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.
san juan islands
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).
san juan islands
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

Cypress Mountain has snow delivered in time for Olympic Games

With just one week to go until the opening ceremonies, the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver are struggling to find enough snow for some of the planned events. In particular, Cypress Mountain, which will host snowboarding and freestyle competitions beginning February 13, has been scrambling to complete their halfpipe, as well as the ski and snowboard cross courses. The resort has so little snow in fact, that they’ve resorted to using over 1000 bales of straw to construct the needed infrastructure, and have had more than 300 truckloads of snow delivered from elsewhere around the area.

It has been an unusual winter so far in Vancouver, with average temperatures at their highest point in more than 70 years. Experts are placing the blame squarely on the shoulders of the El Niño weather pattern, which has been warming the Pacific Ocean for several months. The result has been little to no snowfall across the region in January, which means no new, fresh powder for the athletes, who began arriving yesterday in preparation for the games. The forecast for February doesn’t look much better, as more unseasonably high temperatures, and rain, not snow, are expected in the days ahead.

International Ski Federation president Gian-Franco Kasper told the Canadian press that he isn’t worried, as just 10 cm of snow is needed to cover the straw and make it ready for the athletes. Other event organizers say that while the lack of snow has been an issue across all the venues, Cypress Mountain is the only one that has caused significant concerns. They also promise that everything will be ready when the games officially open next Friday.

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Have a winter adventure of your own in Vancouver

Planning on heading to the Winter Olympics in a few weeks? Looking for something to do while you’re not busy with the curling match between Switzerland and Denmark? Perhaps you’d enjoy a little outdoor activity of your own while visiting beautiful British Columbia? Then you’re definitely headed to the right place, as Vancouver Island is one of the best adventure travel destinations in the world, no matter what season you go.

For winter adventures, the options are nearly endless. The snow begins falling on Vancouver Island in November and tends to stick around until late March, with the surrounding mountains remaining covered in the white stuff until well into the spring. Once the snow does start flying however, the local ski resorts, Mount Washington and Mount Cain, open for business offering great skiing and snowboarding for the beginner and the experienced snow bum alike. Mount Washington is the larger of the two, and more centrally located, and although Mount Cain is smaller, it is also a bit more remote and often less crowded. Both offer plenty of great runs, but if you’re more in the mood for cross country skiing, then go with Mount Washington, which has more than 34 miles of groomed trails and gets as much as 30 feet of snow annually.

If sliding down (or around) a mountain with skis strapped to your feet isn’t your cup of tea, then head to Vancouver’s West Coast to take in one of the other popular winter activities – storm watching. The raw power of the Pacific Ocean is regularly unleashed on the shoreline, with eight to ten foot waves smashing against the rocks, high winds pounding the cliffs, and copious amounts of snow and and rain blowing in off the water. Fortunately, there are a number of great viewing spots out of the gale force winds. Check out the Snug Harbour Inn or the Pacific Sands Resort for great views of nature’s raw power on full display.Vancouver Island is an incredibly beautiful place with mountain vistas and thick forests that are fun to explore year round. But the best way to visit the backcountry in the winter is on snowshoes, which are not only incredibly fun, but a great workout too. It’s the perfect way to spend the day away from the crowds and noise of the Olympic Village. But for a really amazing snowshoeing adventure, check out the Lantern Light Cross-Country and Snowshoeing tour around Mount Washington. This excursion hits the trail after dark, with a blanket of twinkling stars overhead and nothing but lanterns to light the trail ahead. It’s an experience you won’t soon forget.

There are plenty of other options for outdoor winter adventures on the island as well. For instance, snowmobiling is a popular pass time, with hundreds of miles of logging roads and backcountry trails open for exploration. Alternatively, consider packing a four-season tent and warm sleeping bag to go camping while you’re there, as there are camp sites open even in the winter months.

These activities are just a taste of what Vancouver Island has to offer, and once you get a chance to experience it all for yourself, you’ll want to book a return trip in the summer. When the snow melts, there is an entirely new set of outdoor activities to entice you to come back. From hiking to sea kayaking to mountain biking, Vancouver is equally intriguing in the summer as it is in the winter.

