“Okay. Before we head out, we’re going to do a quick affirmation as a group, so we trust each other.” Our San Juan Outfitters kayaking guide, Claire, announces to our group of six as we stand on a sunbathed wooden dock in Friday Harbor, WA preparing to embark on a three hour kayak tour. “Stand in a circle and touch fingertips. And then repeat after me.”

I reach out to my fellow travelers with open hands. I am excited to get out on the water and finally check one of the Northwest’s quintessential summer activities off my list. However, with my heart pounding in my ears and stomach doing a few elaborate pirouettes at the thought of being in a kayak for the first time, I’m eager for all the support I can get. Fingertips pressed squarely to those of my neighbors, we repeat “We will stay together as a group.” Smiles quickly appear across the faces of all the group members as we embrace the giddy excitement ahead.

Discover The San Juans

I jumped at the chance to take this half day kayaking tour after watching a number of viral videos of the very lucky people who have encountered wildlife while kayaking through the San Juans. It’s the perfect quick escape to take me out of my comfort zone in search of experiencing a new adventure. No further convincing required, I pack my bags (travel companion in tow) and hop on the San Juan Clipper for a relaxing three and a half hour cruise to San Juan Island. Once we land in Friday Harbor, it’s a short stroll over to the San Juan Outfitters office, where we meet up with Claire, her co-guide Blue and the other six folks joining on us on our tour.

12:00 pm – Gear Up at San Juan Outfitters

Affirmations complete, Claire and Blue give us a quick lesson on kayak procedures before stowing our gear in dry bags or stashing items away in San Juan Outfitters’ lockers. Next, we make our way over to the row of five candy-colored kayaks lined up on the dock to select our vessel for the day. With an affinity for anything green, my travel companion bee-lines to the bright green double kayak tucked into the furthest slip. I successfully transfer from dockside to kayak with my fears of flipping into the water immediately melting away as I realize how sturdy and stable our kayak is for an afternoon of paddling.

12:30 pm – Friday Harbor Kayak Tour

Our newly learned steering and paddling skills are quickly put to the test as we weave around pylons, maneuvering ourselves out of the harbor. My travel companion and I inadvertently give the rocks along the shore a kiss goodbye, but with our expert guide Blue and co-kayakers at our side, we quickly master the art of back paddling and are on our way. Us: 1, rocks: 0.

Our guide leads the charge as our group of kayakers navigate the sparkling waters of Friday Harbor.
Our guide leads the charge as our group of kayakers navigate the sparkling waters of Friday Harbor.

We navigate into the open waters of the Salish Sea, slicing diagonally away from the bustling harbor traffic toward the less busy shoreline of Brown Island. The calm waters make for an easy crossing and with stunning scenery surrounding us on all sides, it feels as though we’ve paddled our way straight into a picture perfect postcard.

The cerulean waves glisten in the sunlight as they gently lap at the sides of our kayak. Bright yellow and white Kenmore seaplanes swoop and buzz overhead like gigantic yellow jackets. Mt. Baker pops out from behind the distant hills to say hello, and when one of our iconic Washington State Ferries chugs in front of the mighty peak, I jump to frame the perfect capture. Absolutely stunning.

A mighty Washington State Ferry glides by the snow-capped Mt. Baker.
A mighty Washington State Ferry glides by the snow-capped Mt. Baker.

Having gotten our rhythm down, my partner and I seamlessly cruise around the coastline, paddles dipping in and out of the water in unison. The gurgle and soft splashes of the waves lull me into a trance as twisted madronas perched on arid hillsides glide past. Quiet, peaceful and serene, one can only wonder whether there is a better way to spend a warm summer day in the Pacific Northwest. As the turtle-shaped Orcas Island and the neighboring, less populated Shaw Island come into view, I dream of future escapes to explore this island paradise.

With wind-swept grasslands and unique madronas San Juan Island is one of the Pacific Northwest's hidden gems.
With wind-swept grasslands and unique madronas San Juan Island is one of the Pacific Northwest’s hidden gems.

