Posey, Stuart, & Jones Is., San Juan Is., WA 29 Dec 2018–1 Jan 2019

Discussion in 'Trip Reports' started by alexsidles, Jan 3, 2019.

  1. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA
    The Saturday forecast for the northern inland waters was grim: south winds at 25 to 35 knots, with gusts to 55. This is far beyond what any sane person can tolerate in a kayak. A gradual shift to more forgiving conditions would occur over the following days, but getting past that first Saturday would take careful planning.

    I set up a four-day, three-night circuit in the western San Juans, departing from Reuben Tarte on the north coast of San Juan Island, heading west to Posey Island, then across to Stuart Island, over to Jones Island, and finally back to Reuben Tarte. My hope was to hug the north shore of San Juan Island that first Saturday and thereby avoid the howling southerlies. To further bolster my chances, I drove up the night before and car-camped in the pouring rain at the launch site.

    00 Map.jpg
    00 Route map.

    The plan worked perfectly. Scarcely a breath of wind reached me as I crept westward through Spieden Channel on a gentle ebb tide. There were intermittent periods of rain and beautiful bursts of sunlight. Posey Island was less than four miles away, so I enjoyed a short, easy crossing, totally sheltered by the bulk of San Juan Island. Best of all, I saw all of the Big Four alcids—common murre, marbled murrelet, pigeon guillemot, and rhinoceros auklet—within ten minutes of launching.

    01 Westbound up Spieden Channel.JPG
    01 Westbound up Spieden Channel. Spieden Island is one of the most picturesque of the San Juans.

    02 Barren Battleshield and Henry Islands.JPG
    02 Barren, Battleship, and Henry Islands. The raindrops made a steady patter on the surface of the sea and the deck of my boat.

    03 Pigeon guillemots in Spieden Channel.JPG
    03 Pigeon guillemots in Spieden Channel. Alcid numbers spike during winter, when the birds leave their nesting grounds in the Arctic and along the outer coast and come to Puget Sound.

    04 Rainy arrival at Posey Island.JPG
    04 Rainy arrival at Posey Island. Posey Island’s unusual species composition consists of Rocky Mountain juniper and Garry oak, both rare in western Washington.

    05 Under the tarp at Posey Island.JPG
    05 Under my tarp at Posey Island. This 250-s.f. (23 m
    2) monster protected my tent, my gear, and an area for me to sit and read while I waited for the rain to pass.

    06 Cooking dinner.JPG
    06 Cooking dinner. It gets cold once the sun goes down, so I eat dinner around 4:30 this time of year.

    The next morning, the radio was full of dire wind reports all around—Victoria to the west, Tsawassen to the north, and Bellingham to the east. The western San Juans, however, were an oasis of tranquility. I hurried across to Stuart Island on the morning flood, before the weather gods could change their minds.

    07 Heading up Haro Strait to Stuart Is.JPG
    07 Heading north up Haro Strait to Stuart Island. In the morning, the wind had died down, and I had an easy crossing to Stuart Island.

    08 Mysterious Spieden Island.JPG
    08 Mysterious Spieden Island. I call Spieden Island “Jurassic Park,” because the whole island is owned by a secretive billionaire, is off-limits to the public, and is populated by exotic, introduced animals that wander freely over the plains.

    09 Animals of Jurassic Park.JPG
    09 Animals of Jurassic Park. I don’t include domestic animals in my species count, and these are probably tame enough to be considered domestic.

    10 Entering Reid Harbor.JPG
    10 Entrance to Reid Harbor. I mistakenly thought Gossip Island, in the foreground guarding the entrance to the harbor, was an off-limits NWR island. Actually, it is a state park island and can be landed upon though not camped upon.

    11 Pigeon guillemot.JPG
    11 Pigeon guillemot. Pigeon guillemots can be difficult to identify in winter, because there is a lot of individual variation in how white they are, especially around the head.

    12 Marbled murrelet.JPG
    12 Marbled murrelet. I saw many dozens of the beautiful marbled murrelet but no ancient murrelets, even in San Juan Channel where they are often numerous in winter.

    13 Under the trees in Reid Harbor.JPG
    13 Under the trees in Reid Harbor. The best campsite on Stuart Island is not at the dock but at the western end of Reid Harbor.

    Last edited: Jan 3, 2019
  2. alexsidles

    alexsidles Paddler

    Jan 10, 2009
    Seattle WA
    Stuart Island is one of the few in the San Juans to feature substantial hiking trails. Although the state park portion of the island is quite small, the county roads give access deep into the island’s heart. The best walk is the five-mile roundtrip to the Turn Point lighthouse, one of the most beautiful in Washington State. On a chilly Sunday afternoon in late December, there was no one else about, even on the roads. I went all the way to the lighthouse and back without seeing another soul.

    14 Hiking on Stuart Island.JPG
    014 Hiking on Stuart. Standing in a clearing in the forest atop a high bluff is one of the most characteristic pleasures of hiking in the San Juans.

    15 One-room schoolhouse.jpg
    015 Stuart Island’s one-room schoolhouse. The island’s public school has been closed for lack of students since 2013, although the school library remains open as a community resource. Interpretive materials plaintively call for children to return to the island one day.

    16 Turn Point lighthouse.JPG
    016 Turn Point lighthouse. By the afternoon, northwest winds in Haro Strait had kicked up to around 20 knots.

    17 Alex at lighthouse.JPG
    017 Alex at lighthouse. The heavy chop and blisteringly fast current in Haro Strait made me glad I was off the water already.

