San Juan's Advice

Four of us are going to the San Juan’s in July. We plan to carry onto the ferry to Friday Harbor and circle San Juan with a detour out to Stuart for one night.

I’d appreciate any suggestions anyone has, but here are some things we’re wondering about.

Clockwise or counter on both Islands? Of course the tides will rule our travel times, but what are the prevailing wind in July? Is there any other factor that would influence our direction.

I seem to remember an article saying raccoon were a big problem is that still the case? Are there usually trees to hang bags. Any suggestions to keep them from climbing the rope?

Any place to see or avoid? A couple of us have been there before but did guided day trips.



Very nice
In my experience, the “weather” in July is very limited. There was a tiny thunderstorm when I was there, and everyone was amazed because it is so rare an occurrence. I wouldn’t worry much about winds.

The wildlife on the islands is quite accustomed to people. I once ran at a deer that was eating our cereal - I figured I’d chase it off, but this whitetail stood it’s ground. I stopped a few feet from it, because I didn’t actually want to wrestle a deer, and it slowly ambled off. Very strange. As for racoons, they will want your food and also your water. Consider plastic storage containers like 5 gallon pails with tight lids. Then weight these down with other gear or rocks or logs. These don’t always fit well in kayaks, though.

Have fun - one of the most spectacular areas I’ve ever paddled.

Just in case you’re interested: Cliff Mass has an excellent blog explaining and exploring our local weather.

Thanks Guys !!!


Currents will plan your day
Not the tides. In July it’s very common for winds to pick up on the afternoon. Plan your days to be off the water by 2 pm if you can. Friday Harbor is a very busy and intimidating place to paddle out of or into for the less experienced paddler. Also the west side of the island in Haro Straight should only be attempted in calm seas and little wind. Wind againt the current can create uncomfortabe chop (2-3-ft). Also rounding the northern tip has to be done with the current. Tide races are very common up there.

You may want to consider circumnavigating Orcs Is instead. The crossing below East Sound the only real challenge when wind kicks up. If wind is from the north, the sound acts as a wind funnel doubling predicted strenghts.

Have fun, it’s one of my favorite spots to play.

Thanks Roller that’s good info!
We’ve already saved a couple sites for tides and currents, but hadn’t given too much thought about the winds. Do you have any preference for tide/current sites? We spent eight days kayaking in Glacier Bay in 2010, but currents there were usually only 1-2 kts.

What charts do you prefer? I’ve got one on order from Washington Water Trail Assoc. Others have at least two other brands.



Stuart Island
Stuart Island has some tricky issues if you’re not familiar with planning around currents. Additionally, the currents don’t always flow in the direction you’d think so study the bathymetry carefully to determines where the trouble spots may be. Keep in mind that this spot has caused many people trouble. It’s particularly troublesome as it’s right on the international border.

Tide and current info
West Marine and other places sell tiny tide and current booklets for about a dollar, but you’ll want more detailed info, which is in the Capt. Jack’s Tide and Current Almanac for Puget Sound area. I think these cost about $20.

Body Boat Blade ( sells the almanac plus a waterproof small-scale (large area) chart of the San Juan Islands as a bundle. This scale of chart is for overview of planning. Your SeaTrails map-charts (should be a set of 5 for the SJ) will complement it by covering portions in more detail targeted to kayakers. I bought all of these items last year and look forward to wearing them out :wink:

The SeaTrails info includes highlighted warnings about places that pose special hazards to kayakers. What I did about the ones shown in the Port Townsend area was to then ask locally about those spots, before I went paddling. This, plus studying/asking about weather and boat traffic, is probably about as well as you can prepare without hiring a guide.

Capt Jack’s for current/tide

– Last Updated: Feb-09-12 6:13 PM EST –

You will have to really study for the closest predictions around between San Juan and Stuart. As another poster has already said, you cannot assume all flood tides will flow north originating from the Straight of Juan de Fuca. There is a lot of mixing between the two islands. I've had to tow more than my share of paddlers who found themselves having to paddle against a current that changed earlier than predicted.

Have a back up plan assuming you may not make it back to San Juan Island in one day. The main harbor in Stuart is not very pleasent during the day. There are so many motorized pleasure craft the air stinks and the water has an oily sheen. You really just paddle there to turn around and head back.

Whenever I've done day trips out and back from Orcas Is, we are on the water before sunrise and heading back is always a slog.

