The first time I visited Cypress Island, setting the anchor took an hour. The bottom was soft, the underwater terrain suspect (at one point the depth sounder flashed an alarming zero fathoms) and the only chart was no help at all. Watching us all the while was a couple on a little motor cruiser who had taken what we figured was the prime anchoring spot. They rowed over and welcomed us, commiserated on our difficulty anchoring (they'd had trouble, too) and proceeded to describe the island as if they had discovered it themselves. Eyes aglow, they spoke of the trails, the birds, the beaches and the rocks. When I told them I was a writer, they urged, "Please, don't ruin this special place."
During subsequent visits over the years, everyone I've met feels the same about Cypress Island. It's their secret, an unspoiled getaway that embodies much of what the San Juan Islands used to be: heavily wooded, quiet, remote.
Nature and design keep it so. Steep terrain, scarce water and the lack of ferry service discouraged the residential and commercial development common elsewhere. Citizen action during the past decade led to setting aside most of the island's core and some of its prime beaches for wildlife conservation and public use. Public use with limitations, that is. For an island so large, Cypress has few anchorages, and by San Juan Islands standards, none are very good. Two of the most popular, maintained by the Department of Natural Resources, are Cypress Head toward the southeastern end of the island and Pelican Beach on the northeastern side.
Cypress Head, a peninsula jutting into Bellingham Channel, is best suited for small boats. There are five mooring buoys close together in the small bay north of the head. The beach is steep, and the currents are strong enough to create tidal overfalls. The bay on the south side is shallow and obstructed by kelp. On shore are a few fire pits, picnic tables and campsites.
Pelican Beach, a crescent of sloping gravel, has four mooring buoys, but this area offers no protection from northerlies, the prevailing wind in good summer weather. Swells that build along the length of the Strait of Georgia can make an overnight anchorage uncomfortable. On shore are a few campsites, picnic tables, fire pits and the site's major attraction: a spectacular unobstructed view of Mount Baker.
Between Cypress Head and Pelican Beach is Eagle Harbor. On the chart, it appears a perfect anchorage. A steep head of land wraps protectively to the northeast, and all the bulk of Cypress Island stands between you and southwesterly winds. But Eagle Harbor's outward appearance is deceptive. Below the surface, the west and southwest shorelines shoal extensively in an area formerly used for log booming, and there is a surprising (unmarked) shoal in the harbor's center. Take care entering and anchoring, and verify enough depth for swinging.
None of the other bays are recommended. Salmon pens, strong and shifting tidal currents, and a strictly private shoreline make Deepwater Bay on the eastern side of Cypress especially unwelcoming. Strawberry Bay on the western side is entirely open to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, to the shipping lanes and to the wakes of ferry traffic. All mooring buoys and shoreline areas are private. Foss Cove, farther north along the western side, is public, but like Pelican Beach it is exposed to the north.
Indifferent anchorage, no docks, no water, few amenities. Yet cruisers visit all summer long, most often in power and sailing yachts of 30 feet or so, or in a flotilla of kayaks carrying a family or Scout group. The early arrivals secure a mooring, and the small craft land ashore. The rest of us fuss with our anchors and eventually row to the beach.
Once on the island, the main activity seems to be skipping rocks across the water or building a fort of driftwood. Something about Cypress stimulates the imagination, and it doesn't take long to create your own diversion or find you're perfectly content doing nothing at all.
Many visitors head inland. As that first couple we met explained, and as we have discovered again and again, the reward for the extra time needed to set the hook and the extra vigilance at night if the wind kicks up is a glorious day of hiking. Miles of trails-mostly abandoned logging roads overgrown with daisies and foxglove-are accessible from Foss Cove, Pelican Beach, Eagle Harbor and even the more distant Cypress Head. This network wanders the length of the island, through older second-growth forest. Few trails are marked, and more than once I've needed a compass to keep my bearings. The trail to Phoebe (Cypress) Lake is a vigorous 3 miles or so, with an elevation gain of 1,400 feet. It's easy to take a wrong turn and never find the water. Duck Lake, easier to find, is a marsh humming with dragonflies. The trail up to Eagle Cliff is closed from February through July to protect endangered wildlife during nesting.
As this visit draws to a close, I sit still awhile and wait for the shy wood ducks. Grasshoppers snap-snap in the tall weeds. Later, catching my breath after a 40-minute climb to the top of Eagle Cliff, I look down the toe-curling drop to Foss Cove, watch barn swallows harvest insects on the updrafts and gaze across the moiré pattern of current in Rosario Strait.
Though I may have company, for a moment the island is mine.
Migael Scherer is the author of "Sailing to Simplicity: Life Lessons Learned at Sea" and "A Cruising Guide to Puget Sound."