Point Roberts, Strait of Georgia, WA 7–8 Nov 2020

alexsidles

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Joined
Jan 10, 2009
Messages
467
Location
Seattle WA
[Cross-posted at alexsidles.com]

Point Roberts is an American exclave, surrounded on three sides by water and on the fourth side by the border with Canada. In normal times, the drive from Point Roberts to any other part of Washington State requires crossing the border twice: once into BC at Tsawwassen and thence back into Washington at Blaine.

In pandemic times, this route is not available due to the border closure. The people of Point Roberts are cut off!

Boats can still reach Point Roberts by crossing Boundary Bay. As further enticement for a visit, Point Roberts is home to the northernmost campground on the Cascadia Marine Trail, and also the most isolated: the Point Roberts Lighthouse Marine Park.

The people of Point Roberts hadn’t seen a tourist since April. I thought they might appreciate seeing a kayaker in November.

I launched from the public beach at the tip of Semiahoo Spit, the closest land access to Point Roberts. From Semiahoo, the distance to Point Roberts is a little over eleven miles (18 km), or fourteen miles (22 km) to the campground at Lighthouse Park.

00 Route Map.jpg

00 Route map: Boundary Bay is wide but very shallow.

To get an early start on Saturday, I drove up Friday night after work to camp at Birch Bay State Park, one of the most attractive car-campsites in Washington.

Birch Bay is home to a black color morph of the eastern gray squirrel. No doubt these individuals dispersed south from the famous black squirrel population of Stanley Park, introduced from the east coast in 1911. Black squirrels may be pests in BC, but they are still a novelty in Washington. Birch Bay is the southernmost extent of their range.

A dawn stroll through the park yielded only two squirrels, both ordinary gray color morphs, not black squirrels. Still, the walk was not wasted. The forest at Birch Bay is one of the most diverse in western Washington, both in terms of species composition and age class: a late-successional, second-growth forest, characterized by Douglas-fir, western hemlock, and grand fir, with abundant, mature red alder, big-leaf maple, and black cottonwood, and even a handful of old Sitka spruce. Leaves were falling like rain in the November wind, carpeting the road in the portions of the campground that were closed to cars for the season.

01 Birch Bay forest walk.JPG

01 Birch Bay forest walk. Colors of the black cottonwood, vine maple, red elderberry.

02 Launching kayak at Semiahoo Spit.JPG

02 Launching kayak at Semiahoo Spit. At the very north end of the spit is a tiny public beach adjacent to a free, overnight gravel parking lot.

03 Common loon Semiahoo Bay.JPG

03 Common loon, Semiahoo Bay. Loons, grebes, and sea ducks were the most common seabirds in the bay, with smaller numbers of alcids and gulls.

04 Long-tailed duck Semiahoo Bay.JPG

04 Long-tailed duck, Semiahoo Bay. Unusually for Washington, long-tailed ducks were the most numerous sea duck species after scoters on this trip.

Crossing a large bay should not pose a navigational challenge, but I still managed to wander off-course when I mistook nearby Kwomais Point, BC for distant Point Roberts.

From the water, the peninsula connecting Point Roberts to the mainland was below the horizon, so Point Roberts looked like an island. I mistook it for one the San Juans. Operating under the misapprehension that Point Roberts was an island, I figured Kwomais, an obvious peninsula, had to be Point Roberts.

I didn’t realize my mistake until a fishing boat that had been poking around the BC shoreline suddenly started dropping nets right next to me. “Well, either he’s on the wrong side of the border, or I am,” I thought.

A short distance ahead, a boundary beacon confirmed the truth. I had crossed the border and had been paddling ever deeper into Canada. What had seemed like a distant island on the horizon to my left was actually my destination.

05 Paddling toward Kwomais Point.JPG

05 Paddling toward Kwomais Point. The near landmass on the right is Kwomais; the distant landmass that looks like an island is actually Point Roberts.

06 Boundary buoy Boundary Bay.JPG

06 Boundary Bay boundary beacon. According to the nautical charts, the “H” stands for, “Hey, you’re on the wrong side of the border.”

07 Western grebes Boundary Bay.JPG

07 Western grebes, Boundary Bay. These were foraging in flocks hundreds strong throughout the central reaches of the bay.

