San Juan Islands Washington 5 Day Paddle Adventure!

  • Updated: June 30, 2018
  • Post By: Matthew Hengst

June 30th to July 4th, 2018
Day 1: 11.75 miles - Smugglers Cove To Jones Island
Day 2: 8.6 miles - Jones Island To Turn Island
Day 3: 12.4 miles - Turn Island To Posey Island
Day 4: 18.5 miles - Posey Island To Stewart Island
Day 5: 12.5 miles - Stewart Island To Point Gilligan

This trip is a little different from my usual mountain related activities but it's something that I've been talking about doing for quite some time. Ever since Kristen, Jen, and I bought our sea kayaks we've been wanting to do more kayak touring and destination paddling in general.

So this 4th of July weekend off to Washington we went! 5 days! Winds! Currents! Islands! And a Gilligans Island style stranding / minor marine rescue which put us in danger of not making our flights back home!

Kristen is originally from Seattle and has both spent time in the San Juan Islands with her parents and a summer after college working at Camp Orkila. Ever since she'd been talking about wanting to go back so she was the one doing the heavy lifting picking out islands and doing the tide calculations that dictated where and when we could go.

Jen is a highschool teacher and since school is out she decided she'd rather drive up and see some things along the way. So she left the week before with the paddles and such while Kristen and I flew up to Seattle the night before the trip planning to meet her outside of the airport.  Then we'd drive up to Anacortes, sleep a few hours, and get the ferry over to Orcas where we'd be launching from.

By the time we'd landed in Seattle and retrieved our luggage it was midnight so we wasted no time heading north. According to what we'd been able to find out online or over the phone the campgrounds in the area were all full thanks to the holiday weekend.  That left us needing a plan B ideally that still involved sleeping outside.

We ended up heading east on 20 aiming for what looked like dirt roads leading into the Cultus Mountains.  After the first few didn't work out we found a small dirt shunt leading down to the Skagit River and threw out our bags.

After 2 very short hours of sleep we woke up and piled back into the car. It must be a popular area for fisherman because we found all sorts of cars parked along the road that hadn't been there when we arrived.

We lined up early for the ferry in Anacortes and made breakfast off to the side while watching the rain clouds and desperately sucking down some coffee.

The ferry is huge since it takes vehicles and people and they really pack you in.  As soon as we were parked we went up to the top deck and spent the 50 -ish minutes ride looking out at the islands.

The scale out there is such that pictures often have a hard time capturing things unless you're near on or land.

We landed on Orcas Island and made one more quick coffee stop trying desperately to convince ourselves that it was almost as good as sleep.  Then it was off to East Sound and Smugglers Cove where we were renting touring sea kayaks from Outer Island Excursions.

Our launch was a slightly frenzied affair due to a combination of the rain that started just as we got out of the car and the fact we had a good solid paddle ahead of us and a tide window that would only last until about 1 pm.

Since the area is a series of islands open to the sea the tide situation gets interesting.  To see just how interesting it can get see this video from Deception Pass.

We managed to get everything stowed in dry bags and then fit into the hatches on the boats in time to launch at 10 am.

We had rain and a bit of wind straight off but fortunately the ambient temperature was fairly warm especially with a rain jacket and sea skirt.  We headed west around Point Doughty and then south to where we crossed Spring Passage over to Jones Island.  Along the way we mostly hugged the shore where we were treated to several bald eagle sightings that were sadly too far away to photograph well with my trusty little point and shoot.

The crossing at Spring Passage ended up being a fair bit of work thanks to a combination of wind and the start of a current fighting against us.

We pulled in to Jones Island at 2:20 pm tired and slightly soaked with a combination of rain and wave spray.  We hadn't had time to beach and rest for the last 4 hours so we were all a bit stiff as we pulled the boats up on the shore above the tideline and unloaded everything from the hatches.

We ended up in a great site up on a small bluff on the west end of the bay which had ample trees for me to throw up my hammock and a lovely view to the south.  We quickly changed into dry layers and went about making hot soup and garlic bread to warm up.

The island was it's own state park which is something common around there.  Campsites were only $12 a piece and there were rather fancy pit toilets built everywhere.

Ours even included a sign in book and a library.  You know, just in case you're desperate enough being stuck on an island to want to read the 4th book in the Anne of Green Gables series...

We had a nice long and relaxing afternoon and evening since the sun doesn't go down until after 10 pm and we couldn't depart until 7 am the next morning.

We had a dinner of pasta and red wine and once the sun went down we started to get visited by a number of racoons looking for scraps.

The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast and launched at 7 am to catch a tide flowing south towards our second goal Turn Island.

