We’re paddling near Port Angeles in a rocky cove toward a dark sea cave, cliffs towering above, colorful sea stars, tiny fishes and other marine life below, our kayaks among dense beds of brown bull kelp gently rising and falling with the surge of the sea.
“Nature has this way of making you feel like this,” says a mesmerized Celia Nieto, holding her thumb and forefinger an inch apart. “It’s so powerful. It’s beautiful.”
This stretch of the Strait of Juan de Fuca west of Freshwater Bay is not exactly on most kayakers’ top 10 list of places to paddle in Washington. It’s not anywhere near the exceedingly popular and pretty San Juan Islands. It’s well off the wonderful, serpentine route of the 140-mile Cascadia Marine Trail through Puget Sound. It’s nothing like the mountain-ringed pure waters of Ross Lake in North Cascades National Park.
Though not as well known for this pursuit, the strait is paddled by locals and increasingly by paddlers from elsewhere around Western Washington.
It is a powerful place to paddle, every bit as intriguing as those other places. The scenery and geology are impressive, with cool coves to explore, cliffs, sea caves and arches. Wildlife is abundant, with purple, orange and red sea stars, crabs, anemones, chitons, schools of herring fluttering through the kelp, and river otters, seals, sea lions and even gray whales spotted regularly.
“A couple of weeks ago I got sneezed on by a gray whale,” says Alton Jan “A.J.” Dauel, a guide for Olympic Raft & Kayak, who is leading our paddle. “Earlier this summer I took two girls from Minnesota out. We saw a gray whale blow and then it dove. When it came back up again it was about 15 yards away. One of the girls said, ‘Ohhh! I think I peed my pants a little!’ “
Olympic Raft & Kayak does two trips on the strait, one along Dungeness Spit near Sequim and the other out of Freshwater Bay.
“The San Juans have the popularity, but absolutely, there are stretches along the strait that are just as beautiful, if not more beautiful,” says Dave King, owner of the company. “I think one thing is that people think it’s a little more open water. On a nice day when it isn’t blowing very hard, people who have a good knowledge of the rocky coastline and safety concerns should be fine.”
At the same time, that point should not be taken lightly. The strait can be a squirrelly paddle, with conditions typically sketchier as you move west toward the ocean. Think of the Strait of Juan de Fuca as a geographic funnel, through which all the waters of Puget Sound flow. On the ebb tide, currents can push 3 knots, heaviest on the west end, sometimes bashing headlong into swells rolling in from the ocean and/or prevailing westerly winds.
Lining much of the strait are high bluffs and cliffs, where landing can be impossible. Swells and currents around land points can create nasty standing waves and rip tides.
“Safety is a huge issue out there,” says Reed Waite, director of the Washington Water Trails Association, a paddling advocacy group. “But the rewards of a good day are incredible. There’s a lot of territory. That area is just being discovered.”
Checking tide and current guides and the marine weather forecast, along with careful research of the route, is mandatory before any paddle on the strait. You also need to possess basic paddling skills to do it on your own.
Hiring an outfitter is another option, and King says his company has taken out many novice paddlers.
Our trip started with brief paddling instruction and a safety talk from Dauel, primarily for Nieto and her husband, Chris Eccles, who were vacationing on the Olympic Peninsula from Las Vegas and had never kayaked before.
We then paddled in the protected waters of Freshwater Bay and encountered a massive kelp bed. Dauel, who grew up in Chugiak, Alaska, where his father was a park ranger, showed us that kelp fronds are edible, and proved adept at identifying seabirds, such as loons, auklets, mergansers. He also pointed out eagles overhead and the occasional moon-eyed harbor seal poking its glistening head above the surface.
But the rocky shoreline to the west beckoned, marked by a sea stack known as Bachelor Rock projecting from a tiny island. As we neared it, the intertidal life increased, with a variety of sea stars and anemones just below the surface and exposed sheets of large mussels on the rocks above. Here we could feel the hypnotic swell of the sea under the kayaks.
“This is such a cool place to paddle,” Dauel said.
We paddled through the cut between the island and the shore, over great rafts of kelp and into a light west wind and small chop. Not far to the west, the rocky headland gave way to a beautiful cove of cliffs with tilted strata and a pocket beach. In the far corner of a cove, Dauel paddled and disappeared into a dark sea cave. Given certain tides and conditions, you can paddle far into the cave, he said when he reappeared.
The water was surprisingly clear in the cove, with an unusual aquamarine tint.
We paddled on to the west and into two more fascinating coves, one with another sea cave and small arches. The marine life was intense, and the colors were surprisingly vivid, with deep green conifers atop the cliffs and the rocky faces streaked with brown mineral stains, green mosses and white streaks of seabird droppings.
This half-day paddle was a tantalizing sampler of the strait; Dauel says there is much more to explore.
“My favorite paddle on the strait is probably here to Salt Creek,” he said. “West of Salt Creek is good, too, but this stretch has all these great coves and caves and arches.”
It’s a four-mile paddle from Freshwater Bay west to the mouth of Salt Creek at Crescent Beach, which is popular among surfers and surf kayakers and thus means sea kayakers may have to negotiate waves to launch or land.
“One of the theoretical trips I’ve had in mind would be, let’s say, from Hobuck Beach to Port Angeles,” Dauel says.
Hobuck Beach is on the ocean south of Neah Bay on the Makah Reservation, and that trip would mean rounding often turbulent Cape Flattery. You’d need advanced paddling skills for that one.
But there are many more possibilities. The 10-mile-plus stretch between Pillar Point and Clallam Bay is rugged and wild, and with the right conditions would be an intriguing paddle.
“Dungeness is pretty cool, especially if you like lighthouses,” Dauel says.
That paddle is on the Dungeness National Wildlife Refuge and is known for marine mammal and seabirds. The historic New Dungeness Lighthouse marks the end of five-mile-long Dungeness Spit, its beaches piled with driftwood.
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