08 Cormorants Boundary Bay.JPG

08 Cormorants over Boundary Bay. Brandt’s were the most numerous species, followed by pelagic. I saw no double-crested.

The search for squirrels delayed my start long enough that the strengthening Fraser outflow caught me still on the water in the afternoon. Wind kicked up to fifteen knots. Whitecaps and small breakers pocked the surface of Boundary Bay and the Straight of Georgia. I had forgotten my drysuit at home, but my new British sea kayak was so well behaved in the chop that my shirt didn’t even get wet.

A long cobblestone beach marked the landing at Lighthouse Park. The uplands consisted of grassy fields and Nootka rose bushes: perfect habitat for a northern shrike. I spent the waning afternoon hours birding on land.

Even though Lighthouse Park enjoys Cascadia Marine Trail status, signs at the park said the campground was closed for the season. When I knocked on the door of the ranger’s house to ask about a special dispensation for a stranded kayaker, there was no answer, nor when I called the ranger’s number on my cell phone. There wasn’t even a pay box where I could have deposited a fee.

I assumed the good people of Point Roberts would be less keen to welcome their exotic guest if they saw him camping illegally in their park, so I waited until dark to set up my tent, not in the campground where a patrolling ranger might catch me but right on the beach, like a real kayaker.

To make up for my bad behavior as a guest—and to spare myself cooking a pathetic dinner, huddled over a campstove in the merciless northerly wind—I walked a mile up the road to Kiniski’s Reef Tavern for burgers and beer. I was the only non-local in the bar.

09 Hiking at Point Roberts Lighthouse Marine Park.JPG

09 Hiking at Point Roberts Lighthouse Marine Park. Even in the afternoon, there were only a handful of other visitors.

10 Sunset at Point Roberts.jpg

10 Sunset at Point Roberts. The view across the Straight of Georgia made me want to keep paddling right on to the Gulf Islands.

11 Camping at Point Roberts.JPG

11 Dawn at Point Roberts. Light from the lighthouse flashed on my tent walls all night, but I was too tired to notice.

12 Surf scoters and black scoters.JPG

12 Twenty surf scoters and five black scoters. Thanks to its position far out in the Strait of Georgia, Point Roberts is a magnet for seabirds and marine mammals.

In the morning, the fifteen-knot northwest wind had diminished to a five-knot northeast wind, a fortuitous shift that spared me from breaking, following seas. Unfortunately, I caught the tides in the worst possible configuration: an adverse westerly flood in the western half of Boundary Bay, followed by an adverse westerly ebb in the eastern half of Boundary Bay.

Even in the face of such gentle wind, the fourteen-mile return trip took five and a half hours against the current. Pages 6, 7, 8, 38, and 39 in the Current Atlas would have illustrated the problem of the shifting current directions, but I had no more thought to bring my Current Atlas than I had to check my GPS before proceeding blindly across the international border.

The only thing to do during a long crossing against a relentless current is accept your fate and enjoy your surroundings. The ancient murrelets were even more numerous today than yesterday, and the mountains came out from behind the clouds on all sides. Few boats or planes were abroad so close to the border, so I was alone with the waves and the birds—just where I like to be.

13 Ancient murrelets Boundary Bay.JPG

13 Ancient murrelets, Boundary Bay. These winter visitors are less shy than the marbled murrelet and even more handsome.

14 Mount Baker from Boundary Bay.JPG

14 Mount Baker from Boundary Bay. Volcanoes and sea kayaks are a happy combination.

15 Return to Semiahoo Spit.JPG

15 Return to Semiahoo Spit. Old buildings on rotting pilings are a hallmark of the Pacific Northwest.

Just before I departed Point Roberts on Sunday morning, a local stopped me on the beach to ask me about my trip. He seemed to think I might be a day visitor out for a little paddle around the point. When he learned I was going all the way to the mainland, he was flabbergasted. He had been out in his motor skiff the day before in the strong breeze and chop, which had convinced him it would be an act of insanity ever to venture far from shore.

I left this incredulous bystander on the beach and headed out among the seabirds and sea lions, proud to have become one of the few kayakers to reach Point Roberts.

Alex

[Cross-posted at alexsidles.com]
 
Last edited:

tinman

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Jun 17, 2012
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Surrey
Fantastic! I'm on the other side of the border and have paddled out into the bay a few times. It can be dead calm or waves can be breaking over your bow all on the same day. Thats quite a lengthy trip with no real alternates if the wind picked up.
 

alexsidles

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Joined
Jan 10, 2009
Messages
467
Location
Seattle WA
I read Jim McDowell's José Narváez: The Forgotten Explorer yesterday, and came across this tidbit. In early July 1791, during the first European exploration of the Strait of Georgia, José María Narváez y Gervete and the members of his expedition "rounded Isla de Zepeda (Point Roberts), which they thought was an island."

