Cypress and Sinclair Islands, San Juan Islands, WA 22–23 Sept 2018

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by alexsidles, Sep 24, 2018.

  1. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

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    By my count, there are 22 public campgrounds in the San Juan Islands. However, this number is open to debate.

    When
    purists speak of the “San Juans,” they generally mean only those islands in San Juan County. But my count of campgrounds uses a more generous definition of “San Juans” that sweeps in the more easterly waters surrounding Lummi, Guemes, and Cypress Islands, even though these islands are in Whatcom or Skagit Counties. These eastern San Juans are geographically, ecologically, and culturally indistinguishable from the islands in San Juan County, so it seems excessively dogmatic to exclude them on the basis of an arbitrary, county-line definition of “San Juans.”

    However, my generosity does not extend to Fidalgo Island, the site of Anacortes. I exclude Fidalgo Island from the “San Juans,” because Fidalgo is accessible by car, which gives it a more “mainland” cultural feel. Having excluded Fidalgo, it also makes sense to exclude Burrows and Allan Islands, since these are just a stone’s throw offshore of Fidalgo. Obviously, I also exclude the Gulf Islands as well, even though they are geographically and ecologically identical to the San Juans, because the Gulf Islands have a distinct, Canadian culture.

    In the end, my definition of “San Juans” comes out just as jumbled and arbitrary as that of the purists. Any system for labelling these islands ends up with a hodgepodge of geographical and cultural standards, none more defensible than the others. I throw up my hands and conclude that human geography is a ridiculous endeavor.

    Nor am I the first geographer to struggle in these islands.
    Last time the question arose, it took 25 years, an armed standoff, two treaties, and the personal intervention of Kaiser Wilhelm I to settle the matter.

    The San Juans—whether narrowly or broadly defined—are so beautiful I keep coming back over and over, even though I’ve already visited each of the 22 public campgrounds at least once, and most on numerous occasions. But I’d be lying if I claimed I don’t sometimes miss the wonder of beaching a kayak on an unfamiliar shore. To recapture that sense of adventure, I’ve lately begun using the
    Washington State Public Lands Inventory to identify parcels of land in the San Juans that are not official campgrounds yet are nonetheless publicly owned and, depending on the landowning agency’s rules, potentially open for so-called “dispersed” camping, meaning camping on the land outside an established campground.

    This past weekend, as part of this ongoing exploration, I swung by a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) parcel on Sinclair Island that I’ve long been meaning to investigate.

    00 Route Map.JPG

    00 Route map. This screenshot from the Public Lands Inventory depicts privately owned land in gray, state parks in yellow, municipal land in pink, DNR land in salmon, and WDFW land in orange. Light blue indicates DNR-owned tidelands (i.e., saltwater), and white indicates tidelands owned by entities other than DNR, perhaps private, perhaps government.

    Foolishly, I did not consult a reputable source for tide information prior to setting out. Instead of checking NOAA, which has a somewhat clunky interface but is utterly reliable as to veracity, I instead went to one of the many quick-and-dirty .com tide sources that pop up on Google. I’m not sure how it happened, but I somehow became convinced that the flood tide (favorable for my departure) began at 6:00 in the morning. With this erroneous belief in mind, I launched at 7:30, expecting to be whisked swiftly north up Bellingham Channel toward Sinclair Island.

    01 Heading into San Juans shortly after dawn.JPG
    01 Heading into the San Juans shortly after dawn. These calm, gray fall mornings are some of my favorite times.

    02 Approaching Bellingham Channel in the rain.JPG
    02 Approaching Bellingham Channel in the rain. Rain doesn't bother me in a kayak; only wind.

    03 Southern entrance to Bellingham Channel.JPG
    03 Southern entrance to Bellingham Channel. I'd always previously transited the channel north-to-south. Going south-t0-north was a lovely change of perspective.

    In reality, low tide did not occur under after 9:00, so I was unknowingly launching into the tail end of the unfavorable ebb. Things went well at first, so long as I stayed near the mainland, but once I got out into the middle of the Guemes–Bellingham Channel intersection, I began experiencing a powerful westward push from Guemes Channel that threatened to carry me beyond the entrance to Bellingham Channel. Worse still, my forward, northward progress slowed to a dead crawl as I ran headlong into Bellingham Channel’s outflow. Actually, to call my forward progress a “crawl” gives me too much credit. My GPS had me making 50 feet to the good every six minutes, less than a tenth of a mile per hour! The ebb’s retarding effect strengthened the farther north I got and eventually froze me in place just as I crossed the ferry route. Now I was blocking traffic!

