Minke Whales to Orcas Island

July 23, 2019 – A good night’s sleep. An easy morning pack. Jim showed up precisely when we agreed he would, at 7:25 am. I had just gotten into my boat, ready to launch. We said our goodbyes and I headed out of the marina. There was a large mobbing group of gulls at the mouth of the harbor so I knew something was up. Then I heard a spout, turned my head, and there surfaced a minke whale, with its more pronounced dorsal fin and white spots on the fins. I got my camera out and ready. I waited. And waited. And waited. After ten minutes I gave up, only to have that same whale, or another singular minke whale, surface on the other side of me. After it went back under, the birds dispersed so I figured the show was over. What a great start to the day!

I headed due east toward Orcas Island. The forecast called for 10-15 knot headwinds in the morning followed by up to 20 knot wind from the opposite direction in the afternoon. It was the beginning of the ebb tide so the first hour went pretty well. I got through the BC Ferry channel without any issue and entered Gulf Island appreciation mode. It was lovely – couple of pidgeon guillemots here and there along the way, fishing then flying to a new spot, a harbor seal popping its head up to check out the kayaker and, of course, the bald eagle sentry at the top of a tree at the water’s edge on practically every island, large or tiny.

I stopped on Rum Island for a brief break. There were a couple of kayaks tied up above the high tide line so had I stayed here last night I would have had company. I wish I’d had time to explore it a bit but, with a receding waterline, that would have been too much work and taken too much time to do. Going back some day. After my break, I again headed east.

As I entered the channel (after crossing into the US) between Stuart and Spieden Islands, it felt like I’d entered a combination of a maritime equivalent of the autobahn and a mousetrap. A great number of yachts, sailboats, fishing, and whale watching boats covered the water, zipping at full throttle every which way. Sometimes that meant headed straight for me. Would they see me before it was too late? Then there was the enormous “San Francisco Bay Ferry” that came screaming right past me. Now there was a wake. On the river you really only have two directions from which you can expect wakes. Here they were coming from every direction, in every size, constantly. It made it difficult to focus on the fine details of the breathtaking landscapes I was paddling next to.

After the first 17 miles, the predicted winds started to materialize and I had ever larger wind waves to contend with in addition to the wakes and boats to dodge. The waves reached their peak during three and a half mile open crossing to Orcas. By the time I finished the crossing I was finished. Never more will I do a crossing of that size, or even half that size, at this time of year in this area. Late autumn? Hell yes!

As I came around the southwest tip of Orcas Island, I noticed a few double kayaks with a single kayak paddling the same direction as me. I knew instantly this was some kind of tour coming back into Deer Harbor. Their doubles had almost the same deck color as BABS and were about the same length so I waited to see how long it would take the guide to notice he had one more boat in his care. It took him no time at all. Blake was welcoming and friendly, as were the folks in the group, so I paddled into the harbor with them. It was great timing because I was so cooked after that harrowing crossing that I needed the enthusiasm and energy of other humans to fuel my spirit and “finish strong”.

Uncle Sidney was already at cousin Roger’s. I had no cell signal so I used the GPS to send him a message and he arrived right away in the trusty Saab with Gaston. We loaded the boat and gear up, drank a beer on the dock with the guides Blake and Simon, and a fellow visitor named Paul, and we talked about epic paddling journeys, Pacific Crest Trail adventures, serving in the Vietnam war (that would be Uncle), and being an American Red Cross volunteer during the Vietnam war protests in the late 60s (that would be Paul).

I have so many great memories of Orcas Island. This is where Roger recorded and mastered my first solo album. Eight glorious days with Roger, Barbara, a few days with Andrew (who drove all the way up from Skamokawa to record), and a few hours with Bruce as he played his violin on Harrie’s Tale. That was almost seven years ago. I remember wanting to see the island from the water during that time. I would walk down to the dock and just sit there for some time. I now have my memory of the the views, the wildlife, and now the sublime feeling I experienced traveling its shores. The memory of the boat traffic has already started fading, leaving those positive mental pictures, sounds, and feelings in their fullest strength.

Our host served a delicious evening meal and I am sure of a great night’s sleep ahead. As I wind down for the evening, I know a couple of things. First, my paddling is going to change from this point forward. I don’t see myself lugging all the gear and the boat down from above the high tide line to the shore, loading, then launching every morning. And I don’t see myself landing, unloading an lugging all the gear and the boat up above the high tide line, scouting out the campsite, setting up camp, etc. every night. When those scenarios are possible and practical that is how it will happen. Now I see more days of moving gear from campsite to campsite by car, having help lugging only the basic necessities and the boat to the water, paddling out and then maybe back to the same place at the end of the paddle, and having help lugging everything back to camp or the car. I also see spending a few days in one place and launching from there for different day trip experiences, then driving to another base camp and doing the same from there.

The only must-dos between here and the Columbia Bar is to paddle Deception Pass and around Cape Flattery. I may need to wait it out for a campsite and ideal conditions at the former, and I may need to wait several days to get ideal conditions at the latter. Last year when I was at Cape Flattery for my birthday, I got to see it from above. The conditions looked perfect that day. Hopefully I’ll get lucky and it will all come together. If not, some other time when it is ideal.

The second thing I know is that it doesn’t need to be contiguous. If I decide I really want to stay at a place and it’s not available when I’m there initially, I’ll come back. The original picture I had of being able to find a place to land and camp every night needs to be modified. The shores of southeast Alaska and northern British Columbia are more hospitable to that kind of journey than they are as you go south, unless you are comfortable being a rule-breaker and/or socially confident enough to land on someone’s property and ask permission to spend the night there. It was a stretch for me to ask at the Yacht Club, and I wouldn’t have done it had I not a supportive friend there by my side. I am who I am, and I am actually somewhat relieved and excited to do this next leg differently.

The important part is that I am doing this next leg, not giving up and going home despite how homesick I feel. Although I must admit, hearing and seeing minke whales, and remembering that experience, makes me completely forget the homesickness for those moments.

The infamous Rum Island. Definitely coming back here!
Sea nettles in the water near shore at Rum Island.
I’m just part of the group Blake. Heading into Deer Harbor.

Written by

kyleenaustin

I am passionate about outdoor exploration. In the recent years I have discovered how much more I can experience from a kayak. I am a professional musician and own a dairy where we produce raw milk, butter and cheeses. My son tells me I have "too much on my plate". He is correct, but I wouldn't live life any other way.

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