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Sea kayaking off Washington's Whidbey Island: easy Labor Day getaway
Another bald eagle. Yawn.
I had just completed a tranquil, one-hour paddle from Whidbey Island's Dugualla Bay, to Hope Island State Park. This dollop of land is a 106-acre marine camping park, reachable only by boat. It boasts a hiking trail and just four stunning, primitive, beachfront sites hidden amongst ferns and old-growth Douglas-fir forest. As we approached the island, my guide, Simon, and I watched six eagles alight on the tops of the tallest firs. Maneuvering our kayak almost beneath one of them, we then spent the better part of an hour entranced by the giant bird of prey. Meanwhile, a curious harbor seal bobbed and dipped around us.
At 45 miles in length, rural Whidbey is the longest island in the lower 48 (Long Island having been ruled a peninsula). It's just 30 miles from Seattle, making it an easy, economical, uncrowded alternative to the San Juan's farther north (although Anacortes, on Fidalgo Island, off Whidbey's northern tip, is the ferry dock for San Juan-bound visitors). Whidbey juts into Puget Sound like a bent, bony finger, its western coast also accessible from Pt. Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula. Whidbey is one of the oldest agricultural regions in Washington state, and family farms, farm stands, and mariculture operations are still prolific on the island, although it's also become a haven for artists. The only real-world distraction on Whidbey is the Naval Air Station in Oak Harbor, at the island's northern tip.
From Clinton, I headed up the road to the artist colony of Langley to meet up with Simon, who guides for Seattle's Evergreen Escapes, a sustainable adventure travel company. Like most of the island communities, Langley is a haven for creative types, and while summer and fall weekends and festivals bring in tourists, island life is easygoing and relaxed (the best time of year to visit, weather-wise, is September/October). A "whale bell" sits in a town park overlooking the waters of Saratoga Passage, to signal passing orcas and gray whales. If you've got an extra day on your itinerary, the newly-expanded Boatyard Inn is right on the water down at the Marina. Styled after an old cannery, the 12 charming, spacious units boast modern amenities, and decks and windows that offer unbeatable views of the Sound and snow-capped Cascades.
I only had part of an afternoon and one night for my trip, and so left the details to the folks at Evergreen. (FYI, there is also Whidbey Island Kayaking Company, which specializes in custom and short paddles, and whale watching trips (which begin in mid-March). It's also possible to rent boats and equipment, provided you have a certificate from a certified instructor, or demonstrate proficiency at time of rental. A great resource for Washington tide charts can be found here.
I've done a fair amount of paddling, but didn't know how to read tides, which is why I asked for a guide to accompany me. I prefer to be in my own boat, but due to time constraint, we decided a tandem was best, for easier on- and off-loading. We made the scenic, 40-minute drive north to Dugualla Bay, passing farmland and forest. Simon was knowledgeable, capable, and cheerful, and his tide tutorial during our paddle gave me the confidence to plan a return trip, sans guide. It's an easy, straightforward paddle to Hope Island, but the scenery and wildlife are so amazing, we took our time. After we tore ourselves away from the bald eagles, we paddled to the take-out, only to discover six more landing in the trees near the campsites.
The roomy sites are elevated above the beach. There's a rustic but well-maintained outhouse up an overgrown path, and rudimentary fire pits, and that's it. The only thing marring the experience are the distant smokestacks near the port town of Anacortes, and the odd jet from the Naval Air Station streaking overhead. These are mere blips, however, because Hope Island is just so damn beautiful and peaceful. The other two sites were empty, and aside from a few trails through the overgrowth, there's not much to do except read, daydream, watch the sunset (at 10pm in high summer), and stargaze. Do be sure to bring rain gear and a waterproof tent. Although sunny skies prevailed during our paddle, it started pouring in the middle of dinner (and didn't stop until the early morning hours), necessitating the hasty set-up of a tarp.
As for dinner, Simon made an admirable stir-fry, followed by the ultimate in pie- a purchase from Greenbank Farm's shop. Located en route to Dugualla Bay, it was once the biggest loganberry farm in the world. You know what makes for a really kick-ass pre-paddling breakfast? Leftover loganberry pie.
Early the next morning, rainstorm over, we put in and paddled half an hour to our take-out at Coronet Bay State Park's boat launch. In front of us loomed Deception Pass Bridge, an architectual triumph that has helped make this area Washington's most-visited state park. The pass connects the Strait of Juan de Fuca with Skagit Bay; at high tide, the waters rushing into this narrow passage get pretty hairy, so again, check tide charts if on your own.
Try to allow yourself at least enough time to walk the bridge and take in the view. You can also camp at Deception Pass State Park, which has miles of shoreline. If nothing else, grab some post-paddle clam chowder and souvenir smoked salmon to go from Seabolt's Smokehouse in Oak Harbor; a fitting island-style end to a weekend on Whidbey. For more information on the islands, click go the Whidbey and Camano Islands vistors center website.