The first time Christine and I went kayak camping, we paddled eight miles out into water so calm, still as silk bed sheets, that we heard the humpback whale slice through the surface of the water before we saw her.
Too bad we didn’t check the weather.
The next morning, the radio was repeating a forecast of thirty-knot headwinds, four-foot seas, and a small craft advisory on Prince William Sound. It surely would have scared us off the water, if we’d been listening to the radio. I had met Christine just a few weeks earlier as her guide on a kayak excursion, so she did have some reason to trust me when I proposed this overnight adventure, but as we paddled back in waves big enough to threaten capsize, I could see—even with my demented half/double vision from having lost a contact lens at our campsite the night before—that her face was set in grim questioning and her faith was waning.
But after paddling twice as long and twice as hard as we had to get out, we did make it back to harbor. And as such, we did the only human thing possible: forgot about the difficulty of the paddle and remembered the upside — namely, those kickass burritos we’d made for dinner. We’d packed in cheese and salad and raw bacon and fresh avocados and even that most scorned of all backpacker’s foods, canned beans, and had been much impressed by this distinct advantage of kayak-packing over backpacking. The only limit to what we could pack was the size of our boats, and the fact that they sat in cold water most of the day allowed us to unscientifically put to rest our heebie-jeebies about packing uncooked meat.
Still alive and ever-hungry, five months later we devised a new trip. Christine would drive up from Utah to my new home in Western Washington and we would kayak the coastline of nearby Lopez Island while feasting exclusively on meat, eggs, cheese, breads, fruits and veggies…all grown or raised or made on the island. Basically, we would turn our kayaks into floating refrigerators, and eat high off the hog in local food, gourmet, camp-cooked heaven.
How to Harvest Oysters
As a prelude to our trip to Lopez, we decided we had to find a spot where we could pluck oysters fresh out of the sound, shuck them while still knee deep in salty water, and toss them back with a chaser of lemon juice and cocktail sauce. Only problem was, all the waters around Lopez were flagged “Biotoxin Closure” and we weren’t up for playing shellfish roulette.
1. Check your local “Shellfish Safety Information” map. Here in Washington the state Department of Health maintains it. The map should tell you not only if you might die from eating shellfish in this area, but also if you are legally allowed to harvest this time of year. We found a spot that was a short detour from our route to Lopez. I’m not going to tell you where, because it was paradise, even though we had to essentially rappel down a cliff to get to it.
2. Slither into your wetsuit, slip on your goggles and salivate over your snorkel. Unlike mussels, which cling to rocks, or clams, which burrow, oysters just stick to each other and lounge on the bottom in big clumpy masses that look like rock beds. Harvesting oysters is actually as easy as diving down and picking them up. Even though you are tempted to pick up the oysters that are as big as your face, go for the smaller ones: they’re sweeter and tenderer.
3. Shuck those suckers. Wriggle the blade of your knife between the oyster’s shells as close to the hinge as you can manage and as deep as it will go. Once you have some leverage, rotate the blade right or left, popping the two shells apart. Oysters are wily; this will not be easy. Have patience. Try again.
4. Once you pop the shells apart, work your blade carefully around the entire oyster, freeing the oyster meat from the top shell. Open her up, rinse with fresh water if you desire, flavor with lemon juice and cocktail sauce, and slurp it down.
Oyster expedition a rousing success, Christine and I rose before dawn to catch the earliest ferry from the mainland to Lopez Island, the third largest but most rural of the San Juan Islands. Because of its many community organizations that promote local eating and its innovative agriculture programs, it’s known as a haven for farmers and locavores. The school even has a gardening program from kindergarten through high school, and is able to grow 80% of the produce used in school lunches.
Since it was mid-October, the tourist season in its sleepy denouement, we were mostly in the company of locals as we sipped coffees and savored cinnamon buns at Holly B’s, the island’s premiere bakery. Since we had committed ourselves to only on-island eating, most of the ordinary staples of camping—rice, quinoa, pasta, beans—were out, so we also stocked up on Holly’s bread. For snacks, we came to rely on the apples that grew wild and abundant this time of year.
For the rest of our vitals, we spent a day touring the island’s farms. Lopez is so into its local food that the Lopez Community Land Trust publishes a guide to farm products on the island that details where one can find everything ranging from goat to herbs to wines to wool. Many farms had 24/7 trust-based farm stands stocked with refrigerators of squash, greens, potatoes, radishes and freezers of lamb, beef, and pork.
