San Juan Vacation

(Click on any picture for an enlargement.)

In July of 2003 we took a vacation around the San Juan islands in Washington State. Since we so much enjoyed the small cruise ship we went on for our honeymoon in Alaska, we decided to go one step further. We took a 5-day trip with Blue Otter Outfitters, which operates a 48-foot trimaran with room for two crew members and six passengers. Their cruises take passengers to several of the smaller islands in the San Juans and give them ample opportunity for hiking, kayaking, relaxing in the sun, and enjoying the scenery and marine life.

The other four passengers on the boat included Julie's parents and a nice couple, Nancy and Jack, from the San Francisco area. We invited Mama and Papa along because it seemed right up their alley. They love to hike and kayak, and this trip allowed them do lots of that without the trouble of transporting the kayaks, planning a route, or worrying about anchoring the sailboat properly. It was wonderful to have their company on the trip.

Our two crew members, Shannon and Brandon, were fantastic. For several years they lived on the ship exclusively, so they had a lot of knowledge about sailing and about the San Juan islands in particular. They taught us how to read tide charts, advised us on the best hiking trails, took us on some great kayaking trips, and helped us identify a lot of the marine mammals and sea birds that we came across. They also did all of the cooking for us. We had delicious and filling meals such as veggie stir-fry with spicy peanut sauce, burritos with mango salsa, grilled portobello mushrooms, pear salad with caramelled pecans, and tacos with guacamole.

We could always recognize our sailing ship, Pelican, by its bright green sail cover. Everything on the boat was small, but just large enough for the eight of us to live in modest comfort. Each of the left and right hulls housed a sleeping cabin; the bottom of the hull formed the entrance and walkway, and there was a step up to the double bed. There wasn't much room for suitcase storage, but there were tiny shelves and cubbyholes everywhere. The main hull contained one cabin at the front of the boat and another at the rear. On the main deck was a tiny kitchen with a stove and icechest, and a lounge for eating, reading, and playing games. There was ample outdoor space on the main deck for laying out in the sun. There were two "trampolines" hanging between the hulls where we could lie directly above the water, as well as several cushioned benches. The trick was to decide what we were in the mood for (sun, shade, breeze, a good view of passing porpoises, or whatever) and then find a spot on the boat to satisfy our needs. During the course of the trip, we discovered that there was storage space everywhere on the ship. Every so often one of the crew members would pull up a floorboard somewhere and we would discover a food pantry, the engine room, or extra sailing gear. We didn't get in as much actual sailing as Shannon and Brandon would have liked, but that was all right with the rest of us. The motor was so quiet that sometimes we didn't even realize it was on.

Above the galley were housed four kayaks - two doubles, a triple, and a single - that Brandon built himself from a kit. There was also a rowboat that rode behind the ship. The rowboat was primarily meant for transporting people to shore from the ship once it had anchored. However, we both found the rowboat enjoyable to paddle and took it on a few trips around the bays.

We actually had one more shipmate, Brandon and Shannon's one-year-old golden retriever Maya. Maya was a sweet and well-behaved dog, and we really enjoyed her company. She had a penchant for giving wet sloppy kisses and shaking water off herself right next to people, but she would refrain when she was told to. She loved coming on walks with us. She would always run ahead of the pack, but stayed close enough to us so as not to get separated. She took a real shine to Nancy and mostly tried to stay close to Nancy during our outings.

Our trip started in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. We began by travelling north to Sucia Island and set down anchor in Shallow Bay. From there, we hiked to Ewing Cove. Most of the trail hugged the water, so we had a nice view of the sailboats and other islands along the way. We passed a number of madrone trees, which had gorgeous auburn-colored trunks with an interesting branching structure. We discovered some nice tidepools at Ewing Cove housing a few crabs and fish, and a whole colony of hermit crabs.

In the evening, Joel and Mama walked up to the bluff above Shallow Bay for a good view of the sunset, while the rest of us enjoyed the sunset from the Pelican. The sunset that evening was truly spectacular. The sky, clouds, and water turned amazing shades of red and pink.

The next morning we had to abandon our original plan of kayaking around Sucia Island because there were 15-20 knot winds out. Instead we motored for three hours over to Stuart Island and anchored in Reid Bay. On the way we passed Spieden Island, which somebody tried to turn into a game park several decades ago; there are still deer and antelope living on the island, and we were able to see a few such animals running along the rocks. We also passed a pod of porpoises.

