Friday, February 4, 2011

San Juan Islands Excursion

Almost 3,000 miles away from home, I tossed my luggage on top of Outdoor Adventure Center’s shuttle van at Seattle’s SEATAC airport and opened the side door to get in. A smiling but somewhat bewildered face greeted me from inside the van, paused, and said “Hey, I know you!”. From that point, I knew this was going to be a fun trip.

That smiling face belonged to Martha Muckleroy whom I had met for the briefest moment two years prior while giving her an impromptu shuttle on North Carolina’s Tuckaseegee River. My ‘river karma’ was being repaid through this fantastic opportunity to be a part of ACA’s first sponsored “members-only” paddling excursion; this one to the San Juan Islands of Washington state’s northern coast. Martha was accompanied from Texas by Camille Bunting. Anne Kaiser, Colin Mullen and Dara Fee had flown in from New York. Howard and Maya Higgins joined us from New Mexico and Kurtis and Rose Schultz form Washington rounded out the guests for our upcoming adventure.

Blair and Kathy Corson of Outdoor Adventure Center in Redmond, Washington ( met everyone at their airport connections the first day of the trip and whisked us all to the waiting ferry from Anacortes, Washington to our first evening’s camp at Spencer Spit State Park on Lopez Island.

The second day dawned over our camp providing an amazing view of the islands that would continue to enthrall us the remainder of the journey. As a group, we selected our kayaks for the week: a mix of single and triple fiberglass and Kevlar® Northwest Kayaks. Blair and Kathy handed out gear bags and other other essentials for the trip in between preparing and serving breakfast and lunch for the day as we all packed into our boats and prepared for the journey ahead. Departing the island right on time to catch the favorable tide (which Blair calculated for us every day of the trip) we set off for Clark Island State Park. As we passed Obstruction Island and turned north toward the Peapod Rocks we got a taste of the San Juan’s swift currents and current rips where we had the first of several encounters with small pods of Dall’s porpoise. The choppy water gave the whole group a little thrill for the day. It was nice to be with a group of experienced paddlers: a benefit of being on the ACA excursion.

After 14 miles, we arrived at Clark Island along a wide gravel beach that was typical of the landings we’d have throughout the trip. Our campsites were relatively private and strung along the beach, just inside of the high-tide mark in the shelter of low brushy cover. We unloaded the boats, pitched tents and quickly set about relaxing for the evening with camp chairs and a fire on the beach. Sunset painted an incredible picture of snow-capped northern Cascade mountains in the distance across the strait. Bald Eagles, a common site in the San Juans gave us a show with their aerobatics and deft fishing skills.

We launched on day three across one of our most exposed crossings. All of the boats handled the slightly windy conditions admirably and the experienced group had little problem in the conditions. Weaving in and out among islands, we had numerous occasions to stop and watch harbor seals sunning themselves on small rock outcrops. With 10 miles behind us, we arrived at Sucia Island State Park with the current at our backs and coasted into Fossil Bay. The flooding tide allowed us to inch our boats closer and closer to shore over the next hour and finally, with only yards remaining, we unloaded our gear and set camp along a narrow peninsula that gave us stunning views across the large strait from which we had just arrived as well as the coming sunset over Little Sucia Island to the west. Sucia was going to be our home for the next day and a half so we all felt a welcomed calm fall over us. No camp to break, no boats to load, nowhere to go...unless we wanted to.

Following a great breakfast the following morning, everyone chose their own path for the day. A few hiked the island's narrow, rocky trails through old-growth northwest forest; stunning in its damp greenness. Others decided to hop back in boats and circumnavigate the steep, rocky shoreline of the island with multiple cuts, channels and off-lying islets. The boaters were treated to an intertidal zone filled with colorful starfish, giant bull kelp, chitons, and limpets. Pigeon guiillemots flew from rocky roosts along the cliffs, flashing their stark black and white plumage and bright red feet. A few enjoyed the greatest luxury: A day to sit in the grass and read a good book undisturbed for a few hours. The day off' was greatly appreciated by all of the travelers.

That evening, Blair initiated a shellfishing excursion, walking the group to Sucia’s East Sound harbor. We were quickly able to collect a sampling of Pacific oysters from the rocks and headed back to Fossil Bay to try our hands at some clam digging. After some wallowing in the mud and quite a few laughs later, we decided oysters on the half-shell could be the night’s seafood delight.

On Thursday we embarked on another crossing around the northwest side of Orcas Island, through President Channel and to the peaceful harbor of Jones Island State Park. This 13-mile paddle was fairly slow-paced and we all took advantage of the opportunity to maneuver around and socialize. The group recognized by this point that we were in prime Orca sighting territory at this point and we kept vigil for the much anticipated sighting. Blair and Kathy, the consummate guides, were in contact with the whale-watching services by cell phone getting updates on the location of the pods of whales that circle the San Juans. We knew we were getting close but weren’t yet sure when/if we’d spot the whales.

