Confessions of a paddling addict: Binge paddling 200km in just 2 days in the San Juan Islands.
With a fine forecast for the weekend, I decided to try and get some quality training miles in an absolute treasure of paddling, the San Juan Islands. One of our local strongmen paddlers, Kirk Christiansen had told about a trip he took using the powerful currents in the straits to circumnavigate the entire island chain in one day, and I was eager to do the same (that's over 85 miles of paddling big country!).
But this weekend also happened to be one of my favorite races, the Lake Whatcom Classic. So what to do?
Answer: Both of course!
LAKE WHATCOM CLASSIC 2017 RACE REPORT:
We had great attendance for the race, and a fine cool morning with a light breeze out of the south and a forecast to switch to a northwestern breeze. This meant headwinds both ways, something that has happened every year I have raced the classic (x3).
When the horn sounded, I was facing the wrong way and managed to completely miss the start of the race. Once turned around and paddling, the leaders were about a minute away. I stayed calm, and started hopping from wake to wake as I worked my way through the field and tried to limit the damage from such a silly mistake. Eventually I found the wash of a super fast double rowing shell (out of class drafting is permitted) and I hung on for dear life as we slowly closed on the lead group comprised of 4x Olympic medalist Greg Barton, and up and coming superstar Austin Kieffer who were themselves comfortably riding the wash of a very fast double rowing shell. Much to my surprise the lead double made a course heading mistake which was just enough for us catch up to the leaders at the turn around point, a small island about 6 miles into the race. Never in my life would I think I could close a gap that big on those two, who upon my arrival at the front group they promptly reminded me that closing a gap and finishing a race are two very different ideas and took the pace up more notches than my wide wasted belt can handle. I wasn't quite able stay with the double I was drafting, and had the hard task of heading back upwind solo. But I did manage to hold off another former Olympian, John Mooney for 3rd place. I was happy with my paddle given that I am not focused on short distance racing this year but can still hang with the big dogs, or more accurately keep them in sight (the neon pfd's we all race in sure help in this regard!).
After the race, I thanked the race organizer Brandon Nelson (himself a local legend, incredibly accomplished paddler and generous supporter of our paddling community), collected my gear, scarfed a PB&J and raced down to Marine Park to start for the second part of my binge weekend: Circumnavigating the San Juan Islands!
SAN JUAN ISLANDS CIRCUMNAVIGATION TRIP REPORT:
With warm air, clear skies and a light breeze I cast off at 2pm in my touring surfski fully loaded with food, water and gear for the weekend and then some. I paddled out from Bellingham Bay, and rode the flood tide through the channel between Portage Island and Lummi Island out to the Salish Sea where I was greeted by a vast expanse of big blue sky and big blue sea.
From there I worked my way west, crossing the Rosario Straight in fine conditions to my destination for the night, Sucia Island located about two mile's due north of Orcas Island.
As I crossed the Rosario Strait, I could see a sailboat motoring about a mile away and heading in the same direction, likely to Sucia Island. There is a funny thing with people in boats, they are very mindful of those around them and for the most part, strangely competitive. When I closed to within 1000 meters, they noticed me and I heard them laugh as they pointed at me from the back deck. And then I heard them power up the motor! So I did what racers do, and gave chase using every last drop of the currents to close on them. We had a race, and then a laugh as I sat on their wash and caught my breath and answered questions like "What kind of kayak is that?!" and "Where did you come from and what on earth are you doing out here?". It's not the first time I've been asked that...
Once to Sucia, I found the island partly full of yachts and entirely full of cheer. I drug my tired bag of bones to shore and snagged my favorite camping spot on the far northwestern corner of the island and made camp for the evening. A party of boat campers from Bellingham generously offered me a giant slab of their day's catch, fresh Ling Cod and we talked about all things beer making and San Juan's for the evening. I finished the night in front of a roaring campfire and sipped a fine scotch as I contemplated the remarkable day's events.
The next morning I woke before dawn to gray skies and a stiff breeze from the west. It brought to mind my last time visiting the island, when we were nailed by a strong winter storm and one of my paddling partners took a brutal swim that separated our group in the confusion of the seas. As I sat in my tent eating a double portion breakfast, I thought about our struggles that day and how they challenged me to become a more complete, capable paddler in all scenarios and conditions. My personal mission to this day is to "Be Hard To Kill" because of that day and others like it that remind me of the extreme possibilities of a sport that is usually benign.
