When Eddie Bauer picked the San Juan Islands as our ideal spring destination, it was based on our own personal experiences in one of Washington State’s most loved locations. From Orcas and San Juan to the lesser-visited outer islands, the island chain is not only classic Washington but also a weekend destination for active adventures, from road and mountain biking to inter-island sailing and recreational crabbing. It is also a world-class destination for sea kayaking due to its sheltered saltwater location, plentiful wildlife sightings and jaw-dropping vistas. So to provide a sense of what makes the San Juan Islands such a singular place, we connected with Clark Casebolt, a pioneering San Juan sea kayak guide and also a longtime owner of Outdoor Odysseys, for his guide-level perspective. This is the first of three parts of our conversation with Casebolt about kayaking a destination that was just named America’s newest National Monument. -LYA Editor
Images by Outdoor Odysseys, Tomas Hoeffgen and Jeff Lipsky
I know you did some trips there when you were younger, but what drew you back to the San Juans?
I moved back up to Washington State after leaving the teaching profession and that’s when sea kayaking was just starting to kind of come on. I continued my whitewater kayaking and then I bought this old beater fiberglass sea kayak. The first time I ever kayaked in the San Juans was a fall trip, where we took off from North Beach on Orcas and paddled over to Sucia. It was like this third or fourth week in September, and I remember we set up camp and then went out for kind of an evening paddle and the bioluminescence just blew my mind.
It was such a great night that we were just paddling along. I had this little bow wake that was this little sea of silver lines going off, and any water that was dropping from my paddle onto my spray skirt just seemed like silver drops. It just blew me away and that was my introduction to sea kayaking in the San Juans. Then I had a couple other jobs, and my last job I got laid off when I was in my mid-30s.
I just started looking at what I wanted to do and I kept coming back to trying to make a living in the outdoors. And so I took some time to write a business plan. That following spring, I bought some used boats—kayaks—and actually took the old trailer that we used to haul around our family boat, welded up some racks to transform the old trailer into a kayak trailer, and that’s how I started my business.
Do you run all your tours from San Juan Island?
We’re entering our 26th year of running tours and I’m pretty well established now in San Juan Island. That’s where I run the business from May through September.
Though we are based on San Juan Island, occasionally, if we get a custom trip and if the currents are really good, we can run up to Sucia, which is kind of fun. We definitely have our stock route we do in the outer peripheral islands adjacent to San Juan Island itself.
Where do most of your clients come from?
There are a certain percentage of people that come from the Northwest—the Puget Sound area and Portland. If you step back from that, we get people from the whole western U.S. depending on the weather. Last summer, we had some incredible droughts, so we were getting people from all over the United States and some Canadians and a sprinkling of Europeans. And we had two different couples that came from Bahrain.
But I think what put the San Juans on the map was when The New York Times had an article a couple years ago about 40 or 50 great places to go and they listed the San Juan Islands. It was in the top two or three. I think that brought more awareness to the Islands.
Never hurts to get the big-media mention?
No. I was not complaining about that at all.
It seems like the San Juans are very unique because it’s a saltwater ecosystem, but you don’t have as much from a danger standpoint due to big ocean waves. Does that make it an easier entry to sea kayaking?
Yeah, definitely. I always tell people that this is such a great place to have an introduction to kayaking on saltwater.
Even though people may come from Colorado or Missouri, chances are they may not have been exposed to kayaking other than on their own local lake and reservoir. So to be able to come to the San Juans and paddle in an environment where they don’t have to worry about coming through a surf zone, it just makes for a great place to paddle to improve your skills and to get a taste of what it’s like to be dealing with tides and currents. For the first-timers, it’s a great introduction because they don’t have to worry about capsizing when they come in through the surf or something because we don’t really typically get those conditions unless we get a really huge storm coming in.
What’s so unique about taking a multi-day trip, as opposed to just doing a day-trip?
