From where I sat, I could feel the water swaying beneath me. A light breeze pricked at my flushed face. We sat, waiting for them in hushed anticipation, punctuated by an exhale of four wispy puffs of breath, and a matching explicative from someone in our boats. Then they’d go down for several minutes, and we’d wonder where they’d surface next. Moments later, they were right along side and their hydrophobic skin pushed the water away in skeins, deep Vs sliding across first their dorsal fins, and then their heads. All we could do was squeal and look them in the eye, because two of the Transient Killer Whales that passed our raft of kayaks, gave us a look as they passed within meters.
A little bit of me thought, “well, if I have to go, at least I’d be the first person to go down by a wild Killer Whale.” My logic told me that this family group of mammal eating Orcinus orca were probably searching for seals, and had no desire to eat me. Because…..that had never happened before. My gut, which dropped precipitously when they took a series of shallow dives on a line incredibly close to our boats, as we floated and waited for them to go by as to protocol, told me that that big male might weight 20 thousand pounds and that him and his family could do whatever the hell they wanted, history be damned. I still think we probably just don’t taste very good.
I have a long standing love affair with the San Juan Islands, so when my former employer wanted to do a video shoot of his products, e.g. whale watching and kayak camping, I jumped at the chance to be one of the models. So, this last weekend, along with several old co-workers, I got to spend a weekend playing in kayaks and having close encounters with Killer Whales. The best part was knowing that this isn’t the last time I’ll have the privilege of enjoying the company of friends in these cherished islands.
The goal of the trip was to document what a typical overnight kayaking trip to Stuart Island would look like. I’ve done dozens of these trips and despite the absolute privilege, by the end of my time doing them for work, I was totally burnt out. Guiding is stressful and extremely hard work. It takes a very mentally and physically fit person to be a good guide. You have to have attention to detail, like people, be well spoken, be a good decision maker, and enjoy being outside. I like to think I was an excellent guide, despite the fact that I lasted one season of full time overnight trips. Some of my old co-workers have now done upwards of eight seasons. You’d think I wouldn’t want to get back on board with this, even for a weekend, but the islands were calling, and this was going to be a staged weekend, with friends as fellow “guests.”
There’s no bad time of year to be in the San Juans, but don’t tell anyone. Spring is particularly magical because there’s fewer people, the wildflowers are glorious, many seabirds are still around, the year-round resident birds are very active, and summering residents are just starting to arrive. This combines for quiet mornings on a rocky coastline free of stumbling visitors, with chocolate lilies nodding in the wind around you, the whirr of Surf Scoter wings over slate blue water, and Townsend’s Warblers singing overhead. Magical is a word that comes to mind.
We left Roche Harbor at 6 am, not because of why we’d usually leave early on a trip, favorable tides and wind, but because low angle light is always a must in a shoot. As the sun stuck out through clouds over Orcas Island, we paddled around the wildlife refuge of Barren Island, enjoying the Black Oystercatchers squealing in alarm at an immature Bald Eagle flying by. Canada Geese were already paired and holding down nest sites on the island. A Steller sealion poked its head out of the water off the island, surely searching for food along the rocky shore. The bull kelp beds weren’t quite poking up, still growing back after dormancy throughout the winter. Large camas grew tall on the Eastern end of the rock, a surprise, as I’d never paddled by this early in the year.
Almost none of us were in kayaking shape and it was a slog against the ebbing tide and Northerly wind across Spieden Channel. By the time we made it to Sentinel Island, we were happy for a chance to rest in its shade from the tide and stretch feeling back into our legs and bottoms. Sentinel was once the homestead of an intrepid couple, and then called Gumdrop for its round shape. Now owned by the Nature Conservancy, it is private and inaccessible. This alone makes me want to explore there, but I had to settle for paddling around Sentinel Rock.
Harbor seals sat in wait for the best spots to haul up as the tide went out. Twenty of them watched us as we passed by. Harlequin Ducks foraged in the shallows, keeping their distance from our bright boats. A few Dunlin surprised me, fully dressed for summer, as they poked about in the rocks. The ubiquitous Bald Eagle was there too, looking for handouts, and it occurred to me that every island I have ever seen in the San Juans has had an eagle on it at one point or another.
We headed on toward the shore of Spieden Island, a long, thin island that is known for extremes. On its slowly sloping South face it is largely bare, trees having difficulty taking hold in the hard ground, sun exposure, and Southwesterlies. The shaded Northern side drops steeply and is dark with trees. Privately owned, it was once home to a private game lodge. After that a nature focused summer camp. Today, I consider the most obvious extreme is the number of feral fallow deer and mouflon sheep still on the island, a hangover from the days of the game lodge, and the fact that despite being green in spring, Spieden never has a wildflower bloom. Any other island with this much open prairie would be full of flowers this time of year. Instead the South side stays neatly cropped by ungulate incisors.
Still, passing by Spieden is a pleasure, because there is little outright evidence of people. Seals sprawl on the thin shore, bracketed by seeps that feed fluorescent green algae when the water flows. Giant glacial erratics, granite boulders brought here from far away in the Cascades by glaciers, dot the hillside above you as you paddle by sea cucumbers and blood stars magnified in the water below. We startled a pair of Black Turnstones on our paddle West toward Stuart, who burst into chattering flight, archs of contrasting black and white on a muted cloudy day. Pigeon Guilemots also scattered as we came around Spieden Bluff, congregated in large numbers because they nest in the hollows worn away in the cliffs. They lifted off in a bluster, only to come skidding down on orange feet a few yard away, calling to each other and lifting their wings in display.
