You don't have to travel far from the city here in the Pacific Northwest to get away and revel in Nature's embrace. Head to most any Salish Sea island, and you'll find that crossing the water from the mainland quickly takes you worlds away.
On a warm August weekend, a friend and I kayak to Lummi Island, the most northeastern of the San Juan Islands, for an overnight camping trip. For being so close to Bellingham and a short ferry ride from the mainland, the south end of Lummi feels surprisingly remote.
Putting in and Taking Off
On Saturday morning with a light wind at our backs, we haul our sea kayaks down to the beach at Gooseberry Point just north of the Lummi ferry terminal. We’ll paddle about 6 miles south down Hale Passage to the rustic but lovely Lummi Island Department of Natural Resources site.
After we manage to stuff all our camping gear (and ourselves) into the kayaks, we shove off into the water. (Packing and loading a kayak efficiently for camping is an art that I’ve not entirely mastered.) Today we’re lucky to have fairly benign water, with minimal currents and not much chop. Conditions in Hale Passage can be tricky and dangerous for kayakers, so we time our trip to avoid the peak flood current. With strong tidal currents moving around Puget Sound’s many islands, always check the tide charts before any paddle—something novice paddlers often neglect to do.
Lummi lies directly across the mile-wide passage from Gooseberry Point, but with the strongest flood current in the middle of the channel, Norm suggests “Let’s angle across to catch as much current as possible.” As we reach the Lummi Island side of the passage, Norm points out the dramatic topographical difference between the relatively flat northern half of the island and the hilly southern half. “There’s a thrust fault extending midway through the island,” points out Norm, who happens to be a hydrogeologist. Southern Lummi is a long, forested ridge with rocky headlands that plunge steeply into the water—especially on the west side of the island. It’s also a 661-acre Natural Resource Conservation Area mantled with mixed-aged forest of mostly Douglas fir and madrona trees.
“We’re here,” says Norm after a few hours kayaking along the mostly undeveloped, forested shoreline. We pull into a lovely little tree-lined cove, pull off our cockpit spray skirts, and climb out onto the rocky beach. With government budgets slashed, the Lummi DNR marine campground is maintained largely by volunteers from WAKE (Whatcom Area Kayak Enthusiasts) club. Thanks WAKE!
I start pulling dry sacks out of my kayak and piling them on the beach, then need several trips to ferry gear up the steep steps to the campsites nestled in the forest above. “Does this spot work for you?” says Norm as he nabs a campsite with a picnic table and a peak-a-boo view down to the cove through the trees.
When our tent is up and gear stashed inside, we paddle another mile to the south end of the island and up the west side to explore. At this end of Lummi, there are no decent landing spots along the steep, rocky cliffs.
As we approach the very southern tip of Lummi, several forest-covered islands to the south come into view—Samish, Guemes, Cypress, Vendovi, and Sinclair. Even though it’s close to slack tide, there’s still a strong, choppy eddyline to cross as we round the end of the island. Adrenaline courses through me as I power paddle through the squirrely water and the lowering sun hits me full in the face. Be careful if you venture here—an experienced solo kayaker died a few years ago here after he capsized in the strong currents.
For the next hour we mosey up the western shoreline past wild, untamed, and precipitous rock headlands. A few miles west across Rosario Strait looms the blue silhouette of Mount Constitution on Orcas Island. Visible in the distance beyond Orcas are the mountains of Vancouver Island. On the southern horizon are the Olympic Mountains, backlit by the lowering sun.
Only one power boat and three other kayakers are out here on this warm summer weekend evening. We pass them and soon they’re gone. I’m always amazed at the solitude you can find at beautiful spots in this populous region.
“Keep your eye to the south end of the island,” says Norm as we turn around and head back south. “The Alaska Marine Highway ferry should be passing by pretty soon.”
In a few minutes the big white ship comes barreling around the south end of the island a quarter-mile or so away. Soon it recedes to the north. We both decide that rolling our kayaks on that boat and heading to Alaska is a dream trip.
Another warm morning greets us after a fitful night sleep—I rarely sleep well camping, although I love to camp. Go figure. We pack up the kayaks and head back north, but today we’re battling the tide and wind. Still, it could be much worse. Three hours and sore muscles later, we’re back at Gooseberry Point, tired but happy.
When You Go
Be sure to check the marine forecast and current and tide tables if you plan a paddle to Lummi. And go early on a weekend to snag a good camping spot. Bring your own water since it’s a rustic, dry campsite. And leave no trace when you leave!