A cluster of tiny crystal jellyfish drift by, like clouds in their own watery sapphire sky. Claire mentions we can touch this kind of jellyfish without the risk of getting stung. Not knowing when I’ll ever have the opportunity to hold a jellyfish again, I scoop one of the creatures up. Its fragile, translucent and slightly sticky body floats lightly in my palm before I return it to the sea with its friends.

Claire and Blue spot a few strands of bull kelp wrapped around a buoy, and invite us to chomp on the sea lettuce claiming it tastes like pickles. A few adventurous members of our group brave the slime and give the kelp a try. The verdict? The flavor is not quite like pickles, but perhaps heavily salted grass.

Take advantage of the rare opportunity to get up close and personal with a crystal jellyfish. Credit: Haley Penor
Take advantage of the rare opportunity to get up close and personal with a crystal jellyfish. Credit: Hayley Penor

Continuing on our journey, we come across at least 20 sea lions hauled out on the rocky beach of a small island to bask in the sun. Our group inches our way through a web-like kelp forest to get as close as we can to the sea lions without spooking them. It being pupping season, our efforts are rewarded with a glimpse of a number of tawny pups tumbling about the shore, their grunts and barks filling the air as they clamber for attention from their parents.

Feeling ambitious and comfortable on the water, our crew opts to circumnavigate Turn Island (A little insider tip: If you want to spend more time in the great outdoors, this diminutive, 35-acre island offers up 12 campsites, making it a prime for a secluded night under the stars.) on our journey back to Friday Harbor. Suddenly, the bowling ball head of a harbor seal pops up right next to us. Instead of racing for the perfect shot, I remind myself to enjoy the moment and sit back and watch as the creature bobs alongside.

Hugging the shoreline of Brown Island, it is smooth sailing as we paddle through the Salish Sea.
Hugging the protected shoreline of Brown Island, it is smooth sailing as we paddle through the Salish Sea.

Our slippery friend (who quickly is dubbed “Frank” by a couple of the girls on our tour) cruises with us for a few minutes, guiding us back toward Friday Harbor, before eventually disappearing back under the waves. With a wistful goodbye to Frank, our group pushes on back to the docks. It’s hard to believe our three hours are up and it’s time to head back to shore.

3:00 pm – Ice Cream and Friday Harbor Stroll

Once we get our land legs back on shore, it’s off to Friday Harbor Ice Cream Co. for the perfect post-kayaking snack. Faced with more than 72 different mouth-watering flavors to choose from, it’s a struggle to pick just one. Having worked up quite the appetite on the water, I end up settling on a towering, three scoop waffle cone stacked with root beer float, “Super Man” and cotton candy ice cream.

Three scoops of tasty ice cream are just the ticket after spending a warm afternoon on the water.
Three scoops of tasty ice cream are just the ticket after spending a warm afternoon on the water.

My travel companion orders up another triple cone comprised of strawberry cheesecake, chocolate fudge and root beer float ice cream. Sweet and refreshing, both cones are equally delicious and we quickly gobble them down as we wander through downtown Friday Harbor.

4:00 pm – Cruise back to Seattle on the Clipper

Before we know it, it is time say goodbye to Friday Harbor and check in for our voyage on the San Juan Clipper back to Seattle. We climb aboard and settle in for the ride home. As we browse through our pics taken during our epic day on the water, we can’t help but start dreaming about a return visit and eagerly start planning our next adventure.

Kick back and relax on a scenic cruise back to Seattle on the San Juan Clipper.
Kick back and relax on a scenic cruise back to Seattle on the San Juan Clipper.

Pro tip: If you are looking for a different take for your return trip home, hop on a Kenmore Seaplane for a swift 45-minute ride from Friday Harbor to downtown Seattle. As you skim a few hundred feet above the Salish Sea, you’ll get a handle on where the San Juans and the surrounding channels fit into the Northwest’s stunning geography, as well as a bird’s-eye-view of the gorgeous islands. Plus, if buzzing by the Space Needle on the way back into Seattle doesn’t take your breath away, we don’t know what will!

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Feature Photo: San Juan Outfitters

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