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Seeking best possible San Juan Islands paddle: weekend of 6/25-27

I'm living in the wrong state to be paddling (Oregon), LOL. I say that because there are very few places to put in the ocean along the Oregon coast that aren't giant waves and swell thundering onto rocks

But that's the fun part! :D
Seriously though, it's really not that bad in the summer, and there are quite a few more protected places to launch. PM me if you want to go play sometime.
There used to be a class held at Pacific City called Lumpy Waters. It even made a chapter in Deep Trouble. I hope your trip went well. Jones Island, west of Orcas is a great training run. There’s a little challenge in finding a place to park. Once I contacted the police and said, “The park (up from Deer Harbor - a launch point) says, “Day Use Only” - but I don’t want to camp there, I just want to leave the car in the lot.” They gave me an “Okay”, but the locals didn’t know that. On return, there were several notes on my windshield.

If you are lucky, there are (or were - it’s been a long time) three free spots about 100 ft from the Harbor planks. But - if you can afford it (used to be about $7/day) it’s even worth it to pay (launch and daily fee) because you have restrooms, showers, and a hose to spray off your boat. They have you park across the street.

Jones has three camping areas. There is the “public” south beach - an open field, plus several individual sites. It also has a food tie up bar. There is a WWTA site on the east side. And there are sites on the north (Yachties) end. I don’t mind the Yachties. They have always been nice to me (and it is “their” side) - there is very little interaction anyway.

Other “training grounds” are Clark Island - you can park at the ferry dock at Goosebury (it doesn’t cost anything despite what a passing local might tell you). Some of the islands have an interesting style. the toilet on Clark has a linoleum floor with cosmetics that look like slate. Some of the pit toilets on Lopez have vases with dried flowers, magazine racks, stained glass windows, etc.

If you park at the north end of Orcas and paddle to Patios via Sucia, be knowledgeable of the current direction at Toe Point (east end of Patos). If you get stuck, paddle out away from shore where the current isn’t so fast. There are sites at beach level on Patos, behind an open field. There are others up a road and there’s a cart to help haul your gear up that road. I recall a food box too.

The Ferry system deserves its own thread. At first I didn’t like the requirement. I’m driving from hundreds of miles away and we all know sometimes one’s stay on an island is longer than expected. How can that fit into a rigid reservation system. They made it really flexible. though you specify a time, you can take an earlier or later ferry on the same day (stand-by status) and not incur a penalty. Also, if your plans change and you let them know by 5 pm the day before, there is no penalty (there is cell service on the islands). And there are a small number of “open” (first come, first serve) slots too. If you do miss your day, the penalty is only $5.00. Again, it’s been a long time since I’ve used it. I guess that covers it.

Until Canada opens there is a lot to enjoy and practice in the San Juans.

A note on the run from Anacrotes to Strawberry Island. When I did it with the WKC, they emphasized that we had to paddle out passed a buoy by a certain time in the flood. If we weren’t out that far, the flood would not push us north to Strawberry (and Doe Island), it would push us east towards Guemes.
I hate to be the "fun police," but I'm not convinced launching a kayak at Gooseberry Point is such a good idea.

Gooseberry Point is on the Lummi Indian Reservation.

The reservation includes not only the uplands but also the tidelands, from the high-water mark to the low-water mark. See U.S. v. Stotts, 49 F.2d 619 (W.D. Wash. 1930) ("The executive order defining the limits is conclusive as to the boundaries, and extended to the low-water mark on the shores of the Gulf of Georgia.")

The Lummi Indian Nation has adopted ordinances to the effect that "The Lummi Tidelands are closed to persons who are not members of the Lummi Nation, in the absence of a lease permitting non-member use of the tidelands, or use permits issued pursuant to this Title." Lummi Nation Code of Laws, § 13.01.040. "Any person who enters upon any closed tidelands or who enters upon any tidelands without valid permission or permit shall be deemed to have committed trespass." § 13.04.320.

The Lummi Island ferry, operated by Whatcom County, has a lease to maintain ferry parking and ferry launch facilities on the reservation, including the ferry ramp that crosses the tidelands, as well as upland parking areas for ferry passengers. However, this lease does not extend to non-ferry parking uses such as kayakers. (Even in the case of ferry uses, there are very finicky limits about where parking is allowed. See map, here.)

