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San Juan Islands

The weekend warrior and the spaceship.

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The weekend warrior and the spaceship.

Trip Report: Paddling from Bellingham to Victoria BC and back again. 


Day 1: Ready for launch, and lunch. 

Day 1: Click to Enlarge

Friday afternoon (May 19th, 2017) I paddled from Bellingham Bay to Jone's Island. I took a direct line more or less on the southern aspect of Orcas Island with some little twists and turns to add extra miles. I met my buddies, Kirk Christiansen and Greg Bawden at Jones Island who each paddled out from different locations, one from Anacortes and the other from a launch point near Lummi Island. 

On the way out, I had an important business call to take so I put the boat in park and joined a conference call... bobbing happy as a cork on the sea on a wonderful, warm and glassy spring day. It was really a funny life moment when you think "Ok, I think I have it all" as you discuss the serious but not really existentially-serious things of corporate life. At that moment I heard a boat approach, and was greeted by some smart jeering... sure enough it was some sailing friends on their way to Cypress Island who spotted me sitting in my surfski. I put my call on hold, and kindly explained that "some of us have real jobs!". After my call ended I chased down their plodding sailboat and had we a laugh about my absurd business habits. 


"Man... It's like a spaceship just landed on the beach. This is like seeing the future."


At about the half way mark, I approached a little beach on the north shore of Obstruction Island where a man was working on a dingy. I glided silently up to him from behind unnoticed and tried to not startle him.

"You mind if I stop for a quick lunch on your beach?" was met with "WhoooaAAAHH!" for a response, and then a dry "It's not my beach... but it doesn't bother me if you go gorilla." with a hint of old hippy accent.

I replied "Gorillas eat fast" as I stepped out of my still gliding boat and walked ashore in one fluid movement, not allowing my boat to touch the ground until I had found a soft patch of sand on the beach to set it. We traded a quick introduction and he shared that he was himself a long-time kayaker but he had never seen such a vessel before. We chatted about the old days of paddling on the west coast of Vancouver Island. I happily shared details about the concept behind surfskis and what they are capable of in terms of speed, range and rough water performance as he took pictures to share with his wife. His offered a succinct summary in response to my many words and simply stated "Man, it's like a spaceship just landed on the beach. This is like seeing the future..."

As I ate my lunch, an interesting intersection of past and present between us emerged. Each of us have participated in a the cultural phenomena of our respective paddling eras. His an era long gone and full of bold paddlers and personalities executing expeditions with what is now considered primitive gear and no recourse in the event of disaster. Mine a blossoming era of fitness minded paddlers using bold inventions and reinventions that have brought liberating advances to every aspect of the ocean sports world. As we wrapped up our chat, I contemplated the the paradox that the advances that have expanded my horizons have also diminished the very thing I deeply desire, adventure and freedom. I envied his era, and he mine. I had the subtle feeling that this exact conversation has been repeated since the invention of the first kayak four thousand years ago. Some things never change as they change. 

With the remainder of the ebb making easy work of the remaining miles, I arrived at Jones island and found it in full tourist mode with boats and kayakers in nearly every nook and cranny. We had agreed to meet up on the south eastern aspect, where there are some fine beaches and rock top camping spots with outstanding views. Arriving first, I snagged the last perch and savored the sensation of encountering a new place for the first time. It just never gets old.

Kirk and Greg each rolled in within 20 minutes of each other, and we all set up shop for the night. We soon realized that the island water had not been turned on as advertised on the state website, and we had to put on our most pitiful faces and go beg the power boats in the marina for water. They were very kind and obliged the island vagrants of our wishes. Good vibes for them, dinner and breakfast for us. 

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As we made our dinner, a rustling sound interupted us and we found a true island vagrant raiding my food bag inside of my tent, just a few feet away from our camp table! It was a brazen raccoon who had found my energy bars and was now running full speed away from the scene of his crime. Being a man of justice, I gave a spirited chase and ran the little bastard down and soon treed him. His look of utter bewilderment from the relative safety of a pine bough gave me the impression that not many people of the pasty water folk give chase. I grabbed a chunk of driftwood and lofted it in a perfect arch to his position, at which point he felt the true measure of my limbic system's intent to bring him to account for his theft. 

My camp mates were perhaps a little horrified and amused at my savagery. I offered that should they elect to spend spend more time with native Montanans and they'd know that I am in fact quite polite for my species. 


Day 2: Eye on the prize. 

Day 2: Click to Enlarge

Day 2: Click to Enlarge

The next morning I rose early before dawn, wanting a crisp start to what I intended to be a grand day. The rising sun brought a faint glow to the basin around us, and as my camp mates slept in their tents I sipped a wonderful cup of coffee and contemplated how surprised I am to live such a full, rewarding life of adventure surrounded by people I enjoy and love deeply.  


