Kayaking Orcas/Sucia/Clark in San Juans

A friend and I are planning a kayak camping trip around Orcas Island in late May, and we would love, if the weather is reasonable, to include some or all of Sucia, Patos, Matia, and possibly Clark islands.

However, while we’re comfortable kayaking solo or tandem in lakes or sheltered areas under good conditions, neither of us has experience dealing with real currents, tide rips, etc. I am scheduled soon for a four-part class with NWOC that culminates in a day trip to Deception Pass to practice dealing with the current there. We have the Current Atlas, and the “Kayaking Puget Sound & the San Juans” book which has some coverage of the area we’re looking at — it makes a point of saying that despite the popularity, even with novices, of paddling out to Sucia, it is not for “inexperienced” paddlers.

We don’t want to be overly timid (we aren’t novices), but neither do we want to be reckless (again: I’ll have one day’s worth of experience working with the current by the time this trip comes up). The one person I’ve talked to who has kayaked out to Sucia didn’t expect it to be a problem for us in our tandem if the weather is decent, but I’d prefer not to make a decision based on a single data point. :slight_smile:

Anyone out there with experience kayaking this area and who wants to scare us off it, or who is willing to say that this doesn’t seem reckless (assuming my lesson at Deception Pass goes ok), and/or to share any advice?


As you indicated
The weather is absolutely key. And of course, the initial crossing from the mainland is pretty important. If you have any doubts at all, or if the weather isn’t just right, it would probably be prudent to take the ferry from Anacortes.

Once you’re in the islands, you’re in a much less daunting situation. You won’t be too far from land and you shouldn’t be bothered with fog. Even the crossing from Orcas to Sucia shouldn’t be a big deal.

If the weather is worrisome, you could paddle around and explore inside and save the outer islands for another time.

Don’t forget your Discovery Pass.

The area
is well known for it’s kayaking and wildlife, but also for, as you say, strong currents. If you could find a local who can lead you on trips, I’m certain that would serve you well. There must be a club in the area that can offer advice and the like, if money is an issue, or an outfitter if it isn’t. Guided trips may not be what you’re looking for, but there are some kayaking outfitters there that do a great job and I’m sure you’ll eat better.


Will be taking the ferry to Orcas
I realize my original post was ambiguous: we absolutely intend to take the ferry from Anacortes, then paddle out from North Beach (or Point Doughty, where we may stay a night) to the other islands, possibly in a sweep down the east of Orcas, including a night at Obstruction Pass. (Details on parking and transport to/from the end points to be finalized, but hopefully won’t be too bad. We’d love to paddle down from Gooseberry Point instead of taking the ferry, but we definitely want more experience with currents before we try something like that.)

So your advice helps; if the paddle from Orcas out to Sucia and between those surrounding islands isn’t bad for people comfortable in their kayak, that’s very promising. (We know there is a reef in between Orcas and Sucia to worry about, and we intend to time our crossing to minimize any risk there.) Thanks!

alternative trips
it could be glass or it could be 25kts and 6’seas. I’ve done that exact trip several times and others. With little experience in current, I wouldn’t recommend the northern loop. Big crossings and fast complex currents. Miss time a crossing and you will be on a treadmill going nowhere or going somewhere you don’t want to be.

Even on a glass calm day getting to Sucia, Stuart and Patos all require crossing large tide rips. On my last trip only two out of 10 of us made the crossing from Sucia to Patos which is much looked like ferrying across a very large river with 2’ standing waves.

An interior trip going around Shaw island to Turn island, Blind Island and Obstruction pass, Lopez spit will still have currents but without the multi-hour crossings. Point Doughty on the northern end of Orcas is another nice camp spot with great views.

Other option if you are set on Sucia would be cross from the northern shore with CAREFUL timing of the current across parker reef and spend a couple of nights. The 4+ kt cross current between Sucia and Orcas crosses a reef and makes a serious rip which is responsible for one kayaker death and lots of rescues. Just last week two friends had to hitch a ride on a yacht coming back from sucia as the wind picked up to 30kts and the waves 6’

Stuarts campground is not very pleasant, way overused and last time had fecal contaminated water.

weather in may
tends to be decent but afternoon winds of 20 kts are the norm in that part of the san juans. I assume your friend is taking the class too. If you guys have the time I would try and do another day at deception pass before your trip, just the two of you practicing ferrying, crossing eddy lines and rescuing in current. I would only recommend the northern Canoe pass not the main pass and only on a ebb. The main pass on the flood has no beach and if you get swept past the eddy line you are done for the day.

self and assisted rescues
Although north and around the corner from the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the North Beach to/from Sucia crossing can get quite unruly and the location of the rips hidden. I did the return trip once in rough conditions (blowing white caps on the top of largish swells) - with a competent guide and 3 guides-in-training. I was semi-comfortable because of their presence and because I regularly practiced self and assisted rescues. Of course, practicing such rescue techniques in calm water is not equivalent to rough water. At that time I did not have a roll.

