Sea Kayaking Orca Island with Body Boat Blade

Fortune smiled on me when I was able to make a trip north from Seattle to paddle Orca Island with Shawna Franklin and Leon Somme, (aka Maurice Leone Somme). Leon and I had spoken on the phone before I arrived in Seattle about the weather conditions. Leon described in dulcet tones while wearing a rosy lens-monacle the temperate clime I would be arriving to enjoy.

Ok-all kidding aside let us say that when I took the ferry from Anacortes to Orca Island, the glass was plummeting. I enjoyed 40-50 degree days for most of the week in Seattle. When I arrived temperatures were dropping into the thirties/twenties. I’m from Michigan, no problem. The forecast kept calling for a legendary snow dump over the entire Seattle area which was causing a lot of worry for most people I encountered. Washington state in the greater Seattle area apparently doesn’t have a lot of snow plows, or salt trucks.

I arrived on the first ferry Friday Morning. I drove around to the north side of the island. The island reminded me of a tree filled version of some of the smaller islands near Ireland. There were horses and sheep grazing in low valleys between small mountains. Mist and rain shrouded these craggy peaks. I had definitely left the bustle of corporate streets and machinations far behind.

I met Shawna and Leon at Body Boat Blade in the small village of East Sound Orca Island. I had a look round the shop and bought some Body Boat Blade apparel to bring home. Leon showed me the charts and the tide tables and offered a few suggestions for my first day’s paddle. Leon and Shawna as good stewards kept asking me what I felt comfortable with, and how I felt about the weather. While I had paddled with them once on textured water it was right after my hernia repair, and therefore I didn’t have much gas in the tank. So they were rightfully cautious about sending me out on the Pacific with no advice.

After an hour or so going over the charts and the tides, I was driving the Body Boat Blade van towards Deer Harbor. I gleefully borrowed a Valley Nordkapp LV for the day. I’d demoed the kayak a few times at symposiums and really liked it, so I was happy to take it for a spin.

The tide was going to ebbing at 1:00 at .5 knots from the North where I intended to paddle. The wind came out of the Northeast in solid gusts building into a more steady gale around 25 knots. I launched at a small marina in Deer Harbor and paddled South. I followed the east part of the sound along steep rocky cliffs and bundles of bull kelp. The wind pushed me along and I enjoyed doing side slips and hanging stern draws to keep myself off the rocks. As I neared the end of the harbor, I rounded the point and then ferried across the channel to Jones Island. I stopped and used the bathrooms at the state park and then hopped back in my boat. I kept moving out and around Jones into a horrific headwind. I dug deep and hard to paddle on towards Reef Island. I made the western tip of Reef Island with some difficulty, and then began to swing back into the harbor. I came back in to the harbor amongst gulls riding high against the wind. I pulled in to the dock and ate a bit of lunch. It had taken me about two and half, three hours to make the trip. It was cold, but obviously the drysuit and the pogies kept me pretty warm. The Nordkapp LV performed really well. The Nordkapp LV does need the skeg in flat water high wind conditions, but it is really excellent. quite fast and very maneuverable. It has some comparable handling capabilities to the Silhouette, but perhaps even more nimble, and alas a little slower.

I drove back to town to drop off the van and go for dinner with Shawna and Leon. We gathered some groceries in town where I learned one of my three most important lessons of the trip.

Lesson One: you CAN judge the quality of the beans from how much liquid is in the can.

Leon and Shawna decided to make chili and I offered to make salsa. Shawna and Leon live in an off the grid undisclosed location near East Sound. Their undisclosed location is really quite beautiful. And their entire lifestyle admirable in that their footprint in life is very minimal. Food and water, and wood for the stove. We got through the door and much to everyone’s amazement and ultimate regret I began chopping all my tomatoes, peppers, and garlic for salsa. I don’t think anyone realized that I would mince so fine when I offered to make salsa. Also I usually make it in a food processor, which mills the vegetables evenly and liquefies the tomatoes to make the taste a little milder. Once it was all made it was quite hot. Everyone kept eating to keep the heat on rather than surrender to the intense heat of the habanero I included. Leon made some excellent chili and salad. Another friend Lisa joined from the mainland right before we ate. The chili and the salad was terrific fare after a cold day on the water. I felt very warm and full as I tucked into my bag.

I was bold enough to ask Shawna and Leon about my November kayaking trip and the leadership questions I raised about the trip. I did get some really good information and guidance about this developing skill (or deficit) area of mine. I will be posting more about this later.

As I woke on the second day, the temperature had dropped again. The wind picked up to around 25-30 knots out of the northeast. Shawna and Lisa wanted to paddle together in slightly more protected waters together. Leon and I agreed to paddle down the western side of the island with the wind to meet up with Shawna and Lisa at the end. I was excited to be able to ride with the wind and see the outside coast of the western end of the island. We drove down to the beach to check the conditions. It was a bright clear cold morning with solid white caps as far as the eye could see. My kind of weather!

We all loaded up and got dressed to paddle. Leon and I dropped off at Kimple Beach and began our paddle. I paddled an NDK Explorer for the second day. I had never paddled one for more than demo, so I thought I would give it a whirl. I have to say I prefer something with less free board. Stable, but not as exciting as the Nordkapp LV. And I would have paid real money to be able to paddle my Nigel Foster Silhouette under those same conditions. We paddled out into the main flow of the wind to catch the best ride and began our downwind hunt for steeper waves. Right as we were leaving Leon pointed out to me a pair of harbor seals I would have surely missed in my determination to head downwind. Right away we started making miles. It was easy going. I was plenty warm already and began to sprint for anything I thought I could surf. It was not as big of a sea state as the Nov 15th trip due to the fetch, but the scenery was gorgeous, the mountains off on Vancouver Island were clearly very snow from last nights cold weather. Their peaks were packed with snow and the trees below were brushed with dusty beards of snow.

