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Kayak Camping

Kayak Camping the San Juan Islands with a Tentipi Safir 7 Light


Kayak travels in the San Juan Islands

Many years ago a friend and I kayaked into the San Juan Islands for a quick overnight trip. Even though these islands are located very close to where I live near Seattle, this trip was the first and only time I'd ever actually kayaked in the San Juans. We camped on one of the pristine fringe islands, open only to paddle powered watercraft. We set up our camp, made a fire, and were enjoying the final moments of a beautiful sunset, when out of that sunset appeared a canoe or a kayak – something, headed right onto our beach! Given the time of day, we were surprised to be receiving "company" on what we thought was going to be our private little piece of paradise for the night. Turns out it was indeed some kind of a hybrid canoe/kayak, but the people inside it—an elderly husband and wife team—are what make this story worth posting.

kayak camper toting Tentipi camping gear

When the couple came ashore, we helped unload their gear and invited them to join us around the fire after they set up their own camp. After talking for a while we learned our new friends were very seasoned, dedicated paddlers from Norway, and that they were in the middle of a summer long exploration of these islands. They explained that they had already experienced most of Europe’s top canoe and kayak destinations, yet they kept hearing about this wonderful place in the Pacific Northwest called the San Juan Islands. The San Juans it seems, had been a "bucket list" destination of theirs for decades.

When they talked about the San Juan Islands they took on a sort of mystical tone. They spoke of them as a faraway legendary paradise for paddlers, pristine and protected from the vastness of the Pacific Ocean. They yearned to paddle in the serene protected waters that flowed through and around this picturesque group of islands. These two elderly paddlers, who had to be in their eighties, lit up like little children when they talked of the Orca whales that surfaced right beside them just two days earlier. They promised to show us the photos of the Orcas in the morning, but they were tired after a long day on the water and were ready to retire for the night.

After they left for their own camp, my friend and I couldn't help but talk about them for a while. We were amazed that they could still do this kind of thing at their age. We wondered, with a tinge of doubt, whether we'd still be able to contemplate grand adventures halfway around the globe when we reach their age. They were inspiring no doubt, but we began to realize that, here we were, in our prime years, and yet this was our very first trip into the San Juans. We made a promise to do more of this, to explore these wonderful islands every chance we get, to take advantage of this treasure in our own backyard.


Kayak Camping the San Juan Islands 25 Years Later


kayak camping in the San Juan Islands

Well it's been over 25 years since then and I haven’t been back once. Life gets in the way sometimes. But I've never forgotten that couple and the zest they seemed to have for life in general, and the San Juan Islands specifically. So finally, with the three-day Fourth of July weekend ahead, I planned another kayak trip into the San Juans. We hadn’t exactly been preparing for a long trip (the paddling muscles not in shape) so we decided on a shorter trip the first time out. It would be a half-day paddle to Cypress Island, an uninhabited and highly protected nature reserve with just two designated areas to camp.

It was a joy to be back on the water in the kayaks and I felt good to be honoring the promise I made to myself to explore these islands again. I however, failed to take into consideration the busy holiday weekend, and as a result the area we'd planned to make camp—Cypress Head—was totally full. A kayak tour company got there early and took over the whole camping area. Plan B was to head north up the island for a few more miles to the second spot called Pelican Beach. It was a wonderful paddle, riding the current like an escalator, and only a few feet off shore all the way there. We got lucky too! As we approached the camping area, someone saw us coming and pointed to a vacant spot, the very last spot available on the beach. I broke out my Tentipi Safir 7 Light Nordic tipi tent, quickly set it up and unloaded the rest of our gear.

We had an idea to hike to the highest point on Cypress Island—one of the highest spots in the whole chain of islands—to watch the Fourth of July fireworks from wherever we might be able to see them. And man did we see them! All around us, in almost every direction (albeit from many, many miles away), we saw what seemed to be every fireworks show in the region. Often we could see the burst of a firework in one direction followed by its sound many seconds later. Soon, there were seemingly hundreds of fireworks shows going on in every direction and there was no point in even trying to determine which boom was coming from which burst of color. It was a time to just sit back and enjoy the fantastic show.

