The big jump over from Port Townsend to the islands was something of a stunt. That is, we could avoid it by driving; and compared to rowing in the islands, the trip across the Strait of Juan de Fuca is somewhat monotonous. The scenery in the straits is beautiful, but it is on such a grand scale that from a little rowboat the view hardly seems to change as the hours go by. We made the crossing to prove something to ourselves, and for the sheer joy of leaving home on an open ended trip under our own power. But we were glad to be across.
Ahead lay the tremendous archipelago of the San Juan Islands: a tightly packed group of hundreds of islands with deep channels of tide swept water between them. A literal boaters’ playground. We awoke to rain, and sore bodies. Fortunately as the rain relented, so too did some of the soreness. We struck our tents, pulled up our anchors, and headed for shore. We had spent the night in Bowman Bay which has shore side facilities, so our morning toilet featured running water, mirrors, and hand dryers. Luxury!
We established a pattern that first morning which we would repeat for the next two weeks: A reading from the book of tides. Hear ye hear ye! Because everything that is possible in a day flowed first from the tides. If it was windy, that could be a good thing, unless the tides were against the wind. Then it would be too rough. And to row the wrong way into the tide is foolishness. If the favorable tide was in the middle of the day, great! But sometimes making distance meant waking up early to catch the end of a tide, sitting around for most of the day, and then rowing again in the evening. The tides change slowly with the path of the moon, so if today was an early morning, then tomorrow would not be quite so early. A lovely rhythm to travel by.
The book of tides had good news for us, declaring a tide turning in our favor at 10am. We were at the south end of Rosario Strait, and the flood tide that was about to start would push water with surprising force up this channel to refill the vast Strait of Georgia to the north. In roughly 6 hours it would reverse. We hopped onto that watery escalator and were on James Island in just 2 hours.
James Island is a garden of eden, beautifully forested, a peanut shell shaped rock standing in the tumultuous waters of Rosario. The skinny waist of the peanut shell can be crossed in a few minutes walk, and each side held moorings and on one side a floating dock for boaters. Add a pit toilet, fire rings and picnic tables and that is the extent of human construction on the island. We were still sore, and who could leave such a place? We plunked down on a picnic table, made kelp ramen, and started to put Turk’s heads on our oars.
Over the next few days we’d operate this way, catching the best of the tide and sleeping alongside a new island every night. Some days featured more rowing and less goofing off, but even the longest day was 60% rowing and 40% goofing off. The length of the favorable tide kept our “go go go” in check.
There were three common modes of securing the boats for the night:
On Matia Island we snuggled right up to the beach in Rolfe Cove. We dropped our stern anchor first, and then rowed all the way in to the beach where we placed our bow anchor by hand. Then we could control how far from the shore we were situated. The goal being a little bit of water left at low tide to keep us floating.
In harbors where we were closer to other boats, we’d do as they did and lay to one anchor. It was the high season and we saw many boats turn away, unable to find room at the inn, but we never encountered an anchorage that felt too crowded for us. It helps to know that if our boats should wander into another boat’s way, we’d have a hard time doing any damage.
On Clark Island, which lacks a good harbor, the south wind made things too rough for a good night’s sleep. So we took to the beach.
After a while, our supplies ran low. There hadn’t been decent services since Port Townsend, and we didn’t pack enough stuff. We sat on Patos Island, the farthest north in the archipelago, and contemplated our options. There was enough beer to last us one more day. Should we make for Roche Harbor in the United States, or row across to Bedwell Harbour in Canada? We decided to brave the lower quality beer and visit our wonderful neighbors to the north. Though to be precise, Canadian Customs was 15 miles south of us as we made this plan.
So the next morning we got back on the watery escalator. Previously we traveled up the Rosario Strait, with its strong currents and shipping lanes. This time, on the other side of the San Juans, we traveled down Boundary Pass and the Haro Strait. Over here the currents are not just strong, they are stunning. And the shipping traffic is constant. It’s hairy.
Photo by Earth Wandering
We lept out from Patos Island with a plan to cross Boundary Pass toward the top end of Saturna Island, but we were delayed waiting for a ship to pass. During that time, we had to fight current drawing us to the east side of Waldron island. By the time we made it across the channel we had missed Saturna entirely! The best laid plans of tiny boats often go astray. Still, we made great time and soon we were turning the corner of South Pender island and bringing Bedwell Harbour and the Customs Dock into view.
On a previous rowing trip, I set out to make it across to Canada. A combination of weather, boat limitations, and homesickness kept me stateside. So I was ecstatic as we tied to the dock. I couldn’t wait to chat with the border guards. But all that greeted us at the office was a telephone.
On the other end of the line, the officials were confused. A picture is worth a thousand words, and I had to explain a thousand times that there were no numbers on my boat, that there was no manufacturer, and that I had rowed over. I think I heard Jon on the other phone claiming “Hermit Cove Boats, hull #2”, which is just as true as what I said. They let us in once they got the picture, so to speak. Our clearance numbers were almost sequential. A single party cleared into the country between us.
As soon as we cleared, we left posh Bedwell Harbour behind us. After a few miles, we stopped to celebrate. We anchored by the tiny bridge that connects North and South Pender islands. Gin and tonics were raised to each boat that passed us as we basked in the glow of a new country to explore.
In the next days, we would face medical emergencies and our boats would finally get their names…
Check out Jon’s gallery of this trip