Vashon Island, central Puget Sound, WA 22–23 January 2022


Jan 10, 2009
Seattle WA
[Cross-posted on]

Over the weekend, I circumnavigated Vashon Island, launching from the mainland at the Des Moines marina and paddling clockwise around the island, a distance of about thirty-five miles. At the halfway mark, I camped at the Cascadia Marine Trail campsite at Lisabeula on the island’s west side.

00 Route map.jpg

00 Route map. Vashon Island is connected by a narrow neck of land to Maury Island.

Guidebook author Rob Casey recommends the clockwise route, because currents through Colvos Passage on the island’s west side are asymmetric. On the ebb, the current in Colvos sets to the north, just like currents everywhere in central Puget Sound. On the flood, however, the current in Colvos does not reverse to an equal extent. Instead, the southward flood is very brief and very weak in Colvos Passage, or even absent altogether on some tides. During most of the flood cycle, current in Colvos is either slack or even still slightly north-setting.

On this trip, however, wind predominated over current. A steady five- to ten-knot north wind made for a slow transit up Colvos Passage, regardless of whatever the tides were doing. If there was ever any benefit to my clockwise routing, it was lost in the wind.

The steady breeze was not strong enough to dissipate the fog. All morning Saturday and all day Sunday, dense radiation fog filled the sound. But fog is no cause for complaint. Around here, the fog doesn’t block the view—it is the view. Our inland waterways look their best when they are wearing a shroud of fog.

01 Launch at Des Moines marina.JPG

01 Pre-dawn launch at Des Moines marina. Free overnight parking is available many places on the mainland but few places on Vashon.

02 Foggy crossing of East Passage.JPG

02 Foggy crossing of East Passage toward Maury Island. The fog was so thick I could only see Maury Island, not the larger Vashon Island behind.

03 Paddling shores of Maury Island.JPG

03 Paddling the shores of Maury Island. In the fog, it was impossible to tell from a distance which headland marked the true south end of Maury Island.

04 Foggy Maury Island.JPG

04 Fog-shrouded shores of Maury Island. A cloud forest is one of my favorite natural vistas.

The main winter bird attractions on Vashon Island are the eared grebe, swamp sparrow, and snow bunting. I tried hard for each species. I searched every bay around Vashon and hiked up and down the beaches and country roads at Point Robinson and Lisabeula. All I found were unremarkable horned grebes and song sparrows.

05 Barrows goldeneye Maury Island.JPG

05 Barrow’s goldeneye, Maury Island. This species is the most approachable of the Bucephala.

06 Common goldeneyes Quartermaster Harbor.JPG

06 Common goldeneyes, Quartermaster Harbor. It has been a good year for common goldeneyes in Puget Sound. I saw well over a hundred over the course of the weekend.

07 Red-breasted mergansers Quartermaster Harbor.JPG

07 Red-breasted mergansers, Quartermaster Harbor. Many of the seabirds have already begun their transition to breeding plumage.

08 Crossing Quartermaster Harbor.JPG

08 Crossing Quartermaster Harbor. Here, the mass of the island blocks the north wind.

09 Double-crested cormorant Colvos Passage.JPG

09 Double-crested cormorant, Colvos Passage. A steady breeze is perfect for drying feathers.

10 Alex at Lisabeula.JPG

10 Making tea at Lisabeula. I had the park to myself from sunset Saturday until late in the morning Sunday.

The second day was even foggier than the first. The foggy weather helped keep down the number of recreational boaters, so I had the waters mostly to myself. One of the few boaters to make an appearance was a sailing catamaran, beating up Colvos Passage against the same north wind that was slowing me down. The race was on! Sailboat versus kayak!

The catamaran was faster on a straight line, of course, but he couldn’t point far enough upwind. Worse still, from the catamaran’s point of view, was the narrowness of Colvos Passage, which forced him to make numerous, momentum-sapping short tacks instead of a smaller number of more efficient long tacks. Under these conditions, he was only making three knots to the good, just slower than my own speed against the headwind.

He could have beaten me by kicking on the motor, but that would have been cheating. Instead, he did the decent thing and turned tail back down the passage when it became clear that the kayaker was going to win. Score one for the little guy!

Of course, it’s equally possible the catamaran operator was simply messing around on a Sunday morning, unaware that he was even participating in a race. But I’d rather believe in my own triumph.

11 Paddling up foggy Colvos Passage.JPG

11 Paddling up foggy Colvos Passage. These cool winter days are perfect weather for kayaking.

12 Kayaking under Vashon ferry dock.JPG

12 Kayak under Vashon ferry dock. Unlike most kinds of boat, a kayak does not require our shorelines to be encrudded with piers and ramps and breakwaters.

13 Brant foraging.JPG

13 Black brant foraging, East Passage. These gentle geese forage on seaweed, both along shore and in open water.

The best wildlife encounters came near the end of the trip, when I met a couple of baby harbor seals. One was asleep on the beach, so small and so camouflaged that I didn’t recognize it as a seal at first, and then wasn’t sure it was alive or dead until it woke up, spotted me, and flopped into the water. The second was asleep in the water with just its tiny nose protruding above the surface. I mistook it for a small piece driftwood until I pulled alongside, whereupon it woke up and dived.

It’s a good paddle where the seals and seabirds outnumber the people.


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Dec 28, 2012
Alex, picture #7 of the red-breasted mergansers is simply stunning!! It looks like a painting. I keep going back to look at it.