Destination:A Private Island


In the many years we’ve done summer cruises in the Pacific Northwest, we’ve almost always chosen to skip over the San Juan Islands. We always thought they were too crowded and after a brief overnight somewhere, we’d continue up to the Gulf Islands of British Columbia. That’s because we didn’t have time to linger places. We had jobs to come back to. Now that we have the time, I’m glad we’ve lingered here.

You won’t find much information on Waldron Island in the cruising guides, and that’s just fine with us. That’s because there is no infrastructure for tourists here. There is no park, no rest room, no available water or fuel, no place to put your garbage. There is no Starbucks, no restaurant, no bar, no ice cream stand no way, no how. If you’re looking for action, you won’t find it here.

If you are looking for peace, quiet, and long, lazy days you won’t be disappointed. You will need to plan to anchor out. We are anchored in Cowlitz Bay, that big bite on the southwest side of the island. There is a county dock for your dinghy, and for larger boats to load and unload. But it’s not there to tie the big boat to and go ashore. It’s a well-used load/unload area and if you leave your boat tied there, you will almost certainly inconvenience someone else.  All the mooring balls are private, but there is plenty of room to anchor well clear of the dock and the shallower water where a healthy eel grass population thrives. The local boats are all small and utilitarian, even the sailboats. You won’t find mega yachts here.

Once you land your dinghy away from the load/unload area, you’ll find several miles of sandy road provided by San Juan County and maintained by one of the residents. These are perfect for long walks on roads that see very little traffic. This island is completely counter to the hustle of busy Friday Harbor.

Waldron does have its own post office. It’s really old-school and that makes it delightful.

Mike explores the ‘international’ airport. The sign on the door gently reminds people that this is a quiet community and that while they understand the need for air travel, when possible they prefer you come by boat. Those chairs? They are the lounge area.

Cowlitz Bay looks unprotected as an anchorage, and yet it is uncannily quiet and has been so for the last three days. (Of course, we are in the middle of a pretty solid high pressure period.) Although it is open to southwest and northwest wind and fetch, it is far enough north that it is actually blocked to the worst of southwest winds by Vancouver Island, then Spieden and Stuart Islands. Northwest winds could be more of a problem.

In addition there is surprisingly little boat traffic. Boundary Pass to the north side of the island sees most of the traffic, and travelers coming from the Sucia Islands to the east and traveling to the western islands are more likely to take the route either to the north or the south of the bay. There is no ferry to this island. The water is quiet, even though the anchorage feels exposed. There is the occasional big ship that passes along the north side, and eventually their wake will get to us. Today we got some good rolling and it really took us by surprise. As a rule it’s a casual wake by the time it reaches our boat and causes only a slight disturbance. We’ve spent three nights of dead calm anchored here.

The reef is the little patch of blue.

A word of caution: Beware of Mouatt Reef, a charted but unmarked reef as shown on the GPS screenshot above. Key words here are charted and unmarked. There is no buoy or any other aid to navigation to alert you to the reef; only a careful watching of your chart. Yesterday a sailboat sat on that reef for a few hours, waiting for the tide to lift him off. We hope there was no damage to the boat.

The gift of blackberries on our walk. “MMM, these are warm and soft, like they’ve been in God’s pocket.” said Michael.

In addition to the long, leisurely walks, Cowlitz Bay offers excellent kayaking, especially at low tide. The healthy eel grass population sports a wide assortment of schools of baby fish, including baby halibut (or maybe ling cod?) that scoot across the sandy floor. Hundreds of baby crabs scuttle on the sand and cling to the grass. I observed oyster catchers on the shore, and a bald eagle watched me closely as he scavenged along the mud flat. It’s easy to spend several hours floating along in a kind of meditative bliss watching the movements beneath the boat in the shallows. But word of warning: you’ll want to stay away from the points on either side of the bay except at slack tide. There are wicked currents there and they may not be taking you the direction you want to go.

Floating over the eel grass.

Mr. Eagle, flying low.

With the unblocked western exposure, I was hoping for some stunning sunsets from this anchorage and I’m sure that generally speaking it wouldn’t disappoint. However, all the islands are still covered with smoke from the forest fires in British Columbia. The smoke, combined with fog because the high pressure system is preventing moisture from getting up further into the atmosphere, creates a dense haze that obscures the sun completely once it gets low enough in the sky. Still, there is a beauty to this and it has created an other-worldly atmosphere here.

Taken just before the sun disappeared in the mist. You can see the sunspot in this photo.

The evening when all the world was pink. We breathed in pink, moist air. It was like another planet.

