Gems of the Pacific Northwest

Heads popped up like periscopes on the glassy waters off Lopez Island in northwest Washington.

"Wow, we've got otters off to the left," I whispered to my wife as we paddled along the coastline.

We try to sea kayak the San Juan Islands in the fall any chance we get.

It's a ritual - an ideal time of the year when campgrounds are fairly empty.

It's also a great time for bicycling the islands, beach combing, visiting local organic farms for fresh meats, vegetables and fruit, looking for wineries and just vegging out in camp.

We usually launch our sea kayak off Spencer Spit State Park on Lopez Island because the area is fairly protected. It's a good place for paddlers, who don't do much open-water touring but want to get a taste of saltwater coastal paddling.

I'm an old salty from my younger days and have to take in the energizing scent of sea air every once in a while.

The thing about the San Juans is that when you're paddling, you never know what you might see. Sometimes you may get a glimpse of a seal or a Dall's porpoise. Look underwater, too. The starfish are cool and there are lots of jellyfish, which look like underwater bouquets.

Bird watching is phenomenal with a host of shorebirds.

Being landlocked whitewater and flatwater paddlers, it's always a treat for a change of pace in paddling and critter watching.

"Let's stop paddling," I whispered. We didn't want to disturb them, but the current kept taking us toward the otters. The sleek, dark animals flipped and splashed.

The ones we've seen on past sea-kayaking adventures didn't usually hang around long once they spotted us, but these guys were just goofing off and paying no attention.

"Phoebe, cool it. Calm down. Don't even think about it," I said to our golden retriever in the middle of the kayak.

Retrievers think they have to retrieve anything that splashes in the water.

We were about 50 yards off shore, and I didn't want an upside-down kayak.

"Shhhh. They're still playing. I've got the camera ready," I said as we drifted closer to the animals.

Suddenly, they looked at us like, "What the heck?" Splash! They disappeared.

Bam! I felt something hit the bottom of the kayak right below my seat.

Over my shoulder, I heard scratching and rustling at the back of the kayak near the rudder.

Holy sea cows, was it trying to climb aboard? I love otters, but this was pretty scary.

The kayak jiggled a little bit from side to side. My foot hit the rudder control, which might have scared the animal.

Splash! Silence. Whew! We dodged a flip.

You can't move around much in a skinny sea kayak, and it would not be fun with a golden retriever and an otter running around the boat.

My wife and I were stunned. The dog was totally excited.

We braced with our paddles and were expecting another furry torpedo to hit the boat.

Nothing. The whole thing ended quickly.

In all our years of paddling, we've never had otters do something like that.

I remember whitewater kayaking in Hells Canyon where a family of otters came fairly close to me. They were really inquisitive but backed away.

When we got back to shore, we talked with a kayak outfitter in the area, and he said there was a case where an otter climbed up in a kayak with a guy and scratched him pretty badly.

Don't get me wrong. I love otters. This story proves the old adage that you need to give wildlife a wide berth. We should have known better, but I thought otters were pretty shy and these critters would have just taken off.

Actually, when I think about it now, it was a highlight of the trip, well, aside from the fresh blackberries we picked, the local lamb sausage we found in the grocery store, the fresh corn at the farm stands, and of course, the local Northwest microbrews sipped by the campfire.

A trip to the San Juan Islands in the fall is a must do. You don't have to camp. There are lots of lodges, hotels and bed and breakfasts.

You can do it in style or pitch the tent and throw down the sleeping bag.

Enjoy the sea air, but give the otters their space.