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San Juans weather check...


Jun 22, 2021
Eugene, OR
Hi All—I'm planning a one-week trip through the San Juans for the last week of this month (September). I think weather and conditions then are still usually good, right? (I don't think the last week of September is considered a bad time to paddle because of storms, rain, etc.)

This is assuming "normal" past conditions then. Admittedly, with climate change there is no "normal" anymore as things are changing everywhere...

The last weekend in September, I’ve usually experienced light rain lasting an hour or two on at least one of the two days, and wind usually around five knots, never more than fifteen knots. But every couple of years, it’ll be sunny and calm the whole weekend.

Thanks! I'll likely keep a close eye on the weather starting 5-6 days out (when the forecast starts to be at least somewhat accurate) and make a go/no-go decision then. I'm not worried about a bit of rain or some wind...but this is supposed to be a FUN trip, LOL—meaning "sunny weather!" :D If it looks cloudy and rainy I might bail. Being a multisport enthusiast, before any planned outdoor trip I tend to examine the weather throughout the entire PNW and go where the sun is! (Whether it's paddling, biking, hiking, or skiing—I can do any/all of it!)
Let us know your itinerary once established. Some islands are more “fun” than others, depending on how social you want to be. Also, that late in the season, don’t rely 100% on there being water from the spigots.
Will do @cougarmeat - Last year I did a shorter trip earlier in the season (around now) and had perfect weather and calm waters. I put in at Lummi Point (Gooseberry Point) and paddled past Lummi Island to Matia, Sucia, and Patos islands. Camped a couple days on Sucia and did side paddles to Matia and Patos. Really great paddle and awesome time! I'm thinking this year I'd like to explore more of the inner islands. It feels easier to put in on the mainland (no messing with ferries), but I might wheel my boat onto the ferry and start paddling from Friday Harbor.

Just trying to decide whether to stay on the inside and explore Shaw, Lopez, Orcas, Blakely and smaller islands?
Or maybe head "outside" more and paddle up to Stuart Island then back down the west coast of San Juan Island?
(Or maybe some of both?)

Any suggestions are appreciated! I'm in good shape for fast, longer-distance paddles—so weather permitting I can cover a lot of water in 5 days.
Friday Harbor is a shorter distance to Stuart but if you "walk-on" with your boat to Orcas, you could paddle from there to Blind Island, camp, and from there to Jones Island. From there it's a long day to Stuart but if you are feeling lucky, you could shorten the trip by staying a night at Posey Island (very small, it may be full; hence, luck - but kayakers are usually accommodating).

If you get to Stuart, be sure to get your shirt. Along the way to the lighthouse at the west end (a day hike from your kayak campsite) there's a school and right near the path is a "booth" with various tee-shirts, sweatshirts, and hoodies - with a Stuart Island logo - for sale. You can't buy them in any store; you have to pay your dues and paddle to the island to own one. All varieties are strung out on a line so you can try on sizes. Once you find what you want (color/style/size) you can get a new one in a plastic bag from the supply trunks. It's an honor system. They know you may not be carrying money so there are instructions with the garment telling you where to mail the check.

Stuart is a greater commitment than Shaw, Lopez, etc. You will want be hit that crossing channel between Roche Harbor and Speiden Island at (or just before) Slack Current - or else it can get interesting.

There are three main camp areas on Stuart, Reid Harbor, left and right sides, and Prevost Harbor (yachies) on the north side (Google Earth is your friend). To me, the left side (facing the beach) was too dark and wet. Also, many guide groups use that. The right side is kinda dry - just dirt patches. There were trees for a hammock but they were too near the pit toilet. There was one site on the right side just at the beach but you can get a breeze with a mile fetch coming into Ried Harbor (Not a bad thing if you plan for it.) So, like the three bears story, I like the third choice - the campsite on a bluff above Prevost Harbor. It has trees, flat areas, a water spigot, and a "beach" landing separate from the powerboat area. You'd paddle past the dock to just around the corner of the harbor. Especially if you land there, be sure to bring your boat up and tie it off.

