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San Juan Islands Kayak Solo, a Chance Trip Report

The timing was perfect: two weeks of mid to high 60’s and sunshine almost every day. The weather would allow a wonderful circular route from North Beach on Orcas Island, to Matia, Sucia, Patos, down to Stuart, across to Posey and then on to Jones, and finally, back up the west side of Orcas to North Beach. That was the plan. Too bad it didn’t happen.

The adventure was supposed to be prefixed with classes in Combat Roll and Rescues by Rogue Wave Adventures in Seattle, followed by a peddle upgrade for my two kayaks by AltaKayak on Orcas, then I’d be off.

However, with Class rescheduling and a question about available parts for the kayak upgrade, the days marched forward while I stayed in one place (except for my Middle Sister Climb posted earlier). Once the parts were in, I jumped to Orcas and had the modification done, then back to Seattle for the rescheduled classes. Finally, two weeks from my intended departure, I could take off. The weather was “iffy” at best.

I stored one boat with a friend in Seattle. Not wanting to loose a kayak partner, he made me promise him I wouldn’t go out if the winds got over 15 knots (sort of a promise I make myself anyway). That meant staying several nights on Orcas waiting for a good weather window. My budget didn’t allow for “indoor living”.

I camped at Twin Lakes – a great place for hammocks because of the tree layout and diameters. You get there by taking the road (Olga) to Moran Park. On that road, in the park, take a left fork starts the uphill to the top of Mount Constitution. Along that route there is another fork to the right that goes to Twin Lakes. The road passes a park official’s cabin and is narrowed by bordering threes. Just before it ends at a boat ramp, there is another fork to the campsites on the right. I found sites #129 and #130 to be ideal.

Now during the normal season, those sites might need to be reserved, or maybe they are only for “groups”. But with the park half closed, I was the only one there.

Each day I drove to the library parking lot in town, and used their wireless Internet access to check the weather. Additionally, I listened to the forecast on my Marine Radio. I like to have two sources for things – agreeing with each other.

What before was going to be two weeks of play had now shrunk to a 24 hour window. I could leave early Wednesday; return by about noon on Thursday.

Given that timetable, I scratched Stuart/Posey/Jones off my list and planned a counter clockwise route to the islands immediately north of Orcas.

While I was unloading the car, a local resident bicycled up and started asking friendly curious questions about my boat and the logistics of kayak camping. I need to find a proper balance in my response. I don’t want to ignore a friendly overture, but I also need to really focus on what I’m doing. As it was, I made a misstep in grabbing food and paid for it later. I also took off about an hour later than intended.

Rolfe Cove at Matia, about 3.7 miles, was my first goal. Direct line is a little shorter but there’s an area called Parker’s Reef that needs avoiding. The cove presented a floating dock and gravel beach. I could have climbed from the kayak to the dock – a vertical distance of about 2 feet from the water - but preferred the beach. The dock extended to a metal ramp continuing up a steep bank to the campsites; I was sure there would be a trail if I landed on the beach and I found one to the left of the ramp. On the way back to the boat, I saw the easy, “That’s the way to do it.” path on the ramp’s right side (viewed from the water). Use that one.

Matia had about three campsites, two had good hammock trees. There was a pit toilet but no water. Time to move on; the day was young.

I jumped back in the boat and continued west about 3 miles to Fox Cove at Sucia.

Many people had told me the Sucia was for power boaters. On this day, I was the only one there. I landed on the south side of a finger that makes the cove (instead of paddling round it), and got out to reconnoiter. This would be a great place to hammock. There was water from a faucet – but it is turned off in October - and a fancier pit toilet. The ground at the sites is short grass and there are fire rings. However, I could see that the openness also removes privacy and I’m sure it could be crowded in the summer.

Checking my watch showed I had two hours of daylight left. At a cruising speed of a little over 3 knots I knew I could make the 4 mile passage to Patos Island and have enough time to set up camp – doesn’t take long to string a hammock (if there are trees) – and fix a meal before it got really dark.

Following the recommendation of my chart, I passed between Sucia and Little Sucia Island. I hugged the shore until I could peek into Shallow Bay, then I headed to the east side of Patos. I followed Patos’s south shore and passed within 20 yard of an eagle standing on the bank above me.

I pulled into Active Cove pretty much on schedule and quickly set to work at camp craft. The boat was emptied, hammock hang, boat put above high tide (always a good thing) and tied off, and I started boiling water for dinner.

That’s when I realized that in my distraction during packing, I’d put in the pre-cooked brown rice but forgot the topping. While eating straight, plain, warmed up brown rice, I reflected on how lucky I was to be able to have such an adventure and how there were many, many people in the world who would love to have the meal I was “enjoying”. I ate one of my energy bars for desert.

Patos had pit toilets but no water.. Knowing this, and that by October, none of the “water provided” sites have water, I carried several liters with me. I also had food for a few more days (instant mash potatoes for dinner – again, no topping).

Before calling it a day, I strung an MSR tarp over the picnic table and my drying gear. With the wind I felt on my face, I was sure most items would be “blow dried” by morning.

