Three days on the waters of the San Juan Islands

“There, do you see it?” A bubble floated across the water, a perfect unwavering sphere shining above the waves on this beautiful sunny June day. “Another one!” someone else calls out. There were several floating across the water, never popping or flinching, just passing us by. A magical moment among magical moments.

“Do you think it is the whales making these?” We could hear their blowholes but upon scanning the horizon, no whales were visually apparent to us at that moment. “Maybe it’s Slytherin casting a spell,” someone joked. The Kayak guide companies had given each other Harry Potter themed handles for radioing each other.


An Orca whale breached near the Slytherin group ahead of us, followed by her calf (members of the resident J-Pod, we later learned). Once again, I was not quick enough to get a photo. We’d been watching the whales for about 15 minutes. I put the camera away and decided to just enjoy the moment, quietly but expectantly scanning for more whale sightings as we floated halfway between Henry and Stuart Islands.

Watching the Orca Whales as they fed in the waters of Haro Strait.

I’m not sure what is magical about the number three, but my most epic outdoor adventures always seem to be those lasting three days (a three-day Olympic Coast backpack, three days in the Grand Canyon, etc).  After three days kayaking in the waters off the San Juan Islands, I felt like I had gone somewhere magical and seen more than I could possibly relay in a single blog post. Orca whales, humpback whales and more waterfowl, jellyfish and birds of prey than you could shake a stick at.

For this trip, my first sea kayaking trip, a friend and I went with a guide from Outdoor Odysseys. It was an incredible adventure and quite the treat to have our own guide, naturalist and cook all in one passionate guide. Your mileage may vary, but overall, here was my experience as a first timer:

Day 1

As my friend and I paddled in our provided two-person kayak, it took about 20 minutes for me to start questioning what the heck I’d gotten myself into. My arms were sore already and we hadn’t even left the relatively protected coast of San Juan Island. I pushed through, complaining a little to my paddling partner about how sore I was, how I had trouble sitting up in the seat and how the steering pedals at my feet kept slipping. I appreciated the beauty that surrounded us, being on the water and the perfect weather. At the same time, my soreness, hand blisters and whining caused me to question my outdoor cred. Funny how you can be both miserable and happy at the same time in the outdoors.

“Do you have trouble being even mildly uncomfortable? Nature may not be right for you.” – Nature Rx parody ad.

After lunch on Posey Island, I was ready for the crossing of Spieden Channel toward our destination on Stuart Island, the protected Reid Harbor, where we would camp at Stuart Island State Park for two days. I must have been warmed up and re-energized by our lunch break because the crossing was much easier than I had anticipated and before I knew it we were set up for camp and I was off hiking the nearby trails.

After the hike, we had an incredible dinner (I wish I’d taken photos of all the freshly prepared food on this trip!). This was paired with wine and great conversation getting to know our travel partners. There were four other clients on this trip, a father/son and a father/daughter. The dads bonded over child raising, teaching and science. The kids competed in races and made up their own games. The daughter, only 11, impressed everyone with her quick wit, intellect, courage and sociability. Once, when I saw her carrying firewood that was equivalent to her in size, I asked just how big of a fire she was planning on making. Without skipping a beat, she replied, “how tall are you?”  *gulp*

Despite the threat of being burned at the stake, that night I slept like a baby. Or at least better than I usually do when camping.

Day 2

The second day the plan was a circumnavigation of Stuard Island. I paddled hard from the start and was happy that we were able to keep up with the group better than the day before. That is until we hit a strong current at John’s Pass, where you turn into Boundary Pass. Boundary Pass forms, along with Haro Strait, part of the sea border between Canada and The United States. It took me three tries to get our boat steered around the bend into waters of the northern side of Stuart Island. I was beat.

After what seemed like another hour (but was probably more like 15 minutes) of paddling, my body began to seriously fatigue. I was having trouble willing my muscles to paddle further and called for the tour guide. Luckily, we were near the isthmus of the island where our camp was, so after a lunch break, she took my spot in our boat, left her boat on the shore and I hiked back to camp while they continued their journey for the day. I felt bad being the weak link that others had to accommodate but enjoyed hiking back to the camp and spending my afternoon reading and meditating while I waited for their return.

With plenty of time left in the day, once we regrouped, we all hiked out to the lighthouse on the other end of the island. Passing by some of the homes on the island gave us a glimpse into island life here. I wondered about the economy on the island and how people survive here. I think people in the San Juans are largely self-sufficient, at least away from the more accessible islands.

The one “store” on the island works on the honor system.

WTA description of the hike we did on day 2:

After another great dinner and more time bonding with our companions, I was off to bed. Most of the others stayed up for a midnight paddle. After hearing their accounts, I regret not joining them. I was worried about having enough energy for the next day and the return trip ahead and so opted to sleep instead.

Day 3

As it was, I woke up at least an hour before anyone else and bided my time hanging out with harbor seals,  some deer and a curious raccoon that hung out in our camp trying to act cool, calm and casual as he bathed himself on a log in our camp just feet from where I sat watching him.

After an early launch, we glided across the glistening green-blue waters back out into the open water and toward Haro Strait. I felt much stronger than the day before. I think this was a combination of factors: I had more rest from paddling than the others on day 2, I’d removed the Thermarest pad from my kayak seat (someone suggested using it but I found not having it made it easier to sit upright) and I’d taken the front seat of our kayak instead of the back so that I could focus on paddling and leave the steering to my friend.

Day 3 was incredible. We saw so many different birds from the water, not to mention the Orca. Although we were mostly paddling against the current, the waters of the Haro Strait were largely calm (at least for sea kayaking). We ended up taking a long lunch break on one of the beaches and extended the paddle by taking frequent breaks. Even after all this, we still managed to pull in early and get to Friday Harbor with plenty of time to spare before our passenger ferry back to Seattle. I chose to spend that time eating salted caramel ice cream.

I was sore. I was tired. My hands were covered in blisters. On top of this, I had experienced the embarrassment of bonking out on day 2.

I’d do it all again in a heartbeat.

So long San Juans. I always feel sad when leaving my favorite place in the Pacific Northwest.

We never did figure out what those bubbles were.

Hunchback spotted on the way from Seattle to San Juan Island