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

Chiloe: Chilean Patagonia’s emerald islands offer eco- and agritourism

I can’t remember who first told me about Chiloe, but I do recall that it was just a few weeks before my first trip to Chilean Patagonia. For a year I’d been planning an itinerary around my personal Holy Grail: rafting the thunderous Futaleufu River.

Located across the Chacao Channel from the bustling town of Puerto Montt in northern Patagonia, Chiloe is a 41-island archipelago. The largest of these is Isla Grande (“Chiloe island”), at 3,241-square-miles the second-largest in South America, after Tierra del Fuego. In 2009, Chiloe was ranked #3 on Lonely Planet’s “Best Places to Visit,” so it’s no longer a secret, but its relatively isolated location, sleepy pace, and often-tempestuous maritime climate tend to appeal to more intrepid travelers.

Chiloe was originally inhabited by Mapuche, Chonos, and Cunco indians, until the Spanish arrived in the mid 1500’s. The blending of indigenous and Catholic beliefs gave birth to superstitions and mythological creatures like the troll-like Trauco. These fanciful beliefs and icons are still a popular part of Chilote culture.

Located in Chile’s Lakes District–a breathtaking palette of cobalt-blue glacial lakes, emerald fjords, snow-capped volcanoes, and native alerce forest–Chiloe’s rural way of life is a direct reflection of its fishing and farming economies. While many of the archipelago’s 130,00 residents still subsistence farm, a low-key brand of eco-tourism has been steadily increasing in the last decade.

Flocks of sheep, not cars, clog the (frequently unpaved) roads, and ox carts, horse, and donkey are the alternate forms of transportation. Milk cans sit at the head of rutted driveways, awaiting pick-up from the dairy co-op. Brightly-painted palafitos (shanty towns on stilts) resemble children’s blocks, and colorful, handcrafted wooden fishing boats dot the coast or repose onshore. Many of the 150 Jesuit-built, 19th century churches are UNESCO World Heritage sites.

[Photo credit: Flickr user Miguel A. Gallardo]

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Many visitors choose to sea kayak or do live-aboard boat tours of the fjords and inlets of the archipelago, which is perhaps the best way to take in the spectacular scenery and surrounding views of mainland volcanoes. Land tours, however, provide a more intímate cultural experience, especially for those wanting to experience Chiloe’s nationally-famed cuisine.
Chilean Patagonia has a strong European influence due to German, Swiss, French, Welsh, and Yugoslavian immigrants that arrived in the mid-1800’s to establish small farmsteads, which is reflected in the hearty regional food. Many farmers still make their own cheese, jams, and charcuterie, and keep bees. As a result, agriturismos (farmstays) have grown in popularity the last 15 years, which supplements the island economy.

The mystery acquaintance who suggested I visit Chiloe told me to contact Britt Lewis and Sandra Echegaray, the husband-and-wife owners of Ancud-based Austral Adventures. Britt is from the States, while Sandra, a chef, grew up on a farm in Peru. She prepares all of Austral’s land-based meals from Chiloe-grown ingredients, including potatoes (which originated on the island, not Peru, a fact that Chilotes are understandably proud of), as well as mussels, clams, fish, sea urchin, lamb, cheese, orchard fruits, vegetables, honey, seaweed, and foraged native foods like murta, a wild berry used in jams and sauces.

Austral specializes in eco-tours aboard Cahuella, a 50-foot wooden boat. Their six-day live-aboard trips around the archipelago’s fjords, and four-day journeys along the northern fjords of Parque Pumalin (across the Golfo de Ancud) are considered “one of the five unique boat journeys in the world,” by the U.K. Guardian’s travel section. The couple also guide personally-tailored land tours that focus on Chiloe’s culture, food, wildlife (which includes whales and penguins) and outdoor activities such as hiking and paddling. Austral provides guides on all of its tours “to enhance the cultural exchanges.”

