad.  Roche Harbor is a picturesque spot, including the Haro Hotel if you want to live the 'high life' for a while, or just check out this historic site.  Kayaking from here is not as scenic, and you may be competing with power-craft more than at other launch-spots on San Juan. 

Things quiet down near American Camp, and the San Juan Historic Park is pretty nice.  The best spot to see orcas is near Limekiln Point, where there is a state park, and you can launch.  Keep relatively close to shore, as you are next to the Haro Strait – get a chart or ask a local before venturing out too far (more than a half-mile).  On a weekend, follow the crowd and you'll find whales.  Turn Island, south and east of Friday Harbor, is a good short (half-day) trip from town.

Kayak rentals/tours can be done at San Juan Kayaks: www.sanjuankayak.com or www.discoveryseakayak.com Discovery also does "mother ship" kayak tours, a great way (albeit more expensive) to cover a lot of ground.

Kayak tours (only) can be done with:  www.sanjuanislandoutfitters.com or www.anacorteskayaktours.com

Aerial photos are available on the Washington Department of Ecology web-site:  http://apps.ecy.wa.gov/shorephotos/

My 2 cents on kayaking in the San Juans:  Know how to do a 'wet-exit' or eskimo roll before you venture off-shore, especially toward Haro Strait.  Ask the local kayakers / gear shops about currents – they are not obvious from shore, and sometimes really strong.  Get a tide table and chart – and plan accordingly.  Avoid the weekends –  it’s best both pre-Memorial / post-Labor Day – and…. HAVE FUN!!

First image of stacked kayaks taken by Pat David