We may move on today, but in a way that would be a shame. We’ve now been here long enough for the local wildlife to want to explore us. Last night we awoke to the voices of otters chattering and messing around in our dinghy, which was floating behind us. We like otters as a rule and I thought that was kind of cute. But then they started making a racket and I decided we’d had enough of their shenanigans. They were interrupting my beauty sleep.

Mike flipped on the floodlight on deck and that stopped them for about 30 seconds. So I went up on deck only to come face to face with a brazen otter climbing up our swim step with one foot on deck already. We stared each other down as 5 of his kindred souls frolicked around in the dinghy. These were bold otters. It took my walking purposefully toward them, talking in my stern ‘no nonsense, now’ voice to get them to slide back in the water and away from the boat. Smugly, I raised the dinghy, secure in my human superiority,  and went back to bed.

However, the otters were not to be out done so quickly. Sometime later Mike awoke to an otter face looking in his window. It was still early, but the sun was up. He managed a couple of photos of the stealthy intruders; raccoons of the sea. Raising the dinghy must have been seen as a challenge as they were aboard it, swinging in the air hanging off the davits. They could probably wreck havoc on deck if left unchecked, but still, I love it that they came on board, even if they did leave us a little ‘gift’ on top of one of the coiled dock lines. It’s a small price to pay to be part of their world for a little while. Maybe we’ll stay another day. 



16 thoughts on “Destination:A Private Island

    • It really is. Now if I could just get Mike’s huge brain to stop thinking of projects all the time. He just cannot stop. But he did come on a nice walk with me yesterday.

  1. Great post. Those blackberries look delicious. When we were in OR a couple of years ago we loved the fact blackberries grew everywhere. In the parks we would walk and snack on them. Yum!

    Question: Is the water warm enough to swim? It always looks so cold.


    • We have mixed feelings about blackberries up here. They are delicious, but the Himalayan blackberry is taking over the world in this area. It out competes the native berries. Still, lots of deliciousness to be had! The water looks cold because it IS cold. Some people swim but those people are not me. I look forward to being in water that is swimmable.

      • I think watching people on the beach and approaching the ocean it’s pretty easy to pick out the native PNW-ers. They don’t just shuck the shoes and stroll on in to the water, oh no! They very, very carefully and slowly approach, let one tiny wave tickle the toes, wait, watch some more, take another step forward, watch the tides…until they’ve gone in as far as they can stand the temps! I found myself even doing that in Hawaii, laughing at myself, no, this water is NOT 50′!

  2. Reefs that are charted but unmarked are going to be progressively the norm as you get away from the US and into less developed watery corners…and sometimes you can forget the ‘charter’ part too. Good practice!

    A dinghy full of otters! OK, did you know, the term of venery for otters is a romp? Seems kind of appropriate, they always look playfull.Although when we went behind scenes with zookeepers in Miami, the otters–kept by the crocs/gators–were the ONE CAGE the guy refused to enter. “They’ll try to rip your face off,” he said in all seriousness. Keep that stick handy! Oh geez are they cute though. But then there’s the poo…

    The “charted but unmarked reef” sounds like, well, most of the world honestly – and often the charts don’t have it right either. Good practice for what’s ahead!

    • A ‘romp’ of otters! That sounds about perfect. They do look playful, but they also have very sharp teeth so yeah, I probably wouldn’t want to actually get close enough for one to feel threatened. Probably the otters in the zoo were just pissed off because, well, it was a zoo. The poo was no worse than dog poo. We’ve lived with that for years!

      It sounds like a good thing we have a comfortable foredeck so we can keep a good lookout. “often the charts don’t have it right either”. Ugh.

  3. I especially love that last photo and the look on the mischievous otter’s face. Sounds like a nice time there.

    • I bet you really would love it, Daniel. It’s so much less remote than you think, though. These islands are very busy in the summer. So finding an anchorage that is not ‘busy’ with traffic close to everything else is pretty special.

  4. Those otters are so cute! There are tons of reefs where we’ve cruised which aren’t marked. Seems like it’s rarity to find a marked reef. And there’s lots of reefs and rocks and the like which aren’t even charted which makes picking your way through them “fun”.

    • I think that we get used to seeing markers and buoys in these waters, so pointing out the fact that a reef isn’t marked with an aid to navigation is helpful to most mariners here. Of course, we should know that not everything will be marked, but I fear that since much of the dangerous areas actually are marked, people get complacent. All you have to do is cross the boundary into Canada and you will quickly be cured of complacency. Where we are now is an island that is surrounded by dangerous reef rocks that you must carefully navigate through in order to keep your vessel safe. The first time we came up here, years ago, we almost ran aground trying to enter in the wrong place. That was a lesson learned fast!

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