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6 Days Around Orcas - San Juan Islands, WA


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As many of you know, the San Juan Islands, between Seattle and Vancouver Island, are a kayaker’s paradise. My wife and I just returned from the "perfect trip" which was well deserved after a difficult vacation in March.


While you can get to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island by taking the shuttle to and ferry from Anacortes, it is much easier to take the Victoria Clipper from downtown Seattle (7:45 AM - 11:15AM).


Friday Harbor is filled with B&B's and hotels. We loved the moderately priced Tucker House. The Wayfarer Inn in closer to a hostel if you want to be in town and not spend much.

Friday Harbor itself is a "good tourist town." Not ruined by too much glitz and no fast food chains. Lots of good food -- we loved the deck and food at the moderately priced Downrigger (between the Ferry Dock and the Marina).


This area is in the rain shadow of the Olympic range and gets little or no rain during July/August. While there was bit of fog/haze that burned off very early many mornings, we had no rain, no humidity, and moderate temperatures. How do they do that?


There are lots of day trips available. We did a 5 night circumnavigation of Orcas Island starting and ending on San Juan Island. We went with Crystal Seas, a local and top rate company. They say they keep their group size down, especially on their longer trips. On our trip there was just one other client in addition to my wife and our guide.

The equipment was as good as we have experienced. We preferred the Seward "South Wind" doubles to any other doubles we have paddled. Seats were the best ever and the unique peddle system for steering really kept the legs loose. They packed very easily. Top rate tents, the new Thermorest model (looks funny but packs very small and works very well), camping pillows (yes, I am getting older), and color coded and appropriately sized dry bags for everything immediately indicated that this company was thoughtful and cared.

The young guide was as good as they get. Laid back, thoughtful, knowledgeable, and one hell of a cook. For a low price trip, we ate like kings. He loved to cook and everything was cooked slowly and spiced to perfection. Each meal and dish had a special touch...fresh salmon all over the place (omelets, pasta, lunch), peppers and onions slowly simmered for the quesadillas, etc.

The route was wonderful. Due to the very significant tides and rips, route planning and launch timing was crucial. We left from just south of Friday Harbor and paddled 7 miles to a campsite at Obstruction Pass on the south side of Orcas. This elevated paddle-in/walk-in state campsite was spectacular. While busy with day-use late in the afternoon, it was very quite that night.

Day two took us east and then north to Clark Island 3 miles east of Orcas. Local knowledge was crucial here. The last 4 miles were to be with the flood. Yet, due to the numerous large and small islands and the wide Rosario straight, floods became ebbs and ebbs became floods very quickly. Going way out in the Rosario to guarantee the flood sounded sensible until you heard the stories (from multiple sources) of kayakers missing multiple islands due to long rips and very fast current. Camp on the beach side of Clark and watch snow-covered Mt. Baker change color as the sun goes down and the moon and stars appear.

Day three was wonderful. Continuing north we stopped at the Matias Island. They are just about to make the cove on the South End off limits, but we got to stop there and then walk the magical one mile trail around this island (not to be missed). You can land and camp at the state park on the north side. The campsites are wonderful, as are the woods and the cliffs, but it does not provide the view that other island sites do. We continued on to Sucia Island. This very popular destination 4 miles off the northwest end of Orcas is "U" shaped, providing a mile long protected harbor. It is littered with power and sail boats anchoring for the night. You have your choice of many different kinds of camp sites. The sites in the "base" of the "U" are closest to people, boats, water and bathrooms, but also have the great views of Baker.

Day 4: We had a layover day on Sucia. While you can easily carrying the boats across the narrow part of the island where we camped, we paddled them around on our day off. This shortens the next day by a mile or two.

Day 5: The planned 12 mile paddle to Jones Island looked like it might be very long if the 4 mile open water crossing to Point Desolation turned nasty and then forced us to paddle up stream for the rest of the day. However we left early, had light winds, and while there were a few rips, nothing major got in our way. 12 miles took just 4 hours including stops in loaded doubles. Someone was looking out of us. Camping on the northwest corner of Jones is wonderful. New views of San Juan Island and the active straights and islands above its north end were stimulating, as were the seals and porpoises.

Day 6: Our paddle ended with a two/three-hour paddle around the north end of San Juan to Roche Harbor. Roche is very touristy but taking out in a different place than putting in was fun.

Note: We brought a sun shower -- wow, what a wonderful addition for a longer trip.

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Paddling the San Juans on your own:

While we enjoy not having to do all the planning, equipment, logistics, cooking, etc the San Juans are a great place to do an unsupported trip. Many kayakers from the local area were out camping. However, the water is cold, local knowledge about the crazy currents is important as are navigation skills if the fog does roll in (were were told it rarely does in the summer, but it can).

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The other Orcas Island.

We took one of our remaining days to ferry over to Orcas (all inter-island ferries in the San Juans are now free) and moped (Susie's Mopeds on San Juan and Orcas Islands is great) around Orcas. Orcas is a great place with farms, small fun towns, and a spectacular state park (Moran) on the east side. In fact, it appears that many kayakers camp in Moran, enjoy the lakes, mountains (2,000+ ft Constitution), and ocean paddling. We were struck with how different Orcas seemed from the land. While paddling it was sharp cliffs down to cold, beautiful rocks with madrone and fir trees. Yet the interior roads showed little of that...it was more pastoral. In fact, if we were going on our own, we might make Orcas our headquarters.

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