Sad to say, I believe kayak parking in the upland ferry parking areas would constitute a violation of Whatcom County's ferry lease, and carrying the kayak across the tidelands to launch would constitute a trespass upon the Lummi Nation's tidelands. In the past, I have gotten around these prohibitions by asking permission from the Lummi Nation store clerk to park outside the ferry area and to launch my boat across the beach, but in retrospect, it's not actually clear that a store clerk has the authority to let non-members use the tidelands. The Lummi Code clearly says that a lease or use permit is required for non-members to use the tidelands, and the store clerk did not issue anything like that. As a practical matter, I doubt any objector would have done more than make an angry remark, but that does not make it right.

I realize kayakers have been launching from Gooseberry Point for decades, never confronted by anything worse than the occasional hassling comment such as what Paul describes. However, just because the use has been ongoing for a long time does not make it lawful. I'm sure the folks at BC Marine Trails can empathize with the dilemma presented by long-standing but poorly known and rarely enforced native rights!

Just thought I’d post up to say I had a fantastic trip in the San Juans! Put in at Gooseberry Point (by the Lummi Island ferry) and paddled to Sucia where I camped. Paddled to Patos the next morning, and around half of Sucia in the afternoon. This morning I blasted back downwind to Gooseberry Point, making the return in almost half the time as the outbound leg. Near-perfect conditions all weekend, and while there were 100+ boats anchored around Sucia, most of those people stay on their boats (and only come ashore to use the bathroom or let their dogs poop, LOL). Plenty of campsites were available and things on the islands were pretty quiet.

Trip report with pics coming soon!
@Alex: Interesting comments regarding putting in at Gooseberry Point. Everything you say makes sense...yet in all the research I did online before driving up I found nothing that suggested kayakers shouldn’t put in there. I did find the parking map and was prepared to park down the road from the launch beach, but some guy who may have been a local (he wasn’t another white kayaker) said it would be okay if I parked right there by the launch. He suggested putting a note under the windshield just saying I’m a kayaker paddling to (destination) and will be back at (return time).

On my return this morning, a group of 6 people in tandem boats were putting in for a day trip to Lummi Island, and they parked right by the launch too.With regard to use of the beach, one of them said the locals didn’t mind if you put in and are gone relatively quickly, but don’t want anyone just hanging out on the beach.

I respect tribal sovereignty and land use rights. I guess I’d just suggest the tribe should put up a simple sign or something. (I would never ignore a sign saying “No launching of kayaks or parking while kayaking.”)

Even better for the tribe (maybe?) would be to just charge a fee. I’d think the market across from the launch might be able to handle that. If they promoted it as a kayak launch with a $10 put-in fee and $10-20 to park, I’d happily give them my money—and they’d probably generate some decent revenue from it.

All that being said, I don’t know much about kayaking destinations around Lummi Island? It’s hard to imagine a lot of people paddling to Clark or Matia-Sucia-Patos from there because that’s a fairly “serious” paddle...but there may be many more “serious” paddlers in the area than I think? (I was somewhat amazed to not see a single other kayaker on any of those islands this weekend—it was a perfect weekend to paddle out there!)
@cougarmeat - Thanks for all the great information—I’ll use it when planning my next trip (which hopefully will be soon).

As for currents around Toe Point on Patos, I didn’t have any issues this time. While it was no doubt a relatively benign and harmless weekend in the San Juans, I was surprised by how much my decades of experience paddling whitewater rivers helped in the San Juans. Water always behaves the same way—the only thing that changes is the scale.

I found myself reading the water just like I would on a river—I just had to scale everything up in size. For example, recirculating eddies are very common on swift rivers, so when I was momentarily confused to find current up against Matia Island going the opposite direction from what the current was doing 50 yards farther out, I realized I was just in a recirculating eddy about 300 yards long. LOL

Similarly, it was fairly natural to understand depth by reading the surface of the water (which typically is broken into riffles in shallower water). And whenever I saw seams and eddylines separating calm glassy water from deeper, swifter water, they always behaved just like they do on rivers.

