BC - Vancouver Island - Part 1 - Anacortes, WA

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Big tidal ranges, currents exceeding 10 knots, fog, big surf, sudden high winds, cold water - just the perfect place for kayaking, eh? We take two weeks introducing ourselves to the kayak mecca of British Columbia with day trips in Anacortes Washington and Ucluelet/Tofino in BC.

Can you think of a place more different from the Chesapeake Bay than British Columbia? The Chesapeake is protected, shallow, low banked, highly developed and almost completely privately owned. The tidal range is two to six feet and currents never get more than two knots. There are only about two places in all 225 miles of length and 8000 miles of shoreline that have substantial submerged rocks. The shoreline is dominated by large luxury homes and the corn fields of the few remaining waterfront farms.

In BC, 2000 meter mountains plunge down to the coast. A wild riot of temperate forest foliage covers the shoreline, so dense that travel even a few feet into the interior is impossible. Water plunges to depths exceeding 150 feet just 40 feet off of the shore. There are few trails and even fewer roads. Rocks and even cliffs make up much of the shoreline. Tidal ranges exceed 15 feet and currents can get up to 10 knots. Huge Pacific surf can pound the widely separated beaches and reflect off of the sheer ocean cliffs. Fog can develop quickly at any time. Then there is the rain. There is always rain in a temperate rain forest.

So we went to check this place out - kind of a first exploration before more extensive trips. We wanted to find out just what it was like and if it was really as intimidating as it all sounds. Was it safe to bring intermediate kayakers here on a future trip?

Movie of this report

Day 1 We flew out of Baltimore in the late morning arriving in Seattle Tacoma Airport at 9:00 PM Local time. Even without our one hour stopover in Columbus at Continental Airlines regional hub, it takes a full day of travel to get across the country. We rented our Mitsubishi Diamante (three diamonds diamond) from Thrifty at the off site car rental and were soon headed north on Interstate 5 to Anacortes, a city on the north end of Fidalgo Island. There we checked into the San Juan Hotel at 11:30 PM. The place is something of a dump. Our nonsmoking room smelled heavily of smoke, which we later learned was a result of a fire some months earlier. If you go there try some other place. This one wasn't worth even the modest price.

Day 2 We drove to the local supermarket to pick up some munchables for the day. The apples and pears caught our eye immediately. Bins and bins of beautiful full fruits of many different types. They were so cheap. We bought quite a few and even had a couple for breakfast. They were delicious.

Next we drove down Commercial Avenue, the main street of Anacortes, and selected one of the many coffee shops. Perhaps the most well known cliche of Washington state, coffee shops do abound. This was a Tulley's franchise called Penguin Cafe. Since I am not a "user", I relied on Julio to report that the java was indeed fine.

We drove around a little, getting a feel for Anacortes. As the nearest city to the terminal for the ferry across to the San Juan Islands and to Vancouver Island beyond, the city sees some through traffic from tourists and residents heading to the terminal. The rest seemed to be commercial fishing and whale watching. The town is doing OK, but certainly not the bustle and hum that we feel here on the East Coast. Traffic was light by our standards. The older downtown area had been taken over by restaurants, antique shops, and tourist shops. The old Coast Guard Station was beautifully restored. I could not tell if it was still active or had been renovated for office and shops. In any event it was not open when we went by. Many store sides were decorated with interesting murals, paintings and clever 3 D scenes. The mural portrait of Anne Curtis, probably having something to do with the name of the town (we never found out), was one of the most prominent. The shoreline was dedicated to commercial shipping and fishing, with the usual trappings of such industries - cranes, piles of discarded machinery, nets and some garbage.

We headed over to Island Adventures, the location for our kayak day trip. That was 30 minutes early but we were eager. We browsed the store there and signed all the required disclaimer forms. Their corporate structure is somewhat convoluted as you arrive at island Adventures, signed up to go with Anacortes Kayak Tours and sign legal waivers to yet another corporate entity. Island Adventures is clearly oriented to tourist type whale watching and nature trips. They farm out the kayak trips to Anacortes Kayak Tours.

