By Cecil Scaglione
San Juan Island WA– —- There was no time to gawk for killer whales.
Our kayak glissaded over the kelp and up-welling waters in the lee of the granite bluffs on the west coast of the largest of this pod of more than 150 whale-watching islands domiciled in the upper reaches of Puget Sound.
The tide was racing south through Haro Strait, which separates these rocks from Victoria eight miles to our left. We were straining north to our pick-up beach. On our right were Lime Kiln Lighthouse, with its automated moaning, and Whale Watch Beach, with its crowds of hopefuls. It was just as well that we were kept busy beating the tide because there weren’t any orcas in the neighborhood at the moment. We weren’t really prepared to deal with a creature that sounds like a locomotive heaving out of the water when it surfaces for air.
A handful had been sighted a couple of hours earlier at Cattle Point lighthouse on the other side of this 50-square-mile island, according to our communications radio. We were there the previous day but none of these 10-ton predators were there then.
We had stowed our gear after a beach-picnic lunch and were sliding our two-man fiberglass vessel into the chilly water when our guide warned:
“Stay close to the shore. You’ll avoid the running tide.”
It took only moments to realize that crossing the flotsam line – where currents collide — shoved us into a tidal flow topping five knots while we were paddling around four knots. Dinner was going to be a long-time away if we didn’t get close to shore.
It was the third day of our kayaking trip. Our paddling muscles weren’t complaining as loudly as our first and second days and our comfort level with the slim sliding craft had risen dramatically.
“Don’t strain yourself paddling,” we were before we even got our feet wet. You have to get your feet wet to slide these craft into the water.
“Try to turn your body and use your stomach muscles rather than using your arms and back. You’ll last longer that way.”
Then came the most difficult part. Getting into the kayak. Getting out is the second-most difficult act in kayaking. No one in our group, who ranged in age from 27 to 67 years, argued either point.
Our day whipping the white-tipped waves injected us with enough adrenalin to get us through dinner. In our case, dinner was in Friday Harbor.
The table conversation grew around the fact that some people argue sea kayaking is harder than river running.
Our guide, who had done both in countries and climates around the globe, cited the pros and cons.
“On the river, you’re mostly just steering, although you do have some exciting highs in the white water. At sea, you’re always paddling, but it’s more pleasant.” You can set your own pace on the ocean. And you have time to look.
Kayakers are drawn here to visit the pods of killer whales that make their home in these waters. Dozens of whale-chase boats roar through these waters in their noisy hunt for whale sightings.
The major difference between the two modes is quiet and comfort. It’s difficult to be comfortable in a kayak. But kayaking allows you to dip by seals lolling on the rocks, below eagles perched on cliff-side cedars looking to scavenge salmon, and into oyster farms to pick your own mollusk meal for a modest price.
We didn’t bump into any whales, neither orcas nor minke, that make these waters home. But we did have close encounters with bald eagles, salmon, harbor seals, porpoises, cormorants, blue herons, and a variety of ducks.
General advice to anyone considering kayaking is to do some simple exercise to restore some upper-body strength. You can also take a sports cushion, the kind you take to a stadium to watch football games, and maybe get a lumbar support for their back.
For more information, contact Outdoor Odysseys at (800) 647-4621 or their Web site at www.outdoor-odysseys.com Seaplanes or ferry provide links to the San Juan Islands from the mainland. Kenmore Air’s seaplanes provide round-trip service for $159 to $189, depending on the days of week. One way from or to Seattle takes about 45 minutes.
There’s daily clipper ferry service to and from Victoria but the most-used ride is from Anacortes, which is a 90-minute drive from Seattle.
The 90-minute one-way ferry ride costs under $10 for walk-ons. It’s from $35 to $39 if you take your vehicle.
About Cecil Scaglione: Cecil is a former San Diego Union-Tribune writer and for a number of years has been a world traveler and writer and currently a syndicated columnist.