Though it wasn’t lunch, we got out at the spot where our trips would normally break for lunch after crossing New Channel just North of Spieden. Gossip Island island is tiny, but it never fails to astonish. The only landing is a little beach made almost entirely of ground up barnacles, nestled between the dark igneous rock that makes up the island. This little beach just happens to be in the perfect tidal position to collect the chalky remains and the contrast between dark rock and light shell is stunning. Above the beach is a squat island with a few Douglas firs, a spattering of madrone, several gnarled juniper, and impenetrable thickets of oceanspray and snowberry that otters have carved weasel shaped pathways into. Much of the island is grassy and host to wildflowers. Pink seablush spread across the top of the rock and yellow monkeyflowers bloomed out of the cracks that seeped enough water to sustain them. A few chocolate lilies poked out here and there in the grass, a reminder to walk carefully for the sake of blooms yet to come. White-crowned Sparrows sang sweetly despite the gloom of a threatening storm.
The benefit of this being a photo shoot was that we could cheat: load up the support boat, and jet off to our next spot. With weather pressing down on us, we pulled the boats on board, and saddled up in survival suits to ward off the cold wind. Minutes later, in what would have taken at least an hour of paddling in good tides, we were in Prevost Harbor on the North side of Stuart Island and setting up camp.
Taking a break after setting up camp, I took a moment to explore, despite being intimately familiar with the side of the state park we had taken over. Warblers sang overhead as I tromped down the path to where I’d heard there were a few Oregon fawnlilies, a real treat because Erithyroniums are a favorite. A few nodding white flowers faced North toward Boundary Pass and a bonus fairy slipper orchid was a pink beacon in the green and brown nearby.
Spring is a time of firsts of the year. Within a few minutes at camp I heard both my first Purple Martin and my first Pacific-slope Flycatcher of the year, surely just back from weeks of traveling from the tropics. Although I’d seen my first Osprey of the year a few days earlier, I enjoyed watching a pair display out over Satellite Island, flying in circles with slow exaggerated wing beats while calling and holding down their legs. Later at night I hoped to hear Western Screech Owls but didn’t, and feared I never would again as a result of the Barred Owls that frequent Stuart.
After a spattering of rain, we were able to get out on the water for more video and images. Turn Point, which is one of the most Northwesterly points in the Lower 48, happens to also be visually iconic, with huge cliffs, a historic lighthouse, and often epic water where the Haro Strait and Boundary Pass meet with the combined effects of prevailing wind. This is one of the must-see places on the island and a bit of a right of passage for paddlers in the San Juans. When we rounded the corner in our powered vessel and saw the current collision of opposing water movement, I wasn’t so sure I wanted to be paddling; large standing waves of several feet and roiling eddies were right off shore.
In the shade of a point South of Turn, we found enough space to launch our kayaks and paddled in the pretty evening light. The water wasn’t nearly as bad as it looked and we had a blast ripping around the water beneath the lighthouse, over and over, to get the right shot. We all held our breath when a Steller sealion appeared at the point and disappeared underwater, none of us relishing the idea of the head of a bear-like pinneped bursting suddenly from the water near us. Thankfully we didn’t see it again.
Paintbrush and red-flowering currant bloomed on the edges of soil on the tall cliff, called Lover’s Leap, above us. I was struck by the resiliency of the bigleaf maples growing from mere cracks, exposed, yet still growing. The natural beauty contrasted sharply with the constant tanker traffic in the deep water of the strait, symbolic of the threats we pose to such a beautiful place with our consumerism and international trade. An oil spill here would devastate the region and as of now, our counterparts in Canada have almost no plan for a response, which is admittedly not much better than on our side of the border.
Before dinner I managed get a moment to climb a lofty, leaning madrone in camp and enjoyed the sunset from high over the heads of my friends. Tacos and brownies consumed, beer and wine in hand, we then settled in for a night by the fire. But, I was beat, and I turned in not long after we’d prepared our camp to weather the storm of mice and racoons that swarm over the campsites at night. We’d started at 4:30, I think I was justified.
The next thing I knew, I woke to croaking ravens and a rain subdued dawn chorus. We’d been allowed to sleep in because the day before had been so photographically fruitful. I allowed myself to sleep a bit longer before struggling up and helping cook breakfast. Many hands made light work of the effort of cooking, cleaning, and breaking camp, and before we knew it, the boat was pushing off. Once more I was saying goodbye to the grizzled cedars bent into the saltwater and the shining green leaves of Douglas maples of Prevost Harbor.
As we left, we were headed for opportunities to see whales. Our boat was fast, and initially we were headed for far North into the beautiful reaches of Active Pass in the Gulf Islands of Canada. But our plan quickly changed and as we sped out of the harbor, we turned West and almost immediately picked up two groups of whales that had just been reported. The water was perfect, the kayaks were in the water, and we had whales. It was a good weekend.