My recent trips to visit nesting colonies of tufted puffins have only whetted my appetite for more. Alcid colonies exist only on the threshold of wilderness. If you’re encountering nesting alcids, it means you are in a remote place that has only lightly felt the hand of man. Such are some of my favorite places to visit. The most numerous alcid in Washington State is also the hardest to find: the Cassin’s auklet. This little seabird is so highly pelagic it is almost never seen from shore. Even kayakers are not likely to encounter this bird most of the time, because its primary habitat is the open ocean at the edge of the continental shelf. Here in Washington, the continental shelf lies between 8 and 40 miles off the coast (13–65 km), with an average distance of around 30 miles (48 km). So if you’re not at least eight miles out to sea, whatever bird you’re looking at probably isn’t a Cassin’s auklet! Like all birds, however, the Cassin’s auklet must come ashore to nest. Washington’s entire population of 90,000 birds nests on just six islands, all off the Olympic coast. Of these, Alexander Island commands the lion’s share of the population, with over 55,000 Cassin’s auklets nesting on this one 8-acre (3-hectare) island. Over Memorial Day weekend, I set out to visit Alexander Island in hopes of finding and photographing a Cassin’s auklet. Late May is peak fledging season for this species, so I reckoned now would be the perfect time to find them coming and going from their nests. 00 Route map. The Olympic coast of Washington is protected as a national park. Logging doesn't start till farther inland. My folding kayaks aren’t really seaworthy for open-ocean kayaking. Because of their giant cockpits, porous spraydecks, and lack of bulkheads, folding kayaks can be unsafe in exposed conditions, and waters don’t get more exposed than the Olympic coast. On Saturday, even a moderately adverse weather forecast forced me to stay ashore the first day. Olympic National Park receives three million visitors a year, and I am pretty sure every one of them showed up the same day I did. The line at the Quinault ranger station to get a backcountry camping permit was over an hour long. All the drive-in campsites had been booked months prior. Even in the backcountry, the areas of the park subject to camping quotas were likewise fully booked. I had anticipated this problem and selected a beach near Goodman Creek that is not subject to camping quotas, but I couldn’t reach Goodman Creek until the following day, when winds would calm enough to enable me to paddle on the open ocean. My first thought was to find a decommissioned logging road outside the park and car-camp the first night, but while I was driving around La Push and Mora to scout launching locations for the following morning, I spotted some uninhabited islands in the middle of the Quileute River. These were well sheltered from wind and tides, so I put in at the Mora boat ramp and paddled across the river to set up camp—a much nicer experience than car-camping in a clearcut. 01 Sunset on Quileute River. Next morning, the dawn chorus of thrushes here was one of the loudest I’ve heard. 02 Paddling down Quileute River. Launching on the Quileute River was easier than attempting a beach launch at La Push. 03 James and Little James Islands. The jetties at La Push, just a mile downstream of the boat launch, provided a gentle transition between the peaceful river and the heaving ocean. 04 Quileute Needles. The offshore islands are all part of a national wildlife refuge and cannot be landed upon. 05 Arriving at Quileute Needles. Jagged rock forms and pounding swell inform the visitor that he has come to the edge of the world here. Cassin’s auklets aren’t the only good bird out here. The offshore islands are home to thirteen nesting species of seabird, including my all-time favorite, the tufted puffin. As I mentioned in an earlier post, our state has lost 90 to 95% of our puffins just in the last 40 years, and likely 99% of the puffins that existed at the time of European contact. Still, even today, there are enough puffins nesting on the offshore islands to delight a fan like me. I must have seen 200 of them at three nesting islands: Cakesota, Rounded Island, and Alexander Island. 06 Tufted puffin at Quileute Needles. There were dozens of puffins at each nesting island, but the ocean is so big, and puffins so small, that I only spotted puffins within a quarter mile of each nesting island. 07 Pigeon guillemots at Quileute Needles. Their bright red feet are so funny they always make me laugh. 08 Common murre at Quileute Needles. Puffins and auklets nest in burrows, but common murres nest right out in the open on the cliffs at Cakesota—the only island where I encountered them on this trip. 09 Pelagic and Brandt’s cormorants at Quileute Needles. Other than gulls, pelagic cormorants were the most numerous seabird of the trip. CONTINUED IN NEXT POST.