Lummi Rocks, San Juan Islands, WA 16–17 June 2018

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by alexsidles, Jun 18, 2018.

  1. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA
    In February last year, I completed my long-standing goal of visiting every public campground in the San Juan Islands. Nowadays, if I want to camp somewhere new, I have to get creative.

    There are approximately 130 named islands in the San Juans. Most are uninhabited little rocks that belong to the federal government. Of those, just under half are part of the San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge, meaning they are off-limits to visitors. The remaining islands are mostly BLM land, and landing is permitted on those. In fact, under BLM regulations, camping is permitted on BLM land unless posted otherwise.

    One of the largest of the BLM islands is Lummi Rocks, just off the west side of Lummi Island. I'd never landed there, though I'd paddled past on a previous circumnav of Lummi.

    Google Earth showed a nice tombolo on Lummi Rocks between the two southernmost islands. Tombolos often make for good camping, and June camping in the San Juans is lovely. The forecast called for good conditions, so I headed out for the weekend without even bringing a tent.

    00 Route map.jpg
    00 Route map. I launched from the beach at Gooseberry Pt. in the mistaken belief that the public had access over the tidelands. After the trip, I learned that the tidelands are in fact the property of the Lummi Tribe by executive order of President Grant, Nov. 22, 1873. I should not have launched here. Always check your 19th century executive orders before launching a kayak!

    The tricky part about circumnavigating Lummi Island is that the current flows very rapidly along both sides of the island—Rosario Strait on the west side and Hale Passage on the east side. What you want is catch a favorable current up one side, round the corner at slack current, and then catch the reverse current down the other side. This sounds easy, but it requires perfect timing.

    Because of the way the tides worked this time of year, a counterclockwise circumnavigation made more sense than a clockwise. But I got a late start on Saturday morning, and the current was already ebbing southward down Hale Passage and growing stronger by the minute. Without a moment to lose, I flung my gear in my boat and battled the current northward till I rounded the corner.

    Once in Rosario Strait, the ebb current whisked me down south to Lummi Rocks with hardly so much as a touch of the paddle on my part.

    01 Lummi Nation pier.JPG
    01 Lummi Nation pier. The Lummi still derive a great deal of their sustenance from the sea.

    02 Paddling up Hale Passage.JPG
    02 Paddling up Hale Passage. Winds blew a steady ten knots from the north day and night, slackening only for an hour or two around dawn.

    03 Southbound down Rosario Strait.JPG
    03 Southbound down Rosario Strait. These lovely islands feel like a second home to me.

    04 Landing beach at Lummi Rocks.JPG
    04 Landing at Lummi Rocks. I was worried there would be regulatory signage or seabird colonies on the island, either of which would have compelled me to keep moving. Luckily, the only sign merely advised visitors to respect the site, and the only seabirds were glaucous-winged gulls and pelagic cormorants nesting out of line-of-sight from the tombolo.

    05 Sitting on the tombolo.JPG
    05 Sitting on the tombolo. As I'd hoped, the tombolo was clear and level. Plenty of room for campers, especially those like me who just lie out under the stars.

    06 Seals relaxing on Lummi Rocks.JPG
    06 Seals relaxing off Lummi Rocks. On such sunny days, humans and seals alike just want to bask.

    07 On top of Lummi Rocks.JPG
    07 On top of Lummi Rocks. Lummi Island in the background left, Vendovi in the background right. Hat Island in the distant background right. Mainland in the distant background right of Lummi.

    08 Sunset over Matia Island.JPG
    08 Sunset over Matia Island. This time of year, the sun sets quite far to the north.

    The wind blew quite steadily from the north and seemed to accelerate as it passed over Lummi Rocks. On the north side of the tombolo, I had to wear a sweatshirt despite the 77°F (25°C) temperature. But when I moved to the south side to get out of the wind, I began overheating on the exposed gravel. I tried to compromise by sitting up with my upper torso exposed to the wind and my lower half protected by the gravel ridge of the tombolo, but all that accomplished was to make my feet hot. Finally, I ended up on the very top of the tombolo behind a screen of grass, which provided just enough windbreak that I didn't get cold while still allowing a cool breeze to filter through.

    At night, I lay out on a flat patch of gravel that some previous kayaker had cleared, sheltered from the wind and free of the baking sun. I watched the stars sparkle into existence one by one in the clear night sky.

    I'd hoped to avoid crowds by camping on a non-campground (though still legal) island. I knew the main sites in the San Juans would be crowded this time of year. Indeed, looking west to Sucia, I could see that Echo Bay was swarming with powerboats and sailboats, much as one would expect on a June weekend.

