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Kayaking through the San Juan Islands

In July, we embarked on an eight-day sea kayaking trip in the San Juan Islands, off the coast of Washington. Follow along on our adventure!

Day One: San Juan Island (Roche Harbor) to Stuart Island.

We caught the 6:30 am ferry from Anacortes, Washington to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. Drove to Cattle Point to look across the strait, and at the lighthouse. The water's current looked like a river, it was flowing so swiftly.

We then went to Sea Quest, where we had rented kayaks and gear— they were fantastic to work with; they spent a lot of time with us prior to our arrival making sure that we knew the currents and tides. They loaded the kayaks on top of a van and drove us 20 minutes from Friday Harbor to Roche Harbor.

Once we jammed eight days worth of food and gear into the hulls of our single and tandem kayaks, we were ready to start! The harbor itself was busy with yachts, sailboats and seaplanes, but once we got out of the harbor, we felt very comfortable with our small kayaks in the big water. Our itinerary called for us to head north to Stuart Island, and the route we decided to take brought us along the shores of Spieden Island.

Spieden Island is one of the privately owned islands in the San Juans; most are State Parks or Conservancy land. The island was once home to lions, zebras, giraffes, and over 2,000 exotic bird species. "Why?" you may ask. In the 1970s and 1980s, Spieden Island was used for big game hunting. It all came to an end when TV broadcaster, Walter Cronkite, released a story about the inhumane treatment of the exotic animals. Most were removed from the island, but animals that thrived in habitats similar to Spieden Island remained, including Mouflon sheep from Corsica, in the Mediterranean; Sika deer from Asia; and Fallow deer from Europe.

As we paddled along the shores of Spieden we saw the infamous deer that were left behind from hunting days-- great news, they are thriving and happy. We also saw seals, and a bald eagle that was devouring a seal for dinner.

We then made the crossing from Spieden Island to Stuart Island. It briefly rained on us, and we experienced an underwater current that took us more to the east than we wanted, but was easy enough to straighten out.

Once at Reid Harbor on Stuart Island, we set up camp, chatted with our neighbors and went for a hike to the old schoolhouse. The schoolhouse is not currently in use because there are no children that live on the island right now, but you can visit the library and Teacherage Museum. There is also a basketball court, with pretty deflated (yeah, that's what we'll blame all of our air-balls on...) balls.

After our little hike, we went back to camp and made dinner. Successful day one.

Day Two: Layover day at Stuart Island.

We woke up and decided to have a layover day at Stuart Island; the currents were a little strong for our original plan and we knew that there was plenty to explore on Stuart Island.

As we started out of the harbor, we saw a group of river otters. (Yes, river otters in the ocean, not sea otters. Although sea otters once lived in the San Juans, their habitat now is to the north, in the Canadian Gulf Islands. River otters are more adapted to life on land, so they can easily slip in and out of the ocean.) We saw the otters dive under and come up with fish so many times that we lost count. They were amazing to watch.

At one point, we saw a couple of raccoons on shore as well. We saw one with a full crab in it's mouth, carrying it off as a trophy (as it should!). The best interaction that we saw we when the group of otters were mingling with the raccoons, as if they were friends and not competition.

Day Three: Stuart Island to Jones Island.

With the way the currents were, we decided to paddle a little later in the day. So in the morning, we hiked to the Turn Point Lighthouse on the northern tip of the island. It was a beautifully clear day, and from the lighthouse, we were able to see Patos Island, Saturna Island, North Pender Island, and everything in between. The Turn Point Lighthouse Preservation Society upkeeps the premises and offers tours of the lighthouse grounds.

After visiting the lighthouse, we packed up the kayaks and set on our way to Jones Island. This is one of the longer crossings that we had to make for the entire trip. We crossed to Spieden again, and paddled across the northern shore, until we got to open water and had to make the crossing for Jones. Along the way, we got to see seals, bald eagles and porpoises.

Once we got to the northern harbor of Jones Island, we set up camp, and walked to get water. Matt circumnavigated the island at sunset, while the rest of us watched sunset from the southwestern point of the island. It was an epic sunset, with shades of red, orange and yellow streaking across the sky. One of the mansions on Orcas Island, across the water from us, looked as if it was on fire, the way that the sunset reflected in it's giant glass windows.

Day Four: Jones Island to Point Doughty.

