Sea Kayaking in the San Juans: Sucia and Patos

Arriving in Anacortes an hour before my 7:20 AM reservation meant getting on the road by 4 AM. It’s getting tougher to get up and moving that early as I get older, and more so after coaching a 3 hour lesson the morning prior. Still, all worth it, and at this point, with as many trips up that way I have made, the drive is almost done on auto-pilot.

The ferry

This trip started the way the last one ended…on the ferry. Though this time we drove on to it.

You’ll notice my kayak, the blue Whisky 16, is sitting flat on its hull as opposed to on edge…how I normally transport it. There was a snafu before the trip even started….

I pulled up to the first booth at the terminal closer to 90 minutes before my scheduled departure. That turned out to be fortunate. 

My reservation verified, I handed over my credit card and almost choked when she mentioned the cost. My credit card was abused to the sum of $59.75. Ouch!

You’d think I would have caught that when I made the reservation! Nope. 

Didn’t matter. Just a bit of sticker shock at 6 AM! It’s honestly more than reasonable as it’s a round trip and I didn’t pay to walk on at Friday Harbor last time.) 

Once they have your money, they send you to the next booth. Apparently that’s the ‘lottery booth’ – lane assignment if you will. Arrive early and you have a good chance of a front row spot. While that’s the best view, it also means getting off the ferry faster. It’s sort of like sitting in the front of the airplane’s cabin. Stuck in the back and you can take longer to de-board than the flight itself took! 

I was asked again for my name and info on the reservation. The attendant looked at my rig, then back at me. Seems my rig with the kayak on edge was considered ‘tall’.


My jaw must have dropped. Out came the ‘fancy’ measuring pole to show me that the kayak wouldn’t clear it. 

All I was thinking is that there was more than enough height clearance given the size of the trucks that fit so….what was the issue? 

I didn’t ask, but I assumed it’s a weight/balance thing. If so, I get it, but really? I understand how a tall commercial vehicle, fully loaded with cargo could be top heavy, but my rig with the kayak?

The problem?

The reservation I made wasn’t for a ‘tall’ vehicle. That meant I’d need to be on stand-by! My jaw dropped further as my brain spun out. It was caught somewhere between me not making the trip and begging for an exception. I think he read my mind. I was told if I could lay the kayak flat, he’d let me proceed. 

I pulled over to the side, jumped out, loosed the straps, dropped the Whisky onto her hull, tightened the lines, and got his attention. Lane 12.

I did check the WSDOT website when I returned to see what I had reserved and what I SHOULD have reserved. I was more confused.

Guess I’ll opt for the same ‘Vehicle Under 22′ (standard veh) & Driver’ and re-strap the kayak BEFORE getting to the booth.

Washington State Ferry fares, Anacortes-San Juan Islands

North Beach, Orcas Island

At the end of North Beach Road is a small – and I do mean small – public access point to (aptly named) North Beach. On either side of the road is private property that extends to the water. Still, there was more than enough space for our launching party. Getting there early on a Thursday meant plenty of parking as well. 

Kayaks on the beach, we carried and loaded our gear and headed to Sucia.

Packing our gear

Next stop, Sucia

The crossing

Steve had timed the trip during a neap tide. There’d be very little tidal shift, so little to no current. It MIGHT have been a knot at peak flow throughout our trip. Wind was the unpredictable factor. It lined up as well. All forecast models I use had sustained winds at less than 6 knots for several days on either side of the trip. With sun thrown in, it was a relaxed 2.5 nautical miles crossing.

Around little Sucia. Missed the gap. All good.

Our campsite would be in Fox Cove. From North Beach we’d cross the Rosario Strait and enter the cove between Sucia Island and Little Sucia.

Funny thing about calm water paddles – complacency. Even with getting a bearing prior to crossing and ending up right where we intended, we missed the gap! Well, not entirely.

Tina spotted it. She even questioned if it was where we were supposed to be. Steve and I didn’t think so. Maybe it was the lower tide that made it look less like a gap between the islands and more like a small bay? 

No biggie. A slightly longer paddle and a bit more exploring is never a bad thing.

Fox cove

As anticipated, there was no one at the campsites (partly why we head out early mid-week). We scoped out a few sites right near the beach. The ones in the middle of the cove offered great views to the west with trees behind us. Being just off the beach, we could pull the boats up in front of the campsite.

Further down, the sites offered great views in all directions, but they were exposed. Continue down the path and there were a few sites in the trees with a view of Orcas. We opted for two sites against the tree line – room for three tents in one with two in the other.

We took our time setting up camp. There was no need to hurry and a good part of this trip was enjoying some time to relax. In the process of pitching my tent, I looked up and noticed a rainbow directly overhead. That had to be a good sign.

Echo Bay

With our bit of shoreline claimed for the next couple of days and tents up, we headed back out. There was no real plan other than to paddle out through the gap we were supposed to enter, then head east along the shore. 

We kayaked along the incredible cliffs carved by the wind and sea making our way around Fossil Bay and then Snoring Bay. We skipped exploring each in favor of heading into Echo Bay. We tucked inside South Finger Island where a family of seals was sunning themselves. Along the rocks, there were clearly visible sea stars, anemone, and a few urchin.

We kept the trip short. Just as well. I was exhausted. It had been a long week starting with our Anacortes to Friday Harbor paddle the Thursday prior, and multiple student classes – the last lesson the morning prior to launch.

Our first night

As it turned out, our campsite was in line with the afternoon sun. It got pretty warm. That prompted Tina and Joe to move camp to the wooded hillside facing Orcas – easily 10-15 degrees cooler. I considered it, but didn’t have the energy to move. Part of me was contemplating getting into my tent, editing some video, then falling asleep. 

I held out, but didn’t cook. One of the meals I packed was my black bean and corn salad with roasted sweet potatoes. It was already cooked and delicious when eaten cold. It was dinner.

After dinner, Steve and Martin took off in separate directions for a short hikes. I stayed put. I did opt to shift my tent to the adjacent site Tina and Joe abandoned, though. 

We’d already paid for the site and with more people likely converging on the island the next day, moving my tent 5 feet would give us a buffer with the next site. I could manage that move.

Our reward for the afternoon heat was a perfect place to watch the sunset. After my years in the Arizona desert, I find sunsets over the water to be pretty incredible. This one didn’t disappoint.

I crashed shortly after the sun finally dipped below the horizon. With our northern latitude, it was close to 9:30 – early for me, but I needed the sleep.

Friday – off to Patos

Martin and Steve woke early. I was up by 6:30. They were finishing breakfast as I prepped my coffee. And yes, it has to be real coffee done right….pour over. My breakfast was old fashioned oatmeal…the kind you cook for 5 minutes…and brown sugar. 

The plan for the day was exploring Patos. There was a bit of discussion about a circumnavigation, but Steve mentioned there can be some good tidal rips on the ends of the island. While there was little current flow, we opted to avoid the potential risk. Instead, we’d land in the small cove on the western edge and take a short walk to the lighthouse. We’d return to the cove and have lunch before paddling back to Sucia.

On the water at 9 AM.

The 3ish nautical mile crossing, much like the one from Orcas to Sucia, was the opposite of epic. No current, no wind, and under sunny skies. 

We made our way to the beach, pulled the kayaks up past the high tide line, stripped off our gear, and headed to the lighthouse. 

The gap between Patos and Little Patos

Back to the beach and lunch

My dinner the previous night was supposed to be my lunch on Patos. It was planned that way to have a ‘ready to eat’ meal.  Limited options meant packing my MSR Pocket Rocket II – and one of the rare times I pull out the stove to cook (reheat in this case) at lunch. If you are wondering….it was roasted potatoes and peppers.

Our meal came with a show as Joe decided he needed to cool off with a quick swim.

Returning to Sucia

We had intended to stay a bit longer, but two large military ships out in the Strait of Georgia moving at more than 18 knots meant their wakes would eventually hit our beach. The preference was to be on the water when they did. Without much to explore in the cove, we made our way back. 

We explored a bit more before at Sucia, heading into Shallow Bay. Steve wanted to check out the isthmus that separated Shallow and Echo Bay – that was where he hiked after dinner Thursday. Then it was back to our campsite. I changed, grabbed a beer, and put my feet up. 

With a plan to head back out to catch the sunset from the water, we had an early dinner – chile lime jackfruit tacos for me.

Weather check

It’s a standard safety protocol to check the weather. We didn’t for the Patos trip as we had options. That crossing was optional. Had we woken to wind, we would have paddled more around Sucia. In this case – we’d have to make the crossing back to Orcas (if not possible, we’d have stayed another night….side note here….always plan for that. I had enough food and water for another two days).  

That forecast of nothing over 6 knots of wind for days…. changed. Morning winds would be sustained at 10+ knots from the SSE (headwinds if you’re keeping track). They’d potentially increase by 10 AM and what was our intended launch time for heading back to Orcas. The decision was made to leave the beach by 9.

A sunset paddle

The plan set for the morning, we headed back out about an hour before sunset. Having headed east towards Echo Bay the day before, we opted to paddle west. We crossed the mouth of Shallow Bay tracing the shore. With the tide change, there was a strong pull around the point. We made the decision to turn back rather than deal with paddling against the current coming back. 

We ventured into Shallow Bay for some more exploring. On the way out, I hugged the rocks, playing a bit. On several occasions I had the ability to work on and fine tune boat control. Back in Fox Cove, a few good boat wakes offered a little more excitement.

We ended our paddle watching the sun drop below the horizon.

Leaving Sucia

Tina was packed and ready to go before I made it out of my tent. Steve and Martin were next up. That was my clue to get moving. 

I never liked mornings when we have to pack up and head out early. There’s always the stress to get all of your gear ready to go so you’re not the last one. That stress increases when you have a timeline. In this case, the clock was ticking, but I also had plenty of time. The trouble was….my OCD. 

Making breakfast meant I would need items from several of my dry bags. That meant I couldn’t finish packing up until after breakfast – and then cleaning everything. That wouldn’t work. I pack everything in the rig to head out on a trip the night prior to minimize stress getting on the road. Anything I’d need in the AM either fits in my ‘day’ bag….or it gets left behind. No option on Sucia to leave stuff behind, so it had to be just a few items getting used.

I made coffee. Breakfast would have to wait. 

That really wasn’t a big deal on this trip. It was only a 2.5 nautical mile crossing back – less than an hour. Accounting for loading the kayak and gear, the 30 minute drive to the ferry terminal, and a 2:20 PM reservation….I’d have time to eat when we landed – quite a bit of time.

The weather

As predicted, the winds picked up. The temperatures dropped too. The past two mornings were warm, with still air and sun at 9 AM.  Now, it was overcast with a breeze and much cooler. I swapped out my shorty semi-drytop for the long sleeve full drytop I brought just it case it was needed. Glad I did. I wasn’t concerned about immersion. I didn’t want to be cold!

Goodbye Sucia. Hello Orcas.

We pushed off the beach at 8:45. Passing between Sucia and Little Sucia you could feel the wind. A 3rd of the way across the Strait, the 10 knot headwinds gave us a few small waves slowing our pace. Once in the lee of Orcas, the water surface flattened and we had a smooth paddle to the landing point on North Beach.

Within the hour, gear was loaded and boats were back on the vehicles (and yes, mine on its hull for the ferry ride home). Martin opted to explore Orcas Island. The rest of the group decided to see if we could catch an earlier ferry – which we did, with time to spare. This time though, I was mid deck. Just as well. It was the perfect excuse to close my eyes for a bit. I’d still have a 2 hour drive home. 

Once off the ferry. I pulled over, re-positioned the Whisky 16 for the drive home, and hit the road.

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