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Rob Writes
Master Wordsmith With Heart
Aboard the S.S. Rotterdam
Paddling the San Juans
Gawdy Time in the Gulf
Service 1
Paddling the San Juans

For the Philadelphia Inquirer Travel Section

You have to look closely to see the anger building.Two men stand 20 feet apart over kayaks awash with camping stuff and wet clothes.

They study the ground. They toe the mud. Every 30 seconds one of them says, “So what you’re saying is, everyone else is wrong?” or “I am not comfortable going forward if you take that position.”

It’s taken three days, but the conflict of our travel styles has exposed some raw points. It’s a quiet fight. Gentlemanly. No swinging kayak paddles or profanity. We attack each other’s logic.

The nerve of this man. He has shown me the tremendous indignity of, first, allowing me to get him interested in kayaking and, second, becoming far better at it than I. He has pulled me out to the San Juans, having done the trip alone himself. He has dragged me across a large part of the country on kayak trips. For this reason I resent him to a height greater than I stand.

We intend to paddle. Lewis has determined the currents half a mile out will help us, but those close to shore hurt us. Nevermind the precise reasoning, he has it all worked out. He’s looked at charts. He’s drawn tables. I have foiled this plan by refusing to wear a wetsuit. I avoid the life jacket also.

“Cold water,” he says. “If you dump you’ll be hypothermic in a minute.”

“I can’t move my arms in that getup,” I say, “and I’d rather freeze than drown.”

He refuses to paddle far away from shore without me in a wetsuit, despite my assurances. Thus the power of his tidal assessments has been wasted. He has altered his plan because I, alone among the elements, have resisted his reasoning.

We stay inshore. And to my credit I do not harp upon the obvious fact that the currents have also not acquiesced to the force of his reason. They flow with us near shore, against us further out. In fact I don’t say anything because Lewis must be fuming. Here is a man who spends his spare time alphabetizing his CD collection. And nature has not followed the elaborate pattern his finely articulated mind has created for it. What I want to tell him is this:


No, sorry. What I mean to say is that, where kayaks are concerned, tide charts matter less than a quick eye and ready brace and maybe a small prayer.

* * * * * * *

The San Juans, the small cluster of islands in the vast inland sea of Puget Sound, has so far attracted few jetskis, the greenheads of boating. This may be due to the frigid water—60 degrees is warm. Or it may be due to the almost militant green mania of the Pacific Northwest, the land that gave birth to REI and the Thermarest camping mattress. Or it may yet be due to what might remains of reverence before beautiful sights. What awesome vistas!

Three days out we rounded the head of Orcas Island, paddled hours down the west coast, and camped at Doughty Point, a spot of such sublime magnificence I will have it forever fixed in my mind. From a rock pinnacle 200 feet over the water, we commanded the view of water on three sides. The setting sun lit the heads of four seals travelling shoreward beneath us. The passed at some distance a group of four kayakers heading north toward Sucia Island, with its miles of green austerity. Over our right shoulder, snow-covered Mt. Baker seemed to put God on very earth in an augustness of snowy pink and blue, the high point of the summit blazing white in the fading sun. This is distance in many directions.

We had started at Fisherman’s Bay on Lopez Island, then paddled around several islands th ick with woods and jutting, sheer, red-brown cliffs up from the clear salt water. We took a long time getting started, moving the food and sleeping bags and tents and mats and cookpots into the kayaks, forcing somehow the wide bulky bags through the narrow hatches and laying them evenly along decks, and then shifting weight from bow to stern to balance the keels.

We bungeed our bilge pumps to the deck, stowed our water bottles and extra paddles, our little dry bags with keys and wallets. And then we lugged each kayak, now well over 100 pounds, to the water line. The tide ran with us out of Fisherman’s Bay, back against us just after, then remained indifferent for the rest of the day.

This wetwork of clear saltwater and brooding islands looks intimate enough. But five hours in a kayak will prove their essential distance. The end of our first day brought us to within shouting distance of our destination, the Doe Bay Spa and Resort, on Orcas Island. Two hours later, we were still within shouting distance, but apparently no closer. Seals poked heads above water to watch us, two strange swimming creatures with bodies the color of sunset and starshine, crawling along the surface with sticklike arms.

