Obstruction Pass, San Juan Islands, WA 9–10 Jan 2021


Jan 10, 2009
Seattle WA
[Cross-posted at alexsidles.com]

The weather forecast for the weekend was grim. A low-pressure system was on its way toward us across the ocean, bringing increasingly powerful southeast winds to the inland waters. Windspeeds in the San Juans were forecast at 20–30 knots, with gusts to 40—too strong for this conservative kayaker.

Experience has taught me that the islands themselves can provide shelter from southerly windstorms. During southerly winds, the interior waters bounded by San Juan and Lopez Islands to the south and Orcas Island to the north experience winds only half as strong as those along the outer coastlines or the north–south channels. (During northerly winds, however, Orcas Island’s East Sound can sometimes channel and amplify the wind.)

Sure enough, the route from Deer Harbor to Obstruction Pass was protected from the worst of it. In fact, conditions were so calm I stopped to explore Victim Island and Blind Island along the way.

00 Route map.jpg

00 Route map. Tides run in opposite directions on the west and east ends of the route, but less than two knots in most places.

In accordance with best practices for January kayaking in the San Juans, I took the ferry to Orcas Island the night before and car-camped at Moran State Park. Peeking out from between the trees of the forest, the midnight stars were shining with the intense, white radiance they only exhibit during winter.

In search of a more sweeping view than I could find from within the forest, I walked onto a floating dock that extended far onto Cascade Lake. The lake was so still and black the stars reflected on the water as brightly as they shone in the sky. Balanced on the very edge of the dock, with mirror-image constellations blazing in the darkness beneath my feet and above my head, I felt as if I was hurtling naked through space.

State Parks had hung a chain across the dock to obstruct pedestrian passage, with a sign that said, “Closed for the winter.” Usually, I make a sincere effort to comply with land use and environmental regulations, even if I sometimes get it wrong. Tonight, however, unfortunately for the well-meaning park rangers, I had been reading Edward Abbey during the ferry ride to Orcas Island, so I ignored their little sign and went flying among the stars.

01 Launch at Deer Harbor Marina.JPG

01 Launch at Deer Harbor Marina. I know you are supposed to pay to park here, but there are no posted instructions as to how much, and never anyone around to ask.

02 Kayaking the Wasp Islands.JPG

02 Kayaking the Wasp Islands. As I have observed on previous occasions, the Wasp Islands are the most “San Juans” part of the San Juan Islands.

03 Kayaking Pole Pass.JPG

03 Kayaking Pole Pass. On foggy mornings, it feels as if a plesiosaurus or some other astonishing creature might emerge at any moment.

04 Pigeon guillemots in West Sound.JPG
04 Pigeon guillemots in West Sound, Orcas Island. Of the Big Fouralcids, I saw only guillemots and marbled murrelets on this trip—no rhinoceros auklets or common murres.

05 Kayaking to Victim Island.JPG

05 Kayaking to Victim Island. Camping is allowed on this BLM island. Landing is possible on rocky shelves on the north side.

06 Barrows goldeneyes at Blind Island.JPG

06 Barrow’s goldeneyes at Blind Island. Already in January, the males were performing mating displays.

Obstruction Pass State Park is accessible to vehicle-borne visitors by way of a half-mile interpretive trail. Even on a cold January afternoon, any number of couples and families wandered through, exploring the park’s pine forest and gravel beach. Fortunately, none but I dared camp overnight. At dawn the next morning, Douglas squirrels and song sparrows woke me with their calls.

07 Loading kayak at Obstruction Pass.JPG

07 Loading kayak at Obstruction Pass. I packed only the bow and stern hatches, not the large day hatch behind the cockpit—an exercise in preparation for longer trips in the future.

08 Frost Island seen from Obstruction Pass.JPG

08 Frost Island and Olympic Mountains seen from Obstruction Pass. A blanket of clouds makes the Washington landscape feel more intimate.

09 Paddling across East Sound.JPG

09 Paddling across East Sound. From left to right, Lopez, Shaw, and Orcas Islands.

Let the winter storms blow as they may, there is almost always somewhere calm and beautiful a kayaker can tuck himself away, with birds and trees and clouds for company. The waterways in the heart of the San Juans proved to be just such a place for me.


[Cross-posted at alexsidles.com]