The big bay of the Crown Jewel.
The big bay of the Crown Jewel.

Exploring the Crown Jewel

Sucia Island is both well known and well loved, and is commonly referred to as the “Crown Jewel of the San Juan Islands”. It is a favorite among savvy cruisers and folks experiencing the islands for the first time. All 500-plus acres and 77,000-feet of shoreline of Sucia are a part of Sucia Island State Park (only the North and South Finger Islands in Echo Bay are privately owned). The island is covered with hiking trails, unique sandstone rock formations, and numerous sand and gravel beaches that afford scenic relaxing, walking, and sunset viewing. 

Sucia was once the site of a sandstone quarry and home to more than 1,000 people. The vast majority of the island was purchased—and then donated to the state—by a group of area yacht clubs and other stakeholders in the 1960s. Pretty cool, if you ask me. Long before that, however, Sucia once served the Lummi nation in their seal hunting days. It was later a popular hideout for smugglers—whose contraband included booze during Prohibition and Chinese laborers in the 1800s (sources Waggoner Cruising Guide, Migael Scherer’s Cruising Guide to the Puget Sound and San Juan Islands, and Jo Bailey and Carl Nyberg’s Gunkholing the San Juan Islands).

Some of the 48° North Rally Crew at the Mushroom Rock
Some of the 48° North Rally Crew at Mushroom Rock

Sandstone Splendor

By all accounts, the thing to do on Sucia is go ashore and explore. In the island’s sea-carved sandstone, you will almost certainly find fossils, which are illegal to remove. In 2012, a dinosaur femur was found on the island, which is now displayed at the Burke Museum at the University of Washington. There’s almost no wrong choice of hike genesis or destination. Many cite the hiking trail from the central-island isthmus between Echo and Shallow Bays northeast along the bluffs toward Ewing Cove as a particularly magical route. 

For the cheerful crew of the 2019 48° North Cruising Rally (at the time, called Cascadia Cruising Rally) anchored in Echo Bay after a magnificent sail the day prior, the choice was to beach the dinks at the main landing in our home bay and explore in the direction of Fox Cove. 

My rally co-founder and co-leader, Chuck Skewes, had not visited Sucia since his family cruising days when he was a boy—nearly thirty years prior. He remembered a bluff walk along the edge of Fossil Bay that was particularly rich with fossils. The rest of the hiking group was all too happy to indulge his memory-lane curiosity. 

What cruiser doesn't love Madrona?
What cruiser doesn’t love Madrona?

Pure Island Summer

Strolling up and then down the gentle hill as we headed southeast toward popular Fossil Bay, we were surrounded by pure island summer. The salt air blended with the verdant aromas of the deciduous forest we traversed. Dappled sunshine snaked through the canopy while we traded stories of past visits to Sucia. We wondered aloud, “A thousand people lived here? WHERE?” By the time we were completing our descent near Fossil Bay, the forest thinned and the broad-leafed trees gave way to exquisitely gnarled Madronas covered in their technicolor peeling bark.

 Some of our group went with Chuck and his partner, Sabine, in search of his fossil-filled bluff. With camera in hand, I told them I’d catch up with them later, and went to take a few snaps of the storied Mushroom Rock on the shallow shores of Fox Cove. All the mooring balls were filled beyond it, and several additional boats were anchored nearby with good wind protection, though some were probably exposed to some swirling currents. 

Soon the group joined me for some photos in front and on top of the iconic rock formation. We ambled on lazily (it was only Day Two and we were already doing everything at cruising speed). We wandered up the bluff on the south side of Fox Cove to get a better look at little Sucia Island, which gives the cove much of its protection. A shaded picnic table on our way down the hill provided a quiet, scenic place to enjoy a bite of lunch. Lumbering back toward the dinghies, we were halfway to a siesta.

Kubb, the competitive game of throwing wood at other wood.
Kubb, the competitive game of throwing wood at other wood.

Lawn Games at Sucia Speed

Back at the raft-up, some napped, some read, and a brave few even briefly jumped in the water. We wiled away a few afternoon hours, before the day’s final activity. 

There’s not much I don’t love about boat life. I love the excitement of sailing, its simultaneous simplicity and unending complexity. The ebbs and flows of a cruising stopover, I love that too—the work around the boat and the enjoyment when there’s really nothing left to do but enjoy the world around you and the people with whom you’re adventuring. I love it all. However, if there’s one knock on boat life, it’s that it is awfully hard to play lawn games when you’re chilling out on your hook! 

I’m something of a lawn game enthusiast, and my rally cohorts kept the eye-rolling to a minimum as I pleaded with them to join me on shore for some lawn game fun. We wove through the anchored boats to the site I had scouted earlier in the day—one of the group campsites, where there was enough of a flat grassy area to set up two games. Perhaps it was my personal bias coming through, but the crew quickly gravitated toward my favorite game, Kubb: the Scandinavian game of throwing pieces of wood at other pieces of wood.

We played game after game as the daylight faded, and the tournament narrowed enough to award the prizes I had snuck into my shore bag: Two fresh copies of the just-released Gulf Islands Cruising Guide by Shawn Breeding and Heather Bansmer of Blue Latitude Press. 

Sucia Speed in Echo Bay
Sucia Speed in Echo Bay

The Real Business of Living

We dinghied through the placid pastel-hued anchorage, a little sorry to be responsible for disturbing the sunset reflections. With dinner underway and another quiet night ahead of us back at our five boat raft-up, I looked back on the day with a feeling of satisfaction I’ve only known during water-borne adventures with friends and family. The sensation reminded me of a quote from my favorite canoe-country essayist from back in Minnesota, Sigurd Olson: 

“It is surprising how quickly a man sheds the habiliments of civilization and how soon he feels at home in the wilds. Before many days have passed, he feels that the life he has been living was merely an interruption in a long wilderness existence and that now again he is back at the real business of living.”