Wednesday, September 16, 2009

a killer time, but (thankfully) no killer whales

Last week, Dave and I loaded up the kayaks and headed up to the San Juan Islands in Northern Washington. This is an area famous for its orca sightings, romantic fjord-like landscapes, and being a nature lover's dream. The trip was fantastic! However, we only spent 3 days/3 nights here so I feel as though we only scratched the surface of what treasures these islands hold. Plans are in the works to get back here very soon...


Before setting off on our adventure on the islands, we had to be ferried across the Rosario Straight. I've never taken this kind of transportation before so it was definitely interesting... cars just line up in different aisles depending on which island is their destination and then everyone just waits...and waits. Dave and I arrived about 2 hours early and we ran out of things to do pretty quickly. We had also gotten up at 5 that morning so we were pretty tired. Needless to say, we fell asleep in the car and woke up in a state of confusion to cars boarding the ferry all around us!
Anyway, we made it onto the ferry and were packed on like sardines (see above picture). They have really nice viewing decks above so we headed up there to check out the awesome scenery on the way to our first stop, Lopez Island.

Here we are arriving at the campsite
on Lopez Island. We had to cart our belongings in because the parking lot was pretty far from the tents. We also found our campsite complete with a hammock!

Later that same day after setting up camp for the night we got anxious and decided to get in the water. We had planned to get down to Fisherman Bay in hopes of watching the sunset, but it was a cloudy day so there wasn't much for drastic colors.

As soon as we put in the water and started paddling, we saw whales spouting! My initial reaction was to paddle back to shore, but of course, Dave got excited and I could hardly muster up the strength to keep up with his adrenaline-driven paddling. However, they moved through very quickly and by the time we had gotten to their first sighting location, they were far south of us. We never saw any obvious dorsal fins so we assumed they were minke whales that also frequent the area.

Day 2
The first night on Lopez Island, we had the "joy" of experiencing a cold, September shower of the Pacific Northwest...just a preview of what's to come in the winter. We awoke the next day to find it to be, again, fairly cloudy and threatening rain. We decided to not let this less desirable weather get us down and headed to the Southeastern side of Lopez Island to do some kayaking in the Strait of Juan de Fuca.

The San Juan Islands have many microclimates, and often the conditions on one part of an island may be quite different on another. This looked to prove true as the weather actually appeared as though it might clear up once we got to the water (note the clear sky while we were making lunch). However, as soon as we were out on the water, the clouds rolled in and we found ourselves in a seemingly endless sea where one could hardly recognize the horizon. This created a surreal image and it seemed the only movement on the water was when the bow of our kayaks sliced through the smooth surface.

However, these calming waters did not last for long. In fact, this was probably the most eventful day of our trip...unfortunately, I don't have the pictures that captured it. Therefore, I will relay the events that unfolded in words.

We put in that day in Mackaye Harbor, which as you can see in the above picture, very calm water. It took us probably a little over an hour to paddle out of the protected bay area, and once we reached the far end of this safe-haven, you could start to see the choppiness awaiting us in the unprotected Strait. I was getting a little uneasy, but I was hopeful that it was not going to be as bad as my imagination often has a way of making it out to be.

As soon as we turned the bend into the open waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, I was a nervous wreck! I felt very tipsy as we were placed into the hands of rough conditions (for Puget Sound), incoming boat wake, and reflecting waves from the nearby cliffs. We tried to stay close to land to avoid the strength of the notorious currents of this area, but I was afraid of getting too close to the jagged rocks as well. There was a band of kelp that surrounded the island, which seemed to take some of the brute out of the choppy water so Dave suggested that I try to stay on the inside of it. Of course, I second guessed this idea and wanted to stay just outside this kelp forest. When I realized he may have been right, I tried to go straight through it to meet him on the "safer" side. Silly me...I ended up going though a very thick patch and actually entangled myself in these dense plants that coated the surface of the water!

As I searched for a way out of this mess, I heard Dave yelling, "Whoa! Back up!"...and I looked up to see a group of waves generated from a passing boat rolling in and actually breaking right at the bow of Dave's kayak! I thought I was a goner! There was no way I was going to be able to get out of the way in time before they broke on the side of my boat and tipped me over!