I made the same mistake from a kayak in November 2020! It really is very deceptive!

05 Paddling toward Kwomais Point.png


Mapo.jpg


Another interesting tidbit: this 1791 carta pequeña shows that the Spanish explorers originally proposed the name Rosario Strait ("Canal de Rosario") for the Strait of Georgia. Well, George Vancouver wasn't having any of that! Today, Rosario Strait refers to a much more modest channel.

Alex
 
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cougarmeat

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Sep 17, 2012
Messages
885
Location
Bend OR USA
Alex, would you do this again? I'm curious because that seems an awfully long way, in an area where the weather can change quickly, AND no clear bail-out options - no intermediate landmass to hide behind or wait out inclement weather. The distance is a little tough if you don't have any current assistance. Of course, one could rest, as needed, on the water. Unless ...
 

alexsidles

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Jan 10, 2009
Messages
467
Location
Seattle WA
Alex, would you do this again?
I would, and much longer crossings, too. I’ve got a couple of doozies under my hat for next year.

Some qualities of the world can only be grasped during a long, slow crossing. The meeting of the minds between me and Narváez across a span of two hundred thirty years could not have happened any other way.

Alex
 

JohnAbercrombie

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Joined
Dec 7, 2011
Messages
3,152
Location
Victoria, BC
No, and I don’t want to. We all carry far too much gear. It doesn’t hurt us to forget some of it from time to time, even seemingly important items like a drysuit or a tent.

Alex
Alex - that's a pretty 'unusual' point of view. You can add that to your ability to forego hydration/urination on long paddles!

In accident/incident reports in paddling and mountaineering, a piece of forgotten gear often is a factor.
Checklists also keep me from taking things I don't need - throwing 'stuff' into the bag at the last minute.
 

cougarmeat

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Sep 17, 2012
Messages
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Location
Bend OR USA
Have to agree with John on this one. I don’t use a check list because “I should know.” But then, at the last minute. I think of this and that and the other thing. I figure it doesn’t hurt to put it in the jeep and sort it out at Launch. But why am I usually the last one in his boat? :)

On the other hand - forgetting something does exercise those “improvise” muscles. Once, on a trip in the Jefferson Wilderness, I grabbed a tent and poles. Except I forgot that I had separated the tent from the rainfly for drying. So I only had the fly and poles. Now some tents are designed so you can just set up the fly if desired. This one wasn’t. But still, I was able to put up a low arch that absolutely keep me and campanion dry - even as we saw small rivulets running under our therm-a-rests. But I came out a hero because I looked at the sky and saw a small patch of blue. With the speed of the clouds, I knew I had just enough time to boil one cup of water. So in that very short “not raining” duration of a few minutes, I was able to make one cup of coffee which I presented to my companion. That went over big. My explanation that the tent was forgotten on purpose as an exercise in improvisation - not so much.

Long crossing - and by todays standards (Thank you Ed Gillett) 11 miles isn’t that long - It just has to be your cup of tea. I like skirting shorelines, checking out inlets. And in fairness to myself, most the time I’m paddling with someone who either doesn’t want to or physically can’t paddle that far on open water.
 

alexsidles

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Jan 10, 2009
Messages
467
Location
Seattle WA
Alex - that's a pretty 'unusual' point of view.
I'm more of an Ed Abbey guy than an REI guy. Gear has a way of taking over everything else if you take it too seriously.

I just went to Outside Magazine's homepage, and eight of the first ten articles mention gear right in the headlines. (The other two are about jogging, what the hell, don't those people have their own magazine?) The first section in the homepage's table of contents is titled, "Gear." When I open the second section, which is titled, "Adventure," the first article that comes up is about whether you should wear a swimsuit in a backcountry hot spring. Even when they try to talk about adventure, they end up talking about gear!

I'm not a fanatic. I've got a whole trunkful of gear in my car right now, in preparation for a kayak-camping trip this weekend. But I'm not in love with the stuff, and if some of it is missing, I won't miss it. You can have a good trip with nothing more than a boat and paddle, and even the paddle might be optional if there are fallen tree branches nearby.