We woke early and started across the open water from Jones to Orcas Island, and then skirted along the shore all the way up to Point Doughty. It turned out to be a beautiful day! The sky was blue and clear, and we stopped multiple times to just look out across the Strait and take in all of the surrounding islands. We stopped at one spot long enough to do a small trash cleanup (because we love those!), and play with bull kelp, then we got back in the kayaks and kept paddling.

Once we got to Point Doughty, we set up camp at one of the three spots, and spent most of the evening on the point. It has truly amazing views! You can look down into the water and see jellyfish, sea stars, seals, porpoises and more. Matt did another sunset paddle, and we gazed west across the Strait as the sun lit up the ocean in fantastic yellows and pinks.

Day Five: Point Doughty to Sucia Island.

The cross from Point Doughty to Sucia was another long crossing, but we really lucked out and had spectacular weather for the entire trip, the currents and winds were calm and peaceful. For a little bit, in the open water, we were surrounded by playful porpoises, breaching the water and acting as if we were one of their own.

Once we landed on the shores of Sucia, we got the (self-claimed) best campsite on the island! It was up on a little hillside, looking southeast, tucked away from the rest of the campers. We then went on a walk around Sucia, which is shaped like a horseshoe and has so many harbors and ways to access the water. Sucia Island is famous for it's sandstone formations and China Caves (the pockmarked sandstone wall, where 1920s migrant work smugglers would occasionally hide their illegal goods). The island also has incredible views of Mount Baker to the south, and lots of hiking trails. This was our favorite island (am I allowed to say that?).

In the evening, we all went for a sunset paddle, and watched as the sky was striped with wispy pink clouds. On our way back to shore, we observed two seals hunt. It was amazing! They would flick their flipper up, and then slap it down to shock their prey. It was a loud and large process, but fascinating to witness! We also saw a bristle worm, which looks like a long, thick, sea centipede (so, don't click that link if you freak out about creepy crawlies, mom).

Day Six: Layover day at Sucia Island.

We left our great camp set up, and embarked on a day paddle to Patos Island, the northernmost island in the San Juan Archipelago. There is big, open water between Sucia and Patos, known for having strong ebbs and floods. But on our paddle, it was nice and calm.

After landing at Patos, we hopped on the trail to the lighthouse. Patos is one of the least visited of the San Juan Islands, and it feels like you are a world away from the million dollar mansions of Orcas Island. The trail leads you through thick, green forest, lush with ferns and moss, to the well-preserved lighthouse, iconic with it's red roof. During a couple weeks of the summer, there is a volunteer group that does maintenance on the building and surrounding land. If the volunteer group is present, you can take the winding stairs up to the beacon, for a higher vantage point.

Once we got back to Sucia, we went for a swim in Fox Cove to cool off. And then made dinner and reflected on our epic day.

Day Seven: Sucia Island to Jones Island.

This was our longest paddle yet. Once we crossed back to Point Doughty, we traversed all the way down the coast of Orcas Island, through President's Channel. It was sunny and the water was refreshing.

We stopped at West Beach for ice cream, and quickly got back on the water.

About midday, we saw a couple of bald eagles flying to and from a large, flat rock sticking out of the water. As we paddled a little closer to investigate, we realized that there was a seal carcass on the rock, its body turned inside out, revealing its pink flesh. There were two adult bald eagles and one juvenile bald eagle that would feast, one at a time, until another would swoop in for its turn to eat.

As we approached Jones Island, we realized that it was a little busier than it had been the first night we stayed there, but were able to find a great, secluded spot on a point, and it seemed like there was no one around for miles. Another (self-claimed) best campsite on the island!

Day Eight: Jones Island to San Juan Island (Roche Harbor).

We woke on the last day to wind. We knew that the forecast called for rougher seas than we had seen throughout the trip, and knew we would have to take caution in our crossing. We had originally planned on heading to Jackson Beach, on southern San Juan Island, but after looking at the currents, decided to change our plan and head back to Roche Harbor, it was the safer and more logical route.

And once we were out on the water, the wind was rough and the currents were strong, proving that while the San Juan Islands are beautiful, they are also powerful and a force to be reckoned with. It was fun to experience the power of the ocean, and made us thankful for our time on the peaceful water.

When we landed at Roche Harbor, we got a shuttle ride from Sea Quest back to Friday Harbor, where we ate fish and chips, took a shower at the marina, and caught the ferry back to Anacortes.

Most photos were taken by Matt Hergert. Visit his photography website at

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