The next day I checked the weather radio again to make sure I still had my window. All was fine if I left by mid-morning. So I had time to explore a little. I hiked the trail to the Patos Island Light House and saw two better campsites along the way. That is, they were better for hammocks, privacy and view. But a longer distance to haul gear from the boat on the cove beach. However, below the sites, there was a small patch of sand that wasn’t covered by high tide – and we had a real high, 8+ feet, high tide the pervious night. Using a line and pulley setup, you could hoist gear from the boats up the to the tent area. Or you could be young and full of energy and just make a few trips from the main cove beach were I originally landed.

If I missed my departure window, there was a good possibility I’d be on Patos for three more days waiting for the impending storm to pass. So back at camp, without interruption, packing went quickly and I was on my way.

The crossing to Doughty Point was about 5 miles. I angled around West Bank Reef and ran into a few rip currents. There were some white caps and mostly quartering seas. But at least they were from the front so I could see them coming.

At this point I should note that I can roll and self rescue, I was wearing a dry-suit and I carry a Marine radio and a Spot device that updates a web site with real time tracking of my position on the water. Though I was solo, I feel I was safer than some people I’ve seen in slides/videos of “guided” adventures who are just wearing tee shirts and shorts.

I looked at the sites at Doughty Point – they are hammock-able but the might be a little dark for extended stay. I’d use the Point as a lunch stop or for a short, one-night, stopover if I wanted to get an early start on a longer trip.

I was told – local knowledge – that an ebb tide causes a flood eddy along Orcus’s North coast. I was counting on that so I could lazily paddle from Doughty Point back to the North Beach launch. But looking at the kelp tails, there was no eddy assist that day.

Soon enough I was back at North Beach. Amazingly, the same local who pestered me (in a nice way) with questions before the trip was there again. This time I accepted his offer of help to bring up gear from the beach and load the kayak on the jeep.

In Bend, I am used to weather reports that mostly miss and are repeated until they are correct. Day 1: It’s going to rain, … oops, Day 2: it’s going to rain, … oops, Day 3: it’s going to rain, … oops, Day 4: it’s going to rain - oh, it started raining, we were right. But these NOAA Marine forecasts were right on. They said showers in the afternoon – it was 1:45 – 2 pm and here came showers. I was glad to be in the warm shelter of my jeep and heading down to catch the 3:30 ferry.

Except it turns out the 3:30 ferry only runs on Sunday in the Fall. So I had another hour or two wait. I used that time to change out of my wet paddling gear into dry clothes, and even shave, in the restroom by the ferry dock.

I consider it a very successful trip because 1) one went out and one came back (always a good thing) and 2) I accomplished what I set out to do – to check out the outer San Juan Island for potential adventures.

In the future I’d skip Matia – unless I needed it as a waypoint to Clark Island. I’d definitely consider Fox Cove on Sucia if I could do it mid-week or off-season to avoid crowds. And I’d consider Patos as a part of a loop from Deer Harbor to Jones Island, up the Presidential Channel,

Maybe someday I’ll get to Stuart but now that I’ve mostly seen what I wanted to see in the San Juans, I’ll probably spend more focus on the Gulf Island and Broken Group in BC.
--Paul Chance, Bend Oregon
Copywrite© 2012 by Paul Chance. All Rights Reserved.


The Rest of the Story

My MENSA friend Paul Chance, has become domesticated with Joy.
While he has not given up bagging peaks, see his 2012 solo summit of Middle Sister after the Fire , he has recently pursued the sport of Sea Kayaking.

He has created a completely upgraded Classic 4Wd Jeep Cherokee Sport outfitted with custom roof racks for two best-brand and best-model kayaks (one for Joy). He has installed Expert Class Amateur long distance radio communications, satellite radio for tunes driving to Puget Sound and GPS vehicle navigation. He has subscribed to all of the best magazines and blogs about sea kayaking and is a regular contributor on the sport's websites.

Some of Paul's technical writing will be added to


Is Sea kayaking a part of Traditional Mountaineering?
Yes, indeed! Traditional Mountaineering is an aerobic sport. It includes jogging, running, hiking the hills, backpacking, climbing, mountain biking, back country skiing, snowshoeing, telemark skiing, sea kayaking and similar sports, all acting together to improve aerobic capacity, strength, balance and athleticism. Long distance sea kayaking is an aerobic sport involving balance, learned techniques, safety skills requiring the Basic Responsibilities and the Ten Essentials Systems. The world of the sea kayaker requires fast individual recovery from a catastrophic roll by a rogue wave, prevention of hypothermia from very cold water - inches from the hatches, camping on storm swept isolated beaches, Wilderness First Aid for self and companions and much more. Navigation by coast piloting and GPS plotting with nautical charts and tide tables is a advanced  skill.
--Robert Speik



Puget Sound Sea Kayak Trip Reports From Paul Chance

North Beach, Matia, Sucia, Patos, Doughty Point, North Bea
Gulf Island Trip Report
N Beach, Matia, Sucia, Patos, N Beach
Having a Field Day atr Hosmer Lake off Cascades Lake Highway
A fine kayak adventure on Puget Sound with Paul Chance



Ocean Kayaking has inherent dangers that can, only in part, be mitigated