After signing the legal paperwork, we were given directions and a pass which got us over to a marina on the west side of Fidalgo Island at a yacht marina. There we met Eric and beautiful 8 month pregnant Megan, proprietors of Anacortes Kayak Tours. We talked about Eric's eight years of experience guiding nature trips in the local area, mostly as a captain of a sightseeing boat. He has three years of kayak experience. His company is new, started this past year. His equipment was the best I have ever received from a rental company, particularly the paddle friendly PFDs he provided. The paddles were much better than the usual "12 pounders" found at rental companies. I could see in the equipment shed that this was not special treatment just for us, as all his equipment was very high grade.

Originally scheduled for the doubles that kayak tour companies use because of insurance reasons, Eric offered us single kayaks because of our higher experience level. We accepted happily. On the floating docks at the marina, we used some custom floating finger piers just far enough apart for a kayak. Slipping into the tight cockpits of the new fiberglass singles, we pushed out into the turning basin at the marina. We are on the water! We tested the kayaks and found them to be a good choice for a rental touring operation. Although their high initial stability did not suite our more experienced paddling preference, we knew that they were a good choice for beginning kayakers who are seldom comfortable with the "tippy" feel of a high performance boat.

We headed out of the marina, and stopped across from Burrows Island. We stopped and discussed the tides, currents and weather patterns of the local area. Eric was very knowledgeable about the local conditions. We found out that the tides here run at 3 to 5 knot maximums, blowing in and out of the large open straights and swirling around the islands. In early summer the tide ranges are highest during the day with a single high tide, but now those ranges are beginning to shift to the night. In winter the tide ranges are largest at night. ( Click here for an explanation of how that comes about. ) Weather comes in from the south over the Olympic Mountains on Olympic peninsula. On occasion the wind will back into the east and bring showers and thunderstorms from the mountains to the west. Extreme winds sometimes come from the west or northwest with a sharp clearing edge as the winds race over the high mountains to the west of Vancouver Island. Eric's detailed knowledge and confident manner in explaining the conditions here gave us a good sense of his expertise.

We paddled the short distance across the one knot current flowing between Fidalgo Island and Burrows Island, a small piece of nearly uninhabited rock covered with cedars and fir. We paddled close along the steep coast of the north south oriented island. A 10 meter wide brown moat of bull kelp floats defended the shore. Growing to depths of up to 100 feet, the narrow band of kelp testified to the precipitous drop of the shore above the water continued under the water. Inside the kelp was a 3 meter wide clear region where the tides and the water depth no longer supported its growth. Eric paddled down this clear passage as Julio and I pushed our boats through the large stiff stipes of the floating kelp, watching the blades of the kelp twirl in the current. ( Click here to learn more about kelp. ) The massive bull kelp floats were most impressive.

Hank and seagulls
Hank and seagulls
by Julio Perez

Eric was very good at spying birds and sea life and identifying them from what seemed impossible distances. He saw and described gallinules, rhinoceros auklets and surf scooters. He pointed out bald eagles, harbor seals and porpoises. He told us about eel grass, sea lettuce, bull kelp and anemones. We paddled south along Burrows island over to a smaller island names Allan island and owned by the apparently eccentric cofounder of Microsoft, Paul Allan. I forgot to ask whether the island was named after he bought it, or whether he bought it because of its name.

The water temperature was 53 to 54 degrees Fahrenheit. This apparently was a little warmer than usual. However, Eric said the water temperature stays roughly in the range of 48 to 52 degrees all year round. This is of course a vast contrast to the Chesapeake where summer water temperatures can exceed 80 and in the winter the water gets hard. Those of us who paddle in the off season here know that the water gets real cold.

