By Rob Casey
Paddling the Strait of Juan de Fuca in Washington State is a unique semi-coastal experience.
The Strait of Juan de Fuca is the waterway that connects the Pacific Ocean with Puget Sound and separates Washington State from Vancouver Island. The Strait is 80 miles long and roughly 13 miles wide.
The waterway can be flat as a lake or as big and full-on as the open ocean. Popular with paddlers the Strait is known for surfing and touring for all types of human powered paddling craft including kayaks.
Last summer, a few friends and I launched from the Freshwater Bay boat ramp which is a few miles west of the town of Port Angeles on the Strait. Recently freed of two dams, the Elwha River pours into the other side of the bay.
Our route for this trip would take us west around Observatory rock and a tree topped sea stack, Bachelor Rock.
The next four miles of shoreline include 300 foot tall cedar, fir and madrone topped cliffs. A local geologist friend describes the cliff faces as part of the Crescent Terrane which are tertiary volcanic and sedimentary rocks which are roughly 52.9 million years old.
Picturesque pocket beaches separate sections of cliff every few hundred feet allowing paddlers to explore closer to the ancient rock which are often dripping from moss above. Seabirds watch from high up on the cliffs. The route has rich marine life underwater from rich bull kelp forests to large schools of fish and moon jellies.
Our route starts with a protected bay opening up into exposed ocean swell bouncing off the coastal cliffs. Water gets pushed into nook and crannies below the cliffs creating strange underwater ‘whoof’ sounds with every wave.
Each pocket beach provides protection from the swell and wind and provides us with interesting features to explore, from sea caves to ‘slots’ between rocks to shoot our kayaks through when a wave rushes in. Looking up, we study the contours and shapes of the cliff faces and notice the twisty wind shaped cedars perched on the edges.
It’s an epic route, stretching only four miles to the popular surfing beaches at Salt Creek Recreation Area. Taking our time to explore the pocket beaches and cliff faces, the four miles can take several hours.
When we’re ready to head back to the car, it’s a quick trip with the right currents. The Strait runs like a slow Class 1 river with strong east – west tidal current. Paddling 100 yards off-shore, we catch the flood (incoming) tidal current which like a conveyer belt takes us back to Freshwater Bay in 20 minutes.