Our weather forecast on the other hand, was not cooperating. What started as a light mist on the hike back turned into a real rain by the time we made it back to camp. I quickly turned the kayaks over, gathered things that shouldn't get wet, and we climbed into the tent. I took out the small Hekla 7 Firebox, pulled open the downwind side of the Nordic tipi's top cap, and quickly made a fire inside the Safir 7 Light. We hung our wet clothes inside to dry, and soon began to warm up and dry ourselves out. It didn't take long before we were drifting off to sleep after a long satisfying day.

Kayak camping with Tentipi and a firebox


The Star of our Kayak Camping Trip, The Safir 7 Light

Next morning the skies had cleared and the little campsites buzzed with activity. Pretty soon, people started walking by and making small talk with us, but their real intention was (as it always seems to be!) to ask about our tent. Apparently many people walked by our tent during the rain at night and were just amazed to see the glow from the fire inside. They came back in the light of morning and had to see and learn more. I made another fire so they could see it for themselves. I demonstrated the drawcords opening and closing the top cap, showed them how to open a ground vent to the prevailing wind while opening the top cap on the downwind side. One guy couldn't understand how such a big tent could be brought along with everything else that needs to fit into a kayak. I told him I selected the Safir 7 Light for this trip exactly because of how well it fits into a kayak. The Safir 7 light packs up to about two feet long and only about 7 inches in diameter – in other words, perfect for fitting into the very nose of a kayak. I'm certain Tentipi is going to find a lot of customers among the kayaking and paddle sports crowd once more people see these wonderful tents.

The perfect kayak tent for camping

Some History About Pelican Beach

I went to the next camp over to thank the guy who pointed us to the last vacant campsite when we were paddling in the night before. 

kayak camping destination, Pelican Beach

He was an old timer named Fred and was a very interesting guy to talk to. 

He had arrived via two boats – one a sailboat, and the other a dingy used

 to haul gear pulled behind it. I learned he was the local founder of Pelican boats, a well-known brand of handmade wooden boats. He and his wife have apparently been coming to this beach in their own handmade boats to camp for over 50 years, long before there were any regulations or designated campgrounds. He said the government authorities wanted to close this beach too, but he lobbied hard to keep it open, and was eventually successful. 

In fact he pointed to the sign on the beach that read "Pelican Beach,” the official name of the beach and campground, and he was the one who named it. Very cool!


The Huge Wooden Canoe


One of the things I've always enjoyed about being on a river, or any body of water really, is that you never know what's going to come around the bend next. Sure enough, as I was talking to Frank, a huge wooden canoe of some sort rounded the point and seemed headed toward our beach. The first sighting of this canoe had Frank looking curious, as it came closer and closer he became even more excited. As a lifelong wood boat builder, this huge wood frame canoe with some kind of skin covering it had his full attention. It was being paddled by eight teenage kids and one adult who appeared to be the leader. After a while we went over to examine this canoe, and we both agreed it was one of the most beautiful things we'd ever seen on the water. It was indeed handmade by some kind of an outdoor education youth group and they were enjoying its maiden voyage this weekend. They said it was a replica of the kind of canoes the native Indians used in these waters hundreds of years ago. It was great to see how proud these kids were of their creation and wonderful to see them out enjoying the islands in it.



As the sun was setting on our final night, we decided to take advantage of the perfect weather and glass-like water to explore a little more in the kayaks. As we silently paddled along the shoreline, the kids from the youth group were playing around on the beach and it was obvious they didn't know how well their voices carried over the water. Two of the young girls were talking to each other while watching us paddle by when I overheard one of them say "awwww....nice to see those old people out kayaking, think we'll still be doing these kinds of things when we're their age?"