After corresponding with Sandra, I immediately rearranged my itinerary, carving out five days on Chiloe. She made a plan to take me around the main island, where we would stay at several of her favorite agriturismos, and attend a curanto. This beloved Chilote social event is a shellfish, potato flatbread, and meat bake believed to have been inspired by Polynesian luau (via Easter Island). The food is traditionally cooked in a pit covered with seaweed or the leaves of nalca, an indigenous plant related to rhubarb. No curanto is complete without Chilote music and dancing, copious amounts of red wine, chicha (fermented fruit cider, usually apple), and pisco sours. If you’re traveling solo or as a couple, and can’t find a curanto to attend, look for a restaurant that offers “pulmay,” or “curanto en olla (in a pot).” It’s not the same experience, but it will allow you to try the foods for which Chiloe is famous.

Chiloe is connected to the mainland by ramps that have been built in the channel to form a motorway. The easiest way to get there is to fly from Santiago to Puerto Montt (LAN is the country’s main international and domestic carrier, but other domestic airlines include Aerosur, Aerolineas Star Peru, and Taca) then take a bus. There are terminals in the main towns of Ancud (North island), the capital of Castro (East coast), and Quellon (end of the road on the southeastern coast), but you can get off in any of the villages en route. Ancud has two bus terminals. Cruz del Sur, the long distance operator, is convieniently located near the Plaza de Armas. The municipal terminal is on the outskirts of town.

It’s about a 54-mile bus ride from Puerto Montt’s bus terminal to Ancud. Chiloe operates on a much slower pace than the rest of the world, but Ancud is a fairly busy, pleasant place to unwind for a couple of days. There’s an indoor marketplace where you can find produce, artisan foods, and handwoven Chilote wool sweaters. I spent night at the charming Hostal Mundo Nuevo, a Swiss-run place right on the bay. For dining, Sandra and Britt recommended Mascaron de Proa (65-621-979, and Casamar (65-624-481). Unfortunately, I didn’t make it to either due to time constraint and getting sidetracked by a nameless empanaderia off the Plaza de Armas.

The day after my arrival, Sandra met me and we rattled off in her pick-up to Tenaun, a one-street, 19th century fishing village on the eastern coast. Seaweed is a major part of Chiloe’s economy, used for culinary, medicinal, and agricultural purposes, and I watched a farmer planting pelillo (agar agar, a species used in processed foods ) on the tidal flats. Mainly, I just wandered the quiet streets, snacking on buttery plum kuchen (coffeecake) and enjoying the solitude. Tenaun is known for its UNESCO-designated church, Iglesia de Tenaún, but the village is lovely: lots of apple orchards, beehives, beached fishing boats, flower-bedecked cottages, and old Mapuche men on donkeys. I stayed overnight at Familia Vásquez Montana (owned by aforementioned seaweed farmer Guido Vasquez, and his wife/cook, Mirella; reservations required, (09-647-6750). Since my visit, however, it has expanded from four to 25 beds, and operates more like a hostal than family home. You can catch a bus from Ancud or Castro to Tenaun three times daily (one-and-a-half hours, approximately).

The next day, Sandra took me to lunch at Maria Luisa Maldonado’s agriturismo (09-643-7046), outside of village San Antonio. The adorably fiesty octogenerian is one of the founding forces behind Chiloe’s agriturismo movement, as well as a hell of a cook. She has four guest rooms (seven beds in all) on her farm, which also operates as an informal dining room for overnight guests and pre-booked visitors. We joined Luisa’s son and young niece for a gratifying meal of her farmstead cheese; cazuela Chilote, a rich, flavorful stew of grass-fed veal and vegetables from the farm, raspberry juice from fruit picked that morning, and panqueques con manjar- crepes with Luisa’s own luscious, caramelized milk spread. Heaven.

Another popular agriturismo is Los Senderos de Chepu, in the wetlands area of Chepu, outisde of Ancud. Proprietor Enriqueta Carcamo is the current president of Chiloe’s Turismo Rural association; she and her husband, Fernando offer cheesemaking and other farm activities, horseback riding, and meals sourced from their farm.

