Freeman Island and McConnell Rock, San Juan Islands, WA 27–30 Dec 2019


Jan 10, 2009
Seattle WA
Under the Bureau of Land Management’s new Resource Management Plan, a number of publicly accessible islands in the San Juans are on the chopping block. Lummi Rocks and McConnell Rocks (among others) will be permanently closed to day use and camping. Even in the places that remain open, camping will now require permits, which will be available only in limited numbers. Site-specific reviews over the next couple of years may result in additional islands closed to camping. It all adds up to bad news for kayakers in the San Juan Islands.

The RMP will not enter effect until winter 2020. Until then, dispersed camping is allowed anywhere in the BLM islands. To take advantage of these waning days of access, I did a three-night trip out of Deer Harbor to visit two that have been on my list for a while: Freeman Island and McConnell Rocks. Only the latter is currently slated for closure, but because of the future site-specific reviews, no BLM island is safe.

00 route map labeled.jpg

00 Route map. Tides in this area are weak to moderate.

Kayaking in December means very short days and a risk of strong winds. It’s wise to keep paddling distances short this time of year. To that end, I launched at Deer Harbor Marina rather than either of my customary Orcas Island launch points of North Beach or the ferry terminal.

Deer Harbor is a private marina, which usually means paying money to park, but when I arrived before dawn on Friday, there were no signs stating a requirement or amount to pay, no staff present to ask about paying, and no pay box to deposit money even if I’d wanted to pay and had known the correct amount. With a twinge of guilt, I parked in the upper lot and launched from the pocket beach next to the dock. Destination: Freeman Island.

Heading northbound up President Channel on the west side of Orcas, I encountered a moderately adverse, southbound ebb. This was only to be expected. In winter kayaking, there’s usually not enough daylight to wait for favorable tides. I hugged the shoreline of Orcas to take advantage of eddies. Apparently, a small pod of harbor porpoises had the same idea, because they popped up not twenty meters from my boat. Their breaths made delightful little puff-puff-puff sounds.

01 Hugging the coast northbound up President Channel.JPG

01 Hugging the coast northbound up President Channel. The weather forecast consistently called for strong winds, but the islands sheltered me from the worst of it.

02 Harbor porpoise in President Channel.JPG

02 Harbor porpoise in President Channel. In the distance, I saw one of the ferries stop near Spieden Island, which usually means the crew have spotted orcas, but I wasn't able to see from such a distance.

Freeman Island was a beautiful and secluded spot, but the landing was difficult. The island was fringed by a twenty-foot cliff. On the south side, the cliff was nearly vertical, but there was a tiny beach at mid- to low tide. On the north side, there was no beach at all, but the cliff looked less imposing. I landed on the north side and tied my boat to a rock to float overnight. However, the north-side cliff actually turned out to be the more dangerous of the two, owing to the crumbliness of the rock. When I departed the next morning, I carried my gear down the steeper but safer south-side cliff, then paddled the boat around to pick it up. Even with such precautions, I still managed to drop my tripod down the cliff. The plastic tilt head broke off, ruining the tripod.

Freeman Island had a nice, flat top with plenty of open space for tents. However, the island was less than 500 feet long (less than a third the size of Strawberry Island) and had essentially no beach, so there was little opportunity for exploration. By contrast, the Point Doughty campsite was less than a mile north of Freeman Island and offered easier access, more hiking, better vistas, and pit toilets. On future trips, I will likely prefer Point Doughty, except perhaps during summer, when Point Doughty can get crowded. Even during the busy season, the little-known Freeman Island is likely to provide solitude.

03 Approaching Freeman Island.JPG

03 Approaching Freeman Island. I love remote little places like this.

04 Atop Freeman Island.JPG

04 Atop Freeman Island. A rope and pulley would've helped me lug all this gear up the cliffs.

05 South beach Freeman Island.JPG

05 South beach Freeman Island. This is actually the easier of the two cliffs to ascend. The beach disappears at high tide.

