Failed Lopez Island circumnav, San Juan Islands 19–22 Dec 16

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by alexsidles, Dec 24, 2016.

  1. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

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    Seattle WA
    Well, they can't all be winners, especially in winter time. Last week, I tried to do a four-day circumnavigation of Lopez Island in the San Juans but failed due to high winds. It was still a good trip, full of adventures and wildlife, but I'm disappointed not to have completed the route. The southeast end of Lopez is the last place in the San Juans I haven't seen yet.



    The trip started out windy and got worse. I originally planned to launch from the mainland (technically Fidalgo Island) at Washington Park, my favorite jumping off point for the eastern San Juans. But the winds in Rosario Strait were blowing 25 knots when I arrived, so I decided to play it safe and cross to Lopez by ferry. I drove to Odlin County Park and set up camp.

    Odlin is one of the most beautiful car campsites I've ever seen. You drive right up to the water and camp just feet above the driftwood line. In the morning, you glide your boat over a short sandy beach and you're on your way. I'm sure such a beautiful place must be packed during the season, but in mid-December, I had it all to myself.



    The wind picked up during the night, eventually reaching 40 knots with gusts higher—a real storm. It scattered my gear off the picnic table, ripped my tarp, and rolled my kayak off the driftwood and into the forest. Needless to say, I decided to spend yet another night at Odlin rather than face such dangerous conditions.

    This was my second weather day of the trip, and I still had yet to put the kayak in the water. Time was running out if I was to complete my circumnavigation given the short days of winter. I resolved to make the attempt if the weather improved at all.

    In the meantime, I drove around Lopez looking at the various natural sites, including Spencer Spit and Fishermen's Spit, both excellent habitat for birds. At Spencer, I encountered a flock of 50 Northern Pintails, one of my favorite freshwater ducks.






    The third day of the trip dawned with light winds. I was finally able to get out on the water. I paddled south down the west side of Lopez, hoping to make a counter-clockwise circumnavigation. The choice of direction was a legacy of my original plan to launch from the mainland, but it seemed a good choice anyway, because the morning tide was flowing north to south on an ebb.

    Winter waterfowl did not disappoint. There were the usual grebes, cormorants (all three west coast species), Common Loons, and sea ducks. In the alcid department, my personal favorite, the highlight were the abundant Ancient Murrelets. There were more than I'd ever seen before. Over the next two days, I estimate I saw at least 200 of these winter visitors, when usually I'm lucky to see a dozen.









    I camped on a BLM pebble beach on the southeastern tip of San Juan Island under the bluffs at Cattle Point. The beaches are not official campsites, but I looked everywhere and didn't see any "no camping" signs. Unlike state and national parks, on BLM land, the presumption is that you can camp unless notified otherwise.

    I spent the afternoon hiking on the high sandy bluffs above the beach. There were other people at Cattle Point, which is accessible by car, but my little campsite was hidden from them.







    In order to catch good tides the next morning, I needed to start several hours before dawn. I was worried about paddling the exposed waters of Haro and Rosario Straits in darkness, especially with a wind forecast of 10 to 20 knots from the southeast. In the southern San Juans, southeast winds have fetch basically to Seattle, so they can really bring the chop.

    The wind was blowing 15 when I made breakfast, and I decided not to risk the conditions in the dark. Losing a third travel day meant I no longer would have time to circumnavigate Lopez, so I prepared myself to paddle back up north to my car. Maybe I could do some local paddling the next day before I went home.

    By the time I was packed up, however, the wind had dropped to 10, and I decided to go for it. Using my headlamp to avoid exposed rocks near the beach, I headed out into the straits.

    This turned out to be a bad idea. Salmon Bank off the tip of San Juan Island creates confused chop that I had to paddle through. I'd seen the rough waters the day before from the bluffs, but I hoped that a flood tide would produce less chop than the ebb I'd been watching. That turned out not to be the case, and I spent a scary 20 minutes fighting through waves striking the boat from all directions, unseen in the dark until they hit me.

    Once I was past the bank, the flood tide I'd counted on to propel me east actually tried to suck me north through San Juan Channel. I'd hoped to make 3 knots headway with a favorable tide, but with a side-moving tide and a headwind, I was only making one knot or less. This was one-third the speed I was counting on, and speed was essential to my plans. I needed to round the southeast corner of Lopez and head up Rosario Strait before the flood tide ended and an ebb made northbound progress impossible.

    I crawled along, pathetically hoping that once I was past San Juan Channel, the unfriendly northbound current would turn to a friendly eastbound current. That change never materialized. What did materialize shortly after sunrise was an increase in the windspeed. Now I was facing 20 knot winds, the high end of the forecast, instead of the low-end 10 knot winds I had gambled on. The chop increased, and I was taking the wind head-on. Four hours into the paddle, I had only made five miles to the good, and my speed was down to half a knot in the worsening conditions.

    By 10:30, the flood tide was ending. I was still two miles from Rosario Strait, and now I would face an adverse ebb current when I got there instead of the favorable flood current I'd hoped to encounter. I had to face the reality that I was not going to complete my circumnavigation. At this point, it was no longer possible even to return to Odlin, because the ebb current would rush against me in San Juan Channel just as surely as in Rosario Strait. I no longer had any good places to go.

