Pt. Doughty & Sucia Is., San Juan Islands WA 17–20 Feb 2017

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by alexsidles, Feb 21, 2017.

  1. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

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    We all have those certain perennial goals, the frustrating, ephemeral kind we chip away at little by little over the years without ever really committing ourselves to them and yet without ever quite giving them up, either: reading all of Shakespeare, for example, or hiking every segment of the Wonderland Trail. They're the kind of goals that never seem to get any smaller no matter how many little bites we take out of them. They are deathless, timeless goals, like unremitting stone godheads, glaring unmoved at our puny efforts.

    Last weekend, though, I actually accomplished one of these aeonian goals. After ten years of kayaking, I have finally visited all of the public campsites in the San Juan Islands.

    My original plan was to launch from North Beach on Orcas Island and paddle a few minutes down the coast to Point Doughty, my first unvisited campsite. I'd spend a night there, then paddle across to Patos Island for an evening, then to Sucia Island, then back to the car. I'd already visited Patos once and Sucia several times, but they're beautiful islands, and I knew I'd have them almost all to myself this time of year. For icing on the cake, I'd drive down to Obstruction Pass State Park, the last unvisited campsite, and scout it out by foot for future trips.



    The trip started out auspiciously and only got better. On the drive up, I saw 1,400 Trumpeter Swans foraging in the farmers' fields in the Skagit Valley. The swans were in two giant flocks, one of 600, one of 800. The 600-strong flock was mixed was Mallards and Northern Pintails to create a kind of festival of anatids.





    The weather the first day was more like the middle of May than the middle of February. I cruised gently down the north side of Orcas, enjoying the seabirds and puffy clouds.




    Point Doughty has a high bluff with a staircase leading up. I set up my tent in the highest, most exposed campsite to enjoy the magnificent views of the Gulf Islands and northern San Juans. I knew it would be windy up in the saddle, but I had underestimated the wind's strength. By 10:00 that night, the tent was flapping loudly, despite my guylines, and by 11:00 I couldn't take the noise anymore. I dragged the tent down into the forested portion and was finally able to get some sleep.

    I'm not sorry. The views from the saddle really were magnificent.




    The next morning was much cloudier. Even though the wind was only blowing 10 knots, there was more chop in President's Channel than I would have expected. I shipped several gallons of water launching the kayak from the beach.

    I've encountered rough conditions north of Orcas on previous trips, so I knew to be careful. Something about these waters makes them more hazardous than the observed conditions would seem to indicate. If 10 knots were enough to produce whitecaps, then I would have to be mindful of the forecast, which called for higher windspeeds in the coming days.

    As a precaution, I skipped my intended visit to Patos Island and instead made for Sucia. Sucia is close enough to North Beach that I thought I could make a run for the car if conditions looked like getting worse in the coming days. I had work obligations back home that I couldn't miss, and a wife and daughter who need me!




    My revised plans meant I had two days on Sucia instead of one. I took advantage of the opportunity to thoroughly explore the many miles of trails that wend through the island. I visited every bay, planning out future camping trips to see cool things and avoid large crowds. Echo Bay and especially Fossil Bay are the most beautiful campsites, but the north end of Shallow Bay will be the most secluded; it also features a sandy beach and cool sandstone caves to explore. Ewing Cove is also remote and lovely but the hiking trails are difficult of access from Ewing.

    Although I'd stayed at Fossil Bay once before, I had never before found any fossils. My wife is good at spotting things like that, but I just don't have the eye. With time on my hands this trip, I was able to explore more thoroughly, and there was an ammonite on the outside wall of the bay that even I couldn't overlook. There were fossilized clams, too, but this ammonite was a real beauty.






    My decision to skip Patos was prescient. The wind picked up to 15 knots, casting whitecaps all over the channel. Then it went to 20, then briefly to 25. I stayed on land and kept exploring. There are the ruins of old settlements on Sucia, as well as a survey marker carved in the rock by what may be the first white visitor to the island in the late 19th century. I was perfectly happy to ride out the gusty day reading and birding and not worrying about getting stranded like I would have if I'd been on Patos.

