The Sucia Trip

posted May 20, 2012, 6:21 PM by Richard Sevenich   [ updated May 21, 2012, 4:34 PM ]
I recently returned from 3 days of kayaking just north of Orcas Island, using a base camp in Fox Cove on Sucia Island. This time of year, this location is not yet inundated with boaters and campers, although our campsite already had a largish group of kayakers taking an instructional course. The weather can be problematic, but we lucked out. Because these waters were as yet unfamiliar to me and subject to various currents, I chose to go with a tour company. Recall from an earlier blog that I had chosen Anacortes Kayak Tours (AKT) because they appeared to be competent and would allow me to bring my own kayak. Further, AKT provides all the camping gear and food. This blog is partly a review of AKT as well as a description of the trip itself.

The geographical area for the trip was comprised of Sucia Island, Patos Island, Matia Island, and assorted little nearby islands. These islands feature some old growth forest, lots of sea creatures, and amenities such as composting toilets, maintained campsites, and (on Sucia) fresh water. These islands are gems. One also sees occasional Madrona (Arbutus) trees and the fantastical sandstone sculptures formed over thousands of years by the winds and salt water erosion. The sandstone sculptures I've seen more to the north, e.g. on Gabriola and Valdez Islands near Nanaimo, are more extensive and dramatic, but these southerly examples are quite fascinating. Perhaps the difference in scale can be partly attributed to the difference in tidal range, nearly twice as large to the north.

The trip dates I required were well before high season and, only somewhat surprisingly, I was the only paying customer. Consequently, AKT also used the trip as a training exercise for 3 potential guides. The list of participants was
  • Jeremiah - the guide and instructor
  • Meg - guide-in-training
  • Brian - guide-in-training
  • Nate - guide-in-training
  • me - the 71 year-old customer
Could they cater to me and get in some pre-season training?

The day before the trip, I drove from Sandpoint to Anacortes and then took the ferry to Orcas Island where I spent the night.
The next morning I met the AKT group at North Beach on Orcas Island. They brought two singles (an NDK Romany and an NDK Explorer) and a tandem, while I brought my single, a North Shore Calypso. Each of the guides-in-training would get an opportunity to be the 'guide' for one of the 3 days. On that day, the 'guide' would drive the Romany, whereas the instructor stayed with the Explorer each day. After unloading gear and packing the kayaks, we set off on a 2+ nm. crossing to Sucia where we set up the base camp.
Actually, I watched as they did the camp setup work. Unfamiliar with the gear, I would just be in the way. After a snack we did another 2+ nm. crossing to Patos and had lunch near the lighthouse at Active Cove.

Subsequently we finished the circumnavigation of Patos and returned to the base camp on Sucia Island.

This first day (according to my gps unit), we covered a total of 10.4 nm averaging 2.6 knots. This level of effort fits me well and, other things being equal, is a pace I could sustain indefinitely. Obviously, an expedition kayaker would be tearing out his/her hair at such a miniscule effort, but much of my hair is already gone. Wildlife sightings included:
  • harlequin ducks
  • the omnipresent gulls and geese
  • bald eagles
  • a rocky area covered by nervous seals, which we gave plenty of clearance

Several things became clear on this first day:
  • Jeremiah is highly competent, professional, patient, and quite personable
  • the guides-in-training were friendly, hard-working, full of potential, and determined to prevent me from working
  • if I can generalize from this trip, AKT is seriously professional and stresses safety. I never felt at risk
  • the food was simple, yet tasty
  • the setting was quite stunning
  • the base camp offered fresh water, splendid tent sites, and composting toilets
  • the trip would feature several unavoidable crossings, most around 2 to 3 nm
  • wind forecasts here are, like elsewhere, apt to be inaccurate
In short, I would certainly recommend AKT and the trip route based on my experience. AKT has a list of possible day trips and multi day trips and can tailor a choice to fit the client. Most originate near Anacortes, and do not require a ferry ride like this trip choice did.

On the second day we headed for Matia Island. With slightly rough seas on the crossing, we opted to paddle in the lee of Matia and made our way down to Puffin Island. Once we worked our way back to the northwest 'corner' of Matia, we had lunch followed by a short, but scenic walk on Matia's loop trail.
Another kayak group, with instructor, also arrived here.

Subsequently, we returned to the base camp in very placid seas. This day we covered 9.2 nm, again averaging 2.6 knots. Wildlife sightings on this second day included
  • bald eagles
  • pigeon guillemots
  • many seals
  • a porpoise, porpoisely avoiding us
  • a heron

During the second and final night, the winds came up strongly at our rather exposed campsite.

The attendant noise made sleep difficult. In the morning the intensity dropped somewhat by 10 AM, giving us a weather window before it was forecast to rise significantly. Our plan to explore Sucia Island was aborted. Any competent kayak guide must be ready to shift the day's plan for various reasons, particularly if safety might be otherwise compromised. The seas were not daunting for an experienced kayaker, but I was slightly apprehensive - these would be the fiercest conditions I had encountered. The 2 foot swell (it typically seems larger to someone sitting in a kayak) at the start was topped by wind driven white caps. The water conditions were quite confused a bit further out over the reef, then quite rough the rest of the way to North Beach. I found this crossing to be fun and exhilarating, but my directional control was sketchy, requiring occasional strong corrections. In my defense, we had awkward quartering wind and waves. Nevertheless, I stayed relaxed ("loose hips don't sink ships") and found my kayak to be quite stable. I had opted for my less familiar greenland paddle on this crossing because of its smaller wind cross section. For directional control, I may have been better off with my accustomed euro blade. On this final day, we covered a mere 2.9 nm at the same average pace, the evidently inescapable 2.6 knots (no, my gps unit is not stuck on that number).

Although not a participant, it was fascinating for me to watch the training sessions, despite having had some similar exposure myself. These sessions included some spontaneous capsizes (and rescues) and some towing exercises during the days' paddles. In the evenings there would be self rescues (including rolls) and assisted rescues. The training included commentary to add perspective e.g. when and why this particular technique was useful - or how to deploy and care for a particular piece of gear e.g. the tow rope. As mentioned, each guide-in-training had an opportunity to be the guide-for-the-day making route choices based on forecast conditions and modifying the plan as needed on the water. Presumably, significant chart and compass work was left for another time.

Jeremiah did a great training job, I thought. He also was quite patient with my incessant questions. These guides-in-training bring their own various skill sets and strengths. AKT will fill in what's missing and hone their abilities appropriately. Each AKT person was friendly and helpful. My trip was somewhat unique, in that there was this training aspect - normally not such an overt trip ingredient. However, it was definitely of interest for me to watch.