Kayak Camping Cover

Kayak Camping the San Juans

By Water, Roving,

“Get out of the way, birds! We’re coming through!”

My holler carries across the still water as the bow of our kayak slices toward a flock of roosting gulls. This is no time to be polite. The birds get the message and lift off in a susurrating wave, their silhouettes wheeling against the final orange streak of sunset. I admire the sight even as my upper body aches from determined sweeps of the paddle. We have to get back to camp before the last of that light disappears.

Our predicament can be traced back to a barely missed ferry that morning, as we rush with armfuls of camping gear from the distant overflow parking lot.  Fortunately, our rental company is able to accommodate the change in schedule and we kill the interim time fueling up with a bonus brunch at Adrift in Anacortes.

Upon our arrival in Friday Harbor, Tim of San Juan Kayak Expeditions gives us a ride to our launch site.  He’s been in the business for 34 years and gives a well-oiled spiel about how to launch and land our sleek double kayak “like a hunter”.  After he departs, we load the hatches and “power-waddle” the craft into the water.

We quickly fall into the meditative rhythm of paddling, heading out around Dinner Island.  Seals squirm off their rocks to spy on us and loons call back and forth in their eerie laughs.  The blue bay mirrors the skies above, Mount Baker looming in the distance.


We find our campsite at Griffin Bay State Park, a nondescript stretch of shore between private properties accessible only by non-motorized watercraft.  The three sites are elevated along a bank and screened from each other by tall grasses. Not that the extra privacy matters, since we have the place to ourselves.


Despite our delay, we decide to continue with our printed itinerary and float out to the southern tip of San Juan island.  The water is glassy, the silence near-complete, and our pace leisurely.  I even make use of my waterproof Kindle case.

We beach at Third Lagoon and strolled a mile down quiet streets to check out Cattle Point Lighthouse.  I picture a towering sentinel complete with spiral staircase and lantern beaming through the windows.  Instead, we are confronted with the World’s Ugliest Lighthouse, a bare bulb atop a blocky building.


At least the sunset is pretty!


But that sunset means we are running out of time – when we get back to the kayak, the sun is below the horizon and we don’t have so much as a headlamp.  We go from casual holidayers to a crew team with an Olympic medal in sight.  Despite burning muscles, I thrill at arrowing through the deepening dark.  Scanning the vague outline of the shore, we pull in close a couple times before guessing the correct rocky beach.  Never have I been so pleased to splash out into cold scummy seaweed water.  We land like a hunter, if that hunter were an arthritic walrus.

At camp, we toast a burrito over a driftwood fire and I devour handfuls of cookie butter to the beats of African music.  The kayak, tucked safely above the high tide line, awaits our return in the morning.


All-in-all, the trip is a successful first foray into the world of kayak camping, a great alternative to backpacking for those who feel affinity for water and/or skip too many leg days.  And with over 400 rocks and islands in the San Juan archipelago to explore (plus the chance of spotting orca!), it’s a place I plan to paddle again in the future.


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