Our guide Krista held up a long, three-inch-wide ribbon of bull kelp, a sea algae, and squeezed open the bulbous end. "See the little dark spots. Crickets have decided to go inside and feed."
She told us that this type of kelp could grow up to five feet in a day and that conservationists had placed it at various spots to attract sea otters that have been disappearing from Puget Sound.
As we walked along on this one-week expedition cruise on the Wilderness Discoverer through the San Juan Islands, north of Seattle, we stopped to examine giant acorn barnacles, sea urchins, and large Dungeness crabs, the kind that are often advertised at roadside stands in the Pacific Northwest.
Each day on this cruise we would travel from the explorer boat on zodiacs to hike and kayak, while keeping an eye out for wildlife, harbor seals, river otters, and sea creatures.
That morning we had been walking with Krista on Lopez Island, along Spencer Spit, a sandy clay strip of land jutting into a salt water lagoon. In the 1880s, settlers came here as homesteaders. Now the land is a remote state park with replicas of their brown wooden cabins spread about in the forest.
"Sometimes you can spot bear and deer in the woods," Krista continued. "And when you are kayaking, constantly examine the shore beside you. Across the water, for example, the shore is lined with sea anemones."
On the pine-needled paths of Cypress Island, we found toxic newts, cute little critters about three inches long. Flip them over with a stick and you can see their bright orange underbellies. "They are adorable, but you can die if you ingest one," said Heidi, another guide.
We also met many banana slugs, mostly lime green, but some times with large black freckles. Inside the rainforest with its cedars, Douglas firs, fern gullies, and moss, the woods had the kind of absolute silence that was forcing us to concentr
ate on the details of our surroundings. One beach was littered with many fallen trees, all of them white. Storms frequently come through and wipe out sections of forest. Trees fall, and then get bleached by the sun.
Every day the expedition leaders offered a range of activities based on each person's ability. For hiking, the choices were walks on level ground, medium three-mile jaunts (usually on rocky up-and-down paths), or six- to eight-mile challenges (lots of steep inclines). For kayaking, options were open paddling near the expedition boat or longer guided trips.
Anyone who has kayaked knows that the hardest thing is getting in and out. Here it was so easy. The Wilderness Discoverer had a flat platform at the stern, so passengers could slide gently onto the water with a push.
Late in the afternoon, when all the different groups had returned to the ship, guests shared highlights of the day at the cocktail hour. "I swear that freckle-faced porpoise came up out of the water and stared at me," said one passenger. I told her we'd seen porpoises playing tag with each other. "We looked down from the side of our kayak and saw a salmon going after little fish and swallowing many of them all at once," said a couple who had gone on one of the longer guided kayak trips. They also got within 15 feet of a bear fishing for salmon along the shore.
My husband, Rob, and I were not fortunate enough to spot any bears, though a few others had. One day we passed cliffs where bald eagles nested. The captain slowed the boat. "See the eagle? Did you know they have a wingspan of eight feet? And their nests can weigh over a ton," he asked over the loudspeaker that was used to announce animal sightings. We watched in awe as the eagle swooped down and snatched a fish, probably a salmon, in the water. "Keep looking," he advised. "The osprey is coming down to get the remains. What he leaves, the little fish will eat."
On Sucia Island, we stood for a long time on the shore, gazing out at two flat rocks within a few hundred feet. Several great blue herons stood on the more distant one, while harlequin ducks rested on the one closest to us. Both sang at the same time, the herons with their squawks and the ducks with their mouse-like cries. While the herons posed regally, the harlequin ducks — with tops like stark black and white Marimeko patterns — intermittently poked their bills under the rock in what looked like an impatient search of food.
We also passed a group of sea lions sunning themselves at the end of the point. They were singing, their voices like foghorns, their pointed, whiskered noses up in the air as if they were pleading to the heavens.
Time seemed to move slowly as we walked along a beach with unusual rock formations. A number of them were over five feet tall, and, pushing the imagination, looked like weird cartoon characters.
"Fossils found here date back 50 to 70,000 years ago," Krista explained. At a place where a meandering river ran, we watched a ribbon-like thick band of fog, no higher than eye level, wind itself around an island, and then circle back to us. "If you live in the Northwest, you get used to fog dramas like this," said a guide.
