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San Juan Islands kayak Circumnavigation

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. 

IMG_0988.jpg

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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Confessions of a paddling addict: 200km & 2 days in the San Juan Islands

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Confessions of a paddling addict: 200km & 2 days in the San Juan Islands

Confessions of a paddling addict: Binge paddling 200km in just 2 days in the San Juan Islands. 

With a fine forecast for the weekend, I decided to try and get some quality training miles in an absolute treasure of paddling, the San Juan Islands. One of our local strongmen paddlers, Kirk Christiansen had told about a trip he took using the powerful currents in the straits to circumnavigate the entire island chain in one day, and I was eager to do the same (that's over 85 miles of paddling big country!). 

But this weekend also happened to be one of my favorite races, the Lake Whatcom Classic. So what to do?

Answer: Both of course!  


LAKE WHATCOM CLASSIC 2017 RACE REPORT:

We had great attendance for the race, and a fine cool morning with a light breeze out of the south and a forecast to switch to a northwestern breeze. This meant headwinds both ways, something that has happened every year I have raced the classic (x3).

When the horn sounded, I was facing the wrong way and managed to completely miss the start of the race. Once turned around and paddling, the leaders were about a minute away. I stayed calm, and started hopping from wake to wake as I worked my way through the field and tried to limit the damage from such a silly mistake. Eventually I found the wash of a super fast double rowing shell (out of class drafting is permitted) and I hung on for dear life as we slowly closed on the lead group comprised of 4x Olympic medalist Greg Barton, and up and coming superstar Austin Kieffer who were themselves comfortably riding the wash of a very fast double rowing shell. Much to my surprise the lead double made a course heading mistake which was just enough for us catch up to the leaders at the turn around point, a small island about 6 miles into the race. Never in my life would I think I could close a gap that big on those two, who upon my arrival at the front group they promptly reminded me that closing a gap and finishing a race are two very different ideas and took the pace up more notches than my wide wasted belt can handle. I wasn't quite able stay with the double I was drafting, and had the hard task of heading back upwind solo. But I did manage to hold off another former Olympian, John Mooney for 3rd place. I was happy with my paddle given that I am not focused on short distance racing this year but can still hang with the big dogs, or more accurately keep them in sight (the neon pfd's we all race in sure help in this regard!).  

Mass start, minus me! I missed the start, and had my work cut out for me to catch up. Photos: Michael Lampi

Mass start, minus me! I missed the start, and had my work cut out for me to catch up. Photos: Michael Lampi

"Where did everyone go?" Working my way through the field, chasing Barton and Kieffer. Photo: Michael Lampi

"Where did everyone go?" Working my way through the field, chasing Barton and Kieffer. Photo: Michael Lampi

The lead group forming up. Photo: Michael Lampi

The lead group forming up. Photo: Michael Lampi

Kieffer and Barton giving it 100% for the finish with Kieffer coming up with the win. Photo: Michael Lampi

Kieffer and Barton giving it 100% for the finish with Kieffer coming up with the win. Photo: Michael Lampi

Managed to claw my way back to 3rd place by the end of the race. Photo: Michael Lampi

Managed to claw my way back to 3rd place by the end of the race. Photo: Michael Lampi

After the race, I thanked the race organizer Brandon Nelson (himself a local legend, incredibly accomplished paddler and generous supporter of our paddling community), collected my gear, scarfed a PB&J and raced down to Marine Park to start for the second part of my binge weekend: Circumnavigating the San Juan Islands! 


SAN JUAN ISLANDS CIRCUMNAVIGATION TRIP REPORT: 

With warm air, clear skies and a light breeze I cast off at 2pm in my touring surfski fully loaded with food, water and gear for the weekend and then some. I paddled out from Bellingham Bay, and rode the flood tide through the channel between Portage Island and Lummi Island out to the Salish Sea where I was greeted by a vast expanse of big blue sky and big blue sea.

Staring into the abyss of the Salish Sea. City of Vancouver, BC on the far horizon.

Staring into the abyss of the Salish Sea. City of Vancouver, BC on the far horizon.

From there I worked my way west, crossing the Rosario Straight in fine conditions to my destination for the night, Sucia Island located about two mile's due north of Orcas Island.

As I crossed the Rosario Strait, I could see a sailboat motoring about a mile away and heading in the same direction, likely to Sucia Island. There is a funny thing with people in boats, they are very mindful of those around them and for the most part, strangely competitive. When I closed to within 1000 meters, they noticed me and I heard them laugh as they pointed at me from the back deck. And then I heard them power up the motor! So I did what racers do, and gave chase using every last drop of the currents to close on them. We had a race, and then a laugh as I sat on their wash and caught my breath and answered questions like "What kind of kayak is that?!" and "Where did you come from and what on earth are you doing out here?". It's not the first time I've been asked that...  

Once to Sucia, I found the island partly full of yachts and entirely full of cheer. I drug my tired bag of bones to shore and snagged my favorite camping spot on the far northwestern corner of the island and made camp for the evening. A party of boat campers from Bellingham generously offered me a giant slab of their day's catch, fresh Ling Cod and we talked about all things beer making and San Juan's for the evening. I finished the night in front of a roaring campfire and sipped a fine scotch as I contemplated the remarkable day's events. 

The next morning I woke before dawn to gray skies and a stiff breeze from the west. It brought to mind my last time visiting the island, when we were nailed by a strong winter storm and one of my paddling partners took a brutal swim that separated our group in the confusion of the seas. As I sat in my tent eating a double portion breakfast, I thought about our struggles that day and how they challenged me to become a more complete, capable paddler in all scenarios and conditions. My personal mission to this day is to "Be Hard To Kill" because of that day and others like it that remind me of the extreme possibilities of a sport that is usually benign. 