The campsites on Jones Islands were right on the beach. Unlike sites before though, they were also about 25 feet straight up a relatively steep bank from the gravel shore. With the gear and food of a dozen people to move, we knew we needed more efficiency than before and formed a “bucket brigade” with everyone forming a line up the bank and we had the gear transferred in a snap. Once settled, we hiked across the island park to its south shore for an ampitheater-like panoramic view of the sound. Settling on the warm grassy bank everyone lulled between a nap-state and a lookout for pods of Orcas in the sound before us. Strong currents along the shore 50 feet below us provided a regular parade of harbor seals and river otters cruising along enjoying the same sights and a seafood smorgasbord provided by these rich cold waters.

Friday Harbor was originally slated as the destination for the final leg of our journey. As we made a leisurely float through the channel separating San Juan and Spieden Islands, Blair checked in a last time with his buddies with the whale watching boats and discovered that a detour for the day might result in us crossing paths with the Orcas at last. Rather than turning south and down the eastern side of San Juan toward Friday Harbor, the group opted to take a longer paddle of about 16 miles for the day and go around the western side of San Juan Island and into the Haro Strait, within a mile of the Canadian border. Almost as soon as we entered the strait, Blair heard the first “blow”. We all froze and listened intently. Within seconds we all began to hear the intermittent sounds of Orcas blowing in the distance and finally began to see the tell-tale high black dorsal of a male Orca and soon shorter finned females across the strait, about 3 miles distant, in Canadian waters. No one moved. Everyone watched...seemingly as one appreciating the majesty of these creatures and the realization that we’d now experienced what we’d all been quietly hoping for. The whales kept their distance and we swept slowly southward with the current. Passing the Lime Kiln Point Lighthouse later in the afternoon, we finally came ashore in Deadman Bay. Unloading and packing into the waiting Outdoor Adventure Center van, we started driving back to Friday Harbor for the night. Not a hundred yards down the road, Dan Velasco, who had come to pick us up, glanced back and said “Look!”. A pod of Orcas swam up the coast right through the path we had just paddled, a hundred yards off the coast. A young whale in the pod made several breaches, flinging itself well clear of the water, giving us one last thrill for the trip.

After a welcome night in a soft motel bed in Friday Harbor, we all boarded the ferry the next morning, bound for the return to Anacortes. As the ACA representative on the trip, I polled the group on the ferry about what ACA could do to make membership more valuable. We all laughed at the initial answer of: “More Trips!”. Laughter aside, I am taking some other serious suggestions back to ACA about what could make the organization more beneficial in the long run and on the ground with clubs who represent the heart and soul of ACA. Many of us on the trip were instructors and we all had some great discussions and ideas that we’ll work on.

Aprés Paddle

We were a group of guinea pigs. The 2010 San Juans Excursion was a first: A test case of whether ACA sponsored adventure travel would work. I think we all agreed that this model became a shining proof-of-concept. We were an extremely satisfied group of travelers. I asked Blair and Kathy (repeatedly...I had to be sure) whether this seemed like a sustainable model for them and their business. They assured me it was. For these adventures, ACA arrives at agreements with excellent outfitters (OAC is an ACA Pro School) to conduct the trip. ACA promotes the trip and in exchange, receives a donation of part of the proceeds. The travelers, all ACA members, receive the benefit of having these opportunities available. At least for our group, we found this an extremely rewarding opportunity to see the sights and meet fantastic people.

One last plug for Outdoor Adventure Center. In addition to taking the chance of being the first (of hopefully many) ACA Excursion, they pulled this trip off par excellence. Their knowledge of the area and planning for the trip was great. I didn’t discuss the individual meals that Blair and Kathy prepared for us day by day, but consider a sampling: Thai peanut sauce with spinach. Bread with rasberry balsamic vinegar, Tortilla soup and quesadillas, smoked salmon fettuccine (Blair’s dad’s smoked salmon: purportedly the world’s finest!), breakfast omelets, fresh fruit, shrimp cocktails. I have to stop...I’m hungry again. We rarely paused for a break on the water when Kathy wouldn’t be reaching into her day hatch and tossing granola bars to everyone for paddling fuel. Bottom line is we were well pampered during this trip.

If you’re an ACA member looking for a good opportunity to travel and paddle, we think you should really consider one of these ACA-sponsored excursions. They are a good bargain in the competitive market. They stand to put you in a group of dedicated and probably experienced paddlers. They help to give back to ACA...something we should all consider.

See you on the Water.

For the group,
Larry Ausley, ACA Secretary and Board of Directors

No comments:

Post a Comment