    My GPS contains tide tables that, while not as accurate as NOAA’s, are far more accurate than whatever fly-by-night website I’d Googled the night before. I learned that I was still an hour ahead of the turn. This information, which would have been so helpful to know prior to departing, suggested my best course of action was to keep inching forward until I was clear of the ferry route and then just hold steady until the flood started.

    Once I was out of the way of the ferry traffic, I took advantage of the extra time in the boat to do some birdwatching, and I’m glad I did. From a distance of about 2,000 yards, I spotted a large, tern-like bird whose dark back and pale underside vaguely reminded me of the coloration of a winter loon. Terns and gulls never carry such plumage, even as juveniles. To my astonishment, I realized I was looking at a
    jaeger!

    As if to confirm my initial assessment, the jaegar pirouetted into a flock of Bonaparte’s gulls (easily identifiable even at extreme range by their white upper wingbars) and began attacking. The gulls shrieked in alarm and scattered, allowing the jaegar to single out its victim. Round and round went the unfortunate gull, frantic to escape, while the jaegar swooped up from under and dove down from above, easily exceeding the gull’s every maneuver. After less than a minute, though, the jaegar broke off and allowed the gull to go free. Either it had managed to steal the gull’s fish at such a distance that I couldn’t see, or it determined this gull wasn’t carrying any.

    Jaegars usually reside far out at sea, so seeing one in the San Juans was a rare treat. In fact, I’d only seen jaegars once before from a kayak. As the tide gradually switched to the flood I’d been waiting for, I pressed north into Bellingham Channel, eyes wide for another jaegar sighting.

    04 Bonapartes gull.jpg
    04 Bonaparte's gull. These gulls were present by the hundred, spread out in loose flocks throughout every channel.

    05 Parasitic jaeger.jpg
    05 Parasitic jaeger. This powerful northern hunter is only paying us a brief visit. Our poor gulls won't be sorry to see him go.

    Cypress Island is the most reliable place in the state for harbor porpoises. I’ve never once failed to see porpoises here, neither on the Rosario Strait nor the Bellingham Channel side. Sure enough, it wasn’t long before I heard the puff-puff-puff of a nearby group headed my way. But something was different. Usually, porpoise breaths have an interval of thirty seconds to a minute, even when a whole family of porpoises is passing. This time, there were breaths every two or three seconds. Moments later, I was surrounded by an enormous pod of porpoises. There were dozens and dozens of them, popping up all around me, puffing their little porpoise breaths. Even though each individual only stayed on the surface for a second or less, there would often be five or six porpoises visible at once, at ranges from ten yards out to about 300. I stayed my paddle and drifted north through the flat, calm channel with porpoise breaths blowing all around.

    07 Habor porpoise.JPG
    06 Harbor porpoise surfaces to breathe. They only stay on the surface for a second or less, so they're almost impossible to photograph.

    06 Harbor porpoise and Bonapartes gull.JPG
    07 Harbor porpoise and Bonaparte's gull. Our marine environment is full of all kinds of wonders.

    CONTINUED IN NEXT POST
     
    Last edited: Sep 24, 2018
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  2. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

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    Seattle WA
    No sooner was I past the porpoises than the jaegar returned. “Oh no!” cried the Bonaparte’s gulls, who had just been settling in for a quiet lunch. As before, the jaegar focused its attention on a single gull at a time, relentlessly matching every twist and turn. This time, the jaegar came close enough for a few photographs, although I could barely keep up with its wild contortions. I was able to confirm that this was a parasitic jaegar, not a pomarine or long-tailed jaegar. Parasitic jaegars are the species most often seen in the inland waters; we get a few each year during migration.

    The jaegar and porpoises were such a thrill I almost forgot my mission to Sinclair. Also, to tell the truth, I was a little worn out from my hour-long struggle against the tide at the Guemes–Bellingham Channel intersection. I toyed with the idea of saving my investigation of the WDFW parcel for another trip, but Sinclair Island is remote from all kayak launch points, so if I didn’t visit now, I’d probably have to make a special trip in the future. The favorable flood tide was running stronger by the minute, so there would never be an easier time to check it out. Then, as if luring me onward, the jaegar popped out from around the south end of Sinclair and buzzed my boat. What a regret I didn’t have my camera ready!

    The WDFW parcel on Sinclair featured a boulder beach and a short but steep upland bluff covered in impenetrable thicket. It would be unappealing even as a lunch stop and unacceptable as a campsite. I was disappointed not to have discovered a new, secret camping spot, but I’m glad I was able to check this one off my list of investigations. I paddled back across Bellingham Channel to Pelican Beach on Cypress Island, one of the best campsites in the San Juans, albeit one well known to the public.