Also ferrying across swift, powerful currents is a common (but advanced) technique on whitewater. We often use standing waves to jet from one side of the river to the other across water moving like a freight train without moving an inch downstream. And as with bigger, slower water, you control your ferry angle depending on the need—the flatter the angle (the more perpendicular to the current) the faster you move across the current (but the more effort it takes to hold that flat angle). I found this river ferrying technique to work well when I was paddling across a 2.5kt current.

Again, I’m not suggesting my river experience makes me immune to trouble in the San Juans—just that this weekend, it definitely helped!
SWrivestone, I understand that you paid your dues by dealing with a LONG drive up, especially through the Tacoma area. So I’m glad you had a great trip.

Alex points out a complication I’ve come across when considering native land. What “paperwork/documentation do you get to verify that you have permission? And when you camp, and go for a day hike, do you take any paperwork with you or somehow attach it to a tent or hammock so a local knows you’ve done the right thing. For example, if you paddle up from BlackBerry Point on Valdes Island, there’s a nice bluff with a nearby brackish stream. But it’s on native land and you are requested to get permission. What do I have to show permission has been granted. And do I keep it at the site or on my person.

With respect to the Lummi Ferry area, if I recall, the ferry was very inexpensive. It would be pretty easy to just take the ferry over to Lummi and launch from there - avoiding the whole native lands issue. Because it seemed one person’s, “It’s okay to park here.” was another’s, “This is our property.” and I’d rather avoid that type of confrontation.
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@cougarmeat - great point about just taking the ferry over to Lummi Island and launching from there. Except...can you leave a car parked overnight for a few days on Lummi Island? (Parking seems to be the big challenge everywhere.)
Our family has a cottage on Lummi Island. Though I have not been there since March 2020 due to the Pandemic related border closure. There is an overflow parking lot across the street from the ferry slip that I have never seen full. Locals park there for days at a time without any issue to my knowledge, though I can't find any reference to it on the Whatcom County Ferry map. They have a parking map and instruction for the Gooseberry Point side, but not for on the Island. You can put a kayak in from the beach beside the ferry slip if you carry it down the bank.

A circumnavigation of Lummi Island is in itself a very delightful paddle. There is a lovely DNR campsite just south of Inatti Bay, about 8 km south of the ferry slip. WAKE takes care ofr this site and it is a paddling treasure on the Salish Sea, regardless of the international border. It is not heavily used and I sometimes just paddle down to spend the night, because it is a "Zen Place" in my life.

Lummi Rocks on the West side of the Island is another incredible place to visit for lunch or evidently to camp, according to Alex who did a trip and poste a report in 2018 that states:

"There are approximately 130 named islands in the San Juans. Most are uninhabited little rocks that belong to the federal government. Of those, just under half are part of the San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge, meaning they are off-limits to visitors. The remaining islands are mostly BLM land, and landing is permitted on those. In fact, under BLM regulations, camping is permitted on BLM land unless posted otherwise."

It is a short crossing of Rosario Straight from there to Clark Island, 7 km, and another 7 km to Matia Island from there. This is the least crowded part of the San Juan Islands and a true treasure.

However, there is a reason for that. Hale Passage, Rosario Straight and the waters north of Orcas Island are not beginner waters. I have had some rather "exciting" paddling experiences in these water. There are strong currents, large tide rips, over falls and often strong winds in these areas and the crossings are exposed. There is also a lot of freighter and barge traffic in Rosario Straight. There have been many tragic kayaking and boating deaths in these waters over the past 40 years, so know your limits, be cautious in your planning and in your goals. Know your limits, no place to be complacent or cocky.

I will be back paddling here as soon as the border opens. I miss the place.

Cheers, Rick
@SalishSeaNior - Thanks for the continued fascinating comments! The kayakers I ran into on the beach at Gooseberry Point were on their way to that DNR campsite you mentioned (just for a day paddle).

Regarding the hazards in Hale Passage, Rosario Strait and north of Orcas, I agree they aren't beginner waters. On my return crossing from Matia to Lummi Island, I had my first "Oh sh*t" encounter with a big freighter. I easily saw it at a distance, of course...but as always happens, the apparent movement of the ship at a distance seems non-threatening—until suddenly it's bearing down on you, and you think "How did it get from there to here so fast???"

