A Small, Secluded Cruising Destination In The Pacific Northwest
In the far northwest section of the San Juan Island chain, three remote islands stand a world away from civilization. There are no towns, resorts, or homes of any kind on these islands. Sucia, the largest island, was bought by a group of yacht and cruising clubs in 1960 and donated to the state for use as a park. Sucia offers five different anchorages with space for 100 boats and is located 5 miles closer to the usual departure points of Bellingham, Anacortes, and Friday Harbor, Washington. The other islands in this group are Matia and Patos; all three belong to Washington State Marine Parks.
Patos is a small 200-acre island west of Sucia. What could be the attraction of a tiny island at the northern end of the San Juans with only two buoys? I guess the answer is in the question. There are only two moorings available—it’s not very crowded and we like it that way.
My wife Linda and I have tried to visit Patos several times, but with no success. Last summer, we pulled around the west side of Patos into Active Cove. As the two buoys came into view, we saw that the first one had a ski boat moored on it. Nothing wrong with a ski boat using a mooring buoy (grumble, grumble). On the other buoy—the only other buoy—there was an empty inflatable dinghy. Now that’s just plain wrong. The state park rules and notices on the buoys are specific. You cannot reserve or hold a place with an empty tender, period.
As we passed the ski boat, we said hello. The couple on the boat said they were having lunch and would be leaving in 20 minutes. That was good news. I turned back out of the bay and we stood by until the small boat left the buoy. We hooked up, got settled, and went ashore to look around.
The path out to the Patos Island Lighthouse took us along a cement sidewalk from the remnants of the old dock, past the site of the keeper’s quarters, to the lighthouse itself. The light is automated now and the other buildings are gone. A local group, Keepers of the Patos Light, is responsible for the renovation of the lighthouse building. It is in very nice shape and would make a good spot for a picnic. But our food was on the boat. Back we went.
As we walked along, we saw a powerboat enter the bay. Was the tender on the buoy his? If not, what would he do? It turned out the dinghy was not his. We talked to him after our walk and learned that he moored his boat to the buoy and then broadcast the following message on Channel 16: “Will the person who abandoned his dinghy on a buoy at Patos Island come back and claim it? It is side-tied to my boat and we are now moored on that same buoy.”
He made the same broadcast in the blind several times. Within the hour, sure enough, another powerboat quietly motored in, untied the dinghy, and without saying much, motored out. I intend to do the same if we ever run into the “abandoned dinghy” problem.
The Light on the Island
We had some lunch on our boat, took a tour around the harbor in our tender, and then went back to the beach for another look around. The island is about the same distance from Sucia and the south end of Saturna Island, part of British Columbia. We could see Orcas and the rest of the San Juan Islands to the south. We certainly could not see Bellingham, our departure point 26 miles southeast. This gave us pause to think about The Light on the Island by Helene Glidden, a wonderful story of lighthouse keeper Edward Durgan and his family who moved to Patos in 1905. One of the exciting parts of this family’s island life was their once-a-month journey to Bellingham in a rowboat. The keeper, his wife, and 13 children lived on Patos until 1913.
There is another shoreline to discover on the north side of Patos. Here, we noticed a slab where a beach should be. The shore consisted of sandstone embedded with small boulders. If a mouse stood on an exposed aggregate patio, he would have a similar view. The unusual sandstone formations are part of a geological phenomenon called the Nanaimo Formation, a terrane (an area of related rocks) that extends from Nanaimo through the Gulf Islands, southeast to Patos and Sucia Island, and possibly as far as Bellingham’s Chuckanut Bay. This formation is the result of a thrust fault and accounts for the long, thin shape of the San Juan Island chain, some of the Gulf Islands, and the trademark “fingers” of Sucia.
We headed back to the boat, having exercised our dog Victor and ourselves. Linda made dinner and I rechecked the weather. Active Cove is open to wind from the west and I reconfirmed that a south wind was forecast for the night. Wind or no wind, the large ships steaming to and from Vancouver, B.C., gave us a little roll that night.
I was up early the next morning taking Victor to shore while treading lightly through the state park campsite on the beach. I see the best sunrises thanks to the old pup. We were to get an early start anyway—the option of staying another night was not available because the wind was forecast back to the west and the tide would be too low for comfort later in the day. Our next destination was in the Gulf Islands and we would be crossing the Haro Strait Boundary Pass two-way traffic lanes to get there. This area is not a vessel traffic separation zone, but it is busy. The ships are in contact with Victoria, B.C., traffic on VHF Channel 11. If you listen you can hear which ships are out there and which direction they are going.
Will we be as lucky on our next attempt visiting Patos? It would be nice, as we have yet to see the entire island. Linda tells me there is enough depth to anchor outside the last buoy as long as we stern tie. And we all know how easy it is to get that stern line ashore while a little current runs by. It’s a piece of cake.