    18 Lighthouse keepers quarters.JPG
    018 Lighthouse keepers’ house. Lighthouse keeper was a working-class profession. This is how such people lived during the middle of the 20th century. Today, they’d struggle to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

    19 Orion from Stuart Island.jpg
    019 Orion seen from Stuart Island. A high-pressure system over the BC interior brought clear skies.

    Stiff winds continued the next morning, this time easterly, offshore flow from the same high-pressure system that had delivered such clear conditions the day before. However, I was less concerned with the winds than the tides. The passage between Stuart Island and Jones Island is, in my opinion, the most challenging in the San Juans. I have heard the same from sailboaters, and several kayak guidebook authors also issue warnings for this area, including Robert Miller and Rob Casey.

    The problem is Spieden Island, which sits in the confluence of Haro Strait and San Juan Channel. A flood tide wraps around the north side of the island from both ends, creating a split in the middle of New Channel. A kayaker riding the eastbound flood from Stuart will encounter this split somewhere near the Cactus Islands and be stopped in his tracks. The only option at that point is to wait for the ebb to pull him the rest of the way east around around Spieden. However, once around the eastern tip of Spieden, that same ebb will then pull him back westward along the south side of Spieden (which does not split), away from Jones Island, at speeds up to five knots. The ebb will also tend to push him south down San Juan Channel, also away from Jones Island. Once caught in this trap, the kayaker must either wait for the tide to cycle back to flood, or else must somehow overcome powerful adverse currents to reach Jones Island, or must surrender and allow the currents to carry him to San Juan Island.

    The Spieden Island puzzle is difficult enough during summer. During winter, when the days are so short there is less than a full tide period available during daylight hours, the difficult currents can result in a kayaker getting trapped on the water after dark.

    The easiest way to avoid the north-side split is simply to transit along the south side of Spieden Island, through Spieden Channel, where the split does not occur. But as an experiment, I decided to try an alternative: I would transit along the north side, but instead of hugging Spieden on my right down New Channel, I would hug Johns Island on my left. The idea was to avoid the split by staying farther away from Spieden.

    Not only did this experiment succeed in avoiding the split, it also sheltered me from the ten-knot easterly wind for longer than the traditional route would have, and it took me right past Flattop Island, a scenic landmark I had often admired but never visited.

    I’ve camped on Jones Island at least half a dozen times over the years. It’s one of the best in the San Juans, especially during the off-season when it isn’t crowded. Always in the past, I camped at either the south cove (recommended) or the north cove (less scenic, more powerboats). This time, I decided to stay at the special, kayakers-only campsite on the west side. There I enjoyed perfect solitude as well as a lovely view of the surrounding islands. At night, the roaring of the Stellar's sea lions at Green Point on Spieden Island was so loud it echoed off the rocks all the way over on Jones, nearly three miles distant.

    20 Bumpy crossing to Flattop Island.JPG
    020 Bumpy crossing to Flattop Island. Luckily, the winds were at the low end of the predicted 10–20 knot forecast.

    21 Looking down San Juan Channel.JPG
    021 Looking down San Juan Channel. The sun stays very low on the horizon this time of year, even during mid-day.

    22 Arriving at west side Jones Island.JPG
    022 Arriving at west side campground. This site can be a little hard to spot from the water.

    23 At the west side campsite.JPG
    023 At Jones Island. The entire island is a state park.

    24 Jones Island sunset.jpg
    024 Jones Island sunset. The sunset was so far south it was almost disorienting.

    25 Looking west during the crossing home.JPG
    025 Looking back at Stuart and Spieden on last morning. The crossing back to Reuben Tarte took less than an hour.

    I ended the trip with a rather anemic species count of 41 birds and five mammals. For the first time ever, I encountered no raccoons on Stuart or Jones, where they have been abundant and aggressive in the past. Perhaps the raccoons simply didn’t think to check the campsites for humans this time of year, and not without reason—the only other person I encountered was a single powerboater walking his dogs on Stuart.

    The lack of wildlife was more than made up for by the joy of being alone in the islands on a clear, cold day, sheltered from the wind and tides by good route planning. I passed the days walking through the woods, reading books, and drinking tea in my quiet little campsites.

    Last edited: Jan 3, 2019
    jefffski and Astoriadave like this.
  3. Astoriadave

    Astoriadave Paddler

    May 31, 2005
    Astoria, Oregon, USA
    Wow, Alex, you sure do put together some amazing trips, dancing on the edge of fierce weather.

    Your tale of the empty schoolhouse is becoming a common one. In 2010, a few of us ambled past a sizeable one in Echo Bay, Broughtons, another victim of degraded employment opportunities in near-wild places.
  4. drahcir

    drahcir Paddler

    Mar 26, 2010
    North Idaho (Sandpoint)
    Thanks for the report Alex, providing a vicarious trip for this North Idaho winter-bound paddler, as usual. And Dave, the Echo Bay schoolhouse has now been totally removed. Billy Proctor saved a few artifacts, however.
  5. Denis Dwyer

    Denis Dwyer Paddler

    Mar 17, 2009
    Metairie, Louisiana
    Thanks for the interesting trip report and photos.
  6. chodups

    chodups Paddler

    Nov 2, 2005
    Another excellent "Alex Report"!
  7. benson

    benson Paddler

    Aug 28, 2011
    Sequim, Wa
    Excellent report and photos Alex. I haven't camped at Stuart, but always enjoyed watching the freighters negotiate Turn Point when camping at Rum.
  8. pawsplus

    pawsplus Paddler

    Jan 19, 2015
    Landlocked in Tennessee
    Well, that sure takes me back to 2014, when I did a guided trip--my first in a kayak--that covered a number of those spots (Posey, Stuart, Speiden, Cactus). Great report!!!