Harstine Island circumnav, s. Puget Sound, WA 16–18 Feb. 2019

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by alexsidles, Feb 19, 2019.

  1. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA
    The third Monday in February is a holiday in the United States, known as Presidents’ Day under Washington law or Washington’s Birthday under federal law. Whatever its name, it’s often a good time to take a short kayaking trip. By mid-February, the winter’s procession of low-pressure systems is usually coming to a close, so a kayaker doesn’t have to worry as much about getting caught in a cyclone.

    However, low-pressure cyclones are only one source of strong winter winds. A second source is arctic outflow winds, which occur when cold, high-pressure air builds up behind the mountains until finally it comes blasting out of the coastal inlets and river valleys. February is a prime month for these wind events, which can be quite strong and persist for days.

    Last Presidents’ Day, I was stranded on Skagit Island during a two-day outflow from the Fraser River, with wind gusts to 40 knots that dropped a tree branch onto my kayak. This year, when the Presidents’ Day forecast called once again for outflow winds, I made up my mind to stay as far as possible from the Fraser River to avoid such strenuous conditions.

    I headed for south Puget Sound to make a three-day, two-night circumnavigation of Harstine Island. Any arctic outflow winds would have a hard time reaching me all the way down here.

    00 Route Map.jpg
    00 Route map. I paddled counterclockwise up Case Inlet, camped at Jarrell Cove, then circumnavigated Squaxin Island and camped at Hope Island.

    01 Departing Boston Harbor.jpg
    01 Departing Boston Harbor. A Discover Pass is required to park at the launch.

    02 Brisco Point.JPG
    02 Brisco Point, Harstine Island. Most of Harstine is privately owned, unincorporated land. The beaches are excessively armored to protect these "investments."

    03 Overhanging tree.JPG
    03 Overhanging tree. Because of the shape of the island, a Harstine circumnav encourages the paddler to hug the shore, which is the most fun kind of kayaking. There is a qualitative difference between being five feet offshore versus fifty feet offshore.

    In the event, the outflow winds this weekend ended up being mild, even on the Fraser River itself, so I could have gone kayaking anywhere in the state. However, Harstine Island is no booby prize. It rivals any kayaking destination in the state for volume and variety of wildlife. I ended the trip with 50 species of bird and nine species of mammal.

    The seabirds were just starting to transition to their spring colors. Most, but not all, of the guillemots were all black. Many of the pelagic cormorants had their white rumps. The goldeneyes were almost all out of eclipse. However, the common and red-throated loons were all still in their winter plumage, and the red-necked grebes were only just starting to turn.

    04 Red-necked grebes.jpg
    04 Red-necked grebes. Faint tinges of red are just appearing on their necks.

    05 Pigeon guillemot.jpg
    05 Pigeon guillemot. This handsome fellow is a little late. Most of his conspecifics already have their black summer plumage.

    Harstine Island can be circumnavigated in a day. Even my route, which threw in a circumnavigation of neighboring Squaxin Island and visits to McMicken and Hope Islands, only totaled 30 miles. I nonetheless decided to take two nights for this trip. My goal on kayaking trips is to enjoy being outdoors, not race from point to point as quickly as possible.

    I stopped at McMicken Island, a beautiful little island in Case Inlet that is mostly state park. Ken Campbell speculated, in his 1999 guidebook, that a marine trail campsite would one day be established here. It would be one of the most beautiful kayak campsites in the state if it ever came to pass.

    Just north of McMicken and west of Herron Island, I spotted a series of splashes in the water ahead. I thought it might be a feeding flock of seabirds, not an uncommon event in these waters, and always worth stopping for.

    When I got out my binoculars, I was astonished to see the splashes were not from birds. It was California sea lions—dozens upon dozens of them, charging forward through the water, porpoising and splashing. They formed a line abreast and surged down the inlet toward me. There were so many sea lions splashing so vigorously, their turbulence made a continuous roaring sound, like a tide race or a river rapid.

    06 McMicken Island.JPG
    06 Landing beach at McMicken Island. A hiking trail in the forest makes this a delightful lunch stop.

    07 California sea lion approaching.jpg
    07 California sea lions approaching. All the animals were males. Female California sea lions are very rare in our waters.

    08 California sea lions departing.JPG
    08 California sea lions departing. The herd dived in unison to pass under my boat, then surfaced on my far side and resumed their thunderous advance.

