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Trip Report    

Sea Kayak - McNeil Island Circumnavigation

A nice winter paddle with plenty of weather changes that ended in sunshine. Photo credit: Terence Soh

  • Road suitable for all vehicles


    CURRENTS: PITT PASSAGE: S @ 0918 /.07 @ 1130 / S @ 1419 / -1.7 @ 1718 BALCH PASSAGE , NE OF EAGLE IS: -1.8 @ 0722 / S @ 0949 / +1.6 @ 1145 / S @ 1435 / -2.7 @ 1744 BALCH PASSAGE:  -1.6 @ 0659 / S @ 1014 / .8 @ 1131 / S @ 1427 / -3 @ 1810 GIBSON PT: -1.6 @ 0650/ S @ 1039 / 1.7 @ 1307 / S @ 1518 / -2.4 @ 1840

    TIDES: STEILACOOM: 6.9 @ 1011 / 12.6 @ 1459

    SUN RISE/SET: 0637/ 1805

Everybody was on time and after the cars were parked at the Steilacoom ferry upper lot (8$ credit cards ok) we had our pre-trip huddle a little bit before 1000, launching at 1005. The clouds were low but there was no rain as headed across the quiet channel for Eagle Island.  The current was moving along at 2+ knots as we headed our boats to the northeast side about 1130.  We didn’t see any seals on the beach.  After about 15 minutes we headed across the channel and I was surprised to find a little tide rip area to bounce our way through.  We cleared them eventually and caught the current that swept us with a nice push around the corner.  I took a count to see who was willing to go to Filucy Bay.  Larry had been there and said it had a marina which we could see from Eagle Island.  I had wanted to scout it in case of a bail out location but with a marina that wasn’t necessary.  Most of the group said no so we continued on close to the shore where I had seen whalebones last year.  They were not there now so after watching two eagles circling over a water bird (they didn’t get it) we immediately headed on across the narrow channel to scout along the shore before settling on a spot under some mostly bare trees for our lunch. The sun came out as we spread out like birds on a fence on a log, staying about an hour while we waited for the tide to shift. We got back in our boats and paddled along towards the spit where the two eagles now sat inspecting us from the top of a tall piling.  We made towards the east side of tiny Pitt Island and I admired the beautiful madrona trees growing there.  The island is so thickly grown with vegetation and trees I don’t think anybody could walk on it even if they were allowed to. 


As we approached the northeast edge of the island I paddled out a bit in the channel to see a solid embankment of dark clouds immediately to the west and coming towards us fast.  Thundershowers had been predicted for the afternoons and so we kept moving steadily towards Gertrude Island where I hoped to be able to pull out if lightening hit.  A very cold wind sprang up behind us and we didn’t make it in time though and while there was no lightening there was plenty of hail for about a minute.  Luckily the clouds kept moving faster than we did and soon we were looking at a couple of rainbows in the middle of the channel towards Fox Island.  The light rain continued as we headed to Gertrude where we paused for a few people to get out on the north end.  There are limited rocky spots to land on a high tide and after a few minutes we pushed on the final run.  As we rounded the northwest corner I looked over to see if the bones that I had been told about were visible on the shore somewhere but we didn’t see anything but wood.  By now that’s probably what they look like anyway.

 The channel was clear of traffic, the surface only a little rippled and the sun came through the clouds to put a golden shimmer on it as we headed back across to arrive to the left of the ferry dock at 1605. The tide was nicely high which made the takeout an easy one.  Good teamwork was applied to get the boats up the few feet needed to stage them before we brought our cars down to the empty launch.  Mercifully no trains went by as we loaded up, changed and regrouped for a fast huddle where no complaints were made and thanks exchanged.  Nobody but Terry and I opted for dinner afterwards so we went to the always fast, friendly and tasty Spar in Tacoma for dinner before heading home.  All paddlers performed well with very good group dynamics.

 NOTE: I researched on Saturday night to find that in spite of the terminology the McNeil Island “Commitment Center” is still a prison whose dangerous “residents” are mandated to be there by the state and can’t leave without a court order. I will no longer offer paddles around it and have recommended to the Olympia SK Committee that they remove this route from their roster.