Orcas, sea kayaking, and sea planes: a day trip to Washington’s San Juan Island

san juan islandsI woke up early one morning last week and realized that August 15th would mark two years since I arrived in Seattle. Normally I wouldn’t take note of such a thing, given that I tend to move with the frequency of a fugitive. Staying in one place just isn’t in my nature.

But here I was, 24 months into life in Seattle, and of the many things I’d yet to do, I hadn’t: been to the San Juan Islands (blame a longterm illness, an anemic bank account, and overwhelmingly crappy weather, in that order), seen an orca, nor flown on a sea plane despite living two blocks from the Lake Union terminal. As a travel writer, there’s really no excuse.

So I decided to celebrate my anniversary by knocking out all of those goals in one day, with a sea kayaking trip to San Juan Island. There are few things I love more than paddling, but I don’t have my own boat, so it’s tough to make trips happen. That’s where EverGreen Escapes comes in.

Last summer, I did an overnight paddle off of Whidbey Island with Evergreen, and was very impressed by the professionalism and knowledge possessed by my guide. The four-year-old “nature, adventure, and epicurean tour” company has a green ethos not uncommon in Seattle. What sets Evergreen apart from most of the other outfitters I’ve used is a staff who know their stuff and possess great people skills, diverse tours, and an emphasis on quality and comfort. Owners Jake Haupert and Dan Moore are actively involved in every aspect of their business, and it shows.

EverGreen just launched a partnership with Kenmore Air–the “seaplane airline”–this summer. The “Soar & Explore” upgrade allows you to fly one-way or round-trip on various EverGreen trips (see end of story for details). Kenmore has been around since 1946; I’ve enviously watched their little yellow-and-white planes buzz over my apartment hundreds of times, and I was jonesing to fly in one.

%Gallery-130546%san juan islandsI signed up for EverGreen’s full-day “Quest for Orcas, Pigs, and Wine” trip. In no way does that accurately describe the outing (it sounds more like a cross between Dungeons & Dragons and Tolkien), but I admit it begs further investigation.

The name actually refers to San Juan Island’s post-Civil War land dispute between America and England. The so-called “Pig War” began as a result of a farmer shooting a neighbor’s pig that was on his property. Said property became the subject of controversy as to where the U.S./current Canadian border was actually located, and for the next 13 years, American and English troops lived in “Pig War” camps where they primarily got together, drank too much beer, and waited for their respective governments to figure things out. I had hoped this part of the trip referred to sausage, but a little history never hurt anyone.

The “Wine” portion of the trip is a nod to Washington State’s burgeoning boutique wine industry, and the small selection of varietals to be served with lunch. San Juan Island also has its own vineyard and a Tasting Room in the main town of Friday Harbor.

Our day began at the crack of 6:45, when Evergreen’s luxury Mercedes van picked up my eight fellow whale, wine, and pig-lovers at their hotels. Our young guide, Tyler, is a naturalist and native Seattleite; before we’d even left the city limits, I’d learned more about Seattle’s history than I’ve gleaned on my own. An hour and a half later, we arrived at the ferry terminal in Anacortes. The weather was unfortunately behaving as it has for most of the summer: gray and dreary, but we could still catch glimpses of the Olympic Mountains across the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

An hour later, we docked at Friday Harbor. While crowded with visitors, it’s a cute town that manages to remain delightfully free of tackiness. Despite its popularity as a tourist destination, San Juan–at 55 square miles, the second-largest in the 172-island archipelago–is all about enjoying the moment. With a year-round population of just 8,000, the island is mostly rural; uncrowded roads wind past forest, prairie, deserted beaches, and pasture. Agriculture is still a big part of the island’s economy, and you’ll see everything from cattle ranches and alpaca farms to a hops plantation. There’s even a camel named Mona on one property; she’s become emblematic of San Juan’s quirky nature.
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Our launch spot was Roche Harbor, a pretty, historic village/resort/ marina on San Juan’s northwest tip built in 1886. San Juan Outfitters provided us with tandem boats and gear, and Tyler gave us a brief tutorial on paddling basics (most of our group were newbies). We embarked on a two-hour paddle around Nelson Bay, encountering curious harbor seals whose heads popped up like corks around our boats. Bald eagles soared overhead, and beneath us, giant Purple Sea Stars and crimson rock crabs hid amongst the eel grass. Tyler stopped us in the midst of a bull kelp bed (encouraging us to snack on it), and talked about the ecosystem it supported.

