Our 2014 season begins April 15 this year, and we already have folks signed up for our Griffin Bay Full Day Tour on the 16th! This day trip is my favorite, as it covers some awesome coastline, affords magnificent panoramicvistas and has one of the nicest walks on the island. This is a special bay with no one else around! Wildlife we can see includes harbor seals, stellar sea lions, bald eagles, otters, mink, tons of migratory birds and a possibility of orca whales. Come along for the fun!
Being the original sea kayaking tour company in the San Juan Islands, we’ve seen a lot of changes in the industry. Since we started in 1980, companies have come along and grown by offering kayak/bike tours, kayak beer-tasting tours, whale watching/power boat tours, inn-to-inn kayak tours, wine-tasting kayak tours, kayaking and zip-line tours, etc.
We have opted for a different approach: simply sea kayaking trips! For thirty-one years now, we have specialized in hand-crafted, guided sea kayaking expeditions and self-guided rentals meaning we can focus our energies into providing you with the best kayaking experience possible! Our half-day, full-day and sunset sea kayaking adventures paddle where few others do. Our multi-day trips cover the best of a wide variety of coastlines, campsites and wildlife areas. Our sea kayak rentals supply you with top-quality equipment, professional instruction, personally written itineraries of your route and unprecedented comprehensive service!
We know these islands better than anyone, and we give you that advantage on every one of our tours, expeditions and rentals. Simply sea kayaking – it’s what we do!
It was 1984, and I was paddling down Baja’s eastern desert coast with an intrepid group of clients and a tail-wind gusting to twenty knots. On a whim, we attached our t-shirts to our paddles and let the wind push us along for a mile or so. That was the birth of sea kayak sailing for me. On trips that followed over the years, I devised a way to attach the rain flies of our tents to two paddle shafts, and, later with a friends’ help invented the “boom stick” to support the sail on the forward, bottom edge. Finally, with the assistance of a bonafide sail maker in town, my kayak sailing system as it is today was born. Shortly after it’s inception, I hired a patent agent to submit the paperwork to the U.S. Patent Department and five months later the patent was accepted.
In the meantime, I and my groups have enjoyed one of the most exciting means of sea kayak propulsion there is. My spinnakers allow us to sail our fully loaded double kayaks with the wind at steady speeds without paddling. My record top speed is 10.7 mph, while we have consistently sailed at 6 to 8 mph on many trips. No other sea kayak outfitter in the world offers this exciting sailing system. It is not a gimmick, but is one of many things that make our trips stand above all of the rest!
Kayaking with orcas over the years has allowed my groups to observe these amazing whales traveling, feeding, spy-hopping, sleeping, porpoising and breaching but never mating. That all changed on a September trip a few years back!
We were hugging the shore and staying inside the kelp line to avoid a pesky ebbing tide one morning. Coming around a rocky headland, we almost literally ran into a couple of whales lying close, belly to belly and almost motionless on the surface of a glassy sea. We stopped in the kelp bed immediately, rafted up and watched events unfold. The whales were a female and a male. We thought, at first, that they were dead, but a bit of motion and then snorts of breath relieved our worried minds. After a few minutes, the bull orca floated away from the female and rolled onto his back, exposing the truth: THE TWO HAD BEEN MATING! We had just witnessed an intimate moment and the possible conception of a baby whale to be born about 17 months hence! We were astounded to say the least! With one last blow, the two orcas submerged and disappeared into the dark blue waters, leaving us with eyes as big as saucers, feeling a bit guilty for our intrusion and with memories to last our lifetimes!
Another sea kayaking season has ended with the completion on my 31st year. I led twelve trips this summer, and, I have to say, had some of the greatest people aboard! When you spend three or four days out there exploring the San Juan Islands, it is surely nice to have helpful, hard-working and adventurous folks along. That is what each trip had this year! We worked hard, played hard, paddled hard and laughed ourselves horse! We sailed our kayaks, watched orcas whales and stellar sea lions, and left the islands behind with only our footprints to give proof that we were there. By the end of each adventure, we were a “crack team” with camping and sea kayak skills down to an art. That is what my guided sea kayaking trips are all about!
My sea kayak rentals offered a lot of adventurous paddlers the chance to get out there on their own. Every one of those folks returned with a new outlook on life and on themselves. They had met a challenge and succeeded, and they will take that accomplishment with them wherever they go.
Washington is known as the ”Evergreen State” because of it’s year-round greenery. Douglas Fir, Western Red Cedar, Rocky Mountain Juniper, Western Hemlock and Rhododendron, Salal and Oregon Grape are all evergreen trees or shrubs that keep our landscapes green even in deepest winter. One of the most spectacular evergreen trees is a tenacious native that decorates the rugged coastlines of the San Juan Islands – the mighty Madrona(Arbutus menzisii).
Canadians call it Arbutus. In Washington State it is called madrona or madrone. Transient native American tribes named it madrona, which means “thief.” It’s root system is so deep and pervasive that it steals water and nutrients from other plants around it. This same root system allows the tree to survive in the harsh, windy coastlines and salty air common in the islands. Twisting red branches reach for sunlight on steep sandy/gravelly cliffs and banks, and make spectacular sculptures on rocky coastlines. It goes by many other names, however.