Alex
 

cougarmeat

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Sep 17, 2012
Messages
885
Location
Bend OR USA
Alex, are you sure it was the yearly Gear issue you were looking at … :)

I don’t read Outside magazine any more. For me, it seem to be too much oriented toward people who just want to look like they have adventures (except all their gear is new - most of mine is 30 years old). Backpacker magazine isn’t so bad in that they often describe some place in the PNW that would be an interested destination. But also with their articles, a solution to a problem seems to be more gear. I wonder why …

Now you’ve got me missing Sea Kayaker - with it’s trip suggestions and safety articles. Too bad there wasn’t an electronic (.pdf format - not pfd vest) version of all the issues one could buy as a last “Farewell”. Sure, the gear reviews would be dated. But the trip and safety information is pretty much timeless.
 
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cougarmeat

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Joined
Sep 17, 2012
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Bend OR USA
When I was a kid, my Mom used to buy clothes too big for me with the idea that I would “grow into them”; turning the cuff up on pants, etc. Finally, when I was about 19, Mom patted me on the shoulder, and in her most compassionate voice, suggested I start buying clothes that actually fit. We could wish and hope, but that “second spurt of growth” was never gonna happen. So, [pat, pat, pat] your subscription is kinda like that. :)
 
Last edited:

Kault316

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Joined
Jul 12, 2020
Messages
68
Location
Cultus Lake
[Cross-posted at alexsidles.com]

Point Roberts is an American exclave, surrounded on three sides by water and on the fourth side by the border with Canada. In normal times, the drive from Point Roberts to any other part of Washington State requires crossing the border twice: once into BC at Tsawwassen and thence back into Washington at Blaine.

In pandemic times, this route is not available due to the border closure. The people of Point Roberts are cut off!

Boats can still reach Point Roberts by crossing Boundary Bay. As further enticement for a visit, Point Roberts is home to the northernmost campground on the Cascadia Marine Trail, and also the most isolated: the Point Roberts Lighthouse Marine Park.

The people of Point Roberts hadn’t seen a tourist since April. I thought they might appreciate seeing a kayaker in November.

I launched from the public beach at the tip of Semiahoo Spit, the closest land access to Point Roberts. From Semiahoo, the distance to Point Roberts is a little over eleven miles (18 km), or fourteen miles (22 km) to the campground at Lighthouse Park.

View attachment 9126
00 Route map: Boundary Bay is wide but very shallow.

To get an early start on Saturday, I drove up Friday night after work to camp at Birch Bay State Park, one of the most attractive car-campsites in Washington.

Birch Bay is home to a black color morph of the eastern gray squirrel. No doubt these individuals dispersed south from the famous black squirrel population of Stanley Park, introduced from the east coast in 1911. Black squirrels may be pests in BC, but they are still a novelty in Washington. Birch Bay is the southernmost extent of their range.

A dawn stroll through the park yielded only two squirrels, both ordinary gray color morphs, not black squirrels. Still, the walk was not wasted. The forest at Birch Bay is one of the most diverse in western Washington, both in terms of species composition and age class: a late-successional, second-growth forest, characterized by Douglas-fir, western hemlock, and grand fir, with abundant, mature red alder, big-leaf maple, and black cottonwood, and even a handful of old Sitka spruce. Leaves were falling like rain in the November wind, carpeting the road in the portions of the campground that were closed to cars for the season.

View attachment 9127
01 Birch Bay forest walk. Colors of the black cottonwood, vine maple, red elderberry.

View attachment 9128
02 Launching kayak at Semiahoo Spit. At the very north end of the spit is a tiny public beach adjacent to a free, overnight gravel parking lot.

View attachment 9129
03 Common loon, Semiahoo Bay. Loons, grebes, and sea ducks were the most common seabirds in the bay, with smaller numbers of alcids and gulls.

View attachment 9130
04 Long-tailed duck, Semiahoo Bay. Unusually for Washington, long-tailed ducks were the most numerous sea duck species after scoters on this trip.

Crossing a large bay should not pose a navigational challenge, but I still managed to wander off-course when I mistook nearby Kwomais Point, BC for distant Point Roberts.

From the water, the peninsula connecting Point Roberts to the mainland was below the horizon, so Point Roberts looked like an island. I mistook it for one the San Juans. Operating under the misapprehension that Point Roberts was an island, I figured Kwomais, an obvious peninsula, had to be Point Roberts.

I didn’t realize my mistake until a fishing boat that had been poking around the BC shoreline suddenly started dropping nets right next to me. “Well, either he’s on the wrong side of the border, or I am,” I thought.

A short distance ahead, a boundary beacon confirmed the truth. I had crossed the border and had been paddling ever deeper into Canada. What had seemed like a distant island on the horizon to my left was actually my destination.