The average farmer in America is over 55, but on Lopez we met young farmers who owned or were in the processing of purchasing their own farms. Ronni and Levi met while interns for Lopez’s Land Trust and became orchard owners just three years ago. They grow 12 kinds of apples on over 70 trees, plus hazelnuts, plums, pears and medlars, and see their farm as a social project as well as an agricultural one, a place where the social justice organizers Ronni worked with in Seattle can go to get out of the city. “I wasn’t sure that I believed it was possible to live this beautiful of a life,” Levi told us, “and then I saw that it was.” Susie of Nature’s Way handed us a bouquet of basil, sage, mint, lemon verbena and rosemary, from her labyrinth planted with herbs.
The last farm we visited before bedding down for the night was Sunnyfield Farm, an apple orchard and budding goat dairy. We’d had our hearts set on local cheese, but certifying a dairy in Washington is no easy feat and we wound up out of luck. Sunnyfield’s dairy should be up and running for commercial production by next year, but in the meantime, it is a beautiful farm owned by Andre and Elizabeth, who had been married in the orchard just a few weeks earlier, Andre in a buckskin suit he made himself. They offered us the same spot to pitch our tent for the night.
Surrounded by trees hung heavy with apples, we made a lamb stew with potatoes, carrots, kale, rosemary, sage and an apple plucked fresh from the orchard. Just as we were starting to cook, Andre came out to give us a bottle of hard cider he’d made, and we sipped it while plotting our departure the following morning.
How to Harvest Sea Salt, or, How to Eat the Most Local
A big pot
Tremendous amounts of patience
A few years ago author Vicki Robin of neighboring Whidbey Island chose to eat only food grown within 10 miles of her home, and challenged her readers to do the same. We tried to stick to these standards for our trip. Vicki allows five exceptions, so we did too: salt, a cadre of spices (cumin, cinnamon, paprika, turmeric, curry), olive oil, coffee, cheese. Lopez Bounty, a group promoting Lopez’s farms and food, has been asking locals to take on the challenge for a month at a time and blog about their experience. After two days of paddling, we met Table at Horsedrawn Farms, who was taking on the challenge in its most extreme form.
That is, no exceptions. “One hundred percent local occupies most of my thoughts right now, all the time,” she told us. Being a vegetarian poses its own challenges. Fresh local meat is plentiful on-island, but other sources of protein are harder to come by. Eggs are her main source, and she’s been experimenting with making cheese. She’s not even eating pectin, so she can’t eat the jams and other preserves she made from local fruits before the started the challenge. She’s also not eating any spices that she can’t grow on Lopez, but living on an island, at least salt is plentiful. It just needs to be extracted.
1. Find a spot to harvest clean saltwater. Table paddled out in a kayak to do this, so she could get to less polluted places. As a rule, you’ll end up with somewhere between 3% and 10% of the total volume of saltwater as usable salt.
2. Let the water sit so that sediment collects at the bottom, then use a cup to scoop water and pour it through a sieve into a large stockpot. Pouring the water through a dishcloth should work well.
3. Boil the salt water until about half of the water evaporates. At this point, start stirring and don’t stop. You want most of the water to evaporate until the remaining salt is about the consistency of wet sand, being careful not to burn the salt in the process.
4. Let it dry. Spread the salt in a thin layer on a pan and set it in a warm place to dry. This could take up to two weeks.
After gathering all of our supplies, we packed our loot improbably into kayaks. Colin of Cascadia Kayaks, a rental and guiding service on the island, lent us our boats and a veritable boatload of dry bags. Dry bags are magical. You put gear in them, roll them up tight, and the stuff inside doesn’t get wet, period. We had dry bags of fruits and veggies, a dry bag of raw meat, and another filled entirely with our bouquet of fresh herbs. Spices we carried in a plastic daily pill planner, which is aesthetically very pleasing and conceptually very cute, but which resulted in sticky paprika all over everything always.
The south side of the island where we launched is carved into a series of bays and studded with National Wildlife Refuge islands: forbidden to the human foot, but sanctuary to bird life and seals, who pull themselves out on the rocks to sun. Our paddle began in a low fog but as the day wore on, the sun rose brilliantly. We paddled through tight passes between small islands and over the ridged backs of hundred of bull kelp waving their frothy manes at the surface. Dog-headed seals paddled silently in our wake, looking at us questioningly. When we caught their gaze they looked on briefly in wonder before eying each other and slipping below the mirror surface.