So … if the weather were to come up, stay put until it mellows. If you don’t have the flexibility to stay and wait, you probably should pick a different trip.

The trouble is…
One day of instruction doesn’t give you the judgment to gauge whether a particular trip on a different day and place will be within yiur margin of safety.

I paddled to Sucia from North Beach but it was done as part of the Body Boat Blade 5-day course. Students put the first two days of training to use by planning an overnight trip with a crossing. Apparently, going to Sucia is a very popular choice. We also hopped to Patos from Sucia. All went well, but as stated above, it was done under experienced supervision. I should note that the current in one portion was the opposite of the predicted, and the instructor said this was not unusual. So, even with careful planning, be on the alert for things that are not what you expected.

expert’s trips
look at going around San Juan Island/Shaw Island/Stuart Island…There’s a photo trip report in West Coast Paddler.

The San Juans experience different wind and weather conditions for islands S-N-E-W sides. For example, San Juan County Park and Haro Strait may be warm and summery while a few miles north across from Jones Island weather may be early spring.

Thanks for all the feedback
I appreciate all the help—this is exactly the kind of info I was hoping for.

Seems that most agree that we shouldn’t attempt these islands before getting more experience, so we will limit ourselves to safer stuff (maybe around Shaw, for instance) for now. Or conceivably we might make arrangements to cross as part of larger, more experienced groups, or get ferried out and back, but certainly we won’t be crossing by ourselves before getting more experience.


Re: Thanks for all the feedback
(And I was thinking that one of the outfitters led groups across to Sucia, but turns out they ferry them across, so crossing with a guided group doesn’t look like a realistic possibility.)

I believe Anacortes Kayak Tours still does the North Beach to Sucia crossing. One still takes the ferry to/from Orcas itself.

Ah, thanks for that! I see that they have self-catering options, which might be something we’d be interested in.

AKT seems to be under the original ownership - same as when I used their services several years ago. I would definitely recommend them - competent, friendly, fun and very familiar with the area.

Friday Harbor

to SHAW to Jones to Stuart to Smallpox to Friday Harbor…is a big trip for an intermediate or wanna be intermediate. To Stuart on an outgoing tide.

A trip around Cattle Point on an incoming tide with West wind is an adventure.

Once on arriving at Kettleman’s Northern Fortress, I tacked behind a group of four headed for Stuart ACROSS A MIRROR SMOOTH LAKE !

Halfway down Roche Channel around the flagpole water began roiling, crossing the bar onto Haro we went woop woop woop over a 6’ swell then into another SMALL CRAFT WARNING.

I inquired here of routing into Stuart from Jones herein hearing that daohn go north to Stuart as the fetch from Canada was mostly heavy seas time: stiff.

Orcas and surrounding area info.
I’ve also paddled the exact area You are inquiring about with about 4 different trips.

The 3 mile crossing from North Beach to Suchi was also with Body Boat Blade. There was about 8 of Us. Spent the night and returned to West Beach the next day. Conditions were good to Suchi and the return hadhigher and trickier rear quarter waves for about 5 miles. I wouldn’t do the Suchia crossing with out an expert paddler in the group.

Stop by Body, Boat Blade near the North Beach and explain Your plan to Shawna, Leon or their crew to check and see if what You’re doing jives… I did that on My 1st trip going from Deer Harbor to Jones Is., circumnavigating Shaw Is., Jones and back, to make sure I was within reason… All was good. Had the weather, tides and every other consideration understood… Pole Pass, Wasp Pass. A beginner, honestly dialed into currents, weather, time of the month, having dry suit, VHF radio, self rescue skills, spare paddles, etc. etc. could be safe for sure. -Again, that does not include crossing to Suchia and similar crossings.

As someone said, having time to sit out bad weather is important, always.

Get a Captain Jacks Tide and Current Almanac and the charts. Read and understand them.

Clarks was very nice too along with that east side of Orcas. Clark’s east shore had nice views of Mt. Baker. On the last days of My last trip, We were open to paddling across to Suchi if everything was perfect but it was not so it was a no go.

Stuart Island and circumnavigating it is nice. Did that with a club and would not do it solo.

Turn Island was nice and I think We had the island to ourselves.

North Beach down the west side to Jones is nice. On Jones use the Cascadia Marine Trail camp instead of the larger camp on the south.

Enjoyed James Is. and again use the Cascadia Marine Trail camp instead of the public camp.