    Just behind the line of sea lions, two large, curved fins appeared and began carving through the water. From their swept-back shape, I knew they could not be harbor or Dall's porpoises, yet they were too small to be orcas. Could they be dolphins? It seemed unlikely, because our most numerous dolphin, the Pacific white-sided, is not found in Puget Sound.

    The fins appeared again. They swerved to and fro at breakneck speed. I really became convinced these were dolphins, but how could I possibly identify them?

    As if to answer my question, the dolphins swam close past my boat and made a partial breach, exposing their flanks. To my astonishment, I saw they each had the bold, tan streak that only common dolphins possess!

    Even though I'd seen them with my own eyes, I could hardly believe what I'd just witnessed. Common dolphins are not supposed to be in our waters at all. When I made it to land, I looked it up on my phone and learned from the Orca Network and Cascadia Research Collective that long-beaked common dolphins have been moving into Puget Sound over the last ten years or so. Three have been present in the south sound since summer 2016, and those were undoubtedly the ones I saw.

    This is completely unprecedented. Long-beaked common dolphins are a tropical or subtropical species. They are not normally found north of central California. To have three move into our Puget Sound is absolutely remarkable. I cannot believe my good luck to have encountered them on the water.

    Incidentally, I also learned from the Orca Network and Cascadia that there have been one or more bottlenose dolphins loitering around Alki Point. This is another out-of-range tropical species. What could be happening in our waters to turn us into a haven for tropical dolphins?

    Last edited: Feb 19, 2019
  2. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA
    09 Dougall Point.JPG
    09 Dougall Point, the northeasternmost point of Harstine Island. Although Harstine has many beautiful beaches, almost all of them are privatized, including this one.

    10 Waterfall at Jarrell Cove.JPG
    10 Waterfall at Jarrell Cove. This "waterfall" is actually just runoff from the snow melting above the camping area.

    11 North side of Pickering Pass.JPG
    11 North side of Pickering Pass. Arctic outflow, had it materialized, would have produced cold, dry, clear skies. I was not expecting this lovely fog.

    12 New Bridge.JPG
    12 So-called new bridge on the west side of Harstine Island. The current in Pickering Passage splits about two miles south of this bridge. North of the split, the ebb runs north. South of the split, the ebb runs south.

    13 Ring-billed gulls.JPG
    13 Ring-billed gulls at a fish farm. Fish farms are mercifully rare in Washington State, but I found two of them in Peale Passage. Unlike the worst offenders one encounters in BC, these were not running obnoxious generators. Recent legislation has begun to put a squeeze on these polluting eyesores. Hopefully, even stricter regulation will come soon.

    14 Squaxin Island creek.JPG
    14 Creek at Squaxin Island. The entire island is an Indian reservation, off-limits to outsiders. I generally disapprove of any form of privatization of the coast, but the tribe's right is more just than most, and the tribe has taken better care of their Squaxin Island than the various private owners have of Harstine.

    Jarrell Cove, where I spent the first night, is a drive-in site that also caters to powerboaters. Even in February, yahoos were hallooing and cackling drunkenly through the park. By contrast, I had Hope Island all to myself. I was happy to be back here, one of the best kayak campsites in Washington. I passed the time wandering the forests, which were full of diverse thrushes and woodpeckers.

    15 Beach at Hope Island.JPG
    15 Beach at Hope Island. The entire 100-acre island is a state park, with a wonderful interpretive trail running the perimeter.

    16 Moon over Hope Island.jpg
    16 Moon over Hope Island. The moon, nearly full, was so bright it was casting shadows.

    17 Hope Island windmill.JPG
    17 Windmill at Hope Island. This is a working replica of the windmill settlers installed in the early twentieth century to pump water.

    18 Crow tracks.JPG
    18 Crow tracks at Hope Island. Any time of year, there's always something cool to see in the woods.

    19 Southbound to Boston Harbor.JPG
    19 Southbound back to Boston Harbor. How wonderful to have these beautiful waters all to myself.

    This was a top-notch trip in one of the most beautiful parts of the state. The south sound rivals anything you can find the San Juans, and it's generally quieter and has better weather conditions. Case, Carr, and Budd Inlets are well known to attract unusual marine mammals, but I still can't believe I found long-beaked common dolphins. What a rare and unexpected treat.

    Last edited: Feb 19, 2019
    JohnAbercrombie and Astoriadave like this.
  3. chodups

    chodups Paddler

    Nov 2, 2005
    The South Sound is such an overlooked and under-appreciated gem.

    Thanks for the write up.
  4. pawsplus

    pawsplus Paddler

    Jan 19, 2015
    Landlocked in Tennessee
    Great report as always! :)