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San Juan Island Exploration and Whale Hunt

Published on 6/8/2014

San Juan Island Exploration and Whale Hunt

By Dave Ortland
I’ll cut right to the chase:  On Saturday we were surrounded by orcas.   In addition, this trip was about islands, currents, wildlife, tide pools, flowers, beaches, peaceful solitude, and spam.  Paddle pals along:  Linday, Jonny, Judy &Scott (welcome, new members!), Marty.
San Juan Whale Hunt

Day 1: Roche Harbor to Stuart Island

Our goal for the first day was to visit Mosquito Preserve on Henry Island, then ride the flood to our camp on Stuart Island.  Useful information: Roche Harbor charges $10 per kayak for launch and $10 per car for overnight parking, conveniently located next to the boat launch.  There is a nice grocery for last minute supplies, and rest rooms are nearby.  We launched around 1 pm and rode the last of the ebb through Mosquito Pass to Henry island for lunch and short exploration. The Preserve, owned by San Juan Preservation Trust and open to the public (land on the east side), consists of a large scenic salt marsh meadow in the crossbar of the “H” that shapes Henry.  Linda, our trip botanist, was thrilled with the plant species found there. 
We then got a nice ride back north through Mosquito Pass and on 2 knot currents into Haro Strait.  The ‘safe’ route would be to head toward Speiden Bluff to avoid the reefs.  Given that we had experienced paddlers, slight wind with the current, and no sign of big rips through my binoculars, we instead went over Danger Shoal for a bit of excitement.  Here we found some moderate rapids and standing waves of about 2 feet for a little adrenaline jolt - and to set the tone for the rest of the trip. Current took us all the way up beautiful Reid Harbor to the water trail beach campsites, where we stayed the next two nights. 
There are several large campsites here and on the S end of the excellent soft pebble beach.  Other sites are on the ridge, which is a bit of a climb with gear, or on the north side of the island in Prevost Harbor.  All sites have water and vault toilets nearby.  We stayed at a nice cliff-top site overlooking Prevost last year (also with an easy beach access), but the Reid Harbor camp is now my favorite in all the San Juans – it is one I think I would enjoy staying at for many nights, just for its quiet relaxing beauty.  It is adjacent to a salt marsh with lots of bird activity and birdsong day and night (owls!).  We especially enjoyed the company of an Osprey that called from a tree above or on the other side of the marsh, and displayed its acrobatic ability diving into to water close to the beach.  We were also entertained by young seals frolicking just off shore.  Reid Harbor is lined with spectacular cliffs with interesting geological features and covered with wildflowers, including sedum and flowering cactus – a rare treat!

Day 2: Circumnavigation of Speiden & Johns Islands

This day began with spam, a fine meat-like substance that is one of mankind’s great creations.  There is nothing like it for breakfast: as good as bacon fried in a pan (w/ eggs) but with hardly any grease.  One can has 1.5 times the daily requirement of salt and provides great fluid retention when paddling in the sun in a dry suit.  Our whole trip was one of culinary excellence (a given with Linda along):  Mountain House gourmet delights, fine cheese and smoked salmon hours d’ouveres, tabouleh salad (with spam: see can for serving suggestion!), Chili verde made @ home and frozen (spam supplement), Thai spam, tofu and veggie Mussaman curry (made from scratch on the spot), Flank steak and beans (no spam). 

The day’s paddle involved the challenge of circumnavigating Speiden and exploring the islands in New Channel against a strong current.  I found this area to be one of the most scenic (and hardest to get to) in all the San Juan Islands.  Our strategy of eddy hopping and current timing worked perfectly.  Ebb drew us out of Reid Harbor.  Instead of forcing our way up New Channel however, we hopped upstream through Johns Pass (between Stuart and Johns) and continued along the north side of Johns Island.  This side of the island is quite spectacularly adorned with cliffs and tide pools. Staying close to shore made travel upstream quite easy, with an occasional crux move around the points. 

On the east side of Johns is Ripple Island, mostly a wild life preserve, but with a very nice shell and pebble beach that we are allowed to land on.  It provided an excellent lunch spot with rare and distant views in all directions.  This may in fact be the only place for a kayaker to legally land in this area.  From Ripple, we dropped south into the Cactus Islands, using shallows and island shadows to keep from getting swept back down New Channel.  There are many tide rips in this area that provided entertainment on a calm sunny day.  The stretch south toward Speiden was a challenge, but a steep ferry angle got us to the shore, where more eddy hopping got us to Green Point on the east end.  Here we found an enormous tide rip on the ebb that I would not approach except toward slack, as we did.  Once around, we finally got a current ride.  This took us halfway back along Speiden’s arid south shore.  But suddenly it was slack, and eddy currents were in all directions, and we found ourselves struggling up current again for the last mile. 