In the photo below, I could have moved the kayak behind the log. But there was a kayak group that was leaving in the morning and though it's on clear in the photo, if placed behind the log the kayak would extend into the kayak loading area. I moved it behind the log (and still tied it off) after they left. Oh yes, the tide came up even higher than in the photo.

Mariner XL - no hatches. 17 feet of pure storage.

If you haven't used the WDOT ferry reservation system, that's covered in other posts. In fact, there are several "San Juan" trip reports in this sub-forum.

One thing - and I'll note that in Alex's last post - though the current is your friend if it is flowing your way, equally important is the wind direction. It doesn't take much of a current or a wind, blowing towards each other, to add a pucker element to the paddle.

You can tell Stuart is sort of a trip on its own. Given that you have other goals, maybe only consider it if your week is 7 days instead of 5. There is a lot to get to know east, west, and south of Orcas.

James Island, east of lopez is nice too and you can paddle there from the beach at Washington County Park (I think $10/day parking). Guide groups land on the west beach but there are nice campsites on the east side too.

Almost forgot, Washington County Park has showers (you don't have to be staying there to use them) - just say'n if you are going to be out for 7 days :)

Last safety tip - there's a water taxi service out of Anacortes, Island Express. You might want to have their number in your cell phone if you carry one.
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Thanks for all the great intel @courgarmeat! Much appreciated. I like the route you laid out from Orcas...but really I could be happy anywhere up there. :) I like to challenge myself and tend to enjoy a trip more if there's a bit of pucker factor (but nothing crazy).

I'll spend some time geeking out over maps and will likely make the Stuart Island decision 2-3 days before depending on how the forecast is looking. I definitely know how much difference the wind can make—not just in slowing you down (if you're paddling against it) but in kicking up wind waves (even bigger if wind and tide are opposing as you said).

When I paddled to Sucia and Patos last year, it was basically calm (or very light winds); in those conditions dealing with tides was a non-issue. But strong winds can change things dramatically!
Circumnavigating Stuart Island, if there for more than a day is worthy.

***An interesting thing regarding water on Jones Island (a few weeks ago); the north side spigot didn't have water.

The south side larger camp had a spigot that looked the same (as the north camp's) with no water, however, there was a 2nd spigot which did have water.

If someone didn't know about the 2nd spigot and only (first) saw the dry spigot they might miss it. -and later in the season it may be dry too.
The premier five-day trip in the San Juans is a circumnavigation of Orcas Island. The biggest highlight of that route is the chain of four state park islands on the north side of Orcas (Clark, Matia, Sucia, Patos), but Scott, you have already seen those.

Another excellent five-day trip that would take you to a new area would be a circumnavigation of San Juan Island. If you are wheeling onto the ferry, then you would obviously depart from Friday Harbor, but if you are driving on, then you should depart from Reuben Tarte, which offers free overnight parking. (Paid overnight parking is also available at Roche Harbor and San Juan County Park.)

A circumnavigation of San Juan Island would take you through Cattle Pass and San Juan Channel, which might, depending on the strength of the current, satisfy your interest in a "pucker factor." Currents here run up to six knots on a large exchange and can generate significant waves, whirlpools, and a tiderace a mile long up San Juan Channel. According to the Coast Pilot's description of the south end of San Juan Channel, "[M]aximum flood currents of 5 knots or more cause severe rips and eddies." Here is a video of a kayaker capsizing in Cattle Pass, and conditions get much bigger than what is shown in the video.

Five days is more time than you need to circumnavigate San Juan Island, so you might throw in a turn around Shaw Island, as well. Here is an old trip report using the route I have in mind. If you launch at Reuben Tarte and go counterclockwise, you could camp at San Juan County, Griffin Bay, Shaw, and Jones, which would set you up nicely for an early return to Reuben Tarte for the drive home. You could visit Posey Island and Yellow Island along the way, which are both lovely places to take breaks.

