Sea Kayak Tour

The only way to see the San Juan Islands is by kayak.

I came to this conclusion after experiencing this amazing corner of the world with the Dickman family from Pennsylvania – a family of seven. We spent three days kayaking and camping in the San Juans and made some amazing discoveries.

The first day we paddled 10 miles to Cypress Island from Anacortes. Jeff and Chris, guides for Anacortes Kayak Tours, started the trip when they carried four triple seat kayaks down to the beach in Anacortes and helped the family load the gear into each kayak’s center cockpit. The guides instructed the family a bit on the beach about paddling, instruction which was then put to good practice working across Guemes and Bellingham Straits to Cypress Island.

It was a typical Northwest day. Gray clouds high in the sky kept the light soft, but no precipitation came down. Everybody was in high spirits, even Amy Dickman, 16, who got splashed some in the bow as she plowed through the remnants of a wake left by a large tugboat passing by ahead.

We arrived at Cypress Head, a jut of land connected to Cypress Island, and made lunch on the small isthmus connecting Cypress Head to the rest of Cypress Island. Jeff and Chris were quick to get a tablecloth out and were soon slicing up heaps of fresh fruit and vegetables to make sandwiches. The whole gang was hungry, but keen to move on. We paddled up the east coast of Cypress Island to Pelican Beach and set up camp. All told, it was a journey of roughly 8 hours.

Chris and Jeff whipped up a great pasta dinner while the family took time to relax or explore some of the lush island. The meal was made complete with fresh baked chocolate chip cookies for dessert as we watched the light fade from the sky and fell asleep to the light lapping of the waves on the stony beach.

Day two was our touring day. Flapjacks for breakfast was a hit, and we soon left camp. We left our camp set up, and this made for lighter boats as all we had onboard was lunch.

The tide was extremely low, and this exposed some amazing sea life in the lower reaches of the inter-tidal zone. Gnarly purple starfish clung to the vertical reaches of dark wet rock, sea anemones were closed up and hanging like white sacks from small overhangs, and the bull kelp was a thick weave that was difficult to paddle through. In some places, small kelp crabs could be seen, trying to hide on the stems or under ribbons of the kelp.

Having just past slack tide, the currents of the tide started to move again, and it was more apparent in some places over others. Even in those places where the movement of the tide wasn’t apparent, we had to be mindful. Our guides worked diligently with the map and a clock to help us paddle with the tides as much as possible. We rounded the north end of Cypress Island and slowly worked our way south along the shore towards Strawberry Island, a little gumdrop of an island, for lunch.

After another amazing lunch, the kids and I went exploring and climbed up and over the small hump of Strawberry Island. The wide expanse of the Puget Sound towards Orcas Island lay before us. Other small islands, begging to be explored, dotted along the shore of the bigger islands, revealing hundreds of miles of unperturbed coastline awaiting discovery.

It beckoned, but we could not oblige today. We were soon enraptured with our own journey back, now with the tide higher, we had a new strata of the coast to explore. The water level lifted us up to caves we ducked in, pillars of stone we wove through, and in the places where the water covered gently sloping rocky beaches, we could just coast over and watch the sea life in the shallow waters as they scurried along in their daily tasks. Schools of small fish darted under our kayaks while large crabs loped along the sea floor looking for their next meal.

Jeff introduces a meal idea by showing the Dickman’s how abundant food is in the sea by reaching down to grab a leaf of bull kelp and taking a bite from it. The kids are resistant but then they succumb to giving it a try. After admitting it wasn’t so bad, they hope they never have to eat seaweed to survive.

We return to camp with plenty of day light left and the jokes of flipping a kayak over into the cold waters of Puget Sound has sparked an interest in Amy and Maria, 16 (twins), to see what it’s like. While I did all the tempting, I managed to swap out with Jeff, and let him flip with the girls and take the plunge so I could take photos. We emptied the kayak of everything but Jeff and Amy, they paddled back a few yards from the shore in deeper water and had to really throw their weight around to get the huge triple kayak to roll over. I took photos of the flip and they document Amy’s face as she goes through anticipation, uncertainty, surprise, and as she comes back to the surface of the water, elation. Maria did the same and we get a repeat performance. In the end we have two adventurous girls wrapped in warm dry clothes on the beach with big smiles on their faces. We get a fire roaring and make s’mores as an appetizer before enjoying a delicious fajita dinner prepared by Chris and Jeff.

The sunset was obscured from our view by the clouds and island, but a pink and purple glow illuminated clouds in the western sky as we worked off our dinner by skipping stones on the glassy waters before us. Sleep came easy that night as small waves from distant disturbances lapped gently on our beach.

A light and easy breakfast of granola and fruit kept things simple as we struck camp and packed for the journey home. By launch time, the sun was out, the skies were blue and a light wind from the southeast kept a fresh breeze in our faces as we paddled back across Rosario Strait to Sinclair Island, in the mouth of Bellingham Bay. The wind and tide presented navigation challenges, but a safe route was found. For lunch, we stopped along the calm shores on the leeward side of Guemes Island at a small public park.

It was on this home stretch that the grand finale crossed center stage: porpoises popped up, swimming along side us and a cute little river otter searching for food along the shore as the encore. Aglow from the showing of mother nature at her best, we continued south along Guemes Island and finished our adventure where we started in Fidalgo Bay, Anacortes.

Get out there! Anacortes Kayak Tours 1-800-992-1801

About the author

Adventure Correspondent Cameron L. Martindell is a freelance adventure travel and expedition writer, photographer and filmmaker who founded in 2000. He has contributed to Elevation Outdoors Magazine, The Gear Junkie, National Geographic, The Christian Science Monitor, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Outside, Backpacker, Wired, Australian Geographic, and others. He has been to all seven continents and lived on five of them, including a four-month stint at the South Pole. Cameron has more than 10 years of mountain search and rescue experience, is an Eagle Scout, has been an Australian bush firefighter, competes in sailing regattas, plans national and international youth programs, guides Oregon rafting trips and Australian bush backpacking trips.


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