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Up-Close Critters, Faraway Peaks Wow Puget Sound Paddlers

It's indeed a kayaker's paradise, confirms a tourist who explores waters near Washington's San Juan islands

WHOOOOSSSSSHHHH. The sound - which resembled a fountain being turned on full blast - came from about 200 feet away, startling the six of us. Without turning around, we knew instinctively it was the sound of water and steam rising from the spout of a whale.

Instead of paddling away from the noise, we steered our two-person kayaks toward the mammal. The minke whale rose several times from his cold ocean home and dived back in again before disappearing from view.

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A close encounter with whales, though not an everyday occurrence, is something you may experience when kayaking the waters of northern Puget Sound in Washington State.

My husband and I decided to try sea kayaking, one of the fastest-growing sports in the Pacific Northwest, on a recent trip here. We'd taken a ferry from Anacortes, Wash., to Orcas Island, part of an archipelago of more than 700 islands called the San Juans. One of the four major San Juan islands that is serviced by ferries, Orcas is horseshoe-shaped and mountainous with about 3,500 residents.

A number of kayaking outfitters operate on the islands. Guided treks range from morning or afternoon tours that cost about $35 a person to more expensive all-day and overnight adventures. We elected to try a ''sunset cruise'' and another the next morning that our hosts at the Spring Bay Inn, a bed and breakfast, included in the price of lodging.

The great thing about sea kayaking is that just about anyone can participate, our guide, Wayne, told us. We traipsed down a footpath to a small cove where the sleek, colorful kayaks hung upside down on a rack. Indeed, no experience is necessary to take a guided tour.

Before heading out, we donned life jackets and what look like rubber tutus with suspenders. Called skirts, they stretch over the opening where each person sits and fit around it almost as snugly as the cover of a Tupperware container. The skirts help prevent water from dripping on laps and legs.

Unlike canoe paddlers, who kneel or sit on a seat, kayakers sit almost at water level. This positioning, along with the design of the kayak, means it is generally more stable than a canoe. You also have the advantage of feeling as if you're more a part of the marine environment.

And in the San Juans, marine life is everywhere. Gliding close to rocky beaches and forested shores, we saw ducks and other waterfowl bob in and out of the water. Blue herons perched like statues on rocks, and curious seals poked their shiny black heads above the water's calm surface. A jellyfish the size of a basketball floated by our paddles, its yellow middle and translucent body resembling a giant fried egg.

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In the east, the snowcapped peak of Mt. Baker hung on the horizon; to the southwest, the craggy edges of the Olympic Mountain range framed the sky. With such scenery, it is easy to understand why some veteran kayakers call the San Juans a paddling paradise.

* For more information about the San Juan islands, call (360) 468-3663.

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