If you have more time, you could throw in an overnight on Stuart Island. It's easy to reach Stuart Island from Jones, and you can go from Stuart back to Reuben Tarte to get your car.

Thanks @alexsidles - great suggestions! I watched that video, and those conditions definitely look rough at Cattle Pass. While watching the group paddle through the breaking waves, I saw the huge eddyline on the left coming up—with the corresponding current and waves at 270 degrees to the kayakers' direction of travel. Anytime you have two currents (and waves) colliding at right angles, it's a scary mess to paddle in! Though things like that are normal on big rivers, I still don't like them and would avoid that if I could.

As an aside, the way to handle situations like that involves two things: most important is sheer raw SPEED. Anytime you're in conditions like that, you should be at a full-on sprint—paddling as if your life depends on it. Speed can mitigate lots of bad conditions on the ocean, because you're less likely to be shoved around by the currents and more likely to punch through anything in your way and get past it quickly. Second most important is to always try to cross big nasty eddylines at a right angle to the line (never parallel to the eddyline). Though I'm not very experienced in ocean paddling, what I've found is that even on a huge scale, water acts pretty much the same in the ocean as it does on swift rivers. Everything is just a lot bigger! So the same strategies you use on a river also work in the ocean—just scaled up.

But like I said, I'd rather avoid conditions like that! :)
So I keep trying to understand typical weather patterns in late September up around the San Juans and Vancouver Island. It seems few people paddle anywhere after August ends...but maybe that's not true?

When I look at Google search results for things like "Is September a good time to visit Victoria?" and "What is the weather like in B.C. in September?" all the results generally say that September is a beautiful month with continued mild, sunny weather. So I'm not sure what to think when some folks mention storms and rain.

For example, the website checkedinvictoria.com says...

"While the fall brings shorter days and cloudier skies, in Victoria, early fall can be gloriously sunny and warm with a fresh crispness in the air. Green leaves turn amber and gold and the rainy season hasn’t returned in earnest. It’s the perfect time to avoid the large crowds of the summer but still enjoy sunnier skies."

Perhaps it would be more helpful to ask: at what time of the year up there does the weather get reliably bad? (As in cloudy, rainy and stormy pretty much all the time.)

And is it common for the Pacific-facing areas (e.g. Broken Group) to be experiencing all hell breaking loose...while people are napping on the grass in the warm sunshine in Victoria and Nanaimo?
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Kayaking does fall off after Labor Day, but that’s true of every other outdoor activity, as well. I paddle here all twelve months of the year, and it’s good any time of year.

You’ll be fine in late September. You don’t need to worry so much. Storms are unlikely. There will probably be drizzle for part of the day on some of the days. The rest of the time, it’ll be very pleasant. Even the rain, when it comes, won’t be bad.

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On Vancouver Island there are two noticeably weather gradients, South to North and East to West (better to worse).
September is a liminal month where the weather is often pretty nice, especially in the Southeast but it can get interesting elsewhere.
I have experienced some pretty intense weather (storm force winds and heavy rains) in September on the West coast but it doesn't generally last very long. This can also happen in August but is even less likely.
Just check the "whether" forecast to see whether it is likely to be good or not.
Hope the weather is good for your trip, especially as I plan to be in the BGIs myself... :)
How does that saying go? "There are no bad days; just bad clothing choices."

Just remember that some of those praising accounts could have been written by Chamber of Commerce folk. There used to be a phrase they used for Bend - 300 days of sunshine a year. You don't hear that so much anymore. Maybe weeks of 250 - 300 (or higher) air quality rating in the summer (Very Unhealthy to Hazardous) has something to do with it.

I have to remind myself that when the report gives a high probability of rain, that just means it will (might) rain - not how hard or how long. 50% chance of showers means there will probably be showers sometime that day - not that it will be raining for 12 hours.

