Monday, September 3, 2012

San Juan Islands 2012

Emily and I just returned from a truly amazing 4 day trip to the San Juan Islands of the Puget Sound in Washington.  We had wanted to visit the islands for several years but never found the time to do so.  We try to make a small trip somewhere every year.  Last year it was San Francisco, this year it was the San Juans and next year I think we will head up to British Columbia if we can swing the time after our wedding and before the honeymoon to either South America or Africa.

We both left work a little early on Thursday so we could make the 4.5 hour drive up to Anacortes, WA to catch the ferry to the islands on Friday morning.  Being a typical work day I had booked an orca kayaking trip for us with Discovery Tours on San Juan Island hoping to beat the Labor Day tourist rush.  The trip was to meet at 10:30 in the morning so we needed to catch the ferry to Orcas Island that left Anacortes at 6am.  This would deliver us and the Prius to Orcas Island where we would park it for the day and then take the interisland ferry to San Juan Island that left orcas at 7:35 and would get us to Friday Harbor on San Juan Island at 8:30.  

Of course things did not work out as planned... Apparently, the state is so poor right now that they’ve reduced the number of employees on the ferries to the bare minimum and because one of the employees was late one of the ferries didn’t run.  This meant that we had to stop at multiple locations before even getting to Orcas Island and when we did our ferry to Friday Harbor was cancelled with the next one arriving there at 11:15am.  So our choices were to either charter a flight for $100 or call the kayak shop and ask if they could push back their departure by 20 minutes for us to be able to make the full day tour instead of having to choose the shorter afternoon tour.  The shop owner was super cool and after calling the other kayakers said everyone was ok with that.  Without much to do and some time to kill Em and I jumped on the interisland ferry and toured around the islands until it brought us with our mountain bikes to Friday Harbor at 11:20 where we found our kayak group waiting for us.  

We left and headed south along the shore of San Juan Island towards Lime Kiln State Park.  The entire length of the West side of San Juan island is a migration channel for Orcas and the best place for us to possibly see some.  Our Kayak guide Chad was super nice and did his best to try to find sea creatures and other wildlife along the way.  Right from the start he found a massive purple starfish clamped to a rock that he was unable to budge.  We passed through some thick kelp beds and saw a lot of jellyfish floating in the water as well.  We also saw a bunch of harbor seals lying on rocks on the way to the light house at Lime Kiln (named because it was the primary source of lime for the islands with an old structure still left on site).

When we got past the lighthouse we came to a broad beach where we pulled out for some lunch and to relax in the sun a bit.  Emily had done a great job steering us in our double kayak and even did most of the paddling as I had dared to bring our DSLR out on the very stable sea kayak.  We were with a very nice group of two girls and an older couple who all seemed happy just to be out there and didn’t seem too upset that they had to wait for us in the morning.  I got their email addresses to send them photos when we get back and I can sort through them all. 

Just about the time we were going to wrap up lunch and start heading back down the coast a pod of Orcas finally showed up far offshore with a group of whale watching boats hot on their tail.  This seemed pretty awful to Emily and I as it appeared the poor whales were being chased and probably stressed out.  Our guide told us the law requires all boats to be 200 yards from the whales but clearly these boats were not listening.  We paddled out quickly to get a closer look and I was glad to have my long lens with us because they were pretty far away.  I was jealous when a couple surfaced nearly under a group of kayakers further up the coast but then Emily and I were also surprised when two surfaced a couple hundred yards from us to loudly blow out air!  Their dorsal fins were so tall that they reached above the deck of the boats that were perpendicular to them.  

After watching the pods of whales come through for a while we headed back up the coast to look for eagles and other wildlife.  We didn’t see any birds and our guide couldn’t find us any more starfish on the rocks but Emily and I did have an amazing close encounter with a curious baby seal pup who disappeared and then resurfaced directly underneath us!  I was zoomed in all the way and he came up so quick I couldn’t zoom out fast enough to get a shot of him right next to me!  We paddled around another aquatic mammal sanctuary and then back to shore where we unloaded the kayaks onto racks near the parking lot.  

