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Exploring the San Juan Islands by Charter: A Unique Adventure

Most people who visit the San Juans see only the islands accessible by the Washington State Ferry system—Orcas, San Juan, Lopez, and Shaw. Yet, there are more than 172 named islands and reefs. In low tide, the number rises to 450 if you include exposed rocks and small islands. Many of the islands not accessible by public ferry have public parks that can be reached by private boat, such as Stuart, Jones, Lucia, Clark, Patos, and Matia. Having been to the San Juans by public ferry many times, I wanted a unique adventure. So I chartered a 90 foot yacht called Bear Paw.

Bill and Chrystal, the owners, are both seasoned Captains. While they’ve been on boats for decades, their charter business is new. Alaska is their realm during the summer, but just before they cruise north, they are available for charters in the San Juans. I, Glen, my niece, and my sister-in-law set out for a 3-night cruise. (Image: Our room.)

Captain Bill has worked in many capacities at sea, including many years rescuing mariners who ran their vessels onto rocks in the San Juans. With him at the helm, we felt safe. He knows all rocks in the Salish Sea! Chrystal serves as First Mate, Chief Hospitality Officer, and Head Cook. (She too has Captain credentials and crewed her own boat for many years.) Chrystal made sure we never went hungry. Her meals were creative, colorfully plated, and plentiful. Apropos to being on the sea, we ate a lot of seafood—fresh crab, spotted prawns, black cod, salmon smoked by Chrystal, oysters, and halibut.

The yacht had only 3 guest cabins, each with an ensuite bathroom with a marine-size shower, conventional flush toilet, and small sink. There was plenty of closet and drawer space for two of us. The king-size bed was super comfortable.


Bill and Chrystal anchored the yacht every night, which ensured a quiet sleep. Commercial small boat cruises often motor through the night or start out at sunrise, which means engine noise. Bear Paw favors the slower paced cruise life over cranking out the miles.


Most of the main deck is devoted to dining and living spaces. If the weather is cool, this is a great place to sit, sip on coffee, and gaze out the many windows. The upper deck has a seating area with an outdoor fire pit. At night, I enjoyed sipping on wine and gazing at the full moon and its reflection on the water.

I consulted with Chrystal to put together the itinerary. One of my party had never been to the San Juans. Another only once, and the rest of us had been there numerous times. We decided to include a standard stop, a new stop, and a unique experience. In between, we cruised past islands looking for wildlife and whales.


On our first evening, we tendered ashore at Roche Harbor to view the Colors Ceremony, a tradition since 1957.

The next morning we tendered back to Roche to hike to Afterglow Vista and then on to the outdoor sculpture park. Afterglow Vista is the McMillan family mausoleum for John S. McMillin, wife, and children. McMillan ran a lime quarry in Roche Harbor prior to it becoming a resort. Afterglow Vista requires a short hike through woods. It is an unexpected sight.

The sculpture park is a short walk from Afterglow Vista back towards the resort. The park's 19 acres have several walks that pass by 120 or so sculptures by Northwest Artists. I've been there before, but hadn't seen this beauty, which is new.

The sculpture park has a small lake that hosts colorful turtles.

In the afternoon we stopped at Stuart Island for a rigorous hike to the old schoolhouse and then on to the lighthouse. This is the lighthouse from the yacht. We traveled to the other side of the island and first hiked to the schoolhouse. The road to the lighthouse was blocked by a landslide. Being on foot, it was easy to scramble over the slide. The road down to the lighthouse was steep.

The schoolhouse was one room. Next to it is a small library. It still contains books and has an "on your honor" system for buying post cards and a book about the history of the island.

Stuart is what I consider the trusting island. In addition to the honor library, during our hike we came across two honor shops. Merchandise was in the open. No attendant, just instructions on how to pay. Sample t-shirts hand on a clothes line, which is not so good in rainy weather. Fortunately there are waterproof trunks that containvpackaged shirts, postcards, and other goods.

We passed the privatley owned Speiden Island twice. No one is allowed to step foot on it. I understand it is heavily fortified. Many years ago someone imported exotic game with the aim to provide hunting trips. There is no more hunting, but mouflon sheep from Corsica, Sika deer from Japan, and European fallow deer still roam the island. It was a bit cloudly the day we sailed by but we still got views of the animals. Note the birds on the back of one of the sheep.

Where there is game, there are eagles. This one was on the shore feasting on a fawn.

The last full day Bill took us to the Smith and Minor Island Aquatic Reserve in the “rib” (a fast, inflatable, double-hulled boat with GPS instruments). It was a 35 minute ride. We bundled up and Chrystal made sure we had blankets to keep us warm.

Few people ever get to these exposed islands. A flat sea that day allowed us to visit. It was a truly special experience! (Image: Aerial view of the large Smith Island and the small crescent-shaped Minor Island. Taken from a float plane on our way back to Seattle.)

This is Smith Island as seen from the rib.

We saw seals, cormorants, eagles, gulls, and guillemots. (Other times of the year puffins and rhinoceros auklets nest there.)

Eagles built nests in each of the abandoned towers on Smith Island. Its days of hosting a lighthouse are long gone.

On the return, we went through Deception Pass and then on to our night moorage off Lopez Island. On our fourth day it was drizzling, so we opted for a leisurely cruise back to Friday Harbor. On the way we looked for whales, seals, and eagles.

We were sad to disembark! In the future, I hope to travel with Bill and Chrystal to see bears and experience the beauty of Alaska. They both know Southeast Alaska quite well, having worked in many capacities (including the fishery) prior to starting their charter business. I can’t imagine any better people to travel with to Alaska.

If you are interested in chartering, see Bear Paw Charters. If you aren't ready to take on the entire yacht, Bear Paw has a few "by the stateroom" trips for which you can book just one room. These are typically when Bear Paw repositions from Friday Harbor to Alaska or the reverse. A repositioning trip is ideal for people who want to hang out on the yacht and read, write, or watch the scenery go by. There are fewer stops and Bear Paw anchors each night. The Alaska charters are usually a week long. San Juan charters vary according to how much you want to see. Talk to Chrystal for details.

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