View attachment 9131
05 Paddling toward Kwomais Point. The near landmass on the right is Kwomais; the distant landmass that looks like an island is actually Point Roberts.

View attachment 9132
06 Boundary Bay boundary beacon. According to the nautical charts, the “H” stands for, “Hey, you’re on the wrong side of the border.”

View attachment 9133
07 Western grebes, Boundary Bay. These were foraging in flocks hundreds strong throughout the central reaches of the bay.

View attachment 9134
08 Cormorants over Boundary Bay. Brandt’s were the most numerous species, followed by pelagic. I saw no double-crested.

The search for squirrels delayed my start long enough that the strengthening Fraser outflow caught me still on the water in the afternoon. Wind kicked up to fifteen knots. Whitecaps and small breakers pocked the surface of Boundary Bay and the Straight of Georgia. I had forgotten my drysuit at home, but my new British sea kayak was so well behaved in the chop that my shirt didn’t even get wet.

A long cobblestone beach marked the landing at Lighthouse Park. The uplands consisted of grassy fields and Nootka rose bushes: perfect habitat for a northern shrike. I spent the waning afternoon hours birding on land.

Even though Lighthouse Park enjoys Cascadia Marine Trail status, signs at the park said the campground was closed for the season. When I knocked on the door of the ranger’s house to ask about a special dispensation for a stranded kayaker, there was no answer, nor when I called the ranger’s number on my cell phone. There wasn’t even a pay box where I could have deposited a fee.

I assumed the good people of Point Roberts would be less keen to welcome their exotic guest if they saw him camping illegally in their park, so I waited until dark to set up my tent, not in the campground where a patrolling ranger might catch me but right on the beach, like a real kayaker.

To make up for my bad behavior as a guest—and to spare myself cooking a pathetic dinner, huddled over a campstove in the merciless northerly wind—I walked a mile up the road to Kiniski’s Reef Tavern for burgers and beer. I was the only non-local in the bar.

View attachment 9135
09 Hiking at Point Roberts Lighthouse Marine Park. Even in the afternoon, there were only a handful of other visitors.

View attachment 9136
10 Sunset at Point Roberts. The view across the Straight of Georgia made me want to keep paddling right on to the Gulf Islands.

View attachment 9137
11 Dawn at Point Roberts. Light from the lighthouse flashed on my tent walls all night, but I was too tired to notice.

View attachment 9138
12 Twenty surf scoters and five black scoters. Thanks to its position far out in the Strait of Georgia, Point Roberts is a magnet for seabirds and marine mammals.

In the morning, the fifteen-knot northwest wind had diminished to a five-knot northeast wind, a fortuitous shift that spared me from breaking, following seas. Unfortunately, I caught the tides in the worst possible configuration: an adverse westerly flood in the western half of Boundary Bay, followed by an adverse westerly ebb in the eastern half of Boundary Bay.

Even in the face of such gentle wind, the fourteen-mile return trip took five and a half hours against the current. Pages 6, 7, 8, 38, and 39 in the Current Atlas would have illustrated the problem of the shifting current directions, but I had no more thought to bring my Current Atlas than I had to check my GPS before proceeding blindly across the international border.

The only thing to do during a long crossing against a relentless current is accept your fate and enjoy your surroundings. The ancient murrelets were even more numerous today than yesterday, and the mountains came out from behind the clouds on all sides. Few boats or planes were abroad so close to the border, so I was alone with the waves and the birds—just where I like to be.

View attachment 9139
13 Ancient murrelets, Boundary Bay. These winter visitors are less shy than the marbled murrelet and even more handsome.

View attachment 9140
14 Mount Baker from Boundary Bay. Volcanoes and sea kayaks are a happy combination.

View attachment 9141
15 Return to Semiahoo Spit. Old buildings on rotting pilings are a hallmark of the Pacific Northwest.

Just before I departed Point Roberts on Sunday morning, a local stopped me on the beach to ask me about my trip. He seemed to think I might be a day visitor out for a little paddle around the point. When he learned I was going all the way to the mainland, he was flabbergasted. He had been out in his motor skiff the day before in the strong breeze and chop, which had convinced him it would be an act of insanity ever to venture far from shore.

I left this incredulous bystander on the beach and headed out among the seabirds and sea lions, proud to have become one of the few kayakers to reach Point Roberts.

Alex

[Cross-posted at alexsidles.com]
Great report, Alex. I really enjoyed the thoughtfulness and the photos.
 
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