Paddling The San Juans With The J-Pod Read Jetsetters Magazine at www.jetsettersmagazine.com Read this entire feature FREE with photos at: http://www.jetsettersmagazine.com/archive/jetezine/sports02/kayak/sanjuan/sanjuan.html
Despite living in Seattle for last 12 years, I'm basically a landlubber. The smallest boat I've been on in years was a small county ferry that holds 20 cars. So I was both nervous and excited to learn that I was going to get to write this review for a sea kayaking company that operates out of Friday Harbor, Washington on San Juan Island. The outfitters are called Outdoor Odysseys, and name doesn't lie. Before I tell you about hours spent paddling, aching muscles, spectacular scenery, or gourmet food, let me start at beginning.
Outdoor Odyssey offers numerous camping and kayaking trips throughout San Juan Islands in Puget Sound.
I sent an e-mail to Outdoor Odysseys as soon as I received assignment. It was near end of summer and I wanted to make sure that there was still a weekend that would work for both of us. Since three day kayaking trip was essentially a backpacking trip on water, I figured warmer weather better for camping and being that close to Puget Sound. Not only did they still have weekend trips open, but they sent me a packing list (!) and a longish form letter about how trips worked, what I should expect both physically and scenery-wise, what kinds of wildlife I might see, and links to their web site so I could read other adventurers comments on what their trips were like. All of this information served two purposes: first, it helped me actually pack for something I had no experience doing, and second, it helped me feel that I would be in good hands and that I wouldn't have to worry about whether outfitters were qualified to lead a bunch of inexperienced kayakers on an expedition.
Since I was to meet them at 8 a.m. on a Friday morning, and since San Juan Island is a couple hours drive and an hour long ferry ride from Seattle, they suggested that I drive up night before and see some of Friday Harbor before trip. The extra time in Friday Harbor also gave me a chance to get some of things on packing list that I had neglected to get in Seattle
One tip: it's pretty easy to leave your car parked in Anacortes rather than driving it onto ferry. It's slightly cheaper to park, but it's a lot more convenient. The San Juans are notorious for having long ferry lines and waits (I was stuck once on Orcas Island in a six hour ferry line), especially in high season. If you don't need your car when you're there, don't bring it on ferry.
The morning for departure finally came! I schlepped my stuff down to where I was supposed to meet guide and was introduced to other people who would be on trip with us. Because it was near end of season, there were only four of us on this trip: our guide, Jesse; Melissa and Brandy, two police officers from southern California; and me. Of three newbies, Melissa had most experience with kayaks, though she had mostly been in sit-on-top kind. Melissa decided that I was going to steer, a decision I'm sure she regretted rest of weekend as it took me at least a day to get hang of it. Any time my attention wandered, so would we.
At Smallpox Bay, Jesse showed us how dry sacks worked (basically, waterproof duffle bags, but for things inside to actually stay dry, you have to do a folding/latching trick with opening). Then he showed us how to stow gear into a kayak (anywhere it fits, although you want to put things like sleeping bags that absolutely mustn't get wet into certain compartments). Finally, he showed us how to wear our gear, how to lock skirt into place around opening that we sat in so that water couldn't get inside boat, how to paddle, and generally how to manipulate boats. For safety, we also had a dry run of how to get back into boat in case it capsized and a few other useful pointers like that.
Finally, after all this preparation, we got in water. Literally. To launch a kayak, you pretty much have to wade out into water until boat is 9/10ths afloat, and then straddle it before lowering your weight into cockpit. I don't know about ocean where you live, but Puget Sound at 8 a.m. is kinda' chilly even on a warm day.
Jesse gave us a choice of destinations, and we all voted to head for Jones Island to east. Jones is a state park with a few campsites on it and some drinking water that lies between Orcas Island and San Juan Island, or in other words, on complete opposite side of San Juan Island. Since there is no ferry service, you can only reach Jones if you're in a boat or kayak.
Our route would take us north along San Juan to Henry Island, and then down Spieden Passage (the guides refer to it as Spieden River since currents are so strong), and finally across to Jones to make camp for night.
When you're kayaking, you can pretty much go anywhere, but advantage to a kayak is that you can go as close to shore as you like. Paddling through inlets and along cliff faces is a whole other way to see San Juans. That first day, we saw cormorant rookeries, jellyfish, sea otters and sea lions sunning themselves, and even a bald-headed eagle. All while being so close to a cliff face or waves that you could literally reach out and touch them. The guides at Outdoor Odysseys have a strict policy of minimum impact, so if you see wildlife, you back away far enough so that you can observe without disturbing. We kept our eyes peeled for whales, but all we saw were whale boats - sightseeing, touristy kind rather than Moby Dick kind.