My most memorable meal on Chiloe, however, came the day Sandra took me to the home of her friends, Hugo and Wanda Brenni. Hugo, who is Chileno, is the founder of Berkeley’s 35-year-old La Pena Cultural Center (oddly enough, I used to live just around the corner). He started La Pena while working as a cook in the Bay Area, “to create an awareness of solidarity” during Chile’s period of dictatorship.

Hugo prepared our lunch from ingredients grown and foraged on the property or purchased from neighboring farms. While he cooked, Wanda, who is from the States, told me, “What’s amazing about Chiloe is you can just walk down to the beach and collect as many shellfish as you can carry, get king crab from the kids on the corner, harvest wild berries. The local people are so traditional, the soil is so rich…there is always food. That’s the miracle of this place.” We sat down to a lunch of roast duck with a piquant salsa de murta, freshly-dug fingerling potatoes, a beet salad, and Wanda’s sourdough bread, cultured from wild yeast. Miraculous, indeed.

Potatoes in Chile Sauce

Recipe by Sandra Echegaray, Austral Adventures

serves 8

2 lbs. waxy new potatoes, such as Yukon gold, cut into ½-inch cubes
olive oil
salt and freshly ground black pepper

Drizzle potatoes with olive oil and seasoning, and roast in a pre-heated 350-degree oven until cooked through. While potatoes are roasting, prepare chile sauce.

Chile Sauce

1 medium yellow onion, diced
4 garlic cloves, minced
¼ cup olive oil
1-1 ½ cup dry red wine
4 tablespoon tomato puree
4 ripe tomatoes, peeled and chopped
1 teaspoon fresh oregano leaves, finely chopped
2 fresh red chilies, minced
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
finely chopped Italian parsley, for garnish

In a medium size pot, sauté onion and garlic two tablespoons of olive oil for until tender, approximately two minutes. Add chilies and cook until tender. Add tomato puree, salt, and pepper, and sauté two minutes, stirring constantly. Add fresh tomatoes, half of the wine, and oregano. Cover and simmer the mixture at low heat for ten minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the rest of the wine, and continue to cook at low heat for 10 more minutes.
Just before serving, add the warm roasted potatoes. Serve immediately, garnishing with parsley.

[Photo credit: church, Flickr user James Byrum]

Nuts about Peru’s Tambopata National Reserve

Nuts–if you think about these things, which evidently I do–evoke blustery fall afternoons, or wintery evenings before a roaring fire. You bust out the nutcracker, and get to work. At least, that’s what my family did when I was a kid, even though I grew up in Southern California where, let’s face it, the weather is seldom blustery. Anyways, we always had a lot of Brazil nuts in the communal bowl, and consequently, they’re one of my favorites. They’re big and easy to crack, with rich, oily meat.

Nuts have been associated with the winter solstice since Medieval times (they provided much-needed fat and nutrients). What most of us don’t associate nuts with are steaming jungles, machetes, or endangered wildlife. I certainly didn’t, until I visited the Brazil nut camp in Tambopata National Reserve (TNR), in Peru’s Amazon Basin.

The Tambopata is a tributary of the Amazon, and the 275,000-hectare Reserve is home to some of the world’s most diverse and pristine rainforest. This conservation area, and the adjacent Bahuaja-Sonene National Park were designated by the Peruvian government to protect the watersheds of the Tambopata and Candamo Rivers. Rainforest Expeditions operates three Puerto Maldonado region eco-lodges within the confines of the Reserve: the Posada Amazonas and Refugio Amazonas eco-lodges, and the Tambopata Research Center. It’s at Refugio that one can visit the Brazil nut camp, and harvest the nuts (April through July).

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Even if nuts aren’t your thing, there are plenty of other reasons to visit. The area is noted for its wildlife, especially birds. If there’s an active nest, there are tours to check out endangered harpy eagles (they live in Brazil nut trees), or hike to clay licks teeming with macaws or parakeets. That may not sound thrilling, but it’s an amazing sight to see (and hear) that many explosively colorful birds in one spot.

