Willamette University

Travel Program

Travelogue: Willamette Kayaks The San Juans

By Erik Schmidt ’05

A look inside a travel program excursion, thanks to a waterproof notepad and pen.


Washington’s Friday Harbor glistens. I meet Laura Edman ’77 and her husband, George, for an IPA before our last night’s sleep on mattresses. They are jovial, and we talk baseball while we look off a raised deck onto the water. I officially forgive their son for going to Linfield instead of Willamette.


Departure at 8 a.m. is going to be rainy, but everyone has good spirits — tenuous as they might be under this weather. Richard, owner of Discovery Sea Kayak, gives the 12 of us a trip overview and hands out our two rubberized dry bags, so we can each pack our gear. I add an insulated beanie hat that I hadn’t planned on taking.

Our paddle jackets and pants are high-visibility yellow and blue, so when we walk outside toward the waiting van, someone jokes that they remind her of Gorton’s Fish Sticks. Push off is from Jackson Beach, which is long and scenic and gritty underfoot. We meet our two guides, Brooke and Alex, each 20-something, who teach us how to use our equipment and get back into a two-person kayak should we flip over in the 48-degree water. We shudder at the thought. There is a little hand pump strapped to Alex’s single kayak, probably for slurping out seawater from our seat wells should the need arise. I hope, for comfort and liability’s sake, that he never has to use it.

We push off, extend our foot-long rudders into the seawater once we’re clear of the rocks, and realize together that the kayaks are comfortable — and, with the bibs covering our seats and legs, dry. We stop caring about the rain.

On the way around our first rocky corners we pass a dozen camouflaged seals, just sitting. They look at us with far less interest than we show of them, and we follow our guides’ advice to not get too close. Paddling is easy and the rain stops without us really noticing. I can’t hear all of our group’s conversations, but I hear laughter.

Eight miles later, at 2:30 p.m., we have crossed a main ferry line and landed at Jones Island State Park, a spectacular camping spot. The sun is coming out. We have a large grassy knoll to ourselves, ample shelter, restroom facilities and hiking trails as long as anyone wants. Dinner, prepared solely by our guides, is phenomenal, a creamy curry over rice with veggies and smoked salmon. Don O’Leary ’83 makes it clear that we won’t have to worry about a lack of campfire. Watching him work, several of us decide that “to MacGyver” something is a verb.

We perk up further at the sight of the boxed wine coming out of a kayak hull.


Sleep came easily on inflatable pads and pillows. We have a relaxed morning, actually, since we’ll only be covering five miles, and the tides and currents will be favorable. We eat French toast off the griddle, enjoy coffee and fruit salad, and admire the requisite campfire.

The paddle is relaxed and gorgeous. Early clouds dissolve, and the sun throws diamonds off the wave tips. Our lunch spot, Blind Island, seems no bigger than a baseball infield but rises to a spectacular viewpoint, from which we can see a dozen yachts anchored near the small ferry terminal at neighboring Shaw Island. After lunch we spend an extra half hour in the sun to take better advantage of shifting tides on the way back, and we muse about the names of the boats whose stenciling we can read; the “Sea Ya” has come all the way from Honolulu.

Night back at Jones Island brings the most epic campfire we’ve ever seen. O’Leary and Mark Schulz find loads of driftwood and make something that’s downright artful, and Ethan Bancroft ’09 finds a Robert Browning poem printed on the inside of a seasalt and almond chocolate wrapper. It is strangely appropriate as he reads it aloud to us: “…Then a mile of warm sea-scented beach … two hearts beating each to each!”


This is our early day. We wake at 5:30 a.m. so we can get out in time for the tides and so people can catch the afternoon ferry leaving Friday Harbor. We start with our longest open-sea crossing, two miles westbound across the Salish Sea, and then turn the corner south down San Juan Island’s left shoulder.

The weather turns. Two-foot swells mean that the front paddlers in each kayak catch some air, but they seem to enjoy it. The water is the color of graphite. In the rain now, we reach that point of saturation after which the weather ceases to matter.

We’re glad, oddly, to arrive at something called Smallpox Bay.

At our last meal together, we debrief. We’ve bonded over old Willamette stories — some printable, some not — shared meals and confined spaces and enjoyed being free of email and cell phones (hope yours dries out, Don). We’ve created more bonds than we started with.

Finally, we each depart the kayak office on First Street with Willamette T-shirts in hand. Those, of course, aren’t all that we’re taking with us.

This is Why We Fly (And Boat, and Drive and Hike)

The Patagonia trip came and went with maxed-out registration, many smiles and phenomenal experiences. Alongside the recent kayaking trip in the San Juans, it showed why the Travel Program exists: for lifelong learning, forming new bonds and rekindling old ones, and getting out to experience the world beyond ourselves.

What’s next, you ask? The group departs for Angkor Wat and the Mekong Oct. 30, and in 2013 we will see impressive trips to the Black Sea (May 25–June 6) and Turkey (Aug. 29–Sept. 12).

Plus, we’ll be rolling in another shorter, budget-conscious trip, perhaps to the San Juans once again or to a raft-ready river like the Rogue or the Deschutes.

For information, pricing and logistics on all trips, visit willamette.edu/alumni/travel.

Related Information

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