That evening we enjoyed a pre-dinner cocktail hour on a rocky beach
with fallen trees. It was a dreamlike setting with travelers sitting on huge logs overlooking the bay, or walking gingerly to the tables holding drinks and hors d'oeuvres. Almost rhythmically, a few young crew members and guests played nerf football while four or five women sang campfire songs from childhood.
"This is such an interesting contrast to the big cruises," a traveler sitting next to me said as I sipped local wine and looked out across the bays and forests surrounding the group. "Amen," I replied. "I love the quiet of the woods and the opportunity to get up so close inside the nooks and crannies of the islands."
We talked about the camaraderie among us. In fact, our trip could be called adult summer camp, with fun every moment. On the way back to the boat that evening, three harbor seals, their dark oily hair slicked back, seemed to be following our zodiac. "Maybe they are trying to drive us out of their territory because they think we are aliens," I said to the person sitting next to me.
The Wilderness Discoverer, with a capacity of 73 passengers, is owned and operated by UnCruise Adventures. Unlike traditional cruises, we did not have brassy night entertainment. After an active day, we sat at the open bar and listened to enlightening PowerPoint presentations on various aspects of Pacific Northwest life.
One mid-week day there was a sharp contrast between the morning and afternoon. On Stuart Island, until the mid-1800s the home of the Lummi Nation, a small group of us walked along excruciatingly beautiful and deserted lanes lined by simple weekend homes. Chickadees sang in the distance, but there were no other sounds. As we began to walk over a bridge, we noticed an intricate lacy cobweb blocking our path, demanding that we photograph it. Yes, we then knocked it.
While we waited for the zodiac to pick us up at the dock, we peeked into the tiny red wooden post office, the size of a powder room, and saw that there were plastic containers for each address. "Well, we can tell the others that we saw one horse, one deer, and no humans," I said.
After lunch, we had an excursion to upscale Eastsound, on Orcas Island, which had three blocks of art galleries, clothing stores, and coffee shops, with cellphone service for those who wanted connection to the outside world. (The break from internet and cell service on the boat added a lot to passenger socializing.)
As we cruised through the Strait of Juan de Fuca on our way south and back to Seattle, we went slowly along Seiden or Safari Island, the relatively barren side facing our boat. We watched exotic long horn sheep and deer chase each other in groups of four or five. The animals are descendants of those imported from Corsica, Europe, and Asia when the island was used for big game hunting — now outlawed because bullets could ricochet to other shores.
Our last hike was the Staircase Rapids Trail in Olympic National Park. We made our way up and down rocky paths along the sides of ravines on the Skokomish River. Because it was early fall and the water was low, we were able to look down and see the trees and logs that had either been felled by storms or left over from the spring logging season. A hard rain was falling, so we could not take photos, but we did stop and pull our cameras out when our guide pointed out a famous 800-year-old tree that had fallen right alongside the path and been sawed off near the roots, leaving a clear view of the many lines within its trunk.
On either side of the trail the landscape was magical, like being inside a Tolkien novel. New mosses and other green growth spread themselves like endless blankets over the old downed trees and up the sides of those that had not been felled by lightning storms. When the rain abated, we took pictures of the partial shafts of sunlight coming through the forest from above.
Now home I keep thinking of the enchanting forests, the various animals, and the flow of the expedition boat along the water. Mostly, though, I think of how much fun we had. Yes, it really was akin to adult summer camp.
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UnCruise Adventures offers San Juan Islands cruises from Seattle in April and May and September, October, and November.
Rates per person, double occupancy, start at $2,700, including port taxes and fees. Included are onboard meals, spirits, wine, beer, and non-alcoholic beverages; transfers and baggage handling between airport and vessel on embark and disembark days; entry fees to national parks and preserves; and from-the-vessel activities and equipment.
Trips go out and explore in all weather. Temperatures and precipitation constantly change, so travelers will want to dress in layers, including rain gear and fleece jackets.
American Airlines and Alaska Airlines offer nonstop flights between Philadelphia and Seattle. Several airlines offer one-stop travel.
Information: www.uncruise.com or 888-862-8881.
In addition, for more traditional vacation trips, Washington State ferries travel from Anacortes, about two hours north of Seattle (via I-5 to Burlington and west on state route 20), to Lopez Island, Shaw Island, Orcas Island, and San Juan Island. Information: www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries and www.visitsanjuans.com.