After taking off our pfd’s and gear we loaded up in the van and headed back to Friday Harbor where we just managed to catch the 5:45 interisland ferry back to Orcas Island for the night.  If we had missed it we would have had to wait until 10:30pm.  Once back on Orcas Island we checked into our hotel at the Outlook Inn and cleaned ourselves up to head out for a nice dinner on our first night in the islands.  The Outlook Inn was really nice for the $90 we paid for it and we had no problem using a shared private shower and bathroom in the hallway.  We had a terrific view over the sound and the room was very nice.  Any other hotel on the island, especially on the holiday weekend, was well over $200 a night for a room with a bathroom.  

We headed downstairs and decided to try dinner just up the road at the Ship Bay restaurant.  We didn’t have reservations but thankfully it only took us about 15 minutes to get a nice table at the fancy restaurant.  At ~$30 a plate for a nice meal in the islands we decided this would be our only treat on the trip as I had made a batch of my mom’s spaghetti sauce for the other days.  The meal was fantastic and our server was great.  We then headed back to our room for a good nights sleep after a very long day of being up since 4am.

On Saturday we slept in a bit and then headed to the Saturday market in town to check out the local goods.  I was happily surprised to see a lot of bbq meat and sandwich vendors at the very busy Labor Day weekend market.  Emily I especially liked the locally produced Chai Tea and each had a cup of it to wake up for the day.  As expected the prices were pretty high for the locally grown food and locally caught seafood so we passed on anything else and headed off in the car to the far east end of the island to check it out.  

Our first stop was Doe Bay which we had considered the previous night for dinner but decided it was too far and we were too hungry.  It was a small bay with a general store and small Cafe with outdoor seating which we would have been cold sitting at had we gone.  Emily took a seat in an Adirondack chair for a bit while I took photos of the area including some interesting looking yurts in the woods for visitors of the island.  We then drove out on a road as far as we could before we hit private land and had to turn around.  

It was about this time when I remembered I had not retrieved my stinky Five Fingered shoes from under the car.  We drove all the way back to the Eastsound and found that the lady at the front desk had them underneath her desk!  I felt so grateful and sorry for her because they must be the stinkiest shoes in the world.  She was clearly happy to have me take them and told me jokingly that she had almost sprayed them!  On our 2nd trip out of town we stopped at the Bracken Fern Lodge hostel that we would camp at that night to pick a prime tent spot in the backyard.  We also stopped at the general store nearby for more ice and picked up a dozen local oysters for later that night.

Our next adventure of the day was Mt. Constitution in Moran State Park, the largest park by far on the islands.  It was posted that bikes aren’t allowed on the trails until a week later after the tourist season but a local bike shop worker told me we could easily get away with riding the trails.  We ended up driving up the road to the top of Mt. Constitution with the bikes and locking them at the top around a tree with our bike shoes stashed behind a rock.  We then drove down the peak without checking out the summit to start our hike at Mountain Lake about 1,500 feet below.  

We luckily found a place to park and after getting our gear organized and having a bite to eat we headed off north around the lake towards the trailhead for Mt. Constitution.  The trail at first was pretty wide but as soon as we reached Twin Lakes it began to switchback steeply up the mountain.  Thankfully, we would not be descending this route as it would have been pretty tricky on mountain bikes.  We made it to the top in a quick hour and a half and it was then 4pm.  

At the top there was a church group from another country singing praise to Jesus over and over again which got a bit annoying but the amazing views from the summit made up for it.  To the south were the Olympics of Washington, to the east was Mt. Baker and the Sisters mountain range and to the north were the jagged peaks of Victoria and British Columbia.  With Mt. Constitution rising a good 700 feet above any other peaks in the islands it provided amazing views of all the San Juans, especially from the top of the stone viewing tower on the summit.   What I found especially fascinating were the views of the wicked currents visible in the surface of the water from the top.

Inside the stone tower were informational photos and descriptions of the history of the San Juan Islands and Moran State Park.  The tower itself rose about 50 feet above the summit and had an enclosed room at the top to get out of the winds that often whip through the islands.  We took some great photos of the peaks in the distance and down towards Twin Lakes and Sucia Island State Park to the north before we descended and geared up with our bikes for the descent.

