Smith and Minor Island, Strait of Juan de Fuca, WA 10 June 2018

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by alexsidles, Jun 14, 2018.

  1. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA
    Almost exactly three years ago, I paid a very successful visit by kayak to Protection Island to see one of the last two remaining colonies of tufted puffins in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

    Puffins used to nest throughout the strait and the nearby San Juan Islands, but their numbers have suffered precipitous decline in recent decades. Since the 1970s, our state has lost 90 to 95% of its puffins—and it’s not like the 1970s were some kind of high-water mark for puffins. If you count from the time of the earliest western explorers, who reported puffins on islands they haven’t been seen in over a century, we have likely lost well in excess of 99% of our puffins. Today, there are only around 60 puffins still nesting in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, down from over 1,000 in the 1950s.

    On the outer coast of Washington, puffins are still found in fair numbers, although the coastal birds, too, are in severe decline. At the dawn of the twentieth century, we had two colonies on the coast that each had 10,000 puffins, and another seven colonies with over 1,000 puffins each. Today, the largest colony on the coast has only 200 birds.

    It’s sad that this beautiful bird is disappearing from our waters. We will all be poorer off if we lose our handsome, personable puffins.

    For at least the time being, it’s still possible to visit puffins in the Strait of Juan de Fuca. With happy memories of my trip to Protection Island, I dreamed up an even more ambitious trip this year: a visit to Smith and Minor Islands.

    00 Map.jpg
    00 Map. Distant, lonely islands in the middle of the strait.

    In the course of my research for this trip, I learned that Smith and Minor Islands are, collectively, the most isolated islands in the state of Washington, meaning they are the islands farthest away from any other landmass. They are smack in the middle of the eastern entrance of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, a notoriously choppy body of water that is no place for a kayaker to get caught by wind. I picked the calmest weekend day I could, and for added safety, I wore my drysuit and filled my folding kayak with air bags.

    To give myself an even wider safety margin, I drove up the night before and camped at Cranberry Lake, so I could depart as early as possible in the morning.

    01 Camp at Deception Pass State Park.jpg
    01 Cranberry Lake. The most scenic of all the campgrounds in Deception Pass State Park.

    02 Calm conditions on Sunday morning.JPG
    02 Calm conditions early Sunday morning: Smith Island is the low island just visible on the horizon dead ahead. The large, distant, hazy landmass to the right is Vancouver Island.

    03 Looking up Rosario Strait in 5-knot wind.JPG
    03 Looking up Rosario Strait in five-knot wind: It was fun to see my beloved San Juan Islands from the middle of the strait. On most trips, I am among the islands, looking back the other way.

    Smith and Minor Islands have a complicated legal status. The uplands—meaning all land above the mean high tide line—are part of the San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge, a constellation of federally owned islands that may not be visited without special permission. The tidelands—meaning all land from the extreme low water line to the mean high tide line—are part of Smith and Minor Islands Aquatic Reserve, a state-owned parcel of land that has been designated off-limits to resource extraction leasing but has not been designated off-limits to visitors.

    The distinction between the federal NWR in the uplands and the state-owned aquatic reserve in the tidelands is critical: visitors are not allowed to go above the mean high tide line onto the federal lands, but visitors are allowed to land on the state-owned lands below the high tide line. I timed my visit to occur right around low tide.

    I would like to note here, before I get into the trip report, that USFWS (the federal agency) would strongly prefer all visitors to stay off the islands in the San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge, regardless of tide level. The NWR’s 2010 comprehensive conservation plan is full of language about keeping visitors at least 200 yards from the NWR islands. Some of the NWR islands (though not Smith and Minor) even have signs telling boaters to stay back 200 yards.

    However, on most islands (including Smith and Minor), USFWS’s jurisdiction extends only as far waterward as the mean high tide line. Below that line, USFWS may ask visitors to stay back further, but it cannot compel visitors to stay back. Only DNR (the state agency) may do so. On Smith and Minor Islands, DNR has not chosen to exercise that power.

    (At nearby Protection Island NWR, DNR has granted USFWS a lease over the tidelands out to 200 yards, so at Protection Island, the signs staying keep back 200 yards are a requirement, not a request. But this is not true at Smith and Minor Islands.)

    Just because you can go doesn’t mean you should go. Smith Island is one of the tufted puffin’s last redoubts. It would be tragic to see a horde of thoughtless kayakers landing on the beach and disturbing the birds’ nests. If you go, in addition to honoring the requirement to keep below the mean high tide line, please also exercise discretion in how long you remain ashore, how closely you approach birds and animals, how much noise you make, and how often you visit.

    Although I myself have landed on Smith and Minor Islands, I would support DNR granting USFWS a 200-yard lease to exclude all visitors, as has been done at Protection Island, or else posting its own regulatory signage to exclude visitors. It would be much better to see the islands fully protected, even at the expense of recreation opportunities.

    04 Rhinoceros auklet.jpg
    04 Rhinoceros auklet. Of all the alcids, this is the one most kindly disposed toward humans. They often surface quite close to kayaks and seldom fly away.

    05 Small flock of auklets.JPG
    05 Small flock of auklets. What handsome rhino horns and streamers!

    06 Cargo barge between Smith and Whidbey Islands.JPG
    06 Cargo barge between Smith and Whidbey Islands. The most direct shipping route between Vancouver and Seattle runs past Smith Island, so look out for traffic.

    The most surprising thing I learned during my research is that northern elephant seals occasionally haul out on Smith and Minor Islands and have even pupped on Minor Island! I didn’t even know we got elephant seals in this state. I made a special point of stopping on Minor Island in hopes of seeing one.

    June is a low-density month for elephant seal haul-outs, but it’s the beginning of the adult males’ molt, and I had high hopes for seeing one of the enormous bulls lying on the beach.

