San Juan Islands, WA

Scattered between Puget Sound to the south and the Strait of Georgia to the north, the San Juan Islands of Washington State are a plethora of jewels that touring buffs fervently take to in good and sometimes even bad weather. There are 768 islands, rocks, and reefs in this archipelago at low tide; at high tide the number drops to 457. Of these, about 180 are deemed important enough to have names. They are the last vestiges of a now submerged and forgotten continent, ancient mountaintops that are far older than the surrounding mainland and have been worn down by glaciers and eons of weathering. The islands are rich with glacial till, providing good soil for massive stands of timber and thickets of fern. The many bays, sounds, and inlets of their jagged coastlines create thousands of miles of habitat for sea birds, shellfish, river otters, seals, and sea lions. The miles of green sea that contain the islands are home to salmon, porpoises, and whales. This is also one of the continent’s most appealing sea-kayaking hot spots.

The archipelago was first explored by Europeans in May 1791, when Francisco de Eliza of Spain, in command of a squadron of two vessels, sent his longboats up what was to become known as Haro and Rosario Straits. The boat in Haro Strait was turned back near Stuart Island by hostile Indians in enormous, elaborately carved and decorated canoes. The second boat, commanded by Juan Pantoja y Arriaga, was rowed all the way up Rosario Strait to the thin chain of three islands strung like sentinels along the edge of the vast expanse of the Strait of Georgia. As commander of the expedition, Eliza had the responsibility of charting the region and the honor of naming what was found. It was he who claimed the archipelago for Spain and named it the San Juans, including Orcas, Sucia, and Matia-among the few Spanish names that survive to this day.

These three islands capture the essence of the San Juans: they are rugged and beautiful, close yet remote, alluring but dangerous. They make up an inviting and popular destination for sea kayakers and canoeists and are an excellent introduction to the region, but they are not for the inexperienced.

The North Beach area of Orcas Island is a convenient launch point for paddling to the islands; Sucia-just two miles away-is the closest and makes a good base for exploring the other islands. The main challenge is getting to them. The crossings are not long, but they are hazardous. Many shoals and reefs influence the powerful currents flowing around Orcas and in and out of the Strait of Georgia. (Parker Reef, off North Beach, is notorious for tide rips.) These currents are not reliably predictable, and the entire region is exposed to strong northerly and southerly winds. When the wind blows in opposition to the current, the seas can become lethal. Take a weather radio and a chart showing the direction and velocities of the currents along with a prediction table, and know how to use them. Plan on making any lengthy crossing at slack, or with minimum current behind you.

The article was originally published on Canoe & Kayak

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