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  • Susan Conrad

The Long Way Home; Paddling From Olympia to Lummi Island

"What I hear I forget, what I see I remember, what I do I understand."

~Xunzi (340-245 BC) one of the three greatest Confucian scholars of early years

As fires rage along much of the western seaboard, I reflect on a recent journey of clean air, clear water and a leisurely schedule. My mind sifts through memories of sleeping under a moonbeam, skinny dipping in an island lake, and reveling in the crisp air of quiet mornings. I plied curving shorelines, visited charming islands, chatted with rangers and locals, bucked headwinds, fought currents, and kept a wary eye on big ships. I laughed. I cried. I resisted. I went with the flow. I still have a peeling nose, dirt under my fingernails, and my bruises—well—they’re almost gone.


This was a 14-day sea journey crafted in the ethos of a "staycation" through the waters of the southern Salish Sea. After all, the summer of 2020 would be my first entire summer off in my adult life, so after I got done moping about what I couldn't do, I set my sights on what I could do. I launched in the very bottom of the Inside Passage and ended on Lummi Island, a 9-mile-long gem of an island not far from the Canadian border, where I call home.


The idea was planted while lacing up my running shoes. On the wall, directly across from the hallway bench where I sit to do this, hangs two 6’ decorative maps of the Inside Passage. My vantage point on the bench had me staring at the bottom third of the first map: the saltwater flushing through and around Olympia, Tacoma, Hood Canal, Seattle and points further north that encompass the Salish Sea. On past kayak adventures, I’ve largely ignored the South Puget Sound, considering it a body of water that eventually is whisked into the northern waters, much like you’d mix eggs into a cake batter. But as I studied the dead ends, cul-de-sacs, inlets and a freckling of islands that comprise the “bowels” of the Inside Passage, I was reminded how much I thrive on the point-to-point perspective of a long, linear paddle. Suddenly, I had this intense desire to understand this sea between the mountains: the place names, the weather, the communities, the mariners, the water. A kayak journey through the United State’s second largest estuary would hopefully accomplish this understanding. At the very least, I'd connect all the Inside Passage dots from Olympia to Skagway (having paddled from Anacortes to Juneau in 2010 and from Juneau to Skagway in 2014).


Since I’d be packing tent, tarp, sleeping bag, and all the other accoutrements of kayak camping, I took advantage of the Cascadia Marine Trail System (CMT), a water trail stretching from the South Sound through Admiralty Inlet, into the San Juan Islands, culminating at the Canadian border. It’s important to note that although Washington is a state rich in water, accessing these bodies of water is not always easy. Much of our state’s tidelands are private and all too often the shoreline is posted with “Private, No Trespassing” signs or obstructed by development. We have Washington Water Trails (WWTA) to thank for creating the CMT system that now boasts 58 campsites which are open to people arriving in non-motorized beachable watercraft, as well over 100 access points. A central tenet of WWTA is to protect and expand public access to our waterways and this conviction has given paddlers like me the growing freedom to explore my own backyard.


Now, onto the journey! When I dipped my paddle into the waters of the Nisqually Reach on August 8th and set my kayak "Prudence" on a course for Anderson Island, the southernmost island in the Inside Passage, I immediately felt a resurgence of all those long trip takeaways: a letting go, adapting, manifesting patience. My progress would be marked by inches on my chart and pages in my journal. But rather than give you a somewhat tedious account of my progression north, I’ll simply share some of the highlights via images, video, and story. Keep scrolling!

Nesting at my first campsite on Anderson Island! The campsite here is a spit that shelters a tidal lagoon. A floating bridge takes you to a lovely trail to explore beyond the tent. Watch out for poison ivy and nettles! Incredible sunsets, too. I saw a CRAZY BIG shooting star while laying on that comfy mattress later that night!

I was feeling quite patriotic in my Washington Water Trails tee-shirt and couldn't resist snapping this photo in front of the Cascadia Marine Trail signage on Anderson Island. Note: Camping at Anderson Island is by reservation only and you must be a WWTA member. Please consider joining and supporting this pivotal organization!