In this case, the freighter was following the channel close to Lummi Island, which was the final bit of my crossing. While it was still a good quarter-mile away, I could clearly see that the freighter and I were on a collision course had I continued towards Lummi. So I turned to paddle north (because it was an ebb tide), paralleling the freighter's path until it was well past me, then turned back toward Lummi.

And yes, for a moment, I thought about "going for it" and trying to sprint past the freighter—but my common sense instantly vanquished that lunatic thought! LOL

I didn't find the waters around there to be difficult...but I can read water pretty well, maintain a solid 4.5-knot pace...and (mostly) I got lucky, because the difference between low/high tide was at its lowest point for the month (so I never faced anything more than a 2.5-3 knot current). At one point though I did have to do a very long, slow ferry across the current to make Sucia Island. It was one of those times where I was constantly doing visual triangulation with landmarks to be certain I was actually making progress toward the island.

While on Sucia, I met a couple kayakers who had paddled over from Orcas the day before in a small group. One of them, a middle-aged woman who didn't have much experience, seemed rattled by the crossing, and said "I didn't think I would make it." (Apparently it was pretty windy and whitecaps were everywhere.)

Scott, this is further to your experience and ability to read water from your river paddling trips:

Since many people paddle there, many beginners or less experienced on the ocean, I am going to have a go at explaining what I have come to know about paddling conditions in the San Juan Islands over the course of my long experience paddling there. I have often compared Ocean paddling versus river paddling to sport climbing vs mountaineering. Many similar techniques and skills, totally different environment and hazard profile. Others may also have comments, or additional ideas to add I hope.

The northern tip of Lummia Island, Sucia, Matia and Patos as well as the northern side of Orcas all border on Boundary Pass. On the other side of the pass is Saturna Island where you will find East Point, Tumbo Island and Boiling Reef. It is a little better than 5kms from Patos Island to Tumbo Island or East Point on Saturna. People who are paddling the inside passage route from the Washington to Alaska have to cross the pass. The place to do this if going north is from the north Side of Stuart Island to Bedwell Harbour on South Pender where you can clear Canada Customs. Going South, the shortest option is likely from a campsite on Gooch Island to the US Customs Station at Roche Harbour on the Northern end of San Juan Island, a distance of about 11 kms, almost 7 miles. That crossing is at the junction of Harrow Straight and Boundary Pass. That crossing can be an interesting ride, even on the ferry to Anacortes if you like to watch water, especially if you are on the water when a "spring tide"is running.

I will also note that English names for places in this area sometimes note a significant geographic or hydraulic feature: Obstruction Island, the Haystacks, Boiling Reef, etc. Such descriptive naming by Europeans seems to be significant, in that we usually prefer to name places after persons. This whole area is prone to rips, overfalls and high winds. If you look at the hydrographic chart for the area, you can see that the water in the straight and the pass are deep, but narrow and constricted by the San Juan Islands as well as the Olympic Peninsula, the Whatcom County Mainland the Islands of Skagit and Snohomish Counties, and on the Canadian side by the Southern Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island. The underwater topography is in a word constricted, or in another word convoluted. The topography above water equally so, more on this in a bit.

Using your river paddling experience as an analogy think currents and a constricted passage, only with multiple channels. To add to the unique tidal characteristics of this group of Islands, on a flood tide, the currents empty out of the Straight of Juan De Fuca into Georgia Straight to the North and Puget Sound to the South. The Straight of Juan De Fuca itself, was documented by the early Spanish and British Explorers to be a very scary and dangerous place in their sailing ships. It can still be a dangerous and scary place for small craft, even with engines, weather reports and technological navigation aids. Obviously on the ebb the reverse is true.

Think of how much water is going back and forth through the San Juan Islands at both flood and ebb tides. The amount of tidal flow makes the Missisippi, or the Amazon Rivers look like trickles. And, it reverses every single day with the added complexity of tidal fluctuations, spring to neap tides and back again monthly. Think agitator in a washing machine during strong tidal flows as an analogy for the islands during this discussion. When you are sitting on top of all this water in good conditions, it can all seem rather lake like. That makes it very dangerous for beginners and even experienced paddlers like you who do not understand, or who have not considered all this. I have paddled between Lummi Island and Matia, or Clark Islands when it was a huge Mill Pond, glass! I have also paddled this when a strong spring tide was creating huge rips between Clark, Matia and Orcas, as well as impressive and dangerous rips and over falls from Village Point on the West side of Lummi, north into Boundary Pass.

