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Paddle Report: San Juan Islands, WA

san-juan-islands-kayak-washingtonSea kayaking through the ocean straits of Washington’s San Juan Islands. Photo by Charlotte AustinYesterday, I climbed Mount Baker; today, the promise of saltwater in my hair brought me 100 miles west to the San Juan Islands. A killer whale’s glossy black fin slices through the water 50 feet to my left, and I hear the gush of air from the orca’s blowhole. Sea spray mists my face, cooling my skin in the warm summer sun.


It’s mid-August, and we’re navigating kayaks through the Pacific’s straights. From Mount Baker, we drove to Anacortes to catch the ferry to Orcas Island. There we rent kayaks and load them with enough gear for two people for three days: Water jugs, sunscreen, and a cooler full of meat to roast on the fire—but no tent. We’ll be sleeping under the stars at Doe Island Marine State Park. Rainy Seattle sits three hours south, but this archipelago is in the banana belt. It’s warm enough to sleep on the beach, although I can still see the snow-covered peaks of the Cascades on the horizon. The weather entices visitors for land and water pursuits: trail running, biking, snorkeling, kayaking, and eating crab.


We push off from the southeast corner of Orcas. After a leisurely two hours of paddling northwest along the rocky coastline, we spot our destination. Doe Island is a six-acre island with more than 2,000 feet of shore. There are designated campsites, a pit toilet, and solitude here, just a quarter-mile offshore of Orcas, which is home to about 4,500 people. The only access is by kayak or small boat. This winter, the sole dock washed away in a storm. For now, paddlers prepared for a shore landing are the only visitors.


After two days of snorkeling for sea anemones, basking in the sun like seals, and frolicking in the surf, we make ready for the return to the big island. Two hours later, we’re eating fresh cinnamon rolls in the Orcas Island Bakery. I spend the ferry ride back to Seattle peeling sunburned skin from my nose, planning the next trip to Doe Island. —Charlotte Austin


If you go: Catch a car and passenger ferry from Anacortes (1.5 hours north of Seattle) to Orcas Island. Then swing by Shearwater Kayaks for local beta and rentals, and treat yourself to Northwest-style cuisine at the New Leaf Café. For a relaxing retreat after paddling, visit the natural hot springs at Doe Bay Resort & Retreat. For more information on safe kayaking practices around whales, visit bewhalewise.org.

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