    I had to abort the trip. The south coast of Lopez Island is not a friendly place for small boats, and I had to fight my way along rocky cliffs for half an hour before I found a beach suitable for landing. All beaches in this area are privately owned, and this was no exception. I don't approve of trespassing, but I'd painted myself into a corner here. I scrambled up the bluff to introduce myself and explain the situation, but no one was home at the farmhouse.

    I walked a mile or so down country roads to the main streets, then hitchhiked the 15 miles back to my car at Odlin. When I returned for my boat and gear, the landowner's hired hand had showed up to feed the sheep, and he graciously helped me get my 90-pound (40 kg) boat up the bluff.

    Exhausted by my hours-long battle with the wind and the endless trips up and down the bluff laden with gear, I spent one last night in Odlin and took the ferry home the next day.

    Let me say this: The trip was not all bad. I ended up with 60 species of bird, including the wonderful pintails and Ancient Murrelets, plus White-winged Scoters, and a Northern Harrier I saw hunting over a farmer's field. I saw Harbor Seals, California and Stellar's Sea Lions, Harbor Porpoises, and a Mule Deer. I had a lot of time for nature watching and science fiction reading, two of my favorite things to do on these trips, and I got to see lots of Lopez Island. I feel a little bad missing the very southern corner of the island, but all in all, I think things turned out for the best. Winter kayakers always run the risk of meeting terrible conditions, and I've been very lucky in past years. This year, my luck ran out, but I would never let something like that ruin a good time.

    Alex
     
  2. Astoriadave

    Astoriadave Paddler

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    Re: Failed Lopez Island circumnav, San Juan Islands 19–22 De

    Beautiful report and scrumptious photos, Alex. You gathered some exceptional shots of waterfowl. Pintails are high on my list of faves, though I rarely see them down here. Buffies so enamor me, I chose "bufflehead" as my VHF call sign, in the days when you needed a license to use a VHF on the water. Terrible choice, however; no one knows it, and most require it be spelled out through the static.

    I have long admired the rugged shoreline on Lopez, but have never found a window in which to do it. It sounds like you gave it a very good shot, prudently bailing at the last opportunity.
     
  3. Pascal

    Pascal Paddler

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    Re: Failed Lopez Island circumnav, San Juan Islands 19–22 De

    Very nice and informative report in many respects. Thanks for sharing. Our complex coastal areas are teeming with life, which makes almost any outing there worthwhile if we only take the time to observe, watch and enjoy the show, as you did.
     
  4. chodups

    chodups Paddler

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    Re: Failed Lopez Island circumnav, San Juan Islands 19–22 De

    Great account, Alex!
    You mixed in narrative, humility and some solid beta to be used for others planning similar trips.
    The best kind of report.
     
  5. designer

    designer Paddler

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    Bend OR USA
    Re: Failed Lopez Island circumnav, San Juan Islands 19–22 De

    Your decision process was so educational. Thank you for sharing that.

    If I recall correctly, you use Garmin's BaseCamp for your chart/map. If so, does that program also provide the description box and arrows tool or did you do that, after grabbing the map, with another program?

    Your report makes me miss Sea Kayaker magazine so much. Maybe someday there will be a resurgence or some of the 3 or 4 times a year publications will issue more often.

    90 lbs! is that a FeatherCraft boat (loaded)? ... oh no, now FeatherCraft is gone too.

    I didn't realize that 40 mph (or knots) wind was enough to do damage to tarp/tent. Then again, looks like you were right out in the open; no buffer against the wind.
     
  6. Astoriadave

    Astoriadave Paddler

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    Re: Failed Lopez Island circumnav, San Juan Islands 19–22 De

    designer wrote: I didn't realize that 40 mph (or knots) wind was enough to do damage to tarp/tent. Then again, looks like you were right out in the open; no buffer against the wind.

    20 knots is enough. 40 knots will trash almost any tarp setup, depending on the anchors and whether the grommets are well gussetted. The loading is proportional to something like the three halves power, I think, because of the airfoil effect on the tarp.

    Tents, well made ones, anyhow, do better unless a corner comes loose. Tarps and tents both have airfoil issues in wind, but tarps rarely have reinforcing/support poles along ridge lines, and are more vulnerable. We have spent a few nights, in the mountains at elevation, internally buttressing the upwind poles in a blow. Estimated wind in excess of 40 knits, but no way to be sure, really. Poles had a permanent bend afterwards. These were old style mountaineering tents, with A frame profile poles, OD half inch aluminum, not the smaller OD Easton style of hooped poles common nowadays. Once, my partner lost 5 out of 6 tents, a guided group, on Mt Adams, at 8500 ft, exposed site, circa 1972.
     
  7. Pawistik

    Pawistik Paddler

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    Re: Failed Lopez Island circumnav, San Juan Islands 19–22 De

    Great report Alex, thanks!
    Cheers,
    Bryan