We paddled past Allan Island and Whidby Rocks, where we saw the seals popping their heads up between the kelp stipes, keeping a close eye on our passage. South of us lay the San Juan de Fuca straight and the Olympic peninsula.

The sky began to clear from the south to the northwest. A strip of blue contrasted with the white clouds over Vancouver Island on the other side of Rosario Straight. We turned East to cross the three quarter mile channel back over to the high cliffs along the southwestern side of Fidalgo Island.

Turning north we paddled along the high cliffs topped by tall trees. Twisted red trunks of a few gnarled centurions clung to the rocky crevices. Eric noted how the mussels were limited to a band of the sheer rock face. These mussels lived in the narrow band of rock that was not exposed long enough to dry out the mussels on a sunny day, but not under water long enough for a snail predator to drill through the mussel's shell. Large portions of the stark cliff face were swept bare of any vegetation as the crashing waves of winter sprayed salt water upon it repeatedly, making existence there impossible. At the very top of the cliff multi million dollar homes jutted out over the precipice. Don't get drunk on the front porch of these places!

Along the face several shallow caves provided clinging places for carpets of small dollar coin sized green anemones and red corralline algae. The bull kelp swayed in the slight surge, a low guttural moan coming from the back of the cave as the water pushed the air out.

Eric called Megan to get a time for the tide in Deception Pass, some 2 miles ahead. The timing was right for a passage through the notorious narrows where currents frequently exceed 8 knots. Deception Pass and its sibling Canoe pass are high narrow gorges between a very large bay and the open straight. During times of high tidal change, a lot of water must pass through here quickly. With the moderate tidal ranges of this time of year, there would not be much going on. Eric thought it safe to go through the pass and on to Coronet Bay where we could be picked up by Megan at a ramp.

We paddled into Bowman Bay first to make a quick shore break and use the rest-room at a small park there. Someone was practicing rolls there before taking out for the day. We ate our last apples and then headed around the point to the pass.

Canoe Pass is on the north side of Pass Island ( map ), a small island between Fidalgo and Whidby Islands. On the other side is Deception Pass flowing in a wider but frequently more dangerous passage. Canoe Pass takes a turn to the right with the current pushing the kayak into the steep wall on the left side. Eric advised how to position our kayaks for the passage.

The current here this day turned out to be a trivial 3 knots and we had a simple ride through the pass and then played in the small whirlpools that bounced off the Canoe Pass walls. However I could easily see how on other days with greater tidal range that this place could be very active. We paddled on to the ramp with Eric telling about his experiences as a boat captain in the currents of Deception Pass. When we paddled up to the ramp, Megan was waiting for us with the truck. We loaded up the kayaks on top and drove back to the marina. As we did, we got Megan to recommend restaurants to us. She got so into describing the different options that she drove right past the turn. We circled back and were soon back at base. Click here for more information on Decption Pass kayaking.

All in all it was a great day on the water. Eric's knowledge of the area is wonderful and his guiding skills are very polished. He should do well with his business. If you can get to the area, you will be most pleased with the trip he will provide you.

After cleaning up at the motel, we headed out to Deception Pass by road. We walked across the bridge we had passed under earlier in the day. The bridge provides a great view of the open straight to the west and back into Skagit Bay. A brass marker told the history of the pass. A trail led down under the bridge where we could see the tide coming through, still calm by its usual standards.

We had difficulty in deciding among all the great places Megan had told us about. Billy Ray's for ribs and beef, the Rock Fish Grill for seafood and several others. We finally chose P. W. Murphy right on Commercial Avenue. There we had the best mussels I have ever had, sweet, juicy, steamed to perfection without a grain of grit. And they poured on the garlic which I love. Along with cheese topped garlic bread we consumed them as if we had been starving for weeks. I had a very good salmon and pasta main dish. We retired to our motel after a great day of paddling with the help of two new friends, a delicious meal and a feeling of satisfaction and contentment. It was a great introduction to Northwest kayaking.

Next ......... On to Vancouver!




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