Washington Paddling: Operation Orca

See one of the sea's keenest hunters as you paddle San Juan Island.

The Paddle

Bring a strong sea-kayaking resume for this three-day circumnavigation of San
Juan Island, 24 miles off Washington's Pacific Coast. You'll glide amidst orcas
and sea lions, passing rugged and wind-scoured shorelines on a challenging 30-mile
sea-kayaking circuit. From Friday Harbor, leave the day-tripping ferry crowds
behind as you paddle clockwise around the island with prevailing winds at your
back. Small inlets and pine-lined pocket beaches offer respite from choppy seas.
Deadman Bay, on the western shore, is one of the few places in the country to
see orca cows and their calves. Camp at Griffin Bay Recreation Site, San Juan
County State Park, Posey Island State Park, and Jones Island.

The Crux

Changing currents and tricky tides. The tidal exchange brings
13-foot swells, and rough water around San Juan Island has claimed seven kayakers
in the past year.

The Key

Proper timing. The narrow Cattle Point channel, on the island's southern tip,
funnels vast amounts of fast, freezing water four times daily as the tides go
in and out. Avoid the channel in whipping winds and white-capped water–both
are harbingers of potentially life-threatening conditions. Take the same caution
when passing between San Juan and Spieden Islands. Study up-to-date tide charts
and time your departure from the Griffin Bay campsite during slack tide–midway
between high and low tides when the water is calmest.

The Way

Take the ferry from Anacortes (64.4 miles north of Seattle) to Friday Harbor.

Plan It

The Washington State Ferry ($13; wsdot.wa.gov/ferries)
goes between Anacortes and Friday Harbor 19 times daily. Pack Sea Trails Adventure
Guidemap WA003 (seatrails .com) and NOAA chart 18423 SC (nauticalcharts.noaa.gov),
available at Friday Harbor marina. Hit Discovery Sea Kayaks for rentals, advice,
and tours (discoveryseakayak.com).