A five-day trip is nice on one level because it just gives you a chance to hook into the whole rhythm of tides and currents. I also think our guides do a really excellent job of trying to educate people as to why they may have to get up early one day to catch the ebb back from Stuart, whereas if they wait a couple hours and have a leisurely breakfast, they’re going to be fighting a current later on in the day. I think that kind of thing is a really appealing aspect of paddling in the Islands and getting into the feeling of nature’s rhythms, and just the rhythm of tide and current and saltwater. I think that’s a pretty cool aspect of paddling in the Islands.
Of all the trips that you’ve done out there, what’s your favorite multi-day trip to guide?
Well, we have a four-day trip. It used to be a five-day trip, but I cut it down just because people have less time now. But we still run the same tour. We put in at San Juan County Park and then we paddle north up to Stuart. That first day is through great orca whale habitat, so that gives people a chance to see whales if they’re in the area.
Then they’re camping on Stuart, which is only accessible by boat, so they definitely get a feeling of being away from it all, even though to say that Stuart Island in the peak summertime is remote is kind of a joke. It’s still a cool thing to be able to get there by human power using a craft that goes back for thousands of years and has this lineage with Aleutians in the Arctic and in Greenland.
So we spend the first day paddling up to Stuart, set up a base camp, and then on the second day we will usually do a circumnavigation of Stuart for another shot at seeing orca whales at the turning point of the lighthouse. Or, depending on the group, we’ll offer a combination where we’ll have breakfast and then kind of hike out to Turn Point, which is this beautiful little two-and-a-half or three-mile hike out to commanding views of the Canadian Gulf Islands from this big, big bluff. Sometimes you can see whales swimming down below. And then we’ll come back, have an early dinner, and go out for a bioluminescence paddle at night.
On Day 3, we break camp from Stuart and head down San Juan Channel to Jones Island, which has some of my favorite campsites in all of the San Juans. One of the big appeals of Jones is that it is smaller and you don’t get quite as much traffic there as you do on Stuart. They have some killer campsites with madroñas, which I think are among the most beautiful trees in the world.
There are some campsites on the southwest side of Jones that are madroñas forests. On the west side, there’s the marine trail and you get those beautiful sunsets. There are not that many campsites around it, so that’s always a real sweet, sweet spot too.
On Day 4 we continue paddling around, down to Turn Island, and then we take off after lunch at. And so what we’ve done is a three-quarter circumnavigation of San Juan Island, but we’ve also paddled and explored a lot of the smaller islands.
That sounds like a great experience.
Yeah, it’s a good one. And then the other one, probably the most popular tour that we have, is our Eagles and Orcas Tour to Stuart. That’s where we launch from San Juan County Park, just like we do on the four-day tour. The first two days are the same– paddling up to Stuart base camp; Day 2: going around Stuart– and then on Day 3 we’re retracing our route back to San Juan County Park to see whales.
What’s it like for people like that to experience the San Juans for the first time on a sea kayak trip?
I think what appeals to people coming from anywhere is just the idea of this fairly pristine place with semi-diurnal tides that get two floods and two ebbs in a 24-hour period, with millions and billions of gallons of water coming in through the Strait of Juan de Fuca from the Pacific Ocean. It’s really nutrient-rich and supports a prolific set of intertidal wildlife, so it is a big draw. I just don’t know that many places in the world where you’re equidistant between two larger metropolitan areas—the greater Seattle area and Vancouver, B.C.—that still supports a pretty vibrant population of marine mammals, ranging from the occasional gray whales and then the minke whales and then the population of J, K and L pod orca whales.
The San Juans are also home to the second largest breeding population of bald eagles in the lower 48 states and, especially in the winter, it’s an important flyway for migratory birds. And the weather is so nice. We’re in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains and so we get about half of the precipitation that Seattle does. In fact, we have a species of cactus, the prickly pear, which grows in the San Juan Islands. It’s just pretty cool.
It’s got such a cool ecosystem, and all that just kind of combines to make it a really interesting and unique kayak destination.
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