    08 Approaching the Cone Islands.JPG
    08 Approaching the lovely Cone Islands. Catching a favorable current in Bellingham Channel is one of the greatest joys a kayaker can experience.

    09 On Pelican Beach.JPG 09 Pelican Beach, not crowded in the off season. Unlike the more common concave beaches, where sightlines are restricted by the arms of the bay, Pelican Beach has a convex shape that projects into the water, giving wonderful views.

    As I passed just north of the Cone Islands, another jaegar flew by. Unlike the earlier jaegar, this one was a dark morph, a deep chocolate all over, so I mistook it for a juvenile larid until I caught the distinctive white wing flashes of a jaegar. This was my first-ever dark morph jaegar, so it was doubly exciting. I put my binoculars on it just in time to catch its distinctive cap and nape. As had the other jaegar, the dark morph attacked the first Bonaparte’s gull it met, with the attendant screaming and flailing. This was one of the best birding experiences I’ve had on the water.

    I spent the rest of the afternoon and all the next day hiking around Cypress. With the exceptions of Sucia Island and Moran State Park, the San Juans are not much of a hiking destination. Cypress Island’s network of decommissioned logging roads provides a welcome chance to log some serious mileage. If anything, there was a bit too much of a good thing, as I got turned around looking for the old, abandoned airfield and ended up hiking eleven miles on an eight-mile hike.

    10 Through the forest on Cypress Island.JPG 10 Through the forest on Cypress Island. The island has been logged over, but the second growth is coming in nicely, thanks to the island's protected status.

    11 Maidenhair ferns on Cypress Island.JPG 11 Maidenhair ferns on Cypress Island. There are enough creeks flowing year-round to support this hydrophilic species, one of my favorite ferns.

    12 Atop Eagle Cliff.JPG 12 Atop Eagle Cliff. Peregrine falcons nest on this bluff, and you feel a bit like a falcon yourself, sitting way up here.

    13 Cultural history.JPG 13 Cultural history of Cypress Island. They logged all the trees, dug up all the minerals, caught all the fish, and then tried to sell off the barren remains to rich people. Thank goodness the environmentalists prevailed in the end!

    14 Abandoned airfield.JPG 14 Abandoned airfield on Cypress Island. One day, the trees will take back what is theirs.

    On Sunday, I made extra certain to check the tides before setting out. The favorable afternoon ebb started around 5:00, so I was on the water by 4:55. I enjoyed a gentle cruise southward through the lovely Cone Islands. From my many trips to Strawberry Island, I have gained an instinctive sense that it takes around an hour and forty-five minutes to get back to Washington Park at a leisurely pace. However, Pelican Beach is more distant than Strawberry Island and requires a more circuitous route around Cypress Head. The ride home took me around two and half hours, so the sun had already set by the time I pulled up my kayak. For safety’s sake, I probably should have left earlier and bucked the current a little, but it was such a relaxing paddle and there were so many marbled murrelets and porpoises I don’t regret a thing.

    15 Through the Cone Islands on the way south.JPG 15 Through the Cone Islands on the way south. The Cone Islands are a kind of mini-wilderness, wonderful to explore.

    16 Fidalgo Island ahead.JPG 16 Fidalgo Island ahead and left, Cypress Island on the right. Trees, clouds, water, and rocks—the scenery of home.

    17 Ferry at sunset.JPG 17 Ferry at sunset. With a favorable current, it was no problem clearing out of their way.

    18 Sunset in Guemes Channel.JPG 18 Thirty seconds after sunset in Guemes Channel. What a magnificent planet we live on.

    I have to say, the purists are wrong. Kayaking to Cypress Island reveals the San Juan Islands at their richest. And here's a little secret: even though the WDFW beach on Sinclair isn't suitable for camping, I found a hidden DNR beach on Cypress that is. Next time I swing through Bellingham Channel, I'll tuck in there for a private evening in the loveliest place on Earth.

    Alex
     
  3. drahcir

    drahcir Paddler

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    Thanks Alex! I always enjoy your write ups, but wish I had your bird knowledge.
     
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  4. chodups

    chodups Paddler

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    Nice write up, Alex.
     
  5. Astoriadave

    Astoriadave Paddler

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    Sweet job, man!
     
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  6. mick_allen

    mick_allen Paddler & Moderator

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    a lovely description
     
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  7. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

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    Seattle WA
    Thanks, everyone. Drahcir, hopefully my bird knowledge will one day include the correct spelling of "jaeger."

    Alex
     
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