The ride down Mt. Constitution took us in a big loop around the mountain back to Mountain Lake.  We saw a few people on the trail between the summit and the Cold Spring/Summit Lake junction but once we crossed the summit road onto the biking trails we weren’t supposed to be on yet we found ourselves completely alone.  The trails themselves were incredibly smooth and fast.  We descended casually without having to peddle uphill very often for a very enjoyable 8 miles around the peak back to Mountain Lake.  Once back at the lake we could have followed the road back to the trailhead but instead we decided to take a route around the east side of the lake to see something new before returning back to the trailhead.

Once back at the car we found a nice picnic table next to the lake and cooked up our first dinner of spaghetti on the islands with the new Coleman Stove Emily had picked up for us.  It was a great dinner that didn’t cost us anything and we were able to enjoy it with some wine we had bought for the trip before heading back up to the top of Mt. Constitution in the car to check out the sunset.  

The sunset from the summit of Mt. Constitution was amazing.  During our descent the skies had cleared of clouds and we had absolutely fantastic views of Mt. Baker bathed in alpenglow.  We could even see Mt. Rainier in the far distance to the south.  We were surprised to find ourselves almost completely alone at the summit at sunset despite it being labor day weekend.  We stayed up top for a while until the sun had completely set and it started to get dark and too cold for Emily.  

We returned to the Bracken Fern Lodge where we had set up our tent earlier.  We met the owner Dave inside and he was gracious enough to provide me with a hammer and screwdriver to open our oysters with before taking off for a burlesque show somewhere else on the island.  He seemed like a great guy and we’d definitely suggest staying there to anyone we know as it was only $40 for the night with full access to his kitchen and multiple showers inside.  We ended up drinking some beers and chatting with some younger kids from Seattle before enjoying our oysters and heading to bed for the night in our tent.

On Sunday we woke up, showered and decided to spend the morning checking out the west side of Orcas Island before jumping on the ferry with the car to head to Friday Harbor and San Juan Island for the day.  We wanted to quickly check out the west side of Orcas Island before leaving it for San Juan, particularly Deer Harbor where we hoped to get a cup of coffee.  Deer Harbor wasn’t as big as the East Sound.  There was a small marina and general store to cater to boaters passing through and that was about it.  Emily and I got two big cups of the San Juan Island Chai and headed back towards the Ferry for our 10:30am Ferry to Friday Harbor.

When we got to the busy town of Friday Harbor we drove down Cattle Point Road towards the southern end of the Island to check that area out before heading north to Roche Harbor later in the day.  We stopped briefly at the American Camp visitor center but the parking lot was packed so we decided to try later.  We stopped a few times at some interpretive signs along the roadside that travelled through beautiful grasslands without any trees.  We spotted a Lighthouse at the end of the island and decided to take a walk out to it.  

We drove down the road towards it and parked at the Cattle Point lot to check out the beautiful view across the San Juan Channel towards Lopez Island.  Below us on the beach were a bunch of different locally built shelters from driftwood on the shore.  I read somewhere that it is a local past time to build these structures.  We sat on the rocks in teh sun for a bit watching sailboats and a coast guard ship pass us by with Mt. Baker rising in the distance before walking back up the road a bit to check out the lighthouse.

Cattle Point Lighthouse was falling apart (literally a sign said it might fall over...).  The hike out to it was super short and we could see all the way across the channel to the Olympics.  We decided to try to walk back along the shore on the rocks rather than taking the road back which worked out just fine.  I kept myself busy looking for sea creatures and found a few small crabs in tide pools on the way.  We got a close up view of the driftwood structures before making it back to our car to explore the island further.

After driving as far out on the southern end that we could before hitting private land we turned around and went back to check out American Camp.  We watched a short video inside the interpretive center describing how the island was shared by both British and American soldiers who expected their countries to go to war with each other but it never happened thankfully (This is well after the Revolutionary War).  We decided to go for a walk down the beautiful Grandma’s Cove and then also check out the old officer buildings that have been preserved on the site.  

Before leaving American Camp we got some great shots over the beautiful pastures of flowers and grassland towards the Olympics in the distance and also checked out the Redoubt which was a pot of land raised up by the soldiers for defensive canons and artillery that was never actually needed.  