Now on to the other factors, above ground topography that adds to the complexity and unpredictability for small craft in these islands, and wind. If you look at the wind patterns, I like this site, "WINDY" as a visual for this purpose. You can see that the San Juan Islands are the nexus, not just for strong tides, but for the winds funnelling down the Straight of Juan De Fuca, and sometimes, out of the north from the Straight of Georgia, and frequently out of the South and Southwest. You can see in the image, that both the Canadian Gulf Islands and the North end of Puget Sound are most often in a wind shadow. This is most often the case for those areas, unless there are strong winds from the north or more frequently from the south or southwest. I have paddled in calm conditions in the Canadian Gulf Islands when the wind was raging in parts of the San Juans.

Topography, Mount Constitution is a mountain on Orcas Island, the highest point in the San Juan Islands and the second highest mountain on an ocean island in the contiguous 48 states. Only Devils Peak in the Channel Islands of California is higher. Mount Constitution is 731 meters, (2400 feet) high. You have similar, though lower heights on Lummi Island, Cypress Island, Saturna Island and Blakely Island at the norhtern and eastern sides of this group. These high islands act like rocks in the "wind river" that flows around and through the San Jauns. Simplified explanation, the San Juan Islands obstruct and disrupt both huge tidal flows as well as what are often strong winds, There are not infrequent storms where ferry service to Lummi Island and also to the San Juan Islands has to be cancelled, though that is at the extreme end. While winds lessen to a degree in summer, they can still pick up quickly, especially when there is a pressure change.

For anyone choosing to paddle the inside passage route, the crossings to and from the San Juans to the Southern Gulf Islands are one of the four "crux" areas of the trip. The others are the tidal rapids in the islands between Georgia and Johnstone Straights, the open ocean 40 km crossing from Vancouver Island past Cape Caution to the inside passage behind Calvert Island and the crossing of Dixon Entrance near Prince Rupert to Alaska. Though I have not paddled the entire route myself.

To end this lengthy dissertation on the San Jaun Islands, their tides and currents, I will say that they are my home paddling grounds, even though I am Canadian. I have learned more about tides and tide/wind interaction as it affects kayaking there than anywhere else. It is a wonderful place to paddle, but it deserves respect and caution, especially if you do not understand, or are unaware of what I have set out in this post. It has taken me almost 40 years of paddling and quite a few tense crossings there, even with my current knowledge and experience to reach my current level of understanding. Even Hale Passage, narrow and seemingly protected as it is, can be a very dangerous place. I like visuals, so here is one more link, an article and a video of the Whatcom Chief crossing from Gooseberry Point to Lummi Island in a November gale.

Back in 1997, Matt Broze published a book called "Deep Trouble: True Stories and Their Lessons From Sea Kayaker Magazine". Well worth reading. Many of the stories he relates took place in the San Juan Islands. A good read for anyone wishing to get their head in the correct place for paddling more exposed and complex waters and needing instruction on ocean kayaking hazards.

Once in a while, it is good to put, perhaps useful experience, and knowledge in writing, and to share it. Live and learn. Just say'in!

Cheers, Rick
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@SalishSeaNior - Thanks for more great information Rick! (I plan to stare at maps and charts to place all the references you made.) I'm definitely a newbie to the San Juans and Salish Sea, but I'd never underestimate it! I have no doubt it can be scary and dangerous. And as I said earlier, paddling whitewater rivers isn't the same (I like your analogy of rock climbing versus mountaineering)...but being familiar with whitewater does offer one advantage—which is that it compresses many similar hazards into a much smaller space at what are actually much greater water velocities with more violent, concentrated power. (People die by the dozens on whitewater rivers every year.)