The beginning of the flood took us back to Stuart, where we spent the afternoon relaxing, napping in camp, and enjoying the bird show in the adjacent meadow.  After dinner we hiked to Turn point for the requisite awe-inspiring sunset.  This is close to a 3 mile walk one way along the island road, with the return a mysterious walk in the dark (with headlamps).

Day 3:  Whale hunting from Stuart to Cattle Pass

Whale reports before the trip were grim.  The resident pods were all out in the ocean due to a very poor fish run in the Fraser River.  So we did not expect to see any black and white creatures.  But boy did we luck out:  On Saturday J Pod made their grand return.  The following day (we were sadly not there to see it) L pod joined in and there was a 50-whale superpod.  We ran into Orca whales all day along the west coast of San Juan and Henry Islands.

We left at 7:45 at the very beginning of the ebb for our 23 nautical mile day.  Currents are quite complex in this area, and we did not always get the ride south that we expected.  Our initial goal was a 3 mile crossing to the north tip of Henry.  However, currents coming out of New and Speiden Channels really wanted us to go to Victoria,  so we had to set an increasingly steep ferry angle to make it to the west side of Henry, which we finally attained mid-island.  As we rounded the south end at Kellett Bluff we encountered the Orcas playing in the tide rip.  Then whales were all around an in between, to our great excitement (understatement!), as you can well imagine.  Then they were gone, heading upstream, as the current now took us toward the San Juan County Park, where we stopped for lunch at 11am.  While we ate on the bluff, more whales passed by, putting on a good show with spy hops and tail lobs. 

Nine miles down, fourteen to go.  We hopped back into our boats, and soon were getting swept past Lime Kiln Point.  Halfway from there to False Bay we encountered another segment of J Pod swimming north toward us while fishing.  One of these whales was quite enormous.  We stopped and watched them pass, there really was no getting out of their way, they move so fast.

Suddenly our current ride came to an end and we really struggled to get around Eagle Point.  Apparently the flood was starting to come in from the Straits, aimed directly at the San Juan coast, pushing the Haro ebb out to mid channel.  This was not expected, and contrary to what the Washburn tables showed for that hour.  In any case, once again we applied the lessons of this trip – moving toward the shore and eddy hopping is a great way to make progress against a current.  We stopped for another break and cooling off on an excellent beach just east of Eagle Cove.

Flood current was with us once again along the south end of San Juan Island, speeding us on our way to Cattle Point. Orca and current delays caused us to arrive at Cattle Pass an hour later than expected, i.e. closer to max flood than originally intended, making some Cattle Pass virgins a little nervous.  However, sneaking through the Pass to the west of Goose Island was really rather boring, the current was almost slack!  So once through we went out into the main current for a little excitement.  With still two miles to go to Griffin Bay camp, we discovered the huge back eddy in Griffin Bay blocking our progress toward the eastern shore of San Juan Island, so we had to finish a long day with yet another slog into wind and current.  With hindsight, I think the best strategy would have been to stick with the main current north of our destination, then ride the eddy back to the southeast. 

Griffin Bay camp is a water trails site – many camp sites on a big lawn cut from thick bushes, long walk to the toilets, no water.  We joined with friends coming from Washington Park, had a merry feast, then collapsed in our tents after a long day…

Day 4:  Yellow Island and a Perfect Ending

…only to be awoken by partying raccoons on our picnic table.  There was nothing for them to eat, so they formed a little percussion ensemble using pans and silverware.  I arose to shoo them away, but they would not go. The most thuggish of the lot, with half a tail and half an ear, kept me company for breakfast, standing on hind legs on the far side of the table, as the sun rose.
This day also involved upstream travel, and once again eddies were there to help.  This time the eddy inside Griffin Bay was going our way and we soon arrived at Turn Island.  Having never been there before we did not know what it had to offer, so we discovered that it would have made a far more pleasant camp than the Griffin Bay site. 

Heading toward Friday Harbor was also facilitated by an eddy close in toward Brown Island.  Crossing this area required care, due to boat, ferry and Clipper traffic.  Just before Point Caution we ferried across San Juan Channel.  At Neck Point another eddy drew us toward Yellow Island.  Watch closely for ferries coming quickly around Neck Point when paddling in this area!

There was still a nice flower show going on in the meadows of Yellow Island.  The main features for me were the death camas, stonecrop, Prairie Star, and a large patch of Harvest Brodieia.  This island is also noted for the prickly pear cactus, but they looked very sad here.  We found a spectacular patch of the cactus flowering on Stuart Island just west of the boat dock.  I had to climb out of my boat in a tide pool and scale a short cliff to get photographs.
After Yellow Island we had a serene and sunny paddle to our landing at Reuben Tarte county park, where a firend placed one of our casr that day (no overnight parking).  We planned to land here because we know that currents in Speiden Channel would prevent our return to Roche Harbor.  We then experienced the most perfect ending possible for any long kayak trip.  A young fellow playing his guitar for his girlfriend came up to us, said “You look like you need a beer”, and produced a brace of ice cold Red Hook ESB’s. Enough said!

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