This was some of the best paddle conditions we had all weekend with glassy water and a tide pulling us in the right direction.  We flew down past Point George finding ourselves at 9 am with nowhere to go until the tide across the channel changed.

We found a beach we could relax at and spent a few hours eating snacks and napping on the beach before returning to the water at noon and aiming across the channel.

This is looking across San Juan Channel at Turn Island about 1.2 miles away.

Being small boats in a rather large expanse of water we had to just aim for the right place and let bigger boats (hopefully) move around us. There were both really big boats like the ferry you can see above and a lot of smaller traffic coming and going from Friday Harbor.

We landed on Turn Island (also its own state park) a little after noon and found most of the campsites in the trees decked out with Canadian flags and empty alcohol bottles.  According to a guide who had stopped there for lunch it was a group of Canadians there celebrating Canada Day.

Fortunately there are more sites and another cove to the west which we paddled over to and found another nice campsite off by itself.  Note that the shore you can see in the background is San Juan Island and covered in houses. These spots are only remote if you look in very specific directions.

No sooner had we pulled in that a major wind picked up and the marine radio we carried confirmed there was a small craft advisory. This was something we'd known was a possibility and if we'd been on the water we would have had to put in wherever we could and wait it out.

It did make trying to set up the tent a bit of a challenge...

After looking at the tide schedule we had two options for when to leave the following day.  We could launch early but it looked like we'd still be dealing with winds or we could wait until the evening.  We elected to do the latter which meant we'd be on Turn until 2:30 the next day.  Plenty of time to relax!

Dinner was a bit of a challenge due to the high winds and the aggressive racoon population that's out even during the day.

We had a tent but I decided to try sleeping out in the hammock I'd brought since it was so nice out.  I stuck my inflatable sleeping pad inside, climbed in with my sleeping bag, and had a pleasant night rocked back and forth by the wind.

The next morning we had nowhere to go until mid afternoon so we enjoyed a very leisurely breakfast and a few rounds of coffee.

We actually had a park ranger show up and verify we'd paid for the site.  The small boat beached on the shore was his.

Eventually 2:30 pm rolled around and it was time to go.  We followed the eastern shore of San Juan Island north crossing Friday Harbor and then west through Spiden Channel.

Spiden Channel ended up being a lot calmer and quieter after all the Friday Harbor traffic which was a relief.  At least until we got closer to Roche Harbor.

Our camp for the night was Posey Island which is of course its own state park. It's barely big enough for two campsites and a pit toilet and you can easy walk around the entire thing in a few minutes.

And we had it to ourselves except for the first hour or two when some teenagers paddled over and partied in the other site.

There was only one place to put in and you're not even allowed to land except in human powered boats.  We landed at 8 pm which gave us a few hours of daylight to set up camp and make dinner.

It's a neat spot though I wish it actually felt as remote as the pictures convey.  Once again the shore you can see off to the right is another island covered in houses (you can practically see in their windows from where you land) and there was a steady stream of boats and seaplanes coming and going from nearby to Roche Harbor.  Fortunately that all quieted down after dark and the sunset was stunning.

Dinner was chicken veggie tacos and guacamole.  Roche was almost close enough to paddle over and grab a case of beer but elected to stay put and just enjoy the sunset.

The next morning we hung around the island until about 8:30 and then paddled into Roche Harbor for breakfast and a resupply.

We found a beach on the western end of the harbor to leave the boats and spent a pleasant few hours eating, getting a quick shower, and grabbing a few resupply items for the next few days.

The Lime Kiln Cafe had passable coffee, really good food, and some slightly oversold donuts.  (Granted that's my reaction to every single donut I've ever had after someone told me how amazing they are...)

Our goal for the day was to reach Stewart but again our schedule was dictated by the tide and we had to wait for the afternoon to make the crossing.  So instead we paddled out Mosquito Pass and a short distance south looking across Haro Strait at Vancouver Island. 

We had been hoping to see orcas but had to settle for watching some massive cargo ships cruise by in the distance.

At the appropriate time we turned north and crossed first to the western side of Henry Island and then made a bigger crossing to Stewart Island which left our arms aching.

Fortunately once we made it around Turn Point the water calmed down and boat traffic was almost nonexistent making it feel like we were finally in a remote area.

We'd put in the longest day yet by the time we pulled in to Prevost Harbor but before we made camp we had one other stop to make.  We beached at Prevost and walked up the road looking for a treasure chest.

The deal is that it's full of shirts, postcards, and other items along with a price.  You're supposed to
take what you want and send the money once you get home.

None of the shirts really struck our fancy but Kristen said not to worry as there was another treasure chest "close" to where we'd be camping.  More on that later.