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Leaf peeping in the northern hemisphere

Let’s face it: autumn is here. But why not embrace the fall by heading to the hills and enjoying the turning of the leaves from green to fiery red?

It’s no secret that New England is one of the world’s top fall foliage destinations, but I bet you didn’t know that there are several other places in the northern Hemisphere where you can see the trees in their autumn glory. An additional bonus? Fewer people travel in the fall, and prices tend to be cheaper too!

Here are a few of the world’s best places to check out fall foliage:

In the USA:
Arizona Highlands — Arizona might have deserts and canyons, but the higher elevations around Flagstaff and its White Mountains have really photo-worthy foliage.

The Great Lakes Region — The Lakes region is famous for its huge expanse of fresh water, but the trees in fall paired with the blue of the water makes fall a great time to travel north.

Maine — This whole state is ablaze with fall colors come October. Just ride the I-95 north and breathe in the New England air. It’s no wonder the state slogan is, “Maine: The Way Life Should Be.”


In Canada:
Vancouver Island – Canada’s western isle is teeming with fall colors — from the city of Victoria, British Columbia’s capital, to the wilderness of Strathcona Provincial Park.

Prince Edward Island — Leaf peepers can hike, bike or take a horseback ride through the uncrowded trails on Prince Edward Island. Additionally, Charlottetown rings in the fall with its Fall Flavours food and wine festival.

In Europe:
High Tatras, Poland — Poland’s eastern mountains are great for skiing in the winter, but the fall offers fantastic opportunities for hiking. Zakopane makes a good base for fall excursions.

Lot Valley, France — Walk, bike, or drive around Lot Valley’s orchards and vineyards, which glow with autumn colors. The region is great for active bird watching or just a quiet weekend retreat.

Bruges, Belgium
– Take a stroll around Bruges’s canals or drink a Belgian beer while admiring the trees. This is one of the few places where the city offers just as many photo-worthy fall shots as the outskirts.

The Swiss Alps – While this mountain range is famous for its skiing, fall offers great opportunities for multi-day hiking or road tripping along winding mountain roads as you admire the warm colors of the hills.

Lake Bled, Slovenia — Take a boat onto Lake Bled and take in the perfect blend of the area’s clear waters and the trees’ fiery hues.

[via SkyScanner.net]

Explore the coast of British Columbia with Maple Leaf Adventures

For more than twenty years Maple Leaf Adventures has been providing unique and affordable opportunities for travelers to visit the stunning coastlines of British Columbia and southern Alaska, with a host of tours designed to offer amazing wildlife experiences while immersing travelers in the native cultures that are still prevalent in the region today.

A quick glance at Maple Leaf’s list of tours and you’ll begin to understand why they were named one of National Geographic Adventure‘s best adventure travel companies. Their trips range in length from five to eleven nights, with small groups of travelers boarding the Maple Leaf, a 92-foot long, 104 year old, wooden schooner that has been refurbished with modern amenities and outfitted to make these expedition cruises as comfortable as possible for passengers. The entire experience is enhanced further by the presence of top naturalists and historians who specialize in the B.C. and Alaskan coasts and serve as guides for the these adventures.

Eco-tourism may have become a hot topic in the travel industry over the past few years, but for Maple Leaf Adventures, it has been part of the companies philosophy since it was founded back in 1986. All of the tours have been meticulously planned to have as small of an impact on the environment as possible, and the company has championed conservation efforts along the B.C. coastline for years. In addition, Maple Leaf was instrumental in opening travel options to the Great Bear Rainforest and parts of Vancouver Island.

Personally, the thought of taking an adventure cruise along the Alaskan or B.C. coasts sounds like an amazing experience. The fact that the cruise takes place on a wooden longship that provides a sense of history, only enhances the appeal. With so many interesting options to choose from, it is difficult to recommend just one, but it’s also hard to top their voyage to the Gulf Islands, in Autumn no less. Those lucky enough to make that journey are treated to spectacular scenery, the great migration of birds heading south for winter, spawning salmon, and giant orcas, with the stunning backdrop of all the fall colors. Sounds perfect to me!