Our next stop on our San Juan Island driving tour was the massive Pelindaba Lavender Farm off of World Road.  There were many different types growing on the large property with bees of every shape and color buzzing around pollinating them.  Emily and I got some great photos in the purple lavender with the bees before checking out the gift shop.  Inside the shop there was every type of organic/natural food/soap/fragrance/and woven craft that you could imagine, all made out of Lavender.... someone is obsessed.... 

We then headed north towards Roche Harbor which we found to be completely packed.  A couple on our kayak trip told us of a mom and pop gin distillery near the harbor so we drove around looking for it and found it to have a free cider and gin tasting that afternoon!  As soon as we pulled up the husband and wife team greeted us and ushered us inside to try all their numerous creations and tell us all about how they got started.  It was very interesting and seeing their massive copper boilers for the cider and gin was pretty sweet.  Emily fell in love with their Apple flavored after dinner drink so we bought that and a bottle of cider before leaving.

When we got back to Roche Harbor we checked out some neat metal sculptures on the walkway to the marina and then found ourselves being ushered into what appeared to be a private party with smoked salmon, pulled pork sandwiches and wine all free for us to enjoy.  For all we knew it could have been a wedding reception.  We grabbed a few glasses of really good red wine and some salmon before finding out that it was a customer appreciation party for yacht owners and we quickly realized that many of the enormous three to eight million dollar yachts docked at the marina had sale stickers on them.  

Time to put on our game faces and pretend we were shopping for one ourselves.. ha!  We wandered around the docks for a little bit gazing into the massive 1-4 story vessels.  Emily fell in love with a very beautiful sail boat while I found some of the custom woodwork on many of them to be amazing.  Oh, to have that kind of money, and the protected channels of the Puget sound from the larger ocean swells with its mediterranean weather would be a perfect place to own such a luxury item!  Before we left we checked out the general store, bought some more ice for the cooler and checked out a beautiful wedding reception that I’m sure must have cost 4x what our wedding is going to cost us in the Columbia Gorge next summer.

We then headed down the road to Lime Kiln Point State Park again to bring the cooler down to the rocks and cook up some more spaghetti under the setting sun and hopefully see some more orcas while there.  It was breezy and cool so we dressed warmly on the rocks and enjoyed a great meal while the sun sank into the horizon beyond the Olympic Mountains.  We were visited by a seal pup below in the water and could see some porpoise swimming by far out in the channel.  I stuck around to take several hundred photos of the setting sun until Emily told me she was freezing and it was time to head back to the car.  From there it was a short drive back to Friday Harbor where we walked around the quiet streets before our 11pm Ferry to Lopez Island and our tent site at Odlin Park.

Our tent site had been reserved for us with our name on a sign and we got a good nights rest in our tent before heading out to explore Lopez Island on Monday.  We had debated on biking around the island on the famous “Tour de Lopez” bike route on roads circumnavigating the island but chose to use the car instead to see more of the island.  We used a bike map of the roads with points of interest for us to stop at as we drove around the island on roads that rarely if ever had center or shoulder lines on them.  We stopped at Lopez village to get some chai and the girl behind the counter basically poured a 16 oz cup of foam for me for $4.  Clearly, she was at the end of her rope from the tourist season so I let it pass but I was a bit pissed off...

We drove around Fisherman’s Bay on the Bayshore Road out to what they called the “Spit Preserve” which had a hiking path out onto the spit and past some abandoned net boats that locals used to use for fishing a long time ago before the practice was banned in the area.  It was a totally relaxing walk and Em and I spent much of it walking down the shore looking for anything cool that may have washed up and checking out the boats leaving the bay as well as a big pontoon plane that we watched land and then take off again.

From Fisherman’s Bay we headed south along the west side of the island to check out a short hike to Shark Reef Sanctuary.  We followed the thick trail through the woods with some other people that had ridden their bikes there before coming to the rocky shore which was absolutely gorgeous.  We found ourselves directly across the San Juan Channel from where we had been yesterday at Cattle Point on San Juan Island.  It was neat to have a view from the opposite side and we were happy to see about 20-30 seals lounging on the rocks just off the shore.  

