Patos and Sucia Islands, San Juan Islands, WA 21–23 Sept 2017

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by alexsidles, Nov 23, 2017.

  1. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA
    I've been holding off on posting more trip reports until the forum's seemingly never-ending problems are fixed regarding image resizing, comments on images, and lost images from old posts. In spite of my complaints, here is a short trip I took earlier this fall to Patos and Sucia Islands in the northern San Juans.

    00 route map.jpg

    A hitchhiker I picked up outside the ferry terminal on Orcas Island regaled me with tales of his adventurous life in the San Juan Islands. Apparently, he had been bopping around the various hamlets on Lopez and Orcas for the last year or so, seeking something he called “real community.” Perhaps worried about sounding foolish, he didn’t fully expound this concept, but I gathered that by “real community,” he meant a place where everything is fully shared from each person to every other person and back again: property, wealth, emotions, attention—everything a human being can experience or have. I asked the hitchhiker whether he’d found any such deep connections on Orcas Island, and he said that although Orcas was “fertile ground” for such communities to emerge, he did not believe any yet had.

    I encouraged him to visit the remote settlement of Rose Harbour in Haida Gwaii. There he might encounter something closer to what he seeks. Rose Harbour has at least the outward form of a “real community,” and perhaps that will be enough for him. Even in Rose Harbour, land is still privately owned, workers still pay and are paid, and the inhabitants' utopian lifestyle depends on a steady influx of tourist dollars. Given all that, I don’t know whether this young man would be happy there, but I think he should give it a look. He did say he was eager to meet the famous Haida woodcarvers. He was a carver himself and was well acquainted with North Bay Forge, where my non-profit Habele gets carving tools to send to Micronesia. He even claimed to know the legendary traveller Genki Kondo, although I noticed he only repeated those details of Genki’s life that I myself supplied him, and when I gave him the wrong name of Genki’s wife, he repeated the wrong name as if remembering it. I dropped him off in Eastsound Village with my best wishes.

    I was hoping to get the northern San Juans to myself by arriving during the workweek after labor day. Alas, it was not to be: Sucia Island was crowded with 50 retirees’ boats, all but filling Echo Bay and Fossil Bay, where the nicest campsites are. Still, I found myself a quiet little hideaway in Snoring Bay and ended up having a great time hiking through some of the more remote trails.

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    View from North Beach north toward Sucia Island.

    Patos Island was a little more my speed. Only a few boaters visited the day I was there, and I was able to enjoy a little solitude even on the landing beach. There was an enormous flock of sparrows, perhaps a hundred or more, of all different species: savannah, golden-crowned, white-crowned, fox, song, Oregon junco, and spotted towhee, all foraging on the grass by the campground. There must have been some kind of delicious seed harvest in progress to attract so many.

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    Paddling northwest toward Patos Island. On more than one past trip, President's Channel between Orcas and Patos has been too rough to cross. This time, it was glass.

    The seabirds were the best part of the trip. I saw hundreds of common murres, mostly already in winter clothes, groaning and gronking in huge flocks near Patos. The marbeled murrelets were likewise clustered in close-knit, communal groups and waited till I was quite close before they dived.

    Rhinoceros auklets and pigeon guillemots were present only in small numbers, but that was still enough to round out the Big Four alcid species. There were no ancient murrelets yet; I suppose I was just a bit too early for these winter visitors.

    The avian highlight of the trip was the masses of Pacific loons. I almost never encounter this species in Puget Sound; usually they are found only on more swell-tossed waters. The first one I saw startled me so much I thought it was a common loon in some kind of weird transition plumage, but then another one flew past, and I had to acknowledge what I was seeing. Shortly after, not far from the north beach of Orcas Island, I ran into a flock of 70 Pacific Loons, bobbing along on the ebb tide without a care in the world. I doubt they’ll be in these waters more than a day or two. What perfect timing I had to meet these unusual guests.

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    Sandstone shoreline of Patos Island.

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    A loop trail leads around the western half of Patos Island.

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    Patos Island is justly famous for its historic lighthouse.

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    Heerman's gulls are my favorite species of gull. What handsome red bills and black feet!

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    Departing Patos Island under perfect blue skies.

    I received a memorable bird experience in the last hour of the trip: I passed through a large flock of California and glaucous-winged gulls just as a school of bait fish broke the surface. Instantly, the gulls sprang into action, wheeling and diving and keening like crazy all around me. Soon more gulls came to join the frenzy, then more and more until over a hundred were whirring about my head. Then common murres came too, diving around the periphery of the scrum. Then cormorants came and formed an outer ring around the action, and then Pacific loons arrived to circle the farthest edges like distant comets orbiting a star. In the midst of the bait ball, harbor seals came surging up out the water, scattering gulls and murres in their frantic pursuit of food. In just a couple minutes, it was all over, and I glided my way back to shore while the birds shook themselves off and gradually dispersed.

    There’s never a bad time to visit the San Juans. When the weather’s nice, it’s a watery paradise. When the weather’s cold, it just means the clouds will be beautiful and the crowds sparse. Although no one would mistake the islands for a wilderness reserve, there’s never a dull moment when it comes to the bird action. A kayak, a sleeping bag, and a pair of binoculars, and the world of the San Juans is your oyster.

    JohnAbercrombie likes this.
  2. Astoriadave

    Astoriadave Paddler

    May 31, 2005
    Astoria, Oregon, USA
    Great report, Alex. Sucia is a sweet spot, and certainly overrun in "the season," which extends until the first big blow of the fall. Snoring Bay is not on my radar. Sounds like it should be.

    Thanks for the elegant slice of these two islands.
  3. pawsplus

    pawsplus Paddler

    Jan 19, 2015
    Landlocked in Tennessee
    Great trip! Sucia and Patos have been on my wish list since the other members of my guided trip in 2014 out-voted me, opting to stay around Stuart the whole time instead of venturing off the beaten path. :(
    Last edited: Nov 28, 2017
  4. drahcir

    drahcir Paddler

    Mar 26, 2010
    North Idaho (Sandpoint)
    These islands are quite crowded after late May and until after Labour Day, as Astoriadave mentioned. Weather can smite the seas between the islands and North Beach on Orcas. And there is a reef lurking along that path. Other than those cautionary notes, it's a nice paddle. Body, Boat, Blade is worth a visit on Orcas. Note that the owners, Leon & Shawna, recently had their record broken ... for the slowest circumnavigation of Vancouver Island.