When we arrived at the campground we thought we might end up spending our last night camping on top of two rather friendly if sizable guided groups but we soon realized the campsites extended quite a ways away.  We ended up grabbing site #1 which was up the hill from the saddle connecting Prevost and Reid harbors.

Oddly enough there were mosquitos but they seemed to be confined to only our campsite.  We almost ended up relocating because of it but we'd already set up and managed a slightly smoky fire.

Plus my hammock was *really* comfortable.

Kristen assured us that the other treasure chest was only a short walk and after hearing her talk it up for so long we were determined to visit it.  So we set out at 11 pm via headlamps still wearing our warm camp wear.

The hike to the chest took us over an hour after we initially headed the wrong way and ended up circling around the section of island where we'd camped thanks to private property boundaries and our lack of a proper map.  And we ended up just about stripping down to our skivvies since it was so warm.

We did find the schoolhouse (which was closed) and the treasure chest (which isn't actually a fundraiser for the school just a business run by someone who also supports the school) and found a few shirts a bit more to our liking. The selection was a bit bigger here and they had the shirts strung up so you could actually see them all.

That done we got back to camp at 1 am and had a very early morning launch the next day.  And we'd be doing our biggest open water crossing and so anticipated a long day. Basically any sleep we'd caught up on was pretty much obliterated.

We launched at 5:15 am running a few minutes late due to a late breaking intestinal emergency that was better handled before we were in the middle of a large ocean on small boats.

The combination of yesterday's paddle and two hours of sleep had all of us dragging a bit but we made good time initially.  Waves started getting a bit bigger as we left the coast of Johns Island aiming for Flattop Island at which point we tried to turn directly east to make for the shore of Orcas. (Orcas is the island in the very back in the picture above and Flattop is the small one above the front of my kayak)

I say tried because the wind had picked up and as you can see from our track we ended up pulled south towards Jones. We were paddling hard to the northeast but the wind but it was all we could do to make it so the coast of Orcas several miles south of where we'd intended.

We tried to hug the coast and pick our way north but found ourselves going straight into the teeth of increasingly strong winds.  We actually still had the tide moving in our direction at this point but you couldn't tell.

We literally had to fight for each foot and as our forward progress slowed to a crawl it started to become apparent we were going to have to beach.

Of course in this section there were no beaches and we were forced to continue with our arms aching until finally we saw a beach what looked like a very long distance ahead.

Foot by foot we fought our way forward occasionally looking at each other and wondering whose arms were going to fail first forcing us to ride the wind south and try and find a place to put in. (That would have been a fun adventure in and of itself since turning around in that might have well flipped one of us)

After what felt like a small eternity we reached the beach dragged ourselves out of our boats.  We'd been paddling for about 5 hours and hadn't had a break since before Flattop.

We took stock of our situation and realized we had a bit of a problem.  The wind wasn't dying down and if anything it was now worse based on how much difficulty we could see the boats off in the distance were having.  (According to Kristen the conditions we'd been paddling in were the worst she'd ever been through.)

We were 6 miles from where we were going to take out and we had a ferry reservation back to Anacortes at 2:30 pm.  If we missed that we could go standby and hopefully make it on one before they shut down for the night at 10:30 but we had a very early flight the next day not to mention dinner plans with Kristen's parents back in town.  Also the tide wouldn't be back in our favor until 6 pm which meant we could easily finish before dark but that was assuming the wind died down by then. And our flights were not refundable.

We called the Outfitters and explained the situation.

They were very understanding and we ended up paying to have a boat come pick us up and bring us back to the outfitters dock. 

The boat they showed up in was just barely big enough for the three of us and out boats and as soon as we were out of the small cove we'd beached in it was tossed all over the place by the waves.  That made us feel a little more justified in our decision.

After getting dropped off and returning the boats we had just enough time to grab a quick beer and a hamburger to go before making a mad dash to the ferry.

We even got to "see" some whales from the ferry but they were so far away and our boat was so large they weren't quite what we'd been hoping for. Next time!

Jen dropped us off at Kristen's parents and then left since she was planning to meet me two days later in the Eastern Sierra for our next adventure.  Kristen and I had a lovely dinner with her parents and then woke up at 3 am and got a ride to the airport to catch a 5:40 am flight back to Orange County.  That got me back just in time to start work a bit after 8, visit the trainer at lunch, and have one night at home before leaving the next night to drive up to the Sierra and meet Jen.

All in all a very successful trip and we did make all of our intended goals except for that whole getting back to where we launched from.

There's actually a few more paddle trips coming up once summer sierra season winds down and I'd love to spend some more time in the San Juans exploring some of the other areas and maybe getting up into Canada. If you're reading this and have done any kayaking tour trips I'd love to hear about them in the comments.

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