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A WEEK AROUND WHIDBEY | A kayaking adventure with a rocky start

Shimmering fields of surfgrass are lit by a summer afternoon sun just north of West Beach during the first leg of a circumnavigation of Whidbey Island by kayak.  - Sue Ellen White / The Record
Shimmering fields of surfgrass are lit by a summer afternoon sun just north of West Beach during the first leg of a circumnavigation of Whidbey Island by kayak.
— image credit: Sue Ellen White / The Record

By SUE ELLEN WHITE

Special in The Record

Look out your window. For most of us it’s a greenscape with perhaps a view of neighbors or a slice of the Salish Sea that surrounds Whidbey.

What it means to live on an island is something most of us don’t think much about unless we’re waiting for a ferry or paying higher-than-mainland prices. The advantages, we believe, are the old-fashioned close community and that special feeling when we arrive, back from the mainland. It’s a place apart.

Our home is at the intersection of the Straits of Juan de Fuca, the Straits of Georgia and Puget Sound. We view it from the ferry, the beaches we walk or our fishing boats. We’re surrounded by water, from powerful Pacific Ocean forces driven down the Straits to a calm Cultus Bay dotted with thousands of sand dollars aligned on edge and lit by sun shafts penetrating the shallow lagoon.

For decades, my husband and I have driven off Whidbey each summer with friends, kayaks strapped to the top of the car, gear piled high in the back, to paddle coastal British Columbia. A week or more on the water provides an intimate look at each location, from the aptly named Sunshine Coast to magnificent God’s Pocket near the northeast tip of Vancouver Island to wild Kyuquot Sound on the Pacific coast. We’ve experienced eagles beyond counting, sea otters in their classic back float, humpback whales, traveling orcas passing right next to our boats, evidence of ancient First Nations cultures and sweeping mountain ocean panoramas forever imprinted in our minds.

To see and understand Whidbey, my husband and I decided to circumnavigate it this summer. A week of long summer days would cover the estimated 100 miles at a pace suited to intermediate-level, retirement-age kayakers. We decided on two multi-day legs, one along the west coast and the second along the east side of the island.

The adventure begins

Paddling and safety gear, tents, sleeping bags, food and cooking equipment, drinking water, charts, and the usual miscellaneous items are piled on the garage floor as our first launch date, the day before summer solstice, approaches.

The biggest logistical problems paddling Whidbey are parking, beach access and camping. Part of the Cascadia Marine Trail, camping spots on Whidbey are the most widely spaced and difficult of any on the Puget Sound-wide trail. Parking for overnight paddling trips is problematic.

Our paddling pal and all-around athlete, Dale Christensen, with assistance from other local kayakers, compiled a series of ’round Whidbey day trips with descriptions, mileage and access points that are posted at Island Beach Access’s website. These are our guide, along with marine charts, Washington Water Trails’ guidebook, current and tide tables.

We decide, for reasons of tide, currents and convenience, to start at Deception Pass State Park and paddle south on the west side of the island, ending at either Possession Point State Park or Clinton Beach Park.

Nestled in a cove just east of Deception Pass, Cornet Bay provides everything we want: a place to park our car for three days and an easy launch from a sandy beach. Dale has decided to join us for one of the three planned days and the weather appears good — moderate winds, a bit of June gloom overcast and minor chance of rain. Just past 10 a.m. we launch to catch slack tide through Deception Pass.

Nosing our boats into a calm eddy at the pass entrance we see the remains of the strong incoming current running like a river in the center of the channel. Sharp, dark cliff faces and the understructure of the bridge tower above us. Harbor seals poke their heads up, curious about us, and perhaps taking advantage of the pass’s slack tide to feed. We move slowly along the shore, waiting.

The thrum of the striking red, white and blue Victoria Clipper catamaran echoes as it motors by us heading out to Vancouver Island with its load of tourists who must wonder what those three crazy paddlers are doing out in the pass.

We will be going with the current after slack, but still have only about 20 minutes to get through the nearly mile of pass before the current builds, rushing through the narrow opening and creating the rips, whirlpools and swirling water that is so fascinating when seen from the bridge.