"The garbage from their raid was strewn about camp like graffiti, a brazen and unmissable billboard for the bipeds; "Nature Always Wins!"


The coffee kept me longer then I intended, and soon Kirk awoke to find that the raccoons had repaid my vengeance to him. They had broke into his tent vestibule mere inches from his head as he slept, and made off with some of his best food for the weekend. The garbage from their raid was strewn about camp like graffiti, a brazen and unmissable billboard for the bipeds; "Nature Always Wins!"

I packed up the last of my belongings and wished my campmates safe voyage. I then journeyed west to Flat Top Island and on to Stuart Island riding the flood at great speed. My desire was to dip my toes into the fine waters of Canada and get close to Victoria where I could lay eyes on the prize of Vancouver Island. There is a strange thing that happens when one visits another country unannounced. You feel a type of distant freedom that in ages past others may have never contemplated, but surely enjoyed. I was happy to revisit the concept on my own terms and quickly departed back to US waters. 

Not your average boat launch, eh?

Not your average boat launch, eh?

From there I cruised back to Roche Harbor, through Mosquito pass behind Henry Island and along the south western aspect of Orcas Island. It was a lovely ride full of contrasts between the wild islands and the very tame. The flood soon ended and brought my freewheeling mileage hungry aspirations a stiff reality check. The ebb had begun in earnest, and it drained the speed from me. Cruising along at 8 and 9 mph one minute, and then in the mid-5's the next. The heavy reality that the next 40 miles would be spent against the tide sunk in as I chewed through the miles to best of my ability and tried to stay cheerful despite my pour route planning.  

I elected to thread my way through the islands rather than face the full throttle of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and then the Rosario, so Cattle Pass seemed like a bargain as I pushed through in mild conditions past Friday Harbor once again. The miles drug on and on and on against the ebb. The lack of speed is demoralizing, and one must come to grips with the fact that the straits can either make you look very very fast, or very very slow. Today was the latter and there was no hiding it. 

Fighting the hard reality of a 70 plus mile day, I stopped l just a few hundred yards off shore from a summer cabin on Sinclair Island and tried to find a thread of coherent motivation to finish the day well and polish off the last ten or so miles back to Bellingham. I heard the sound of a lawn mower, and then the cheerful chirps of children running and playing in the woods as the smell of a BBQ wafted out to meet me. It brought to me a flood of memories from my own families' cabin on Anderson Island in the south sound. I missed home deeply, and wondered at why on earth I choose such hard goals so readily when the comforts of family and home are there for the enjoyment? 

And at that very moment, I found both the motivation I needed and a now flooding tide to make it so. And once again I was speeding along the tides of life like the champion I imagine myself to be as the last shreds of the day light up Bellingham Bay. Thanks happy children in the woods and lawnmower BBQ guy... I needed that. 

Later when I checked in with Kirk who had stayed one more day on Jones Island, he relayed the information that the 'coons had thugged him up pretty good; breaking into the hatches of his sea kayak and taking nearly ALL of his food. This of course demands a deft response, and I shall return to avenge my friend, spaceship in hand. 

Later when I checked in with Kirk who had stayed one more day on Jones Island, he relayed the information that the 'coons had thugged him up pretty good; breaking into the hatches of his sea kayak and taking nearly ALL of his food. This of course demands a deft response, and I shall return to avenge my friend, spaceship in hand. 

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Surfski Touring in the San Juan Islands

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Surfski Touring in the San Juan Islands

TRIP REPORT: Surfski Touring to Sucia Island in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. 

My friends and I put in at Fairhaven with fair skies and light wind. We then paddled across Bellingham Bay to Portage Island, and then up to the Northern tip of Lummi Island where we took a quick pause on a beach before crossing the Rosario straight. 

While on the beach, the land owner came down to see what the fuss was all about with a booming shout of "WHAT DO WE HAVE HERE!?!" at the very moment one of my friends was relieving himself. Feeling a bit like Peter Rabbit, I greeted him with a quick handshake and introduced us as a "traveling spectacle of spandex!" to break the ice. It worked, he laughed out loud and we ended up having a pleasant chat with a man who has lived his entire life on the island. Spend enough time on the water, and you'll soon know you need beach access to regroup on long days. I am typically careful to empathize with the land owner, as the law is on their side and they pay the taxes to prove it. A little understanding goes a long way, and I have met some really kind people over the years who have become very frustrated with large groups of guided kayakers who often bring entitled attitudes and leave trash and feces on their beaches.  

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The wind shifted, and we enjoyed following seas as we paddled into the San Juan archipelago. We covered roughly 21 miles in 2:54 of paddling, averaging just a tick under 7.0mph. Not bad considering each person was carrying close to 50lbs of gear and food. 

