Top Ten Kayak Paddles from Orcas Island with Guide, Michael Huber
“A mellow kayak guy with a ponytail and wide brim straw hat”. That was my first impression when meeting Michael, my now longtime friend and retired kayak guide. He and his then girlfriend were running the day trips, fondly called “four hour tours” out of Doe Bay, a funky resort on Orcas Island. These were the beginner kind of trips – in a double kayak - with seemingly endless instructions on how to use one’s spray skirt.
After Michael left Doe Bay, he began leading multi-day San Juan Island trips for Pacific Water Sports (PWS) in Seattle. We continued doing paddles together even after PWS went out of business, initially as a client and then as friends. I have no idea how many trips I have done with Michael over the years. At one point, I had a chart on my wall with push pins on each island where we had camped or picnicked; it got so full of holes that I finally took it down.
Michael has moved to Hawaii for most of the year. He has always been a warm weather guy and is now into paddling outrigger canoes. But, we still get to paddle every summer when he comes home to Orcas. Without further ado, here are his top picks for kayak trips from Orcas Island:
Michael’s top five day trips (in order of approximate round trip mileage):
1. Deer Harbor to Yellow Island and back, 3 miles. Yellow Island is a nature preserve administered by the Nature Conservancy. So, it is best to follow the rules (operating hours, where to land and stay on the path) – once we didn’t. Be sure to go in the spring (mid-March-May) when the wildflowers are blooming – it’s spectacular! A walk around the island is required on this one. This paddle can be extended by visiting other islands in the Wasp group. In general, currents are more manageable in this area.
2. Deer Harbor to and around Jones Island, 4 miles. Launch to the east (the right side) of the Marina (fee) or at the Deer Harbor Preserve (free). High tide is best to avoid the muck. Stop on the west side of Jones Island for lunch, sunset or even camping. This spot will always be infamous for me – one year Michael, as a surprise, had his friend drop ice cream out of a small plane, for our Dutch Oven pie. Hard to top that one! Spring Passage can get bouncy with the strong current and opposing winds – need to watch and plan for both. Sandy beaches, madrone trees and fairly tame resident deer make this island popular.
3. North Beach to Point Doughty and back, 6 miles. This is Michael’s top choice for a sunset paddle – on the rocky cliff above the point. (The rip tides can be tricky right at the Point.) Sea Stars are often abundant along the north rock wall which can also be a place to paddle out of the current in some conditions. Be prepared, launching at North Beach is rocky at low tide.
4. West Sound to Blind Island and back, 7 miles. Blind Island, a State Park, is a small island just off the north side of Shaw Island just west of the ferry dock.There isn’t much there other than a couple of campsites but it’s a fun day trip! Land on the little beach on the west side and have a picnic. West Sound has a more urban feel, if that’s possible, than other paddles but it’s a great place to be if the wind is coming out of the east. It’s always entertaining to go out along one shore and back in on the other.
5. Obstruction Pass to and around Blakely Island, 12 miles. This is a great paddle. Beaches are public on Blakely, even though it’s a private island. But, pocket beaches are limited due to the rocky coastline. Stopping on the southern tip is nice. Snacks can be purchased at the marina on the west side. Rip tides and currents can be nasty on the east side. This is the only place I remember losing control of a double kayak! Really watch the currents and wind on this one.
Michael’s top five overnights (or multi-day):
6. North Beach to Sucia Island and back, 5 miles. Planning for wind and current, paddle the long crossing from North Beach to Sucia Island and enjoy a day or two on Sucia. We have seen conditions change dramatically on the paddle in a just few minutes! There is plenty of good hiking although it’s best to avoid weekends in the summers. This one is a classic.
7. North Beach to Patos Island (direct or via Sucia) and back, 12 miles. This is a favorite of mine too! Either route requires a long crossing, best done on the flood, but it’s well worth it for time on this secluded island. A beautiful cove on the southwest end has a nice sandy beach and a couple of wonderful campsites. Circumnavigation of the island and hiking are a great way to spend a day or two although the island is not totally public. Memorial Day is the earliest that we’ve braved this trip.
8. Obstruction Pass to the east side of Cypress Island and back, 12 miles. Beware, Rosario Strait can be bumpy. I remember one crossing in my new “tippy” single that was particularly tough – our group couldn’t wait to get to calm water. There are nice beach campsites on the east side of Cypress. Once settled, don’t miss the hike up to Eagle Cliff for sunset! Michael spends his birthday each year on Cypress Island. When he is particularly energetic he does what he calls the “Cypress Tri-Athlon” in one day; paddles over, hikes up to Cypress Lake for an unofficial swim, then paddles back.
9. Obstruction Pass to Clark, Matia and Sucia Islands with return to North Beach, 17 miles. Paddling to Clarke is best done on the flood. It’s a favorite! Camp on the east side and walk over to the sunny, sandy side for dinner and sunset. Next day stop at Matia (too dark for camping) and then paddle to the west side of Sucia Island, Shallow Bay, for camping. Sunsets are great from the rocks above the beach. Paddle back to North Beach. You’ll need to shuttle a car for this trip but it’s well worth it.
10. West Sound to Obstruction Pass, Turn Island and back, 20 miles. What a surprise! I don’t think I have ever done this one even though it makes the top ten list. Paddle from West Sound to the Obstruction Pass Campground, after having lunch on Blind Island. Next day paddle the back side of Shaw out to Turn Island. Once at Turn Island (outside of Friday Harbor), enjoy Friday Harbor or catch the morning ebb to Cattle Pass, hike around the lighthouse and catch the flood back to Turn. On day four paddle on to Jones for an overnight and then back to West Sound the next day. Michael calls this the “Interior Paddle” and always times things here with the current!
There is something quite special about the San Juan Islands and there is no better way to experience them than on the water. Paddling along in the clear, cold, dark salt water while observing the rocky islands carved by glaciers millions of years ago, is breath taking. Moving closer to shore often brings bright orange and purple sea stars, crab, muscles and varieties of green and brown plant life. There is always wildlife to view; jelly fish, otters, seals, sea lions, eagles, herons, cormorants, porpoise (harbor and dahls) and the elusive Orca whales. On one trip, together we had the “once in a lifetime” experience of paddling near a resident (not sure if it was J, K or L) pod of whales. Michael had one swim right under his kayak!
We are so lucky to have these island gems to explore and I have Michael to thank for sharing them and his knowledge with me and my friends over many years!