    Remembering what happened to my last tarp on Lummi Island, I did take down my tarp out of respect for the wind. Luckily, the rain fell in nothing worse than the occasional drizzle, so the lack of tarp did not infringe my comfort in camp.

    On the last day of the trip, the morning dawned overcast but still. The wind was back down to 5 knots, and I darted across the short channel to Orcas in under an hour in the gentle conditions. I hopped in my car and swung down to Obstruction Pass, checking off the last unvisited campsite and discovering that Obstruction Pass is well worth a future camping trip. (I had feared it would be car-accessible, which usually makes for poor camping, but it turns out the cars have to park half a mile uphill from the campsite.)



    I nearly got burned by the new ferry reservation system. I hadn't made a reservation, because my schedule on these trips is inherently unpredictable. Usually in winter, it isn't a problem to just hop on the next boat, but on this President's Day weekend, the first boat was already full, the next one three hours later was also fully booked, and only the next one four hours after that was available for reservations. I made a reservation on that one just to cover my bases, but when I then tried to go as a standby passenger on the three-hour-wait boat, the ticket lady insisted on canceling the reservation I'd just made! That meant if I didn't get on the three-hour boat, which she told me I probably wouldn't, I'd then have to go standby (unreserved) on the one four hours after that. And if that boat filled up, and me with no reservation, I suppose I would just have had to live on Orcas Island for the rest of my life.

    I was so mad I jumped on my phone the instant I got in the standby line and made the reservation anyway without telling anyone. I'd rather eat the $10 no-show fee than lose my place again. I made sure not to tell the ticket lady so she wouldn't cancel me a second time.

    The reservation system is no doubt a blessing to permanent inhabitants of the San Juans, who need a predictable, guaranteed sailing time in order to avoid being stuck in line half their lives. But for itinerant kayakers like me, it makes travel in the islands much less free than it used to be.

    Luckily, I made it on as a standby passenger on the three-hour-wait boat. I was literally the last car aboard.

    The ferry shenanigans notwithstanding, this was yet another grade-A trip to the San Juans. Every time I go, I see more and more cool things. This time, the highlights were the giant swan flocks, abundant Common Murres, courting Pigeon Guillemots, and the fossils. And of course, the completion of my silly, longstanding campsite goal.

    Alex
     
  2. JohnAbercrombie

    JohnAbercrombie Paddler

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    Re: Pt. Doughty & Sucia Is., San Juan Islands WA 17–20 Feb 2

    Another great trip report!
    Thanks!
     
  3. Astoriadave

    Astoriadave Paddler

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    Re: Pt. Doughty & Sucia Is., San Juan Islands WA 17–20 Feb 2

    Great report, Alex. Love that scoter shot. My fave surfbird.

    Sucia is an astounding place, and has a lot of nooks and crannies ... with low season charm and high season party crowd as its opposite.

    The stretch between Orcas and Sucia has a history of padling incidents, a couple detailed in Deep Trouble, IIRC.

    Thanks for the memories.

    PS: I think you meant Lopez, not Lummi, here? Remembering what happened to my last tarp on Lummi Island, I did take down my tarp out of respect for the wind.
     
  4. drahcir

    drahcir Paddler

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    Re: Pt. Doughty & Sucia Is., San Juan Islands WA 17–20 Feb 2

    Thanks for the great report Alex.
     
  5. Dan_Millsip

    Dan_Millsip Paddler & Admin

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    Re: Pt. Doughty & Sucia Is., San Juan Islands WA 17–20 Feb 2

    I always enjoy reading your reports. Thanks, Alex.
     
  6. designer

    designer Paddler

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    Re: Pt. Doughty & Sucia Is., San Juan Islands WA 17–20 Feb 2

    Great report Alex; thank you for sharing.

    As you've always done - great visuals on the charts.

    When I first heard about the new Reservation system I thought it would be horrible for expedition adventurers because weather or unforeseen events often dictate arrival/departure plans. I even complained to some businesses on Orcas, whining that they may not see as much business from out of state visitors. But then I used the system and saw that there is a bit of flexibility. For example ....

