Sun, Salmon and Seals in the sensational San Juan Islands.
30th July –18th August 2013
The big silver bird whisked us from the east to the west coast of the USA in just a few short hours, well six actually, depositing us in Portland Oregon early evening. To greet us were long time sailing friends Bob and Becky from s/v Stardust.
Originally our plan to kick off the off the non-sailing season aka the hurricane season, was to take a 10 day cruise from Vancouver to Alaska, and catch up with our Portland based friends either side of the cruise. So we booked the round trip airfares to take us to Portland, then onto Thailand for a few months, Sydney, to see family and back to Nth Carolina late November. Sadly, the cruise idea went down the gurgler pretty fast once we had a more detailed look into the rather pricey cost of the exercise. We couldn’t justify that kind of expense this year no matter which way we turned it. Ok, so Alaska was off but to our delight Bob and Becky had plan B waiting in the wings. A busman’s holiday it would be.
Stardust, Bob and Becky’s boat, was already berthed up in Port Havelock, Washington state and they invited us to spend two weeks or so cruising in the San Juan Islands with them. What an offer, how could we refuse? Friends of theirs, Mike and Tammy, would also be coming along on their powerboat Tamaroa, a Krogen 49. The deal was that Bob and us would jump on Tamaroa with Mike for the two day, 150 mile trip up the west coast. Becky, Ruth (Bob’s 90 yr old mum) and Tammy would join us when we arrived at the Cape Santé marina in Anacortes, Washington and the two boats would cruise the islands together.
Setting off from Portland down the Columbia River we were amazed at the number of floating homes moored along the river banks, the likes of which we’d never seen before. Some elaborate and some not so, there were literally dozens of them.
The Columbia river is classed as one of America’s great rivers, the fourth largest by volume, and has a major maritime history for both the salmon and logging industries. It’s also a major sea port for freight. Flowing 1243 miles from Alberta Canada, it reaches the Pacific Ocean just west of the seaside town of Astoria, Oregon.
With a plethora of shipwrecks and countless lives lost at the entrance, the river has earned the reputation of having the most dangerous bar on the west coast. The first leg of our journey took us down the Columbia to it’s mouth and the quiet little town of Ilwako. Pulling into the marina we hooked up with some other boaters on the docks. They were all pretty much fishing fanatics.
After a brisk walk to town Bob and Mike purchased their fishing permits, which are compulsory for salmon fishing and crabbing in the state of Washington. We soon learned that there is a daily limit as to how many salmon can be caught and that each catch has to be recorded on the paperwork provided with the permit. If you get sprung by the fisheries department for having too many on board or a non documented catch you will be in deep doodoo. By the time we got back to the marina the cold night air had settled in. Our dock neighbors had set up a propane fire pit and we were invited to join them. Now while it was no ski chalet roaring log fire, it did put out a decent amount of heat which was very much welcomed by our shivering bones.
Crossing the bar at the Columbia river’s mouth next morning was a piece of cake, there was hardly a ripple. Both Bob and Mike said it was very unusual to be as flat as it was and that was how the sea stayed for the rest of our day, flat as a tack. On the way to our next anchorage at Neah Bay we spotted heaps of big whales. Thanks to Tamaroa’s maneuverability we were able to get up close and personal with a couple of them, it was a real treat. What absolutely magnificent creatures they are. Speaking of Tamaroa she really gets up and goes. We covered 150miles in just 10hrs, sure glad we weren’t paying the fuel bill.!
Thick fog greeted us in Neah Bay next morning, a real pea souper as we say back home. You couldn’t see beyond the pulpit at times. But that didn’t stop the cowboy fisherman from racing past us, disappearing into the mist as fast as they had appeared. Mikey periodically blasted Tamaroa’s horn to warn off vessels close by. The first few blasts scared the crap out of us, to the point where he had to give us advanced warning before his finger hit the trigger.
Fog stayed with us all the way to Port Havelock, lifting just enough to give us a peek at the snow capped mountains.Apart from the scenery this part of the world also has a huge tidal range with 16 feet not uncommon, so different from the Caribbean, but then everything about the Pacific Northwest is different from the Caribbean.
Arriving at the marina and laying eyes on Stardust was akin to seeing an old friend. She looked as good as she ever had. The marina was small with a huge wall out the front, and we guessed it was to block the big seas from the wild winter storms they get up here. When the tide was out the ramp up to the office looked more like a ladder, it was so high above the docks.
With Liam and Bob on Stardust and Mikey and I on Tamaroa, the two boats headed off to explore the San Juan archipelago. As it turned out due to space issues, Liam and I ended up sleeping on board Tamaroa for our entire stay.
Consisting of around 172 islands, islets and rocks and being bordered by Vancouver Island to the west, Canada to the north, Washington State and the busy shipping channels of the Straits of Juan de Fuca in the south, the San Juan’s sit smack bang in the middle. They are a charming collection of laid back towns, pine tree glad islands and clean Pacific air. Accessible only via ferry, sea plane or private boat, the San Juan's are definitely not the destination of choice for the partygoer. Tourism here is dominated by families looking to enjoy the leisurely pace of the great outdoors.