In a few hours we paddled from Agate Beach around Sperry Peninsula to small, uninhabited Ram Island. It’s for sale, by the way. The current to get there was strong enough to induce flashbacks of our original, tumultuous kayak-packing trip, but we made it to a narrow rocky beach and set up camp for the night on a wooded bluff. Lopez is on the Cascadia Marine Trail, a water trail through Puget Sound with 55 water-access campgrounds and trailheads, excellent for planning a multi-day kayak trip in the region. On our second night we camped at one of the marine trail sites at Spencer Spit State Park. The park’s beaches are strewn in driftwood and shady little driftwood shelters, where we ate a lunch of tomato, kale, and basil sandwiches.
How to Cook Lingcod, or How to Become a Man on Lopez Island
The final stretch of kayaking took us up over the north side of the island from east to west, where we would reach our last campground and pull our boats out of the water. On the way, we paddled onto the Jones Family Farms seafood outpost: it’s located right on the water, so we kayaked ashore beside gurgling aquariums of Dungeness crab, clams, and oysters. We were not in the market for oysters—see above—but Nick, an employee on the shy side who seemed not to know whether he loved us or wanted us to leave, showed us where the farm breeds oysters from microscopic little monsters, smaller than grains of sand, into the gnarled, hoary aphrodisiacs we all know and love. Christine and I bought a hefty filet of lingcod and paddled on to our last campsite.
Before we could have our dinner, though, we had to hitchhike back to the south end of the island to pick up Christine’s car. The sun was going down in shades of purple. We picked two apples from a wild roadside tree and ate them while thumbing for a ride. A young couple picked us up, tattooed, hair dyed and shaved, web designers who’d chosen this pastoral lifestyle for their daughter. They told us that there was a downside to this life too: they were finding the south end of the island a little more insular and a little less accepting than they’d hoped, particularly since they were non-practitioners of Lopezian Paganism.
Crammed in the back seat, they couldn’t see our eyebrows raise in wonder. Turns out that some on Lopez practice a particular brand of Paganism that emphasizes a connection with the earth honored through solstice parties that take place on the uninhabited islands off of Lopez’s coast, the same islands that we passed on our trip. When adolescents come of age, this couple told us, they are kidnapped from their homes by community members of the same sex and deposited on one of the small islands for a night and a day without food. At the end of that day, they are brought back to the mainland, bound in kelp to their mothers, and have to break free.
With that, they dropped us at our car; we were left dazed in the dark to stare out at the ocean. And, let’s not forget, a raw lingcod filet back at camp. We swung by the town’s only major grocery store for a bag of ice so it would keep until morning, but the store was closed, its parking lot deserted save for one car: Nick, the shy friend who’d sold us the cod to begin with.
Standing there in the parking lot, Christine and I babbled on about our trip and our impending departure the following day, and Nick laughed, hands in his pockets, staring up at the streetlights. Finally, we couldn’t help ourselves. We asked Nick about Lopezian Paganism. His eyes narrowed and shot sideways, “Who told you about that?” he asked. Turns out he was never kidnapped and put through the coming of age ceremony, but his brother was. Go figure.
Iceless, we went to sleep hungry, and in the morning returned to Holly B’s and found it closed, its hours truncated for the coming winter. We cooked the lingcod with kale and onions over a camp stove in the town square.
From the ferry that afternoon we cruised past the shorelines it had taken us days to paddle in a matter of minutes. I remembered something Table had said about her local food endeavor, that everyday she walked the line between struggling to harvest or make the foods she was used to, and just learning to live without them. We flirted with her challenge…but chose the mainland — chose coffee, and spice, and cheese.
WRITER: Jen Kinney is a freelance writer who also binds books, kayak guides, and likes to think about cities, communities and public space. She writes about infrastructure and urban innovation for Next City, teaches art classes at Seattle ReCreative, and tells stories through non-fiction, photography, and exhibition. Her writing and photography have appeared in High Country News online, the Anchorage Press, Satellite Magazine, Business Insider, and Nautilus Magazine’s blog Facts so Romantic, among others. Learn more at her website.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Christine Armbruster blends commercial and documentary photography to create her own unique style. She has gained the trust of and photographed many people from all over the world, from nomads in the Arabian desert to coffee pickers in the Dominican Republic. Her series have been published internationally and in galleries throughout the United States, and her editorial lifestyle and travel images have been published in magazines such as AFAR and Outside. Learn more at her website.