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Paddling the San Juans With The J-Pod

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Paddling The San Juans With The J-Pod
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Despite living in Seattle for the 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 the name doesn't lie. Before I tell you about the hours spent paddling, the aching muscles, the spectacular scenery, or the gourmet food, let me start at the beginning.

Outdoor Odyssey offers numerous camping and kayaking trips throughout the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound.

I sent an e-mail to Outdoor Odysseys as soon as I received the assignment. It was near the end of summer and I wanted to make sure that there was still a weekend that would work for both of us. Since the three day kayaking trip was essentially a backpacking trip on water, I figured the warmer the weather the better for camping and being that close to the 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 the 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 the 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 the night before and see some of Friday Harbor before the trip. The extra time in Friday Harbor also gave me a chance to get some of the things on the 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 the 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 the high season. If you don't need your car when you're there, don't bring it on the ferry.

Day 1

The morning for departure finally came! I schlepped my stuff down to where I was supposed to meet the guide and was introduced to the other people who would be on the trip with us. Because it was near the end of the 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 the three newbies, Melissa had the most experience with kayaks, though she had mostly been in the sit-on-top kind. Melissa decided that I was going to steer, a decision I'm sure she regretted the rest of the weekend as it took me at least a day to get the 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 the things inside to actually stay dry, you have to do a folding/latching trick with the 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 the skirt into place around the opening that we sat in so that water couldn't get inside the boat, how to paddle, and generally how to manipulate the boats. For safety, we also had a dry run of how to get back into the boat in case it capsized and a few other useful pointers like that.

Finally, after all this preparation, we got in the water. Literally. To launch a kayak, you pretty much have to wade out into the water until the boat is 9/10ths afloat, and then straddle it before lowering your weight into the cockpit. I don't know about the ocean where you live, but the 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 the 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 the 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 the currents are so strong), and finally across to Jones to make camp for the night.

When you're kayaking, you can pretty much go anywhere, but the advantage to a kayak is that you can go as close to the shore as you like. Paddling through inlets and along cliff faces is a whole other way to see the 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 the 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 - the sightseeing, touristy kind rather than the Moby Dick kind.

Jesse was a treasure trove of information. In his spare time, he sometimes substitute teaches on the island, and his favorite subjects are biology, geology, science, and ecology. We learned that the black band along a cliff face about ten feet above the surf is sometimes called sea tar, and that if you look closely, another orange band is just above that. Both are types of lichen. A bright green patch on a cliff means fresh water, maybe a stream or a trickle. In hiking terms, when you come onto a peak that is clear of trees for what appears to be natural reasons (as opposed to clear cutting by corporate loggers), you say that it is bald. The islands in the San Juan archipelago are mixed with some islands that are completely covered in cedar trees and other islands that are bald. Jesse explained that the baldness comes from something called "glacial plucking". When a glacier recedes, it basically strips the topsoil away as it goes. A glacially plucked island is really pure bedrock. Try building a home or farming the land and you'll soon see why the San Juans are still so sparsely populated.

That isn't to say that they're unsightly or uninteresting - far from it. One of my favorite places to be is in the San Juan Islands (note: the archipelago is called the San Juan archipelago, the four main islands with state ferry service to them are called the San Juans, and there is a San Juan island in the San Juans).

Since Jesse had timed our trip down Spieden Passage to go with the tides, we basically were carried with the current toward Jones Island. We still ended up paddling about five hours that day, but it was fun rather than back-breaking.

On Jones Island, we set up our tents, and then Jesse sent us on a hike while he got dinner ready. That night we had Smoked Salmon Pesto Linguine and wine. I vaguely recall other things like cheese and crackers, salad, and a Dutch-oven gingerbread, but it was the linguine that really stood out. Luckily, Outdoor Odysseys provides handy recipes on their web site. I'm not sure how the meal would compare with other meals you could cook in a kitchen, but for a meal prepared on a campfire stove, it was incredible.

Day 2

The camp kitchen was well stocked for al fresco gourmet dining.

The next morning, I awoke to coffee already prepared and breakfast cooked (sort of) to order. Obviously Jesse could only serve foods that we had brought with us, but at least he served those however we wanted them. I had eggs, and Melissa and Brandy had French toast. Then we loaded up the kayaks and took off. Our goal this time was to sweep to the north side of Spieden Island and avoid the "river" completely if possible. To do this, we had to paddle north instead of west, and then hope we covered enough water to reach the north side before the current dragged us south. We didn't quite make it.

Up to this point, the biggest concern we had had was riding out the wake of passing boats without tipping over. It was a bit scary the first time, but you soon realized how stable the kayak was and just braced for it rather than panicking. Now we would have to actually negotiate a heavy current complete with a sharp turn in the middle of it without tipping over. Jesse and Brandy went first. It looked difficult, but they made it. Melissa and I were determined to do the same.

Let me tell you a little about this current before we dive in. It literally looked like a mountain stream bubbling and churning around the corner of the island. At this point, the island is just a tip that we have to get around, but there's this churning water separating us from our guide. The goal is to aim into the current, but not so much that it catches the front end of your kayak and pushes you downstream. Once you get out into the current, then you turn your boat directly into it and try paddling upstream for a while. If you get to a point where you feel that you've progressed, then maybe you can turn back towards land and end up in the calm area on the northern side of the island where Brandy and Jesse are waiting.

On our hike to the lighthouse, we discovered a self-service souvenir stand, kid-sized totem poles in front of the school, a historical museum in the old schoolhouse, and Lover's Leap. The view from Lover's Leap (not to mention the 300 foot drop) was spectacular. You could see back all the way to San Juan Island while Vancouver Island and some of the Gulf Islands (Canadian English for San Juan Islands) were lit up by the coming sunset. On the Leap itself stand huge madrona trees. And from the Leap, you can see down the cliff to the lighthouse.

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By Pam, Seattle Correspondent, Jetsetters Magazine at www.jetsettersmagazine.com

About the Author

by Pam Jetsetters Magazine. Join the Travel Writers Network in the logo at www.jetsettersmagazine.com


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