Shannon guided us on a kayak ride around Reid Bay. We saw several seal heads poking out of the water, including a mother and baby pair. We also spotted a few bald eagles and a fat purple starfish. By the end of our kayak ride it was calm and hot out again, so we went swimming off the end of the ship. Maya joined us for a few five-second swims, and we helped lift her back onto the platform each time. Julie found the water temperature quite pleasant after the initial shock. Joel thought it was cold, but refreshing after the kayak trip. In the evening we played May-I with Mama and Papa, and Shannon taught us all how to play Mexican Train with a colorful double-twelves domino set. We had a delicious berry cobbler for dessert.

In the morning, all but Joel went hiking on Stuart Island. Joel spent the time rowing around Reid Bay. The hike took us up a long hill to the one-room schoolhouse, past a private "airport" (a strip of tall grasses in among the trees), and down to the other side of the island. Julie stayed for a while enjoying the scenery from a tall overlook while the rest trekked down to the lighthouse. The whole hike was shaded with tall trees and very pleasant. We passed two unmanned T-shirt stands that requested customers to send in payment by mail. The T-shirt stands generously provided water and dixie cups, which we used to refresh ourselves and Maya.

After lunch we headed to Roche Harbor on San Juan Island and took advantage of the shower facilities at the marina. (We were never brave enough to try using the shower on the boat. Fresh water, especially hot fresh water, was at a real premium, although we could have had as much cold salt water as we wanted.) In Roche Harbor we got ice cream, glanced at the sculpture garden, and bought some Red Seal beer to enjoy on our Blue Otter cruise.

Next we went to Garrison Bay on San Juan Island and anchored for the night. The two of us rowed to shore with Papa, Shannon, and Maya. While Papa and Shannon gave Maya some running-around time, we two stayed in the boat and Julie tried rowing for the first time. Julie found the rowing motion much less tiring on her arms than kayak paddling, making it an enjoyable little craft to get around in. Back on the ship we had tea, hot chocolate, and cookies while playing a few more rounds of Mexican Train.

The fourth day of our trip was fantastic. Mama, Papa, and Julie got up at 6:00 and rowed to shore. Mama and Papa walked up to Bell Point with Maya while Julie rowed around Garrison Bay. Because it was low tide, she was treated to an amazing display of clams. It appeared that there were clams covering every square inch of space below the surface because there was a constant layer of water streams shooting out of the sand.

Next we travelled for several hours in search of Orca whales. We finally caught up with them near the coast of Victoria (not far from Dungeness Bay, where Mama and Papa once volunteered as lighthouse keepers for a week). We didn't get as close to the whales as the whale-watching tour boats did, but through our binoculars we could see a long line of dorsal fins dipping in and out of the water. Brandon claimed that the whales were in a sleeping state, but they still looked pretty active to us. On the trip down to the whales we passed very close to a pod of porpoises and on the way back to the San Juans we got a few glimpses of a minke whale.

We anchored up in Aleck Bay on the south shore of Lopez Island. All of the bays we had been in previously were crowded with ships, giving us a new makeshift neighborhood each night. However, Aleck Bay was practically deserted and we had only one or two neighboring ships the whole night. The two of us took the rowboat to shore and landed on a private beach with "permission" from the only other beachgoers in sight. Our beach companions turned out to be visitors from Victoria. Their two young daughters were busy making a raft and paddles out of driftwood that turned out to be surprisingly seaworthy; it got them a few yards out from shore and back again before drifting apart.

Next we went with Mama and Papa on a kayak trip to the neighboring coves. We came across a family of deer (a buck, a doe, and two fawns) along one of the beaches. By the time we noticed them we were already quite close, and we scared them back up the hillside a ways. On our way back to the Pelican we spotted a hyperactive seal making huge splashes in the water. By the end of the day, Julie was ready to crash in bed, but Joel stayed up late to watch the stars reflecting on the water.

On our last morning we went on a fairly long one-way kayaking trip from Aleck Bay to Mackaye Harbor. The weather conditions were beautiful. The water was glass-smooth and the low tide allowed us to see a ton of sea critters including dozens of fat purple starfish, several jellyfish, and lots of schools of tiny fish. We saw (and heard) another minke whale who came up several times for air. We came across two rocks with lounging seals and tried to give them a wide berth. Brandon took the Pelican to Mackaye Harbor and was there waiting for us when we arrived.

At just the right time, we took the Pelican past Cattle Point, through the narrow passage between San Juan Island and Lopez Island. The currents there churned up the water into angry choppy waves, and we were just happy not to still be in the kayaks. We spent the rest of the day leisurely sailing towards Friday Harbor. Julie saw several more seal heads in the water; she just couldn't get enough of them. We arrived back at Friday Harbor in the evening and got dinner before catching a ferry back to Anacortes.

Papa had his GPS with him the whole time and took waypoints at every route change. He ended up with a beautiful map of our journey. Our sailing route is shown in blue, kayak trips are in purple, and hikes are in brown.

Back to our homepage