We decided this would be a good place to sit down and relax for a while, enjoying the beautiful sun in the islands and watching passing sailboats come through the channel.  We could easily tell how fast the water was rushing by the islands power boats with tourists were struggling at nearly full power against the current while sailboats going with the flow silently flew past them in the opposite direction.  Occasionally, seals would swim about in the water playing in the kelp beds and thankfully we didn’t see any sharks take them as the name of the sanctuary might imply.

Returning to the car we drove past Mud Bay to check it out and then all the way out to the thin stretch of road heading out to Skull Island but were disappointed to see several no trespassing signs out to the point of land.  Apparently somebody with a lot of money is thoroughly enjoying that land.  Instead we drove up a dirt road and found a hiking path heading up towards the top of Watmough Head on the southern tip of the island.  I thought we might get some views from the top so we headed off on the trail only to find ourselves on a series of unmarked trails headed through the woods.  

With my gps we found our way out of the woods down to the shore of the secluded and beautiful Watmough Bay.  We checked out a few viewpoints before heading along the shore to the beach where we saw a couple dingy’s on shore from sailboats anchored further off in the bay.  What a life these people had!  One of the older men was prodding a dead jellyfish on the shore to check out what it was made of so I joined him briefly in examining it.... Looked just like wet Jello to me.  

When we walked back up to the road to the car I realized we should have gone the opposite direction down towards Point Colville so we decided we had time to check that out as well before continuing on.  Once again we found ourselves on an absolutely gorgeous hike through the woods out to a beautiful coastline.  On the way I spotted a mole in the undergrowth that I snapped some photos of as it scurried along blindly.  Castle Rock off shore looked like a great deep water bouldering location and we even spotted some small sea caves in the cliffs underneath us.  We stayed here for a while watching seals play in the kelp beds off shore and when we left to head back into the woods I heard a loud wooshing sound that I was sure was an Orca just off shore.  Instead it turned out to be a big Sea Lion passing by and coming up for a breath.  We see tons of them in Newport, OR so we decided to head back and continue our exploration elsewhere.

Our next stop was a short hike out to Iceberg Point which took us out to a rocky point of land with great views towards the Olympics and the south end of San Juan Island.  Before we got started Emily spotted a couple with couple pack goats that had apparently just come from a market or were being used for the easy hike out to the point  with perhaps an elaborate picnic lunch.  From the point we watched a group of sea kayakers pass by but we didn’t see any more whales. or sea lions, just a lot of seabirds all over the rocks off shore.

On the way back to the Ferry terminal we passed quickly by the unexciting Hummel Lake Preserve and took a stroll down to Spencer Spit State Park where there was a kayak rental agency and a great location for clamming or crabbing.  We saw a sign that there were geoduck clams (pronounced "gooeduck") but they were currently out of season.  The massive clams are over 8 inches in length with siphons that extend as much as 3 meters in length!  Like eating a clam steak and I still haven’t had one yet!

We drove by some neat driftwood sculptures near Swifts bay before coming to the longest line of cars for the ferry I’d seen yet.  Apparently everyone was planning on catching the 5:30 ferry.  Instead of backing all the way up I found a spot at the edge of the driveway and pulled over, only to have 3 little girls scream at their mom that I had “budged” in line and she had to tell me to move.  The mom didn’t do anything but the little brats were annoying so I pulled out and went to the back of the line of cars.  There was no reason to be nervous as all the cars easily fit on the massive ferry when it did arrive.  

The ride out from Lopez Island was beautiful and we had great clear views of Baker once again rising above the islands.  Back at Anacortes we exited the ferry and had a relaxing drive back to Ridgefield stopping for some coffee gas and food along the way.  We had managed to spend 4 full days in the islands spending less than $750 combined including gas to and from the San Juans and driving around them.  Not bad as it would be easy for a family to spend that amount each day with the prices on the islands.  We saw most of what the islands had to offer and definitely know the key places to go to when we return to relax at, and yes, we will definitely be back to the islands, perhaps even for just an overnight vacation sometime.

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