Overshadowed waters

If you don’t count the pesky raccoon and the grazing deer, chances are pretty good you’ll have Hope Island to yourself if you stay there on a weeknight.

As the sun sets, you can still see the house lights and hear the yapping dogs from the neighborhood across Squaxin Passage, but it hardly spoils the experience of having your own private island.

“Hope Island is a great destination,” said Rick Kramer, captain of an Olympia-based 41-foot ketch called Clara June. “Seattle has Blake Island and Winslow, but nothing like what we have down here.”

Specifically, that sense of solitude.

The North Puget Sound and its iconic boating destinations such as the San Juan Islands and Deception Pass cast a pretty large shadow over the waters south of the Tacoma Narrows.

And while sailboats, kayaks and watercraft head north, those who head south find waters that are typically calmer and less crowded.

“We’re definitely overshadowed,” said Scott McHugh, of the Boston Harbor Marina. “Just take a boat ride from here to Elliott Bay sometime. You get to Tacoma and suddenly the number of boats multiply. And they keep multiplying the closer you get to Seattle.”

When Kramer and his wife, Ada, started their charter company, Mystic Journeys, in Olympia five years ago, it was hard for them not to feel overlooked. Kramer was starting to understand why others who’d opened similar businesses in the Olympia area were unsuccessful.

He says he booked only about 15 cruises that first year.

But five years later, he’s starting to wonder if more people are starting to become interested in exploring the Sound’s quieter waters.

After booking 20 cruises last year, he’d already booked 40 in early August and expected that number to climb to 60 by the end of the year.

“This has been the first year where we’ve felt like this could actually be a business,” Kramer said. “... But I can’t say how much is the weather or how much is something else.”

Chris Fry, owner of West Bay Paddleboards, says his business has seen significant growth in recent years too.

Fry was on the front end of the standup paddleboarding trend when he opened his shop in 2008. Six years later, he says the South Sound’s calm waters are ideal for learning the sport.

“Really, it’s great for any human-powered watercraft,” Fry said. “It’s great paddling.”

Ken Campbell, a Tacoma sea kayaking author and long-distance paddler, used to lead guided tours at the Nisqually River Delta and other locations on the South Sound. He’s also paddled most of the North Sound.

He says South Sound destinations like Jarrell Cove and Hope Island state parks compare favorably to more popular destinations in the North Sound.

“But everybody goes north,” Campbell said. “Write about the South Sound all you want. That’s not going to change.”

At Boston Harbor Marina, visitors typically rent kayaks for about two hours, McHugh said. That puts Hope Island out of reach for most, so McHugh says kayakers enjoy paddling the calm waters and watching seals and gulls.

“The calmer water is really nice for people who are inexperienced (kayakers),” McHugh said. “The wake from a bigger boat can really knock the stuffing out of a little kayak.”

While some boaters will tell you Puget Sound can almost seem like a lake south of the Tacoma Narrows, that doesn’t mean it’s without challenges.

The currents in Dana Passage south of Harstine Island can take paddlers places they hadn’t planned.

Fry said he got caught up in the Dana Passage currents on his paddleboard a few years ago.

With big waves tossing him around, he had to drop to his knees as he paddled toward calmer water.

Fry also enjoys the challenge of Hammersley Inlet.

The narrow waterway leading to Shelton is known for strong currents and should only be attempted by experienced paddlers. Shallow spots make it challenging for other boaters too, Kramer said.

“You have to do your homework,” Fry said. “If you go in there at the wrong time, you are going to be in trouble. But it really is a rush. A saltwater river. It is fun.”

Fry typically puts in in Shelton and paddles nearly 20 miles back to Olympia.

“I’ve done it three times, and I’ve been successful once,” Fry said.

Actually, he made it safely all three times, sometimes stopping for a break at Boston Harbor, but only once did he feel as if he timed the currents and weather just right so that the trip wasn’t especially challenging.

But that same weather that can make paddling tough, also makes for good sailing, Kramer said.

Despite the South Sound’s reputation for calm water, Kramer says he’s able to hoist the sails on about 75 percent of his cruises. “But people are happy either way,” Kramer said.

“There are some great places to explore in the South Sound,” Kramer said as he rattled off locations like McMicken Island, Longbranch, Stretch Island and a handful of state parks. “It’s a special place.”