Rainforest Expeditions integrates its jungle properties with educational/voluntourism experiences for adults and families. Besides the clay licks, activities include forest walks, wildlife viewing, philanthropic visits to local communities, seminars on the ecology and biology of the region, kayaking, catch-and-release piranha fishing, or cooking with the indigenous staff (an activity reserved for rainy weather, and something I really enjoyed, from a cultural standpoint).

Refugio is located in a 200-hectare private reserve (which is adjacent to the greater Reserve, you see). To get there, one must fly into the tiny jungle port of Puerto Maldonado from Lima. From there, it’s an hour drive to the boat launch in the indigenous community of Infierno, which works in partnership with the Posada Amazonas Lodge. The Refugio property is a two-and-a half-hour trip upriver, through a park ranger checkpoint.

The gorgeous, four-year-old, open-air lodge is built from traditional native materials such as wood, palm fronds, wild cane, and clay. It has a communal dining room with a bar (yes!), and clean, breezy rooms with gauzy, mosquito-netted beds. There are also luxe touches, like the pretty little guest soaps made of–wait for it–Brazil nuts. The food–a daily buffet of international and Peruvian dishes, and loads of fresh fruit, far surpasses what you might expect. Some of the produce comes from organic farmer Don Manuel, across the river. He grows tropical and citrus fruits, yucca, and chiles; on his farm tours, (if you love food, definitely go for it), you can sample Amazonian fruits such as cupuaçu and pacay.

Getting back to nuts, the brazil nut camp is a concession owned by the Peruvian government, although a local indigenous family has rights to the nut harvest. There are thousands of Brazil nut concessions in this region. They’re an important cash crop that provides the local families with income, which also helps to protect the Reserve from slash-and burn-agriculture.
The local Ese’eja, as well as other indigenous peoples of mestizo and Andean descent, live within four communities in the buffer zone of the Reserve. Many are employed by Rainforest Expeditions (the company tries to hire as many local people as possible), or harvest Brazil nuts during the wet season.

The nuts are technically an edible seed, clusters of which are found within thick seed pods. The trees don’t make good timber, although they are tapped for rubber in the dry season. They’re considered one of the most sustainable crops because their harvest and tapping have little ecological impact, especially in areas where hunting is prohibited or restricted during harvest season.

Brazil nut trees are an interdependent species, because they rely upon several animals to perpetuate their life cycle. Agoutis and other rodent species eat the nuts, spreading seeds in their droppings. A species of rainforest-dwelling bee is necessary to pollinate the trees, which is why they aren’t cultivated.

It turned out I’d just missed the harvest, but I walked the short trail to the deserted camp to check it out–basically, some leftover seed pods in a small clearing. Back at the lodge, however, Brazil seed pod cracking is like an Olympic sport, in part because it brings out the competitive spirit. They’re exceedingly difficult to open, necessitating a scimitar-like machete and serious hand-eye coordination- something I am seriously lacking. I finally managed to whack one apart without losing any digits, and made use of the lodge’s industrial-strength, communal nutcracker. You see a lot of people walking around, picking Brazil nuts or bits of shell out of their teeth.

The handsome, coconut-like pods turn up all over the lodge in the form of napkin holders, and votive-receptacles on recycled wood chandeliers. At the Puerto Maldonado airport, you can find Brazil nut candy, and oil, which is intoxicating, with a smooth, clean, complex flavor. Unfortunately, it has such a short shelf life that it isn’t suitable for the export market, but it’s worth bringing a bottle home with you (I honestly have no idea if Customs permits this, but that’s never stopped me before). Use it to dress salads, or drizzle on roasted potatoes or root vegetables.

Refugio and its sister properties may take some getting to, but if you’re looking for responsible, soft rainforest adventure, it’s well worth the trek.
All the more reason to load up that bowl with Brazil nuts.