On the water at dawn, I headed southwest riding a very strong current between Orcas and Waldron Island. The wind shifted to the Southwest and the seas become grouchy and confused against the pumping current, with miles and miles of hay-stacking water that was actually a lot of fun to paddle. I imaged that viewed from the shore in my slender surfski, I looked a bit like a bronco rider as I blasted over the tops and surfed the troughs of the waves. I certainly felt like one. But then I remembered that I was likely invisible from shore, like a neon speck of dust in the eye of a stormy sea without a tear to give for fools like me. In that strange moment where time slows down in the intense focus of paddling big water, I felt a remarkable, satisfying peace and contemplated how far I've come as a paddler since my last time on Sucia. I savored the hit of adrenaline from adventure past yet again, as any proper adventure junkie should.
As the gray skies cleared I happened to glance down at my GPS strapped between my feet and couldn't believe the speed I was traveling on the currents; a 10mph average without much effort! I knew it was going to be a very good, and very long day. From the southern end of Waldron, I zipped towards Spieden Island, and then proceeded south on the muscular ebb past Roche Harbor and the far Western shores of San Juan Island and Kiln Point over the remainder of the ebb. Once to the southern aspect of San Juan Island at about 10:30am, I had a decision to make, continue in the Straight of Juan De Fuca travelling East, or head North towards Friday Harbor and then use remainder of the currents to thread the channels in between Shaw, Lopez and Blakely Islands back to the Rosario Straight, which sounded like way more fun, and way more miles. I stayed true to my addict's oath; "always go back for more!"
The tide eased from ebb to slack, and when I glanced into the Friday Harbor my stomach growled as I thought about the many great meals and happy memories I've had there over the years.
"It must be time for secondsy breakfast!" my stomach pleaded and somehow found a way to make me think I smelled bacon and pancakes coming from Friday Harbor a mile away...
I resisted the urge to derail my day and instead ate a nut bar and sucked down a protein drink as I soldiered on. As I worked my way East, I settled into my "all day cruising speed" of about 7mph. One cannot underestimate how much faster surfskis are than even a fast touring kayak, regardless of weight (if paddled well). A fast hull is a fast hull... as long as you are strong enough to make it go fast enough to leverage the long waterline. As the flood took hold, I encountered a mix of currents, and used eddies and good line choices to game the channels as I surfed along and tried to stay out of the way of speeding ferries and yachts while milking their wakes for scraps of speed.
At about 12 noon, my body needed a break and the GPS agreed. I like to use Google earth to scan for beaches in my trip planning, but almost all of the good beaches throughout the San Juan's have a dream home parked on them - so one has to work extra hard to find the gaps where the "FOOK OFF YOU FOOKIN FOOK!" signs aren't posted (translated for my Irish friends).
At the southern edge of Blakely Island, a new decision presented itself. Tap into the Rosario and ride the currents north towards Lummi Island, or instead head over to the Southern aspect of Cypress Island near Anacortes and ride the Guemes Island channel Northward on a more direct and interesting line back to Bellingham. I liked the second option better, even though it added more miles on the day, as it would also allow me a final stop at one of my favorite hidden beaches on Vendovi Island.
Once past Vendovi Island and nearing Eliza Island and with Bellingham in sight, the current switched from a strong flood to a soul crushing ebb. These last several miles of murky Nooksack flooded water hurt, and for a the first time on the trip I started to crack and took brief pauses every other kilometer to stave off a brutal bonk, sip water and try to keep going. Up to this point, my mph average was an incredible 7.2, but here against the will of a full moon I saw my average speed dip to 6.9 on the day. It was this maddening, insidious thought that I wrestled with a tired mind. I wanted to finish this beast of a paddle with a 7mph average and fought the current to no avail to get that lost digit back. "Maybe we can tack on a few extra miles by going north and then riding the current back south?!" my sick brain offered despite having clocked over 75 miles on the day and being in the rockbottom depths of a meltdown.
As I finished my final strokes of my paddle and found myself irrationally grumpy at the missed average speed opportunity I closed in on a kayaker in a small red plastic sea kayak. He was the only other paddler I had seen on my epic, and as we hauled out at the beach together he cheerly remarked how great it was to be out on the water today. He had the unmistakable grin of a new junkie, and had just discovered his paddling drug. It reminded me of the feeling of my first kayak and the exhilaration of just being on water. It also humbly reminded me that speed and distance only matter a little, but the water and sunshine and islands and life shared with those we love matter a lot. What a great feeling to come home to.