Leon as one might expect seemed able to catch just about anything and would stern draw to keep himself from broaching on fast rides. He was paddling an NDK Romany which was a bit nimbler, and would also not get caught up between waves in the trough quite as easily as an Explorer. Side note that Leon let me borrow an Explorer with a skeg that was maybe going to be sold. I remember the words be careful with it. So of course right as I am heading between two rocks I can tell I am not going to make it and that the nose will collide with the sea stack. So I went over to slow myself down, hit my helmet on the shallow bottom and then rolled up to avoid the rock. I don’t think I could afford to ship home a broken NDK Explorer.

I got one or two rides where I would ride up and over the top of the wave in front of me and then down into the trough of the next and just keep going. On one such ride I spotted what I think was a Marbled Murrelet. It dove quickly and then another flew off. Leon came over and gave me a stern lecture about killing protected sea birds with kayaks. I took him seriously for about a minute.

As we rounded the tip of the west side towards Jones Island the tide began to kick in. The .5 knot tide was again ebbing and against the wind. So it sort of made the boat go all sluggish where it was rushing over an especially shallow spot on the bottom. When we broke free we ran into Lisa and Shawna right in time for lunch. We landed on a beach near the northern end of Jones Island. We broke out a great lunch in the lee of the island. Here Leon demonstrated some ballet moves on slippery rocks with a storm cag as a ballet tutu.

Leon in Kokatat Ballet Tutu

Lesson Two: save boiling water for your gloves, pogies, or booties.

It got really cold really quick. As we finished up, I was getting really cold almost immobile so I threw on another layer and hopped in my kayak to get moving. The wind really picked up as we came into Deer Harbor. We managed to get everything all ferried back in the dark and cold with limited difficulty.

I would really recommend heading out to Orca Islands to get some coaching. Shawna and Leon are the best at what they do, and that is Sea Kayak expeditions. I would hasten to add that their experience and coaching is second to none. I’ve seen some questionable coaching in my time paddling, and these two really can demonstrate everything they teach and have dedicated their lives to paddling. I would love to have them come back to WMCKA, but with the economy we’ll see.

When seeing how well Shawna and Leon live without a lot of modern conveniences, I found myself calculating the amount of time I waste on the computer at home. How much do I dork around with this, that, and the other gadget. Certainly there is a convenience factor to consider for electricity and modern conveniences, but I found myself continually asking, what do I really need?

Do I need a brand new Macbook? Do I need a big refrigerator, or a lot of other things-the simple answer is no, I just sort of want them. Where I work there is a lot of focus on mobile devices, gadgets, and computers. It’s an internet advertising agency, it is what it is. To my own detriment from time to time, I find myself getting caught up at times in the gotta have it syndrome too.

As an example does anyone really need an iphone? No not really. Sure they’re cool, but what would I do with it that I don’t get from other devices I already have? Nothing. It’s just convenience. Granted convenience means a lot when you are lost in a big city. But I tend to enjoy getting lost, it’s part of the adventure. Besides with a map and a compass you can get anywhere on earth. iphones aren’t waterproof either!

Seeing two people live a very rich life, off the grid (at home) made me think more about what is important. It’s getting on to the nutty Holiday time in the year where everyone is worried about gifts. With the economy the way it is, I would encourage you to think about what is important? Stuff, or relationships and experiences. I am not a Luddite though which anyone that has met me can tell you. I am just drawing the line in the sand. Make do with the stuff that works. Laura and I are pretty decent for the most part, no cable tv, no fancy cars, no big tv. Just my kayak and bike habit! I think that will be my year end thought to leave you with.

Oh and Lesson three: keep track of your possessions when traveling, use as much of your own gear as possible so you make a visual checklist of everything you came with. I left three or four items in Washington.


  1. Don’t be too hard on yourself by contrasting your plugged in, gadget driven life with the off-the-grid approach you found so appealing.

    For everyone who lives off the grid with simplicity and elegance like Leon and Shawna there are plenty of folks who live in the same material circumstances but in squalor–e.g., junk-strewn yard and a filthy house. It is character not material circumstances that is determinative.

    IMO, the key is to try to live in whatever material circumstances you find yourself with simplicity and elegance. For example, someone who uses well-designed technology (e.g., MacBook running OS X) to connect with and perhaps teach others–say through a thoughtful blog–is operating in much the same fashion as a mentor who lives an exemplary life off the grid.

    I would like to think that Leon/Shawna would have impressed you just as much with their character and experience if their tool set included an iPhone or two or if their house was plugged into the grid.

    Contrasting one’s plugged in life with a life lived off the grid creates the false impression that the gulf between them is too daunting to close. Instead, maybe we should focus on pruning away the unneeded stuff at the same time we squeeze all the goodness we can out of the amazing tool set (e.g., MacBook) that you get when you are plugged in.

    We need good people living off the grid. But equally much we need good people plugged into the grid. Rather than attempting to emulate Leon/Shawna (who probably cringe at their impending sainthood) by focusing on their physical circumstances, why not try to adapt their approach to life to the circumstances in which we find ourselves as a result of geography, family obligations, professional life, etc.?

  2. Thanks for reading, it was a great trip.

  3. What a lovely, thoughtful post. Shawna and Leon are two of the post inspirational paddlers we’ve had the good fortune of meeting. Getting out to Body Boat Blade is high on our agenda. We thoroughly enjoyed the vicarious pleasure of reading about your visit.