Scooting past the McNeil Island Corrections Center, formerly the McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary. Well-known inmates that served at least part of their sentence when it was owned by the Feds were Robert “Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud from 1909 to 1912 for manslaughter, and Charles Manson from 1961 to 1966 for federal check forgery. The tall watchtowers on either side of the complex were a bit spooky to paddle by!

Approaching the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, rising 180' off the water. The original bridge, nicknamed the "Galloping Gertie," plunged into the water in 1940. Watch this eyebrow-lifting one-minute video to learn a bit of the backstory! I cruised under its gleaming structure, racking up about 7 knots with the strong ebb current that races between the suspension towers.

Mount Rainier towers over Commencement Bay in Tacoma. I thought about a side trip to explore this area but the intense amount of boat traffic coming through the Narrows and in and out of the very popular seaside community of Gig Harbor cautioned me otherwise. I made a beeline for my next campsite at Sunrise Beach on the Kitsap Peninsula.

I came across a fair number of No-Trespassing signs in the South Sound but this one had a bit of an attitude.

Curious visitors at my campsite at Sunrise Beach!

My first glimpse of Seattle's skyline, including the Space Needle.

Getting closer! Urban paddling seems so foreign to me but it's good practice for when I come into those biggish towns for resupply chores on more sizable adventures.

Blake Island, a one-mile-square island, was home for my third night on the South Sound. It's part of the Washington State Marine Park system and quite popular because of its close proximity to Seattle.

View from my camp at Blake Island. Unfortunately the CMT sites on the north end of the island were occupied by a large group of kids from Vashon Island Parks & Rec. but I was able to snag this campsite at the far end of the regular public camping section. Amenities included steel cabinets for food and garbage storage (marauding raccoons can be a problem), hot showers which I walked a square mile to revel in, and beach combing galore.

Lots of fun exploring here! Blake Island was an ancestral camping ground of the Suquamish Indian tribe, and legend has it Chief Sealth was born here. The island was named by Captain Charles Wilkes in honor of George Smith Blake, who commanded U.S. Coast Survey vessels from 1837-48. The island was briefly called Trimble Island after a man who built a mansion there in the early 1900s. The foundation of his mansion still stands. If you're keen on learning more about this island, click here for some interesting history.


Left to right, top to bottom:

  • Manchester State Park CMT site. Perfect use of their sign, don't you think?!

  • My cozy camp at Manchester was private and above the hubbub of day users at this popular state park. The park is directly across from the southwest shore of Bainbridge island, on the west side of Rich Passage.

  • This building once was a torpedo warehouse, built in 1901. It later served as an officer's club, a barracks and a mess hall. Now it's picnic shelter in the park's day use area. A U.S. Coast Artillery harbor defense installation was constructed on the property at the turn of the century for the protection of Bremerton. During World War II, the property was a naval fuel supply depot and fire-fighting station.

  • The tide pushed me toward Bremerton on my layover day. Plenty of fancy houses along the water's edge to gawk at.

  • Watch out for the busy ferry traffic coming and going from Port Orchard!

  • Bremerton is a colorful little seaside berg.

  • Home to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard. Unfortunately not much to explore as signs were posted in numerous places to stay 600 feet away—I had a feeling they weren't kidding!

  • I did sneak under the first bridge spanning the Port Washington Narrows, then made a sharp left turn in search of a place to land. I had ice-cream on my mind!

  • A low, mucky tide at sunset. T'was a bit higher when I launched the next morning!

A peak east toward Elliot Bay from the south end of Bainbridge Island.

A tidy row of cormorants.

In my paddling BLISS. Muddling along the eastern shoreline of Bainbridge Island.

Love my custom-made Beale paddle. This is a two-piece cedar and spruce laminate. She's a beauty! Check out Master Carver Don Beale's website for more info.

The CMT site on Bainbridge Island's north end. I seem to always take over my camping areas...

Water Trail Angels!! My good friends Kate and Kaj just so happen to live on Bainbridge Island. Ice-cold beer and warm, homemade vegan pizza hit the spot. Not to mention the awesome company for a couple hours!!!

A sunrise muffin specially baked by Kate was enjoyed the next morning before launching back into the Salish Sea.