We decided to kayak through this beauty because nothing places you more directly into the scene than a kayak. We went in June, not September, the month thought to offer the most consistent good weather. We could have taken faster transport. Pontoon planes buzz all around the islands, their white bodies clear against the forest green hillsides, their engines warbling in baritone. Likewise the small pleasure boats zip tails of white water among the islands still small in the distance owing to the vast spaces and what is called low population density. And the sailboats, as well, lean their slow ways along their courses. Their jibs bellying toward the face of the waters as the puffs strike them.

Ferries ply the water regularly and frequently between Anacortes, the nearest mainland town, and the islands—old ferries indeed but numerous, transporting out to Washington’s own Emerald Isles all the teeming masses eager to breathe free and fish and sail free and race around in little boats. This is how things are done here. Come Friday evening, everyone of marine inclinations crowds to their sailboats, kayaks and powerboats in Anacortes, then boats out to one of the islands, where camping abounds, along with strange holdovers from the place’s hippy past like Doe Bay Spa and Resort.

According to its official little pamphlet, Doe Bay started out as an Indian encampment and then progressed through a somewhat shady history as a fishing village, a trading post, a general store and post office, ferry terminus, tavern, dancehall, restaurant and service station. It doesn’t appear on the official literature that the place was also a commune and nudist camp. But that past seems as palpable there now as the incense wafting in clouds through the trees. It resides at a small cove on the southwest coast of Orcas Island.

We reached Doe Bay at the end of day one. The place consists of a building serving as front-office/café/store, an outbuilding offering hostel type sleeping, scattered cabins, jury-rigged “yurts” for the more spiritual campers, a few dozen campsites sprawled around the little cove and connected by trails of packed dirt. A sense of repose comes dropping down there and spreads out upon the waters and drifts up across the rocks of the cove and up along the gray gravel parking lots, and seems to fall from the sassafras trees and cottonwoods and firs, and be blown from the roses and rhododendrons.

We spent an extra day here, nerving up for the discomfort of what would surely follow. On the second day after arrival, once more we loaded the boats and paddled out. A long, very long pull took us around the north side of Orcas Island. Seals followed us, and otters. Then down the west side we pulled to Doughty Point, already mentioned.

Here, Mt. Baker, pink and white with snow in the blue distance, fills the northeastern sky. At night, yellow flowers peep out of the darkness. Vast sheets of sea on three sides of our rock, and yet the only sounds that come to us are splashing water and breeze in the evergreens.

In the morning we paddle south down the west coast of Orcas, turn left at the point and head east, through dozens of small islands, and pull in sight finally of Blind Island, our next camp. Blind Island, about four acres of land, is filled with hummingbirds, several campsites distributed about the place, a rocky loft wherefrom you may glimpse the rare appearance of the sun, and a toilet set into a huge structure that looks like a generator in a shed. We are very tired.


* * * * * * * *


The kayak requires not upper body strength, but persistence. Women make the fastest-growing cohort of the kayaking population, especially women on organized paddling tours. The kayak requires mostly the ability to sit in a small boat for long hours. Many books explain paddling technique, kayak style, cruising gear. Me I just get in and paddle. Every once in a while you dump, but that way you learn.

This is what gets me in trouble. Next morning, expected to be our last day of paddling, Lewis finally confronts my refusal to wear either wetsuit or life jacket. We stand on the little beach. By this time the forecast has materially worsened. Two feet of chop make the paddling look more than interesting. Still I refuse, and we stand letting our obvious indignation speak for us. Quips and inquiries dart out at the rate of two per minute. Eventually we feel our way to a position of mutual entrenchment, and there let it rest. I am obdurate. He is overcautious. But we must go.

We do, our clothes and bodies and tents and boats very wet. Rain begins to fall, big surprise. We pull slowly, ever so slowly toward Fisherman’s Bay, where our journey will end. Coming finally in sight of our outfitter, we pass a bald eagle standing in an exaltation of beating wings in a treetop.

Back at the outfitters, our kayak expert says he never wears a wetsuit, but always wears a life jacket. So it’s a tie. Lewis decides he’ll still go paddling with me after all. And, yes, I will go.


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