    07 View of Smith Island from Minor Island.JPG
    07 View of Smith Island from Minor Island. I tucked around the back side of Minor Island to avoid disturbing a large flock of double-crested cormorants roosting on the ground on the southeast side.

    08 Minor Island light 1935.JPG
    08 Minor Island light. Historical photos show this 1935 building’s landing used to be at ground level. The island is slowly washing away.

    Sadly, there were no elephant seals on Minor Island today, only harbor seals. I made the short crossing over to Smith Island to try my luck with the puffins. Despite the close distance, shoals surrounding the islands created difficult chop that forced me to head several hundred yards offshore.

    09 Regulatory signage on Smith Island.JPG
    09 Regulatory signage on Smith Island. Unlike the NWR’s overreaching website, these signs correctly express USFWS’s jurisdiction—only over the uplands.

    Last edited: Jun 14, 2018
  2. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA
    Smith Island was a paradise. Three-quarters of the island is fringed with cliffs, the beaches are a pleasant mixture of pebbles and sand, and best of all, hardly anyone ever comes here.

    10 Cliffs of Smith Island.JPG
    10 Cliffs of Smith Island. Birds nest at all levels of the island, from the grassy uplands to the clifftop fringe, down through the crevices in the cliff face, to the vegetated runout, and finally the beach.

    11 Gulls flying over the nesting cliffs.JPG
    11 Gulls flying over the nesting cliffs. Only glaucous-winged gulls were present today.

    16 Gang of glaucous-winged gulls.JPG
    12 Gang of gulls. Look at those beaks. I’m quite convinced gulls would eat me if they could.

    12 Seabird burrows on Smith Island.JPG
    13 Seabird burrows on Smith Island. The entire fringe of the clifftop, which wraps three-quarters of the way around the island, is punctured with regularly spaced alcid burrows. Most appeared empty, but it’s hard to be certain.

    13 Burrows form a watching face.JPG
    14 Burrows form a watching face. On the south side of the island, the clifftops curve lower to head-height and are very near the mean high tide line, enabling me to look right in.

    At first, there didn’t seem to be much nesting activity in the seabird burrows. There were hundreds of burrows all along the clifftops, but only a couple of pigeon guillemots flew in or out. Most of the burrows seemed to be empty, and I resigned myself to going home without seeing any puffins.

    But then, as I happened to be looking back behind me at a hauled-out harbor seal, I saw the unmistakably heavy-looking body of a flying puffin! No other alcid appears as solidly built as a flying puffin, so even before I got my binoculars up, I knew I had hit the jackpot.

    The puffin landed just below the clifftop high above and ducked into a burrow. Moments later, another puffin flew in, then another. Then a fourth puffin flew out from a different burrow. Then two more puffins did a flyby. I had found the colony!

    14 Puffins in burrows.JPG
    15 Puffins in burrow. The puffin nests seemed to be concentrated along a narrow segment of the cliff just north of the former lighthouse location.

    15 Puffin dives from cliff.JPG
    16 Puffin dives from cliffs. Alcids nest on or near steep slopes because they need a gravity boost to gain enough speed to fly.

    I only spent a few minutes with the puffins, even though I was far down the beach from their nests, because I didn’t want my presence to stress them out. What luck to see these magnificent birds in their homes.

    I finished up with a quick circumnavigation of the island. The first lighthouse on Smith Island was built in 1858. It was one of the first Euro-American structures in this part of the state, and it saw a lot of history, including an attack by roving Haida.

    Originally, the lighthouse was built 200 feet from the edge of the cliff. Year by year, the cliffs eroded into the sea, and the lighthouse became more and more precarious. Finally, in 1998, the ancient lighthouse toppled over the cliff.

    I found its brick foundations down on the beach. An ignoble end for this 140 year-old building.

    17 Lighthouse goes missing.jpg
    17 Lighthouse goes missing. The old lighthouse was still visible in Google Earth’s earliest photo, taken in 1990. In all subsequent photos, it is missing, toppled onto the beach.

    18 Ruins of 1858 lighthouse.JPG
    18 Ruins of 1858 lighthouse. It’s amazing these pieces held together at all. This thing was built tough.

    19 Remains of generator.JPG
    19 Remains of a generator. This generator once charged the batteries that powered the light.

    20 Such a comfy harbor seal.JPG
    20 A comfy harbor seal. There were perhaps eighty or more harbor seals on and around Smith and Minor Islands.

    21 Preparing to depart Smith Island.JPG
    21 Preparing to depart Smith Island. Ancient lighthouse keeper’s house and ancillary structure in background.

    22 Paddling back to Whidbey Island.JPG
    22 Paddling back to Whidbey Island. Tidal currents ran double or triple the speed predicted at PCT1451, the nearest NOAA current station. I was lucky I had timed my trip to travel with the tides instead of against.

    Smith Island was a real treasure. I feel lucky to have visited. I may not have seen the elephant seals, but I saw so many wonderful birds and harbor seals that I can’t complain. Watching the tufted puffin colony was an absolute joy. How wonderful that our state’s most remote island has remained so wild.

  3. Astoriadave

    Astoriadave Paddler

    May 31, 2005
    Astoria, Oregon, USA
    Outstanding report, Alex. Thanks for chronicling this remote, rare spot.
  4. chodups

    chodups Paddler

    Nov 2, 2005
    Wow, Alex. Excellent article. Fascinating read. Thank you for posting this.
  5. benson

    benson Paddler

    Aug 28, 2011
    Sequim, Wa
    Thanks for sharing. Great photos and perspective on a unique spot in the Salish.
  6. pawsplus

    pawsplus Paddler

    Jan 19, 2015
    Landlocked in Tennessee
    What a great day! I just love your trip reports! :)