My biggest—and busiest crossing was a 4-miler across Puget Sound from Point Jefferson to Point Wells. My strategy: check my Vessel Finder app, look both ways, and paddle like hell until I'm out of the shipping lane.

Next stop, Edmonds! I love this town and have always wanted to experience it from the water side. Today was my chance. A nice sandy beach adjacent to the ferry terminal seemed like a safe place to leave my kayak and gear while I...

...rounded up some fish 'n chips and cold lemonade! (Truth be known on this little sojourn: I was rarely more than a day away from my next latte or fish 'n chips platter.) I walked into the ferry terminal to freshen up first and discovered that I was caked white with salt and had seaweed streamers stuck to the heels of both Crocs!! My hearty lunch would sustain me for the few short miles I had to paddle to my next campsite at Meadowdale. I was in for a surprise...

VOLUME UP! OK, this is for real folks — the campsite at Meadowdale Beach County Park is literally RIGHT NEXT TO the train tracks. Yea, the novelty wore off after about the fifth train. And I just read the fine print in the guidebook that notes to bring EARPLUGS! I know you can barely hear a word I am saying, and that's kinda the point!

In spite of the train, Meadowdale has it's perks. Beautiful sunsets, sweeping views of Whidbey Island and the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and sporadic peace and quiet in between train runs and especially when the day-users are kicked out at dusk.

AND, I had a babbling brook a few paces behind my tent which I put to good use.

JOURNAL ENTRY—August 15, Day #8: Meadowdale to Camano Island State Park. 20.5 nautical miles, total mileage 101. "What a friggin' day!! It started off at 5:30 am with the intensifying sound of loud footsteps marching down the gravel path alongside my tent. "HELLO??" I yelled through my tent's thin nylon walls. A very matter-of-fact and manly "hello" came back and the marching continued right on past my tent. I stuck my head out from under the fly and saw two men, fully clad in fishing gear and waders, sporting nets, poles, the whole bit, walking with purpose toward the beach. By the time I got a few things inside the tent sorted out and packed up, and walked sleepily toward the beach, there were 6 other fisherman, casting their lines into the ocean. Within a half hour there were also masked joggers and walkers and moms pushing baby strollers. It's 6AM PEOPLE!!! So much for my morning privacy and solitude. Time to pack up and head north. I worked for every single damn mile today. UGH. Twenty-plus miles with no current assist, against a 10-12 knot headwind the entire friggin' way! A TOTAL SLOG.

The day started off pleasant enough, but you can probably hear the wind blowing across the microphone.

Rounding the point at Mukilteo where I had a very brief break from the wind. Nice to see Mt. Baker looming in the distance though—soon I'll be on familiar waters!

I am HERE. And I've got a long ways to be THERE...

Gedney island has beautiful pebble shores, all of which are private with many a No-Trespassing sign. Nothing to do but keep going. That's my target in the distance—Camano Head on the south end of Camano Island. Once I got the four-mile crossing done, I still have 8 nautical miles to camp. The wind never stopped and I swear the tip of that island NEVER. GOT. ANY. CLOSER.

OK, so here's where I got some splainin' to do. There's a big fat gap in my route on the northern end of Camano Island. This is where I HIT THE WALL. When I finally arrived at the state park I was exhausted, dehydrated, covered in salt, and in a dour mood. As soon as I heard the raucous of the hundreds of people on the beach (think jet skis, screaming kids, barking dogs, very load Spanish music) I made a bee line for the busy dock, yanked my heavy kayak up above the driftwood logs, dug out my cell phone and called my friend Laura Jo who lives a few miles away. Within a half hour I was camped out on her decadently soft, flat grassy backyard in a quiet neighborhood. There was a hose and a deck to rinse copious amounts of sand and saltwater off my gear, a hot shower, and a crab salad waiting for me. Another Trail Angel!! I realized that after 8 days of continuous paddling, I needed a rest day. And so it was. ;)

I couldn't resist capturing this moment!! Kittens and IKEA—who woulda thunk? ;)

P-L-E-A-S-E let me in!!! I promise I won't put a hole in your air mattress. This is Laura's dog Maji, which is Swahili for "water."