Our first post-paddling stop was Lime Kiln State Park on San Juan’s west side, ten miles east of Vancouver Island–you can actually see the back side of the city of Victoria. Lime Kiln is the only dedicated, land-based orca viewing spot in the world. Most days, besa juan islandstween 3 and 4pm, the local Southern Resident Orca community (also known as the Salish Sea Orcas) pass by, following their main food source, Chinook salmon.

Tyler explained that there are three types of orcas (whether or not they are different species is a subject of scientific debate): offshore, transient, and resident. Orcas, actually a species of toothed whale in the dolphin family, are found worldwide. They’re opportunistic feeders (hence their erroneous name, “killer” whales), meaning they’ll eat a variety of prey species. In addition to salmon, harbor seals and rockfish make up the Southern Resident’s diet; they forage between the San Juan islands and southern Vancouver Island from April to September.

The Southern Resident community is federally listed as an endangered species due to a variety of factors that include a decline in their food supply, toxic exposure to industrial waste and human-related pollution, surface impacts (think boat exhaust, etc.), and low population. Orcas generally travel in pods and are very family-oriented. The Southern Resident community is comprised of three different groups: the J, K, and L pods (the oldest is a 100-year-old female named “Granny”). These pods are subjected to some of the highest boat traffic in the world, which is a good reason to try and view them via kayak. Unlike a whale-watching boat (which must still abide by strict regulations to protect the animals) however, kayaking doesn’t guarantee a show.san juan islands

Despite arriving at Lime Kiln around 3pm, we’d apparently missed the orcas. No matter–we saw dolphins, and enjoyed the views. Meanwhile, Tyler and intern Maggie set up a beautiful lunch on a picnic bench. Despite the cold (the hot tea Maggie offered was much appreciated), we enjoyed a meal of couscous salad, grilled chicken breasts, and the aforementioned Washington wines. Tyler noted the whale boats heading south, so we decamped to South Beach, where binoculars enabled us to see some orca action far offshore. We took some time to walk the driftwood-strewn beach before departing for Pelindaba Lavender Farm. Despite not getting any up-close views of the orcas, it had been a fun, interesting, relaxing day, and no one seemed put-out that the animals had been a no-show.

Back at Friday Harbor that evening, everyone else went to do some exploring on their own, but I had a sea plane to catch. The terminal is two minute’s walk from the ferry, and I climbed aboard the seven-seater to find my fellow passengers included a boxer wearing a pink, rhinestone-studded harness. The dog lolled across her owner’s laps, evidently a veteran of float plane travel. Unlike me. I was childishly thrilled to be onboard, and within minutes of taking off, I was fantasizing about a second career as a seaplane pilot. The sun had finally emerged, and the water was dazzling. Waterfront cabins sat amidst the lush undergrowth and evergreens, sailboats bobbed in emerald coves.

And then, just as we banked and headed south toward Seattle, I saw them. Two pods of orcas–about 20 in all–leaping and splashing no more than 200 feet below us. I pressed my face against the window in awe, watching them until they were lost in the expanse of blue. Happy anniversary, to me.

Travel tips
Wear layers (including one waterproof), and lots of ‘em. The weather is unpredictable and changes rapidly this far north. Although the islands are in the “banana belt,” sea breezes can be chilly.

Bring sunglasses, a hat, and broad spectrum, high SPF sunblock, and use it–frequently.

If you’re paddling, it’s easy to get dehydrated. Drink small sips throughout to keep your bladder from getting full. And don’t forget to eat a small, high protein/complex carb snack to keep your blood sugar up (Evergreen provides snacks and water, FYI).

Kayaking attire should include a swimsuit, board shorts or waterproof pants, watersport shoes or sandals, and a long-sleeved nylon shirt (preferably one made with UPF fabric) or lightweight spray jacket. Your arms, and possibly your butt will get wet (if your boat’s spray skirt isn’t tight enough).
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Soar & Explore

Evergreen Escapes offers a wide variety of summer and winter multi-day/activity packages, as well as customized tours for individuals or groups. San Juan excursions are offered year-round, with sea-kayaking April through October.

If you want the ultimate San Juan scenery experience, you can fly up in the morning, or go round-trip: there are terminals at Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor. Another option is to overnight/take two nights at Friday Harbor House, Earthbox Motel, or Island Inn, or add-on another island (including Vancouver Island, BC) or Olympic National Park. Kenmore Air has terminals throughout Puget Sound, the Olympic Peninsula, Vancouver Island, and British Columbia’s Gulf Islands (Canada’s name for their part of the San Juan archipelago). They also offer flightseeing excursions and have four wheeled aircraft in their fleet.

Want to support the Southern Resident Orcas? Click here for details on the Friday Harbor Whale Museum’s Adopt-an-Orca program.


Visit San Juan Islands in Washington