Camping grounds, hiking and bike trails are plentiful and the sound of silence is golden in these islands. San Juan County was the first in the USA to ban the use of personal watercraft and we sure wish the rest of the planet would follow suit. The only thing you hear out here is the rhythmical beat of oars as a kayak slips by, the cry of an eagle overhead, the bark of a seal or the whoosh of of a whale as they go about their business. It is true bliss.
Garrison Bay on San Juan Island, the most populated of the four major islands, was our first anchorage. Made famous during a land dispute between the American and the British armies, the bay gets it’s name from the 19th century English soldiers camp some of which still stands today. The lawns and gardens are now cared for by the National Parks service and the hiking trail leads from the camp to Mt Young high above, where we had beautiful views of the bay and surrounding area.
Reid Harbor on Stuart Island was next on stop and we stayed here for a couple of days.We did a couple of hikes one of which was a tad strenuous out to the Turn Point Light Station. Built in 1893 it stands on the most north west point of the United States and is of major importance to all shipping in the area. Many a vessel has come to grief here due to an error in judgment, and the combination of the incredibly fast currents that run past the headland.
Orcas also take this route when chasing one of their favourite meals, salmon. Sightings of Orcas are pretty regular off the point but not on the day we were there. Guess we’ll just have to keep looking.
The trail to the lighthouse is up hill and down dale, wending it’s way through forest lands, past an old school house and a few unmanned t-shirt chests where an honesty system is in place.
If you wanted to buy something but didn’t have enough cash with you, you left an IOU note with your contact details in the envelope provided with your purchase and the stall owner would get back to you. Some of the proceeds went towards the upkeep of the school and it seemed that no one abused the system. Quite amazing really. If that was Sydney the only thing left would be the sign and the tree that it was nailed to!
After mooching around the different Islands we headed back to Anacortes to pick up Becky and Tammy and caught up with Deb and Terry from “Wings”, who we met years before in Turkey. Anacortes was really cute with lots of cafes, antique shops and pretty pot plants hanging from the lampposts. It had that nice Pacific northwest seaside town feel about it.
After a night in the marina we all headed back out to the islands. Along the way we spotted a few Orca’s way off in the distance, sadly too far away to get any photos.
It was not the same story with the seals though and later that day Liam and I borrowed Tamaroa’s dinghy and had a great afternoon of seal watching. There was a whole colony of them not far from our anchorage. I tell you the sense of smell is a powerful thing when you get up close and personal with these guys. As we approached they greeted us with a mass exodus from their rock shelf to the safety of the icy water but their scent lingered on.
Curiosity slowly got the better of them though and cute whiskery faces started bobbing up here and there. Sensing no immediate threat some of the braver ones wriggled their way back up onto the rocks. Watching our every move they all looked so cute basking on the rocks in the sunshine. Now it would be a whole different ball game if we ever caught any of their global cousins cousins lounging around on the back of GWTW.
Up until now the guys hadn’t had much luck catching any salmon or ‘pinks” as they are commonly known in these parts. Every man and his dog, believe me there are oodles of cruising dogs out here, were giving it their best shot, as were our fellas. The salmon were definitely out there, you could see them jumping. They just weren’t jumping onto our boys’ hooks. But then the dam broke and the hunters and gatherers brought home the booty, about bloody time we cooks said.
So how many ways can you cook fresh salmon you ask?? Heaps is the answer. We feasted on salmon tacos, BBQ salmon, pan fried salmon, salmon pasta, salmon dips and the list went on. Throw in a few succulent blue crabs and it was a seafood lover’s dream. Talk about meals of indulgence! We were pretty well salmoned out by the time we left.
During our time in the San Juan’s we stopped in many pretty spots, actually all of the islands were pretty. One of the more busy places which is popular with tourists,artists and wedding parties was Roche Harbor.
We popped into Roche for lunch and a look around. It was a big town by island standards and it had a big marina mostly full of trawler type boats. They definitely out number sail boats up here and when you think about it are much more user friendly given the climate. With lunch done and dusted we strolled through town, checked out a few shops and market stalls and then continued on to a mausoleum out in the woods. The family certainly liked their privacy even in the after-life. If you didn’t go with someone who knew the trail you’d be hard pressed to find the place. The structure was quite elaborate and modelled on King Solomon’s temple. There was a table and seven chairs in the middle and the base of each chair contained the cremated remains of a family member.
All good things come to an end eventually and just as the sun comes up in the mornings our leaving day rolled around. Friday Harbor on San Juan Island was our last stop. After nearly three weeks of exploring just a handful of the islands with wonderful friends we took the ferry back to Anacortes.
We say many thanks to Mike and Tammy, total strangers to us at the start but who are now great friends, for letting us enjoy these magical islands on board their pride and joy, Tamaroa. We had an absolute ball. And to Bob and Becky for saving our bacon and putting our mini holiday on the drawing board in the first place.
We love you guys!