It is also called the “tourist tree” because it’s bark consistently turns red and peels!
It is called the “bartender tree” because it’s berries ripen and ferment on the twigs each October. When birds such as robins and starlings eat the berries, they become drunk and fly into walls and windows!
It is called the “elephant tree” because it’s base often resembles the foot of an elephant!
Living in the harsh environment where sea meets land, the mighty madrona adds variety and color to our spectacular San Juan Island coastlines!
Orcas have a top speed of about 35 miles per hour, and they usually only reach that speed when they are hunting salmon, which are pretty quick in their own right. In 2003 my group and I were in just the right spot at the right time to witness the combination of speed and power of “killer whales” hunting!
As we sat backed into a giant bull kelp bed watching J-pod pass by in front of us, a bull orca shot by our bows in an awesome display of power. He was in pursuit of a king salmon, and was moving so fast that a rooster tail flew off each side of his six foot dorsal fin. The fleeing salmon made one last chance maneuver by turning hard to it’s left. The ten-ton orca bull tried to stay with the fish, but at 35 miles per hour could not make that sharp of a turn. His momentum carried it’s entire body out of the water in a dramatic sideways, mid-air flip which brought it crashing back down into the sea with a mighty splash. Undaunted the whale continued it’s chase, and caught the salmon in it’s powerful jaws a few seconds later.
We sat stunned and speechless in our double kayaks before erupting in chorus of Yee-haas! We had just seen an orca bull displaying why it is at the top of the food chain!
Killer whales don’t sleep like normal people. apparently they sleep half of their brain at one time, leaving the other half to pay attention to where they are going. You see, when orcas sleep, they keep moving, and, of course, coming to the surface at regular intervals to breath all at once. They move in a synchronized group swimming side by side with one bull on the outside edge of the formation who is fully awake and acts as navigator. He communicates with the sleeping pod or sub-pod directing them to avoid driftwood logs, rocks, boats, etc. Watching killer whales sleep is one of the most amazing things one can witness from a sea kayak.
One summer day, we were paddling south into prime orca country when ahead of us suddenly appeared a group of twenty whales. I immediately recognized that they were sleeping, as they were in a broad line side by side and coming up to breath in semi-unison. We didn’t have time to back into the kelp, so we rafted up instead. We had practiced rafting on the first day of the trip, and each boat came along side of me in an instant.
The surfacing pattern of the orca pod appeared as though their next surfacing would put them directly under our kayaks, so we waited with bated breath. As we looked down, we saw twenty black and white six to ten ton bodies swim silently just beneath our boats. When about ten yards past us, the entire group surfaced, and the sound of their metallic, explosive, staccato of exhalations was one we will never forget! Lucky for us that the “navigator” bull orca had communicated to his semi-sleeping pod to stay down for a few extra seconds to avoid us, and then gave the “OK” when they were safely past.
Who ever thought that watching orca whales sleep could be such an adrenaline rush?
In 1986, while leading a six day kayak trip in Baja’s Sea of Cortez, I found a toy pig washed up on a remote beach where we were camping. By chance, I found another toy pig on another beach on the very next trip. I kept them, and, upon returning to civilization, placed both pigs on the dashboard of my van. This was the start of a collection of toys(see photo above) found on my sea kayak trips on beaches or floating in the sea. Some were from Baja, but most were found in the San Juan Islands over the past 25 years!
The two pigs from Mexico’s Sea of Cortez can be seen in the photo front right and in the shovel bucket on the far right. The Barbie doll was found in stages: the headless body was found on one three day kayak trip in the San Juan Islands, while a Barbie head was found a couple of weeks later. The doll in the sombrero in the back center was found on Sucia Island and was named Chucky! My long-time friend and one-time client Karen made the shorts, t-shirt w/ San Juan Kayak Expeditions logo and even a small passport with his photo inside.
Each toy has a story from one of my sea kayak trips. Meanwhile, the collection continues to grow each season. To accommodate this growth, I have had to purchase a second van this year! Har!
Come join me for my 31st season of guiding sea kayaking expeditions in Washington’s San Juan Islands! There might be a toy in it for you!
I recently received a registration form for my August four day trip from a family of five with three sons ages 21, 19 and 16. The mother informed me that, as a couple, they had taken a three day trip with me back in 1988(23 years ago), and that my son Ian, age 7, accompanied me in my kayak on that trip. They both found Ian so “inquisitive, intelligent and adventurous” that a year later, when their first son was born, they named him Ian after my son!! Wow!
Years ago, I had a another couple come on a three day trip with me. The woman was about three months pregnant. We all had a great time exploring the San Juan Islands, and after the trip was over, we all went our separate ways. Sixteen years later and out-of-the-blue they signed up for another three day trip with their sixteen year old daughter! Incredible!
When you have been leading sea kayaking expeditions for thirty years as I have, your trips sometimes span generations! These stories touch me deeply, and I am proud to be able to relate them to you.