Upon arriving at the island, it's appeal was immediately apparent with coastal reefs and tide pools hemmed in by jumbled stone cliffs and wind twisted pine. There are numerous coves and bays on the island that offer shelter from the frequent storms that blow in.

The name "Sucia" translates literally as foul, as legend has it the first Spanish explorers found it rather irksome to safely visit and harbor. Either that, or in a stroke of genius and foresight they camouflaged a very pleasant island with an unpleasant name. 

We camped in the charming Fox Cove bay and were dismayed to learn that the water supply for the island was not yet turned on. This of course meant we would have to charm our fellow yachting guests into giving us some of their supply. The task proved remarkably easy, and in addition to water we were offered cold beers and a great conversation around a fire that night. In a strange twist of fate, one of the people we met was from my hometown of Billings, Montana. We had a great laugh, and in typical Montana fashion set about figuring out who we knew in common. Quite a few people it turns out. 

Saturday the clear skies continued, this time with the addition of significant westerly wind blowing close to 20mph throughout the day. I typically try to bring one great meal on a trip, and treated my friends to breakfast burritos. My friends elected to head west to explore more islands and then perhaps surf back if the wind held. I chose instead to do downwind laps near the island in the good weather and wind, and practice remounting my ski in the rough water and relative safety of the island. As I suspected, the wind soon eased up and the waves laid flat. This called for a proper nap in the warm sunshine. 

On the the third day, a storm blew in packing 30 mph wind with a strong easterly component. We knew we'd have our hands full with loaded surfskis paddling beam in confused seas and very technical conditions. We were not wrong. Our plan was to paddle from Sucia Island to Orcas Island in search of wind shadow in the lee of Island and then "possibly" surf with the wind down the Rosario straight back to the north side of Lummi Island.  

As soon as we put in and departed the island, we had a stiff reality check with one of my friends taking a prolonged swim and difficult remount about a mile offshore. I made the crossing to Orcas as planned, while my two friends turned back to regroup on Sucia. We coordinated by radio, and 20 more miles in these conditions was simply not going to happen. The guys were able to score a boat ride to haul us and our gear back to Bellingham (small craft advisory be damned!) with a very kind local named Robbie who happened to be sheltering in Fox Cove with us. Having a brother named Robbie, I've yet to meet one I don't like. 

Late winter / early spring in the San Juan's is not to the time to expect sunshine and lollypops on the open water. We knew heading in that we would see challenging conditions, and we embraced it. 

As Yvonne Chouinard famously said, "For me, when everything goes wrong – that’s when adventure starts.” Adventure indeed!

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Rough water crossing, San Juan Islands

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Rough water crossing, San Juan Islands

Just back from my three day surfski touring trip in the San Juan Islands. This is a spicy little segment from my voyage, crossing from Sucia to Orcas Island in some pretty rough water.  

One of the questions I am asked most about using a V12 as a touring platform: "How does it do in rough water?" Pretty darn well I'd say. This is not to say that what you see above is easy - it wasn't. It's a bit like juggling on a tight rope while a silver back gorilla throws punches at you. But the long range speed advantages of a touring in a fast surfski are very distinct.

 

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Touring the San Juan Islands by surfski.

Sucia Island, just north of Orcas Island in the San Juan archipelago. 

Sucia Island, just north of Orcas Island in the San Juan archipelago. 

We have it pretty good here in the Pacific Northwest. Within two hours of windshield time of Seattle, one can sample a truly envious array of options in pursuit of your weekend dose of adrenaline. The North Cascades, Mount Rainier, the Pacific Ocean, the arid landscapes of the Columbia River Gorge or the wine country and alpine peaks surrounding Lake Chelan are all within reach. The list of improbable but awesome options goes on and on and on.  

This weekend some paddling friends and I are heading into the San Juan Islands in our touring surfskis. The San Juan's are a unique archipelago of islands that exist in distinct Mediterranean like climate, but despite their close proximity to the Pacific Ocean and it's seemingly endless river of moisture laden wind currents, they are in the rain shadow of Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula and have a distinct and dry landscape. Not to be mistaken for a tranquil place, the islands boast strong wind and significant currents in the perfect trifecta of the Rosario Strait, the Strait of Georgia and Strait of Juan De Fuca - collectively known as the Salish Sea. And on the outer coast lovingly referred to as the "graveyard of the Pacific" as over 700 ships and 2000 lives have been lost here. There is always something going on with the weather and water here, and it's typically on the harsh side. Our forecast calls for a little wind, in the 20mph range, which could make for a difficult exit on Sunday, but not too crazy. 

The San Juan Islands are also a tremendous place to sight whales, and there are numerous resident Orca pods. This time of year the Gray whales are also migrating through the area. High hopes! 

 

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