If I didn't live 18 hours (with stops), two ferry rides, and $200 for gas - round trip - from the San Juans, I'd be up there during the rainy season just to get comfortable in that environment. A large tarp, a comfortable camp chair, and a warm drink - let it rain. :)
Well dammit...the forecast for next week (my week to paddle in the San Juans or somewhere) has deteriorated rapidly. A deep low over Southern Alaska is poised to send significant waves of moisture down through the PNW starting Sunday night into Monday. We're still a bit far out for a wholly accurate forecast, but computer models are mostly in agreement—it's gonna rain, rain, and rain more. :(

I know—it's the PNW so I shouldn't care—but I didn't grow up here, and incessant rain bums me out, LOL. But I'm not deterred yet!

Now the question I'm pondering is...where best to go kayaking in the rain? (Assume only close-range visibility.) I'm thinking no long open-water crossings...more puttering in back channels closer to shorelines...

And I do hear what you said @cougarmeat —that a forecast of rain doesn't mean "all rain all day." So there's that.

I'd actually planned a 3-day backpack in Olympic N.P. early in the week, then planned 3 days of kayaking later in the week. Between backpacking and kayaking in the rain, wet backpacking sucks! (I've done plenty of that.) There is zero point in being up high in the mountains when you can't see more than 30 yards...
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As I imagine it - rain while on the water doesn't matter. You are prepared to get wet anyway. The only issue I can "see" is the lack of visibility because we don't have windshield wipers on our sun (rain) glasses. But assuming you can still see where you are going, for me, rain while on the water isn't a problem.

Now you are ashore - time to set up camp, in the rain. You are spared my proselytizing on the benefits of a hammock - putting up the tarp first - because many kayakers have learned to tarp-their-tent even if it already has a rainfliy. So you put up a nice large tarp first. Because you have a kayak, you don't need an ultralight-sell the house to pay for it-DCF tarp. A Kelty Noah 12 or 16 will provide lots of dry space. REI has these shock-corded tent/tarp poles that pack down to about 22 inches and extend to 6 ft. They are handy for lifting up one side of the tarp as an awning. Once your tarp is up, you can set up your tent, with rainfly for extra rain protection, warmth, privacy, gear storage, etc., while staying dry.

We might have turned the summer corner where the weather in the San Juans doesn't rain ALL day, but it rains EVERY day - or so it seems.

In the spirit of transparency - I live in the high desert, in the rain shadow of the Cascade Mountain range - not a lot of surf. Rain is something I mostly read about. It's not like Eugene, Portland, or as we sometimes call Seattle, "Waterworld".

What's the phrase - "Embrace the suck." Maybe go out for an overnight when you know it will absolutely rain. Arrive in the rain, set up in the rain, pack up in the rain, and see if you can keep everything dry but the tarp - which comes out first and is packed, separate from the dry things, last. Then extend that to your kayak adventure. A plus, in the San Juans, is there will probably be no crowds; a minus is, that they will probably turn off the water spigots.
All good comments @cougarmeat - I paddled whitewater in the pouring rain for years—it makes no difference, LOL. And great points about a tarp (and in fact I already have a Kelty Noah).

I'm no stranger to backpacking in the rain—which is arguably worse than kayak- or car-camping in the rain. When you backpack in the rain, you're pretty much soaking wet for days. Nothing dries. Ever. LOL

For me the question of whether to adjust plans or not based on rain is a purely aesthetic one: I like sunshine, and think it makes things prettier, period. :) That said, I do find beauty on a rainy day...though I've also found that certain locales (like the Hoh Rainforest) are prettier in the rain than others. Some places are just soggy, gray, and dreary in the rain. LOL

Were it still true that you folks in Bend are spared the rain! But Bend rainfall is going up with climate change (there's no "normal" anymore). 5-6 years ago, if it was raining in Eugene it was reliably sunny and beautiful in Bend...but in the past couple years, there have been many times (when raining in Eugene) and I looked at the Bend forecast and was dismayed to see...more rain there too.