A nicer trip in my opinion is taking the small ferry from Anacortes to Guemes Is. Drive to small county beach at on the northern side, load up your kayaks and paddle over to Pelican Beach on northeast corner of Cypress Island. Either base camp and day trip around the area, or use Pelican as a jumping off spot to sweet camp spot on tiny Doe Island just off the southern shore of Orcas. This is trip I have often taken unexperienced friends on to introduce them to kayaking. You still need to be competent reading current/tide charts and know how to cross shipping channels. You have to cross Rosario Straight to get from Cypress to Orcas. The campground at Obstruction Pass is pretty nice. Time your trip from Cypress to Orcas on the early part of an ebb current. Coming back from Orcas, plan on hitting the top ofo Cypress at the end of a flood current or a weak flood. Know how to read a ferry angle and natural range finding. I've experianced 6-ft wind waves in Rosario with steady 15-20 knot winds against the current. If you see these conditions, just wait it out. Chances are the wind will die down and when the current changes, the waves drop down significantly.

If your dates are not fixed, you can lessen the chance of getting caught in strong current by going when the moon is inbetween full and new.

From Obstruction Pass you can paddle over to a marina on Blakley in about 20 minutes to get provisions and cold beer.

study the currents

– Last Updated: Feb-09-12 7:01 PM EST –
If you don't have a current atlas, this link shows animated currents in the san juans.
Living in Seattle, I paddle up there fairly regularly and trip planning in the san juans is all about the currents. Prevailing summer wind is from the north in the afternoon. Winds on the interior of the islands are fairly mild. Along the west side of SJI a 15-20 kt north wind in the afternoon is not unusual.
Stuart is pretty crowded in the summer. Raccoons are a problem. We had to boil our water last September as the well was contaminated. The north end of stuart has some serious tide rips. I like paddling around Stuart but don't like staying on it that much.
At max current, Cattle pass at the south end of SJI can be big and exciting (or terrifying depending on your skill level).
I find the campsites on SJI are not very interesting in general. Around Orcas island with a trip over to Sucia is a much better choice for a circumnavigation or an inside loop around Shaw with stops on Lopez and Blind if your skill level is not up to going around Orcas. Either of those other options you could still leave from Friday Harbor and avoid crossing Rosario.

nickjc & roller97214…
…sum it up.

Reread what they said and consider your choices. The San Juans are nice and so are lots of other places in Puget Sound. Most are not as complicated or populated as the SJI. I’m sure that there are simple places to paddle there. Just not sure where there are routes that don’t require consideration.


San Juan’s Advice
Stuart requires knowledge and expderience of paddling in strong current. If it’s a blue sky day, the north winds will kick in in the the afternoon. As others have mentioned below, Stuart can get crowded in summer particuliarly with tour groups. Also summer in the NW doesn’t start until after July 4th (classic eh?). Every year is different - past 2 years have been wetter. but you never know!

I just revised the NW paddling guide, “60 Trips, Kayaking Puget Sound, the San Juans and Gulf Islands” by Mountaineers Books. It comes out June 1st, hopefully you can get a copy to assist with your trip. Amazon will have it as will others.


I’ll try to sum it up; The SJIs, as a group, tend to be an area of complex currents ranging in strength from .5kn to 5 kn, depending on location. The currents in the area have a tendency to run in opposite directions than you’d think as there are multiple entries for the tidal crest(the Strait of Juan de Fuca and the Straits of Georgia ). There are many tide rips and some of them, depending on timing can be very nasty, such as Cattle Pass, Peavine Pass and Obstruction Pass to name a few. That said, there are good place for a newcomer to the area to get their feet wet such as East Sound on Orcas, some of the areas on the E. side of Lopez (though access can be a bit of a problem), and others.

I know that the speeds of the current don’t sound to extreme but given the volumes of water and the points of compression we’re talking about it can create some great play places or some nightmare inducing scenarios.

To wrap up; I’m not saying not to go to the SJIs. I’m saying to go in there with conservative plans and expectations. Get a guide book and take what is has to say seriously. Study up on how to deal with currents and crossings and, above all, don’t be stupid. The SJIs have been the site of many incidents involving kayaks and don’t want to see more.

To address what Chodups has to say about there being other places to paddle in the PNW that aren’t such a complex web of currents,There are other great areas, but many of the areas through Puget Sound are heavily influenced by currents and tides. I can’t emphasize enough to get a guide book and, until you have some experience in the area, to treat what the author has to say as realistic. Many people think that the chop they run into on their lakes (I notice you come from the Midwest) is equivalent to a 4.5kn flood through Cattle Pass and the 5’ waves and whirlpools. Please do an honest assessment of your skills, knowledge and experience in these types of environments and potential conditions.

Link to great aeriel photos inside
This site is great for checking out all the places we have talked about in this thread.