As we move under the bridge we are greeted by an eagle soaring under the structure, followed by Navy jets roaring in low from the west. We focus intently on our route, a contrast to the families with small children frolicking in the soft sand at the park’s North Beach, a dozen yards to our left. 

The way south

The pass opens up at its west entrance, and we round rocky West Point and into exposure to choppy 1-to-3-foot waves. Bobbing on swells we paddle south, well beyond the surf line, watching people at the state park beach and looking north and west to low-lying Lopez Island and the shadow of Vancouver Island.

Whidbey’s rocky coast quickly turns to a series of sandy shores and low-rolling bluffs with glimpses of bright green legacy fields still growing crops. Beach houses sit in clusters along the shore, a few the modest cabins of the past century, others the size of a small hotel.

The Navy air station’s landing field is set above a long, low, gentle crescent of beach. Whether by nature or development, it is a swath of deep ochre that stands out along the sandy shore. Planes take off and land continuously, from husky four-engine prop planes to the swept-wing Growlers whose din shakes the air and echoes, bouncing across the water, through every cell in our bodies. The base’s unpopulated shoreline is devoid of beach communities, though we see a Navy campground for military vacationers.

Rocky Point, still on the Navy base and north of Joseph Whidbey State Park, is the southern visible outpost of the ancient bedrock formations and tectonic plates that were pushed up and form rocky Deception Pass, the San Juan Islands and southern Vancouver Island. The rest of Whidbey is loose debris left by the back and forth of numerous glaciers. State Coastal Geologist Hugh Shipman, in his fascinating blog, calls this bedrock our basement.

Ahead are bluffs — sandy bluffs, clay bluffs with water seep, forested bluffs, bare landslide bluffs — and mostly narrow beaches. I surmise that without the solid rock at Deception Pass, we would have no pass. Were it glacial remains, it would all have been washed wide by the powerful water, resulting in a channel much like that between Mukilteo and Clinton. 

Hurdle calls a halt

Waves and wind moderate and we paddle south, skirting bull kelp forests and floating over large fields of shimmering bright green surfgrass.

The northern edge of the Straits of Juan de Fuca is now far off to the west, so that all that we see between us and the watery horizon is the low pancake form of Island County’s most westerly point, Smith Island and its companion shoal, Minor Island. It was the site of an early lighthouse set 200 feet back from the western shore. That side of the small island eroded from waves charging down the straits, and by the 1980s passing boaters watched as the lighthouse canted further and further over the cliff. It was gone by 1998. Smith Island is now a wildlife refuge. It has a navigational light and weather station, but is closed to public access.

Smith Island’s story seems a cautionary tale. Above the bluffs and slide areas, occasional roofs and fences can be seen precariously perched. Homes, it seems, that are likely there on borrowed time.

According to an article by Shipman, Island County is right up near the top of the state’s list with 51 percent of our shorelines mapped as unstable. San Juan County, by contrast, has only 3 percent of its shorelines classified as unstable by virtue of its “basement” rock.

Navigating by water can be problematic, especially in Island County where almost none of the beach accesses or water trails sites are marked with signage that can be seen from the water. Imagine getting around on an unmarked landscape with no address, no signs, no intersections. We begin to look for Dale’s takeout point. He’s parked his car in a small pullout just south of Joseph Whidbey State Park and is leaving us for a higher calling. In a couple of days he would climb 12,281 foot Mount Adams.

We land over a sandbar and small surf, eat a quick lunch, help him load his gear and we paddle off to Fort Ebey, six miles south.

Bluffs to the left, a horizon to the right, in the distance are ships that head to and from Seattle and Tacoma, via Admiralty Inlet and the Straits. Except for sea birds and an occasional plane, we are alone. There is plenty of time out here to contemplate our island and our place in eternity.

By late afternoon, we arrive at Fort Ebey, our campsite for the night. I’ve scouted the location in advance, a good move as there are no signs to be found. The wind has picked up and we must make surf landings. Mine goes wrong and my boat is damaged, so as John notes, “The trip is over.”

The boat needs repair before we continue, but the camping is good, food outdoors tastes grand and the sunset is magnificent.

 

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