Thursday, February 10, 2011

Making Friends on Lopez Island

I had fair warning before landing on Lopez Island, but it still took me by surprise.  I’m not talking about the view of Mt. Baker, the abundance of marine life, or the fabulous birds.  No, it’s the waving that shocks you.  The island is proud of its reputation as an exceptionally friendly isle.  As you drive around, every passing motorist and every pedestrian waves a greeting at you, even if they have no clue who you are.  This isn’t as annoying as it may seem, since you really don’t see that many cars or people on Lopez.  In fact, after our first day there, we were waving at everyone as well.  (And if the wave wasn’t returned we’d just snort and mutter “tourists” under our breath.)  It’s one of those quirks that make islands so endearing.  Then there’s the birds, seals, surf, and Mt. Baker…
Mt. Baker from the ferry landing on Lopez Island.
 You may expect every location in northwest Washington to be wet and rainy, but that’s far from reality for many locations.  The San Juan Islands are heavily rain-shadowed by the highlands of the Olympic Peninsula and Vancouver Island.  While precipitation exceeding 250cm (100 in.) per year is common on the coast, Lopez Island receives only a fraction of that, about 50-70cm (20-30in.) 
The Salish Sea area.

The principle islands of the San Juan Islands.
In our brief stay on Lopez Island we explored two areas by land (Shark Reef Sanctuary in the south, and Spencer Spit State Park in the north) and kayaked around Iceberg Point at the southern tip of the island.
Lopez Island
 Shark Reef Sanctuary is an extra-special place on an island full of special places.  The ideal spot to watch the sun set, Shark Reef is also one of the best wildlife viewing spots in the park.  We spent an afternoon and evening watching the seals on a rocky islet just off shore.
View from Shark Reef Sanctuary.  The Olympic Mountains can be seen in the distance.
 The seals were joined by an army of gulls and terns that included several Heermann’s Gulls (Larus heermanni).  A female harlequin duck drifted through the kelp beds just below the cliffs we perched upon.  We even got a bit of a jolt when we heard some exceptionally loud wing beats just a few feet above our heads.  A bald eagle had taken off from the low trees just behind us and landed out on the islet.  Sarah managed to see a pair of Pileated Woodpeckers on the walk back through the Salal-bottomed forest.
Sunset at Shark Reef.
Spencer Spit is a sandbar that juts out into Lopez Sound toward Frost Island.  The stroll out to the tip of the spit is delightful.  The marshy lagoon area is closed to the public as much of it is critical bird habitat.  Bring a spotting scope or good binoculars to the spit and you can spend a whole day looking at birds.  One bird we didn’t expect to find out here was the Red Crossbill (Loxia curvirostra).  These are denizens of the mature conifer forests, but here was a pair cavorting among the algae on the sandbar.  Turns out this isn’t all that uncommon for crossbills.  They seem to like salty stuff – even the extent of chewing on road salt in the winter. 
Western Sandpipers (Calidris mauri)
  For our water-based adventures on Lopez we chose kayaking, and chose the folks at Cascadia Kayak Tours to guide us.  Colin, the co-owner of Cascadia was our guide as we paddled around the southwestern parts of the island.  The rocky shore takes on a whole new dimension when you’re looking up from water level.
Colin from Cascadia Kayak Tours.  Our guide for the day.
 Colin even managed to get us out far enough that we spotted some Marbled Murrelets (Brachramphus marmoratus) floating on the waters of the Strait of Juan de Fuca.   These endangered birds are alcids, relatives of the puffins and murres, but unlike other alcids they nest in old growth forest rather than colonies on rocky islets.  That’s where the endangered part comes in.  Their nesting habitat is disappearing rapidly. 
Who needs solid ground?  A Great Blue Heron standing on floating kelp.
  Our only regret about visiting the San Juan Islands is that we never got past Lopez!  A return trip to explore the other islands - Orcas in particular - is certainly in order.
Want a great guide to natural areas of the San Juan Islands?  Get a hold of this book:
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If you want an awesome kayaking adventure, click here:

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