Luckily, the kelp held me in place and also took most of the energy out of the waves before they got to me. I was then able to slowly back my way out of the kelp and free myself from it's slimy grip. Needless to say, we turned around and headed back for a cobble beach that was near the mouth of the bay! Here is a picture that pretty much sums up how I felt to be back on land...
While exploring the cobble beach, we found mini-tidepools filled with some amazing little creatures.
cobble beach
closed barnacles
when a wave came by the barnacles opened up to filter the water!
We climbed up the large hill that backed the cobble beach and found a trail leading out to Iceberg Point. The hike was absolutely gorgeous! The hillside was covered in tall, yellow grass, which also housed hundreds of chirping, male crickets. I could have sat there all day listening to their beautiful music!

There was even cactus growing here! I later read that these cactus are declining, but it may be because the Native Americans used to cultivate them for fish hooks, needles, dyes, etc. Because of the disappearance of their care-takers, they too are slowly vanishing.
We ended the second day here on Iceberg Point, watching seals lounging on nearby rocks, tankers silently rolling in, and finally, the sun lighting up the sky in a beautiful array of pastels!
I'm not sure what these little guys were, but they remind me of those little plants you can buy that don't need to be planted or watered because they get their moisture from the air.

Day 3

On the third day we took the ferry across the San Juan Channel to the (you guessed it...) San Juan Island. This island was very different from Lopez. Lopez Island is made up primarily of farm land with very little in terms of a central center of business. Meanwhile, San Juan was referred to as the "Times Square of the San Juan Islands". The difference was very apparent as we drove into Friday Harbor where there were lots more people, shops, and eateries.

We first headed to Lime Kilm State Park where we did a bit of orca watching. We actually did see a pod of them a few miles away from the viewing area! We could see their enormous dorsal fins through the binoculars! Originally, I was convinced that I wanted to see them while in the kayaks, but after the incident on the second day and seeing a sculpure of a life-sized fin (which towered over me) I decided that through the binoculars might be the best distance for now...

Afterwards, we drove down to False Bay and did some tidepooling at low tide. The name comes from the fact that many boaters used to get stranded here when the tide was out because it can completely drain.

We didn't see anything too interesting, besides some crabs and seagulls, while wading through this stinky bay so we didn't spend much time here.

Finally, it was time to get in the water! We put in at the County Park and headed out of the Bay for the Haro Strait. Although there was still the occasional wake from a passing boat, the water was much calmer on this day. We stuck close to the shoreline and explored the rocky coasts. There was a lot of kelp in the area, which served as a good indicator for which direction the current was flowing. We also saw LOADS of jellies! There seemed to be two abundant species (both of which are pictured below) --a large pink one with meaty tentacles and a much smaller clear one with tiny tentacles around the periphery of its body.

While travelling along the rocks, it was impossible to ignore the grand houses, which lined the shore. I am so perplexed as how people are able to afford such magnificent houses in such a beautiful environment! Many of the houses we saw earlier while on the ferry seemed to have an island all to themselves! This also explains why air transportation is a very popular means of travel. Everyday we saw private water planes flying through the sky! I'm assuming that most of the houses here are only summer homes since many of them looked vacant as we passed their dark windows. It is kind of sad to think that some people cannot even afford one house and here many people have two.

After paddling for several hours we decided to take a 5 minute break to stretch our backs. We beached ourselves on someone's private cobble beach and started doing relieving our sore muscles. Suddenly, a seal began jumping out of the water (pictured above) and thrashing about. It would then resurface and look at us only to leap out and display its dissatisfaction with our presence again. I'm not sure what all the fuss was about, but we headed back out of the cove so as not to displease him (or the owners of the beach).

At sunset, we manuvered ourselves into a kelp bed to hold us still from the currents. It was here that we sat and waited for the sun to sink below the horizon. Every now and then when I was looking at the kelp forest, I would see a curious seal surface to observe us while we watched the contrails from overhead planes lit up from the suns lengthening rays.

Later that night we loaded up the boats and made dinner by the last remaining sunlight on the distant horizon. This viewpoint was gorgeous...overlooking the ocean with the lights from Victoria, Canada twinkling only a short distance in front of us. We stayed here until it was completely dark and then headed back to Friday Harbor to wait for our boat to take us back to Lopez Island.

Day 4

The next morning, we were soon to be homeward bound. We walked around a few art shops on Lopez Island and caught the early afternoon ferry back to the mainland of Washington. This ferry ride was particularly we approached Washington, we could see looming in the background a hazy, snow-capped mountain, which seemed to dwarf everything in its proximity.

Back on the highways of Washington, we were quickly brought back to reality as our desolate paradise was replaced with highways, heavy traffic traffic, and millions of people.