Winter on the Salish Sea

Off-Season Excitement

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

In that transition period between the joys of summer hiking and the pleasures of ski and snowshoe, I find it useful to turn my back on the mountains and set sail to the west, to visit those emerald islands of the
northern San Juan archipelago.

The so-called off-season in the San Juans offers up the kind of island experience that I love: lonely coves where the only neighbors are snorting sea mammals, outrageous storm-filtered light and the relaxing rhythms of the Salish Sea.

After a frenzy of last-minute preparations, we cast off from the visitor’s dock at Squalicum Harbor aboard Elenoa, skippered by Lance Ekhart, seasoned sea captain, photographer and poet. Few know the northern San Juans better than Lance.

We made our way out of Bellingham Bay beneath an unlikely blue sky and turned up Hale Passage, sails creaking, heeled over in the splashing waves, ecstatic with the freedom of unfettered movement. We danced across the sparkling water and Lance engaged the wind generator to charge the batteries. Its Tibetan monk-like hum harmonized with the wind.

We rounded the north tip of Lummi Island and the objects of our desire came into view on the horizon: Matia, Sucia, and Patos, appearing one by one, blue and dream-like. The jewels of the San Juans. The day was remarkably clear and we could see Point Roberts, a Fata Morgana to the northwest. No other pleasure boats were visible on the vast expanse of the Salish Sea.

We motored into Ewing Cove on the east side of Sucia, tied up to a buoy, and launched Lance’s venerable dinghy for languid exploration of the magnificent Cluster Islands. These curvaceous little islets are composed of exquisitely carved sandstone, and the late afternoon sun illuminated them in a glowing umber. We pulled the dinghy up onto one of the rocks and climbed to the top to watch, in silence, as the sun went down, spreading liquid gold across the surface of the still water.

The morning dawned clear and bright; there were otters in the water and eagles in the trees. Lance motored Elenoa around the north side of the island past cold shadow-filled coves where the winter sun never shines. We slipped past the Lawson Bluffs and between cormorant-crowded rocks into Shallow Bay, where we dropped anchor, alone with the birds. The dinghy took us to shore, a smooth gravel beach adorned with a sculpture garden of driftwood.

We hiked north beside the sea through sensuous madrones, finally reaching the out-thrust point and an unencumbered view of the Canadian Gulf Islands. They looked close enough to touch. We rowed back to Elenoa in the darkness, its mast light a welcome beacon.

In the morning, I emerged on deck just in time to hear the great exhalation of a passing whale. Its smooth back broke the surface near the entrance of the bay, a picture of furtive grace. We lingered over strong coffee on deck, listening to the murmuring of the cormorants, their strange songs hushed by gentle mist.

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