In northern Washington state, tightly nestled in the Salish Sea, lie the San Juan Islands. From their rocky, isolated shores, you can’t ignore the distant Cascade and Olympic mountains nor the stalwart trees that cover the low rolling hills of nearby islands.
You certainly can’t take your eyes off the multitudes of birds, seals, whales and other wildlife that await you here. Even so, these views are but a taste of what this spectacular archipelago has to offer.
The idyllic towns, historic monuments and natural wonders will thrum your heartstrings. Soon after arrival, you’ll want to extend your stay and continue, unhindered, with your exploration of these islands.
That’s exactly how I felt as I disembarked from the Washington State Ferries Elwha onto the dock at Friday Harbor; I didn’t want to leave, not at all. And, with a long weekend planned, I didn’t have to.
Sea Kayaking – A 3-Day San Juan Islands Weekend Kayaking
I like life in the slow lane. Whenever my own power can get me from place to place, I am more satisfied in the journey. Whether it is time to think, to escape or to immerse myself into the land I am traveling through, I am fulfilled. Most importantly, time is a constant that doesn’t need to clock out. If anything, I want time to stop, stutter and falter.
My slow-lane tools of choice are varied, but for the San Juan Islands, it is hard to go wrong with the sleek and stealthy sea kayak. Even though you aren’t walking, you are still bipedal. Each end of your paddle pushes you through straits and inlets, along bays and shorelines, to beaches and islands.
After meeting our patient and competent guides, Lindsey and Scott, in Friday Harbor’s Memorial Circle, I was also introduced to the 12 other adventurers.
Immediately after handshakes, we were swept off in two vans to Roche Harbor, 20 minutes away. Piling out into a grassy field, we speedily sorted individual and group gear into dry bags, which were provided for us. After 45 minutes of preparation, everything was hauled to the docks and stuffed into kayak bays.
Then we were off!
Every sport takes a certain amount of know-how. With 12 folks coming from all parts of the country, skills varied from none to moderate and ages from 35–70. For safety, double or even triple kayaks are standard, as well as two guides. Training comes in the form of a talk at the dock.
I’ve listed some basics below:
- Stay within 100 yards of the guides
- Always wear your life vest
- Listen to the guides
- Learn how to hold your paddle correctly
- Pay attention to the tutorial on how to get your skirt on (a cover that fits on your waist and protects the cockpit from incoming water)
- Once in your boat, follow the talk about how to paddle correctly
What's for Dinner?
Our two guides were not only sensational guides, but our dedicated cooks. Every never-ending day of adventure began and ended with tasty food.
Eaten overlooking a tranquil bay, the second night's dinner was bow-tie pasta with Italian sausage, basil pesto and sliced tomatoes, garnished with parmesan. Breakfast was an American classic: cubed fresh potatoes, scrambled eggs, toast and sausage, served with mixed fruit. My favorite lunch was bacon guacamole wraps, quinoa salad and mixed vegetables.
Each meal that our guides prepared for us convinced me that you can enjoy delicious meals and be in the backcountry at the same time.
It’s a Bird... It’s a Porpoise... It's an Orca
I remember when I was a kid on family vacations, my two brothers and I would keep a list of every animal we saw. Not only that, we’d catalog how many of each critter we spotted. If a time machine could’ve propelled us kids from the early 1990s to 2015, we’d have had a field day on this trip.
One difficulty we had when we were younger was knowing what animal we were seeing. You don’t have to worry about that on this San Juan Islands trip. Our guides Lindsey and Scott have a grasp of the varied biology, geology and history of the region. Their extensive knowledge was an added bonus.
The animal spot list:
- 2 orca sightings
- Dall’s porpoise and harbor porpoises
- Countless bald eagles (one of the largest breeding populations in the continental US)
- Harbor seals
- Garter snakes
- Black-tailed deer
- River otters
- Turkey vultures
- Countless species of birds including the harlequin duck, oystercatcher, cormorants, and more
- 2 barred owls
- Multiple sea cucumbers
- Various sea stars
Of course the wildlife viewing varies per trip and is done above water. Who knows what was swimming around that we didn’t end up seeing?
That's a Wrap
At journey’s end, it was hard to say goodbye to the varied individuals I’d been grouped with. We’d seen a lot of fantastic sights together and enjoyed a jam-packed extended weekend that felt much longer than it was.
When we shook hands and departed, we each realized that our trip added up to more than paddle strokes. It was full of wildlife sightings, sunsets, wonderful food, campfire chats, incredible mountain views, seashore exploration and much more.
My next San Juan Islands excursion isn’t on the books yet, but it’s the sort of outing that you add to your life’s adventure playlist; it’s repeatable and will be replayed again, someday. Before I do, do yourself a favor and experience the San Juan Islands for yourself.
You can read more about all 150+ REI Adventures trips by clicking here: https://www.rei.com/adventures.