Laura Jo drove me to Utsalady Point, the north end of the island and paddled with me across Saratoga Passage to Strawberry Point. From there, she made a big rectangle and paddled home and I continued on—paddling my way into the North Sound! I had zero regrets in having skipped about ten miles of Camano's shoreline.

Day ten's paddle was smooth and pleasant with a nice push north from the flood current along the east side of Whidbey Island. Up to this point, ebb currents flowed north and flood currents ran south, which was hard to wrap my head around. Deception Pass, my target for the next day, would not only be my "current turnstile" of sorts, where things would consistently flow the way I was accustomed, but would also be a portal into a dramatically different landscape. Islands were steeper and more rugged, shorelines rockier—and best of all—the wind was predominantly out of the south again! Hooray for tail winds!

I was beyond excited when I discovered that I had Skagit Island all to myself! I chose the primo spot on the northeast tip, with sweeping views all around me. The sun is setting over Deception Pass, where I would be pointing Prudence's bow in the morning.

I rarely used a rainfly on this journey. My EXPED tent's gossamer-like netting let the cool evening breeze in and kept the bugs out. The view wasn't half bad either!

While the pasta boiled in my camp pot I enjoyed a fresh salad and can of wine (THE best invention since sliced gluten-free bread!) Thanks to my Trail Angel Laura Jo for gathering all the veggies for me!

The iconic Arbutus or Pacific Madrone tree is my island favorite! It's intricate branches almost always reaching south, leathery evergreen leaves, and terra cotta orange papery bark are all part of this tree's magic. The Salish Nation honors the Arbutus Tree as their "Tree of Knowledge" and believe it stands for the balance of darkness and light. Always seeking the sun, it twists and turns and somehow knows to drop one branch when there is not enough sunlight and it will grow a new one where the sun can reach it. This explains why there are so many incredible features on the trunks of Madrone trees!

Approaching the skinny side of Deception Pass at the tail end of the currents's ebb cycle.

Beautiful Bowman Bay. View from my camp which is just above this beach, tucked away in the privacy of some hedges.

Kayakers out enjoying the serenity and beauty of Bowman Bay.

Sporting clean hair and my not-so-clean Washington Water Trails tee-shirt. Sunshine makes the best hair dryer!

"Prudence" levitating.

A heart-pounding but lovely hike from camp granted me this view of Deception Pass, a much different perspective than from the seat of my pants!

Looking over Prudence's bow across Rosario Strait toward Lopez Island. Getting into familiar waters!

An old weather proverb goes, "Mares' tails and mackerel scales make lofty ships to carry low sails." In other words, it's gonna get WINDY!

So I made a bee-line for Cypress Island. I'd gotten "insider info" that Pelican Beach on the northeast corner was jam-packed with people so I chose Cypress Head, a sticky-outtie point a few miles south of Pelican Beach.

And much to my delight, an old friend, Rem Smith was also camped there! Rem's on the left and my boyfriend, Ben Wells, is the other fellow. Ben made a trip over from Lummi Island in his motor boat to bring cold beer and other provisions! We had a nice visit!

Awwww. What a splendid way to wrap up the last night of my Salish Sea Adventure.

Actually, it would be the next-to-the-last night as those winds did materialize. Ma Nature delivered quite a blow the next day with gusts up to 30 mph. I was happy to stay put!

Almost home! Three miles to go from my last rest stop at Lummi Rocks. I can almost see my house from here!

This video captures my excitement of the last few minutes of the journey!


I live in a remarkably diverse area. My recent journey reminded me of that and provided me with a deeper understanding as well as a sharpened respect for the varied ecosystems that flow from deep in the Puget Sound and mingle with the waters nearer to my home. And especially now, as thick smoke blots out much of the west coast sunlight, I feel an even deeper desire to steward this land that I'm privileged to live and play in. We all have that responsibility, not only of beloved landscapes and seascapes close to home, but of our entire planet. What can you do to tread more lightly? What can you do to restore and protect your own backyard as if your lives and livelihoods depend on it? Because perhaps they do.


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