I imaged that viewed from the shore in my slender surfski, I looked a bit like a bronco rider as I blasted over the tops and surfed the troughs of the waves. I certainly felt like one. But then I remembered that I was likely invisible from shore, like a neon speck of dust in the eye of a stormy sea without a tear to give for fools like me.
— Nicholas Cryder

Gloomy skies fill this sailor with delight.

On the water at dawn, I headed southwest riding a very strong current between Orcas and Waldron Island. The wind shifted to the Southwest and the seas become grouchy and confused against the pumping current, with miles and miles of hay-stacking water that was actually a lot of fun to paddle. I imaged that viewed from the shore in my slender surfski, I looked a bit like a bronco rider as I blasted over the tops and surfed the troughs of the waves. I certainly felt like one. But then I remembered that I was likely invisible from shore, like a neon speck of dust in the eye of a stormy sea without a tear to give for fools like me. In that strange moment where time slows down in the intense focus of paddling big water, I felt a remarkable, satisfying peace and contemplated how far I've come as a paddler since my last time on Sucia. I savored the hit of adrenaline from adventure past yet again, as any proper adventure junkie should. 

As the gray skies cleared I happened to glance down at my GPS strapped between my feet and couldn't believe the speed I was traveling on the currents; a 10mph average without much effort! I knew it was going to be a very good, and very long day. From the southern end of Waldron, I zipped towards Spieden Island, and then proceeded south on the muscular ebb past Roche Harbor and the far Western shores of San Juan Island and Kiln Point over the remainder of the ebb. Once to the southern aspect of San Juan Island at about 10:30am, I had a decision to make, continue in the Straight of Juan De Fuca travelling East, or head North towards Friday Harbor and then use remainder of the currents to thread the channels in between Shaw, Lopez and Blakely Islands back to the Rosario Straight, which sounded like way more fun, and way more miles. I stayed true to my addict's oath; "always go back for more!"

The tide eased from ebb to slack, and when I glanced into the Friday Harbor my stomach growled as I thought about the many great meals and happy memories I've had there over the years.

“It must be time for secondsy breakfast!” my stomach pleaded and somehow found a way to make me think I smelled bacon and pancakes coming from Friday Harbor a mile away... 
— Stomach of Cryder

"It must be time for secondsy breakfast!" my stomach pleaded and somehow found a way to make me think I smelled bacon and pancakes coming from Friday Harbor a mile away... 

I resisted the urge to derail my day and instead ate a nut bar and sucked down a protein drink as I soldiered on. As I worked my way East, I settled into my "all day cruising speed" of about 7mph. One cannot underestimate how much faster surfskis are than even a fast touring kayak, regardless of weight (if paddled well). A fast hull is a fast hull... as long as you are strong enough to make it go fast enough to leverage the long waterline. As the flood took hold, I encountered a mix of currents, and used eddies and good line choices to game the channels as I surfed along and tried to stay out of the way of speeding ferries and yachts while milking their wakes for scraps of speed. 

At about 12 noon, my body needed a break and the GPS agreed. I like to use Google earth to scan for beaches in my trip planning, but almost all of the good beaches throughout the San Juan's have a dream home parked on them - so one has to work extra hard to find the gaps where the "FOOK OFF YOU FOOKIN FOOK!" signs aren't posted (translated for my Irish friends). 

A helpful hint if you are thinking about touring the San Juan Islands: The steep bluffs often have deposits of sand at their base, making for excellent and private low tide stop overs. Not an option for camping (use the state parks for that) but a great way to take a break as you work the islands on a long day. Just remember to haul your boat well away from the wave line as huge yachts and ferries can change a waterline pretty quickly. 

At the southern edge of Blakely Island, a new decision presented itself. Tap into the Rosario and ride the currents north towards Lummi Island, or instead head over to the Southern aspect of Cypress Island near Anacortes and ride the Guemes Island channel Northward on a more direct and interesting line back to Bellingham. I liked the second option better, even though it added more miles on the day, as it would also allow me a final stop at one of my favorite hidden beaches on Vendovi Island.


He had the unmistakable grin of a new junkie, and had just discovered his paddling drug. 
— Cryder

A final stop on the Western shores of Vendovi Island with Lummi Island on the horizon. 

Once past Vendovi Island and nearing Eliza Island and with Bellingham in sight, the current switched from a strong flood to a soul crushing ebb. These last several miles of murky Nooksack flooded water hurt, and for a the first time on the trip I started to crack and took brief pauses every other kilometer to stave off a brutal bonk, sip water and try to keep going. Up to this point, my mph average was an incredible 7.2, but here against the will of a full moon I saw my average speed dip to 6.9 on the day. It was this maddening, insidious thought that I wrestled with a tired mind. I wanted to finish this beast of a paddle with a 7mph average and fought the current to no avail to get that lost digit back. "Maybe we can tack on a few extra miles by going north and then riding the current back south?!" my sick brain offered despite having clocked over 75 miles on the day and being in the rockbottom depths of a meltdown. 

As I finished my final strokes of my paddle and found myself irrationally grumpy at the missed average speed opportunity I closed in on a kayaker in a small red plastic sea kayak. He was the only other paddler I had seen on my epic, and as we hauled out at the beach together he cheerly remarked how great it was to be out on the water today. He had the unmistakable grin of a new junkie, and had just discovered his paddling drug. It reminded me of the feeling of my first kayak and the exhilaration of just being on water. It also humbly reminded me that speed and distance only matter a little, but the water and sunshine and islands and life shared with those we love matter a lot. What a great feeling to come home to. 

Click to enlarge for notable reference points noted in my trip report. 

 

 

 

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