McConnel Rock, the second of my BLM destinations, was even smaller than Freeman but more beautiful. McConnell Rock (not to be confused with nearby McConnell Island) is in the heart of the Wasp Islands, the most “San Juans” part of the San Juan Islands, so the views here were gorgeous. The landing beach was a gem, and there was but scant brush to impede hiking and camping. Unfortunately, even though the RMP has not entered effect, there was a “no camping” sign on McConnel Rocks. (Note, however, BLM’s November 2019 RMP/FEIS says at pg. 80 that camping is currently allowed at McConnell Rock.) Once the RMP enters effect, even landing at McConnell Rock will be prohibited.

I had arrived at McConnell Rock too late in the day to move to a different campsite. In a compromise certain to satisfy any BLM ranger, county sheriff, or nearby private landowner, I camped but I did not set up a tent. There was just a little drizzle coming down, so I laid out under the shelter of a large Rocky Mountain juniper and slept away the fourteen hours of darkness.

06 Southbound down President Channel.JPG

06 Southbound down President Channel. I love when everything is blue, green, and gray.

07 Paddling down Orcas Island.JPG

07 West shore of Orcas Island. The current nudged me along at half a knot to one knot.

08 Common Murre in President Channel.JPG

08 Common murre in President Channel. I saw all four species of year-around alcid, but did not find any ancient murrelets, which are present only in winter.

09 Looking west toward Spieden Island and Gulf Islands.JPG

09 Looking west toward Spieden Island and the Gulf Islands. Steller sea lions on the east point of Spieden were roaring so loudly I could hear them over two miles away.

10 Launching from Jones Island.JPG

10 Winterized government dock at Jones Island. I stopped here for a quick break on my way to McConnell Rocks. I returned the next night to camp here.

11 View from McConnell Rock.JPG

11 View from McConnell Rock. This would be a great camping spot, but camping is not allowed. Once the RMP enters effect, even landing here will not be allowed.

The next morning, I considered going on to Victim Island, yet another BLM island. But after two days on tiny Freeman Island and McConnel Rock, I wanted a chance to stretch my legs. Instead of Victim, I paddled over to the beautiful Yellow Island, a holding of the Nature Conservancy and one of the most picturesque walks in the San Juans.

12 Approaching Yellow Island.JPG

12 Approaching Yellow Island. The Wasp Island archipelago is like a miniaturized version of the San Juans.

13 Parkland on Yellow Island.JPG

13 Parkland on Yellow Island. The caretaker had departed for the winter, leaving me to explore the island on my own—the best way.

14 Poem on Yellow Island.JPG

14 A settler and a settlor. Tib Dodd and her husband built the first house on Yellow Island and eventually deeded the island to the Nature Conservancy.

15 Landing beach on Yellow Island.JPG

15 Landing beach and caretaker cabin on Yellow Island. The caretaker here has just about the sweetest job on Earth.

16 Surf scoters at Jones Island.JPG

16 Male and female surf scoter at Jones Island. Altogether I saw sixteen species of seabird, which is a little low for this time of year.

From Yellow Island, I crossed to Jones Island, a state park where I have camped many times. Jones has about four miles of hiking trails, a good change of pace from the tiny BLM islands. For the second night in a row, I slept out under the sky. This time, with no trees to shelter me, I draped my tent over myself like a blanket when the raindrops started around midnight. The raccoons were merciful and did not more than poke at my food and gear.

I was left with very mixed feelings about the RMP. The environmentalist in me is pleased that more islands will be placed off-limits or see access reduced. The kayaker in me is sorry to lose yet more camping and resting locations. Sites like Freeman Island and McConnell Rock may seem pretty marginal for recreation compared to other sites nearby, but their loss is part of a seemingly endless trend toward less and less kayaking access over time.

The real damage, of course, was done over a century ago, when the federal homesteading acts handed over land for free in lots of up to 320 acres. Vast tracts of land were snapped up and have remained in private hands ever since, one of the great ignominies of American history. Today, those of us who love the outdoors are left fighting over scraps—yet industry and landowners call us radical!

Last edited: