Paddling to Stuart Island

Taste and Sea

As summer draws to an end, nature immerses the five senses in the Pacific Northwest’s San Juan islands.

Somewhere between our kayak launch at San Juan County Park and pitching tents on Stuart Island, I remembered it was the first day of fall. We rest our paddles while parked on top of a floating forest — a bobbing mass of bull kelp rocking us in the Pacific Ocean tide. Then we snack.

“The kelp is edible,” says Avery, our guide with Discovery Sea Kayak. He chews on the end of a slippery green blade, the opposite end still attached to a bulbous stem grounded in the seafloor some 50 feet below. “Try some.” I stuff the salty snack in my mouth. By the time I take a second bite, a curious sea lion snorts its nose across the surface nearby. We yield to the friendly huff and paddle on to our island for the night.

Just south of Canada, Washington’s San Juan island chain creates a serene nook in the Pacific. Two decades ago, the archipelago (with 743 islands and dry rock formations) became the first county in the U.S. to ban personal watercrafts like jet skis. Today, cell service here remains spotty — even on the three most populated islands of San Juan, Orcas and Lopez. On this post-Labor Day visit, everything feels like an insider secret. After August, the summer crowd thins, pleasant weather lingers through September and the resident orca whales stick around at least another month.

With less than 2,500 residents, San Juan’s “big city” of Friday Harbor makes the ideal base camp. Visitors trickle into the docks on seaplanes and daily ferries from Anacortes (80 miles north of Seattle). Above the bay, artsy suites at Inn 123 are carved into the hillside — a ship ladder in one unit leading to a rooftop martini deck. Up the street, even the more economical motor inn-style Earthbox Inn and Spa offers organic facials, comfy rooms and a fleet of beach cruisers that send visitors into the natural elements.

Shucking oysters at Buck Bay Shellfish Farm on Orcas Island

Shucking oysters at Buck Bay Shellfish Farm on Orcas Island

Biking inland from Friday Harbor, the rolling hills and farmland feel more like middle America than Pacific Northwest, until they give way to golden hillsides waving above the sea. By the middle of the ride, fingers may be stained by wild blackberries, plump and ripe for the taking along the road. Bike several miles farther and arrive at the world’s only park built for whale watching. 

Lime Kiln Point State Park is a gorgeous rocky perch where tourist schedules come to die, or at least surrender to sunsets and the whims of whales. On this visit, Kiki, Nova, Oreo and the rest of orca pod J make a surprise visit, chasing schools of Chinook salmon below the lighthouse for more than an hour. Local and international “orcaholics” who know the whales by name often stake out at Lime Kiln for hours on end.

Back in Friday Harbor, taste Bull Kelp ESB in a beer flight at San Juan Brewing Company. The amber beer won a bronze medal in the 2018 Great American Beer Festival. There’s no actual kelp in the brew, but it’s easier than paddling into the ocean to taste the real stuff — though kayak tours will let you do just that. Near San Juan Brewing, Tops’l Sushi and Seafood specializes in a colorful, local mix of fish and other fare. But the island’s most treasured food stop hides five miles outside of town in a cabin in the woods.

For 40 years, Duck Soup has elevated the standards for Pacific Northwest cuisine and cocktails. Crab cakes and duck breast with truffle risotto sample foraged edibles, farm produce and other fresh ingredients from the islands. In the dining room, keep an eye out for Momo, the neighborhood cat that won over the owners a decade ago.

From San Juan Island, Orcas Island makes an easy and tantalizing daytrip via ferry. A granola spirit fuels this island of Subaru hatchbacks and organic juice bars. Chef Jay Blackinton has won James Beard Semifinalist accolades for his adjoined restaurants Aelder and Hogstone’s Wood Oven. But after summiting Mount Constitution — the highest peak in the San Juans — head straight to sea level for a hands-on bite at Buck Bay Shellfish Farm. Here, after a quick demonstration, a chef will leave you with tools to shuck your own oysters.

Finally, stock up at Boat House Cider Works, located beside the Orcas Island ferry dock. Libby Garcia opened the place two years ago, starting with apples grown on the island. Boat House showcases flavors such as Saison yeast, earl gray tea, even hops and, of course, more views above the sea. 

After exploring Orcas, park the car in the ferry line for the return trip, then walk next door for one last taste. It’s one of the few on the island you can bottle up and take home.

AT TOP: Paddling to Stuart Island