    If you make a reservation for day X, it is okay if you catch an earlier ferry on day X (standby). It is also okay if you catch a later ferry (standby) on day X. As long as you ride the ferry on day X, you won't forfeit your fee.

    If you know you aren't going to be able to catch the ferry at any time on day X, and you let the reservation system know before 5 pm the previous day, you won't forfeit your fee.

    Although they are pushing for everyone to have a reservation, they still hold out a certain number of spots for standby (first come, first serve) on each trip.

    So ... given that - and admittedly, it's been a while since I've used the new system. If you have a reservation for time Y and you just miss it, you should be first in line for the Stand By on the next run.

    It's not perfect, but given that there is cell phone service on most the islands, it would not be too difficult to make the required notifications (put the reservation system on speed dial).

    Given all that, I do my best to heed the advice given by those who know: Never try to leave Orcas on a Sunday, and if you can help it, don't try to leave on a Monday either.

    I've shown up 7 am for an 8 am ferry on Sunday and was finally able to board the ferry at 4 pm (bring reading material) - this was before the reservation system.

    So, if your plans go as expected - the system works great. If the weather changes things, but you can still make it to the dock that day, you are mostly covered. If you know by 5 pm the day before and can call them, you are covered. And if all that doesn't workout - the loss is just $10 (I thought it was $5.00 - price change?); not so bad if you are splitting fees with others.
     
  7. chodups

    chodups Paddler

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    Re: Pt. Doughty & Sucia Is., San Juan Islands WA 17–20 Feb 2

    Well done, Sir!
     
  8. The GCW

    The GCW Paddler

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    Re: Pt. Doughty & Sucia Is., San Juan Islands WA 17–20 Feb 2

    A few things:

    Awesome write-up. I haven't been in the area as much as many but I generally hit this area when I'm out. Love it. Love San Juan's.

    Re: North Beach, Pt. Doughty & Sucia Is.
    I've been on Pt. Doughty a number of times for breaks, lunch etc and finally camped there last trip. It's a nice camp and the area the same. Once paddled from N.B. to Sucia, camped a night and headed down past Doughty for a take out and that trip back had quartering waves from behind that made things challenging but not out of hand.
    Another trip doing a large counter clockwise circumnavigation of Orcas that took Us to Jones Is., Turn Is., Spencer Spit, James and Obstruction Pass State Park along with Clark Island was awesome, starting and finishing at North Beach. On that trip, the thought was Sucia after Clark but weather shut that down.

    Re: Obstruction Pass S.P. That's a good one. My 1st trip to Orcas was with family and I was the only paddler. I wanted camping for family but not next to R.V.'s... and to avoid reservations... and Obstruction fit the bill perfectly. I recommend it for that kind of situation) We all carried 2 or 3 trips of stuff down to camp and after a couple nights or so and some day paddles, I did My first paddle camp trip in the ocean solo for 3 nights while family stayed at Obstruction. That place can turn party on weekends but otherwise can also be peaceful.

    Re: travel back on Sunday. I tried to get out of Lopez on a Sunday last trip and saw that first hand and will avoid it next time. Newby mistake...

    Hope to get back this summer.
     
  9. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

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    Re: Pt. Doughty & Sucia Is., San Juan Islands WA 17–20 Feb 2

    Thanks for the kind words, everyone. Dave, you're right that it's Lopez Island that is death for tarps, not peaceful Lummi Island. Also as you say, both Deep Trouble and Randel Washburne's Puget Sound guidebook describe sometimes-difficult conditions north of Orcas. Both books describe north or northeasterly winds as the ones to watch our for in this area, but I saw unexpectedly high chop on southerly winds as well.

    Designer, your experience with the ferry reservations sounds saner than my experience. My ticket taker wouldn't let me get in line as a standby for an earlier sailing so long as I also held a reservation for a later sailing. I had to pick one or the other. This is the opposite of the rule you describe, and your version of the rule makes more sense. Maybe I just got an uninformed ticket taker or maybe the rules have changed to become less sensible. As others have recommended, I too suggest making a reservation for any sailing other than a winter-month non-holiday.

    Alex