Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Kayaking the San Juans: Shaw Island Circumnavigation

Here in the Pacific Northwest, we're fortunate to have such a sea kayaker's paradise in the San Juan Islands.  I've kayaked and camped many times in this scenic archipelago over the years, but this is my first time camping on and circumnavigating Shaw Island

It doesn't disappoint.

Over Memorial Day we get a waterfront campsite at friendly Shaw County Park, where kayakers from several Seattle area groups have landed for the holiday weekend.  Shaw is the smallest and least populated of the San Juan Islands served by the Washington State Ferries.

While the San Juans are known for strong currents and tide races that require careful consideration when kayaking there, Shaw is somewhat protected, sandwiched between the bigger islands: Lopez, Orcas, and San Juan.

We check the tides and time our trip to avoid the strongest currents at Neck Point on the northwest point of the island.   Lucky us, there's not much wind when we shove off around 9:30 a.m. from the white sandy beach at Indian Cove (one of the best, if not the best stretch of beach in the islands).

Loading up at Indian Cove, Canoe Island in the distance and Lopez Island beyond.
Our group of four seasoned kayakers proceeds clockwise around the island, heading southwest in Upright Channel toward San Juan Channel.  The currents are mellow, the cloudy skies are starting to clear, and the undeveloped shorelines we pass are classic San Juans: rocky outcrops topped with grasses, moss, and evergreen trees, mostly Doug fir but also the lovely madrona, gloriously in bloom this time of year.

Matt, Peter, Amy, and I paddling southwest in Upright Channel.
I had been a little concerned about the potentially swift currents and squirrely water at the convergence of Upright Channel and San Juan Channel, based on a past trip.  But today the water is pretty calm, and we round the southwest side of Shaw easily and angle northwest.

Heading northwest in San Juan Channel as we pass close to Pt. George on Shaw.

Patches of blue sky!
On this side of the island, we see more sea stars (starfish) clinging to the rocks: purple, orange, and little neon orange, spindly blood stars, which aren't as common as the big guys.  Did you know that starfish can live up to 35 years?

After a couple hours, we're all getting warm and ready for a break, so we pick up the pace and charge toward Neck Point, passing Friday Harbor over on San Juan Island across the channel. We take a quick break in a small cove thick with kelp and other seaweed just south of the point. It's not a public beach, so we're careful not to linger; I don't get out of my kayak.  

Then we round Neck Point and paddle into Wasp Passage.  If we're going to hit any strong tidal currents, it's here. It's not too bad. We also keep our eyes open for boat traffic and any ferries because they charge through this narrow passage on the Friday Harbor to Orcas Island inter-island ferry route. 

Clearing Wasp Passage, Orcas Island ahead of us.

Getaway homes are scattered through the islands.  North side of Shaw Island.
Turtleback Mountain to the north on Orcas Island.
Over four hours into our trip today, we're all ready for a longer lunch break. Our destination is Blind Island, a state park, at the mouth of Blind Bay on the north side of Shaw. But after a slog to get there, the tide is so high that there's just not a decent spot for four of us to land and disembark.  So we paddle the short distance over to a little rocky beach next to the Shaw ferry terminal.

Beach at Shaw ferry terminal, Blind Island in the background.
Shaw Island ferry terminal.

A bonus of a lunch break here:  the historic Shaw Island General Store, where we wander over for coffee and treats.  We could have gotten freshly made sandwiches, too.  I buy a fresh-out-of-the oven oatmeal cookie to share because it's delicious and huge.

On the last leg of our trip, around the northeast side of Shaw and back into Upright Channel, Amy and I decide it's the loveliest stretch of shoreline.  The forest runs thick down to the rock outcrops above the sea, with unusual moss and hidden little coves.

Northeast side of Shaw, Lopez Island in the distance.
Sometime after 4 we arrive back at Indian Cove after this 14-mile day.  I was tired before lunch but got a second wind on the last stretch.  

On a lovely day like today, these islands, this sea, and the fresh air exhilarate me. I'll be back. (Which means you'll likely see more San Juan Island kayaking blog posts this year:).

Beach at Indian Cove, Shaw Island

When You Go
Here's a ferry schedule to Shaw Island. Shaw County Park is likely booked for much of the summer already, but you can always check. Be sure and check the tide and current charts as well as the weather forecasts before embarking on any kayak trip in the San Juans.  

Did you find this blog post informative and helpful?  What would you like to see more about?  Would love to see your Comments below!


Anonymous said...

Ah! Now that I'm living on the East Coast in the land of heat and humidity, this was a nice story to read and recall the wonders of the cool San Juan Islands...Thanks.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Great Pics!

Anne said...

Thanks! This revved me up for my trip later this month to the Inside Passage, hope to kayak there. Unless it is pouring down rain.

Jill said...


Jill said...

Glad I could give you a respite from that muggy East. Come visit often!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Jill for writing about our paddle. Relaxed pace, friendly boat traffic, no rain, perfect spot for lunch and great company. Hope to see you, Matt and Amy this summer...Peter.

Anonymous said...

Wow Jill, what a great paddling day. Great photos! Thanks for posting this.


Ed said...

Thanks for a great blog and pics.