    Unfortunately, the word is out about Lummi Rocks, and I had a powerboat drop by for a visit in the afternoon, followed by a couple in a double kayak who overnighted, followed by a small group of kayakers next morning. There are secret patches of government land in the San Juans where you can find solitude even in summer, but Lummi Rocks is definitely not one! Much as I love to see people enjoying these islands, there's nothing quite like having an island all to yourself.

    09 Departing Lummi Rocks.JPG
    09: Looking back at Lummi Rocks. The north wind and ebb tide gave me such southward push that I didn't once paddle all the way to the south end of Lummi Island.

    10 Southern tip of Lummi Island.JPG
    10 Southern tip of Lummi Island. I was worried about tide races and whirlpools at the tip of the island, but it was completely benign.

    11 Mt Baker from Hale Passage.JPG
    11 Mount Baker from Hale Passage. Mount Baker dominates the eastern San Juans in the same way Mount Rainier dominates the south sound. Mount Shuksan to the right.

    On Sunday, I loafed around the island waiting for the end of the ebb tide. By the early afternoon, I decided to launch, even though the current wouldn't turn for several more hours. I drifted swiftly down to the south end of Lummi Island, then turned up Hale Passage and began fighting the still-flowing ebb.

    As the passage narrowed, the speed of the current increased, and soon I was making less than 1.5 miles per hour with 6 miles to go. I bent forward and slowly dragged myself north, consoled by the thought that things would get easier as the ebb died. Indeed, by the mid-afternoon, the ebb seemed to have ceased altogether. In another hour or two, the favorable flood would have started, but by then I'd already reached my car.

    There wasn't much in the way of birds or wildlife this trip. Lummi Rocks is simply too small. Besides the fifteen or so harbor seals who hauled out on the rocks at high tide, there were only a handful of birds. I did see twenty or more turkey vultures soaring past over Lummi Island; they must still be in migration.

    Despite the presence of other people on the island, and despite my embarrassing mixup about the status of the tidelands (I'm usually very careful about land use issues), it was still a great trip. Beautiful blue skies, lovely stars, and a perfect gravel bed to lay on at night—what more can a kayaker ask?

    jefffski likes this.
  2. Astoriadave

    Astoriadave Paddler

    May 31, 2005
    Astoria, Oregon, USA
    Alex, great trip report, as usual. What mixup? Are you referencing camping on the Rocks?
  3. drahcir

    drahcir Paddler

    Mar 26, 2010
    North Idaho (Sandpoint)
    Dave, Alex likely refers to this mixup, to quote

    "00 Route map. I launched from the beach at Gooseberry Pt. in the mistaken belief that the public had access over the tidelands. After the trip, I learned that the tidelands are in fact the property of the Lummi Tribe by executive order of President Grant, Nov. 22, 1873. I should not have launched here. Always check your 19th century executive orders before launching a kayak!"
  4. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA
    Yes, that was the mixup I meant. I’d researched the status of Lummi Rocks quite carefully, but I hadn’t thought to do any research about the launch.

    Several guidebooks, including Casey and WWTA, describe Gooseberry Point as a launch. But signs at the marina indicate the launch is not for the public; only for tribal members. I thought to launch at the ferry parking, but it turns out the tidelands there are also controlled by the tribe, as I discovered in my research afterward.

    On a previous trip, I parked at the marina store and asked permission to park and launch. This time, I parked at the ferry parking and wrongly assumed that, since parking was public and free, permission to launch was not necessary.

  5. designer

    designer Paddler

    Sep 17, 2012
    Bend OR USA
    Alex, Thank you for your report. If it is not too difficult, please email/message me a list of those islands. I've planned a few "circumnavigations" of the San Juans, only to be thwarted by overriding events. I've visited most of them - more popular camping sites, but curious to see what I've missed.

    I remember launching from that ferry beach with the WKC on a trip to Clark. Someone in a passing pickup truck said it was $5.00 to park and I guessed with I went into the store, and asked, the person would say, "Sure, just give me your $5.00." At the time, there were no signs about restricted launching. I wonder if it would be better to take the ferry to Lummi Island and launch from there?
  6. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA

    All the BLM lands in the San Juans were designated a national monument by an executive order of President Obama, dated Mar. 25, 2013. (Our second executive order of this thread!) As such, there is now a convenient listing of the BLM islands, with coordinates and KML files, on Wikipedia. BLM also has a good map.

    A few of the BLM islands, such as Patos and Posey Islands, for example, are already designated campgrounds through service agreements with Washington State Parks. Of the remaining, non-campground islands, I believe only the following are suitable for camping in terms of size and easy landing conditions:

    Lummi Rocks
    McConnell Rocks
    Victim Island
    Freeman Island
    Skull Island
    Cattle Point

    Watmough Bay would be campable, too, but it has signs for day-use only. Even on BLM land, you must obey signs.

    Islands not on the BLM list are most likely NWR islands. Landing on these is forbidden, as discussed in more detail in my Smith and Minor Islands trip report.