The aspect of whitewater rivers that reminds me more of what you might encounter in the San Juans are the kind of water features found on big rivers in flood. These features are wholly different than what you encounter at normal flows—eddylines become eddy "walls" that can be a foot or two high; eddies become whirlpools, giant "boils" erupt from beneath you in deeper water, pushing you violently sideways...and of course standing waves can become towering with breaking crests.

What I learned in paddling big rivers in flood was sobering: you cannot just float or you're history. You must be in full-on "sprint mode" and be able to maintain that sprint for extended periods of time. So physical conditioning, and the ability to hammer at 100% for minutes on end, makes a huge difference in your ability to negotiate those features somewhat safely.

Even with that experience, I'd likely just avoid the San Juans altogether in rougher conditions and swifter tidal currents! :)
The aspect of whitewater rivers that reminds me more of what you might encounter in the San Juans are the kind of water features found on big rivers in flood. These features are wholly different than what you encounter at normal flows—eddylines become eddy "walls" that can be a foot or two high; eddies become whirlpools, giant "boils" erupt from beneath you in deeper water, pushing you violently sideways...and of course standing waves can become towering with breaking crests.

Yup, rivers or oceans: scale, volumes, conditions, experience, skills, fitness, risk tolerance and good decision making. Here is yet another link to one of my all time favourite Kayaking videos. I watch this often when land locked and pining for the fjords. It is the pacific northwest Kayak paddling master Warren Williamson paddling in a "November Gale" in Deception Pass (2010). Just next door to the San Juan Islands. The water weapon of choice is an Illusion built by Sterling Kayaks, original design by Steve Schleicher, Nimbus. A kayak designed and built for this intended purpose.

His level of level of skill. makes paddling in these conditions look easy and almost like a lovely dance with the sea. I can only dream of perfection as I watch a master.

Even with that experience, I'd likely just avoid the San Juans altogether in rougher conditions and swifter tidal currents! :)

I find the rock-climbing vs mountaineering even more apt after following this discussion. The ocean can go from glass to overwhelming maelstrom. That range is what makes it exciting and challenging to develop the skills and seamanship to know its many moods and the ways to navigate them. It is that exhilarating challenge I believe that draws many of us to sea kayaking.

By the way, @SalishSeaNior, I appreciate your comments on both the Lootas and Illusion. I have one of each (very long story) and still have a long way to grow into each one, but they are both loads of fun to paddle.
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Yup, rivers or oceans: scale, volumes, conditions, experience, skills, fitness, risk tolerance and good decision making. Here is yet another link to one of my all time favourite Kayaking videos. I watch this often when land locked and pining for the fjords. It is the pacific northwest Kayak paddling master Warren Williamson paddling in a "November Gale" in Deception Pass (2010). Just next door to the San Juan Islands. The water weapon of choice is an Illusion built by Sterling Kayaks, original design by Steve Schleicher, Nimbus. A kayak designed and built for this intended purpose.

His level of level of skill. makes paddling in these conditions look easy and almost like a lovely dance with the sea. I can only dream of perfection as I watch a master.


That's a great video! For an interesting comparison, here's an even older video (LOL) of me and some friends surfing a place called Rocky Island on the Potomac River outside Washington, D.C. It's a spot where an awesome amount of water thunders through a rocky gorge like a freight train—we'd have a blast paddling out onto the insanely fast standing waves and surf them for hours. (I'm in a whitewater slalom canoe, or C-1, in this video.)

SWriverstone - you can read more about paddles around the San Juan Island in the Trip Reports sub-forum. Also, for the first time, there are several kayak clubs in Seattle who will take non-members, if there is room on the signup sheet, on their adventures. I've enjoyed several trips (like Anacortes to Doe Island) with the Washington Kayak Club. At the time, they had to charge a $5.00 fee for non-members (something about insurance).

Note that if you go from Lummi or Clark to Matia, the first bay you come to, and you think, "Finally! I just want to get off the water had eat an energy bar." remember, you are not "there" yet. The bay you want is the next one over; just around the corner.

On parking at GooseBerry (ferry terminal) - it should be free. But when I was there with a group (the WKC again), a local walking by said I had to pay $5.00 at the convenience store. I'm sure if I had walked in and handed the person at the counter $5.00 for parking, he would have gladly taken it.