Islands are wonderfully limiting. You’re set apart, the surrounding water cutting you off from much of the world, leaving you access only to what’s immediately available. The San Juan Islands are not about roughing it by any means, like a wilderness or far flung uninhabited place. Still, it’s off the beaten track. You can’t come and go as you please without a ferry or private boat. Distances are closer, and there are few places to go.
During our week in the San Juans I didn’t take notes, didn’t journal about my days, wondered only a bit, didn’t write at all. This is unusual for me. If I don’t make notes, it’s often lost, no matter how much I tell myself I’ll remember. But our week one the islands was more of a gestalt, a large moment and place of beauty and equanimity (and yes, privilege), where experiences were not a Thing to be tackled or considered, but more like breathing. I felt awestruck by the beauty and quiet, or maybe it was a word vacation as well as the other kind. But I find myself thinking back, soothing myself with the quiet loveliness, looking at photos and appreciating how different it is to be on an island, and wondering about it a little more after the fact.
This was my first trip to the San Juans, in spite of it being only about 5 hours away. The drive is mostly lovely Washington countryside, riverside, with a fair dose of industry and Seattle traffic. We boarded our first ferry in Mukilteo – notable to me because of the name, which I found myself repeatedly saying to myself, Mukilteo, Mukilteo. Try it.
I’ve been on few ferries, so I was quite excited. The line of cars spilled out onto the road and wound back a ways, but with departures every half hour, it wasn’t a terribly long wait. I excitedly walked out to the pier for my first real view of the Sound and waterfront, talked to a man fishing for crabs. He was a regular, told me he’d caught 16 the weekend before, but only four the previous day. You never know, he said. Sounded magnificent either way, and a hint of the wonders to come.
The ferry ride was nothing less than thrilling. Not realizing there was a passenger compartment above for enclosed viewing, we spent the short ride on the prow with cars lined up behind us, and watched the water, the birds, the passing islands, wind whipping in our face. It felt like a walking on water sort of miracle.
We drove halfway up Whidbey Island to visit friends, and see the stories of their island summer home come to life. I’m intrigued by their life there – walking out the door to catch salmon, sailing on the Sound, exploring nearby islands, learning the daily moods of the water and land, a community of friends you see every year, and always being near water. Their neighborhood is a narrow slip of land between a small marina and the Sound. Jutting up across the water to the west you see the jagged mountains of the Olympic Peninsula. Boating life is a major theme, and folks are focused on tides, fishing, boats, and the care of boats. I’m pretty sure just living on the water would be enough for me.
Walking the residential neighborhood we came upon a family of white deer from the surrounding woods, metal scrap lawn sculpture, nautical decor, Matilija poppies, and beautiful artichoke plants towering overhead in full bloom. No doubt it’s hard to keep up with the harvest when you aren’t a permanent resident. It’s a challenge even when you are! The striking difference between the summer homes and full-time residents was apparent in their gardens; either filled with rocks and perennial greenery, or lush with a variety of plants and exquisite (huge dahlias!) floral displays.
We explored a small portion of the island, driving through Fort Casey where huge cannons once protected the Sound, stopping in Coupeville for our first taste of what would be a seafood-intensive week.
The pier included murals and maps with history and info about the San Juans, and I realized that with so many bays and inlets and sounds, I would never learn the names of every waterway around me, and suddenly had permission to just enjoy all the unnamed things. I never really got my bearings, because after a lifetime of depending on the ocean being pretty much west of wherever I was, water was unexpectedly no longer a landmark. Direction is a mystery when everywhere you look is water.
We walked Double Bluff County Beach, facing a southern bay, which grew more isolated as we walked, just my kind of beach. The cove was strewn with large pieces of driftwood, and creative structures that surely morph over time as people, storms and tides rearrange the architecture. Mussels, cowrie, sand dollars, and clam shells were plentiful, with a thin layer of algae at the tidal edge, looking like packaged seaweed snacks. I’d been looking forward to the familiar briny scent of the sea, but the air was strangely neutral, no salty air, not much smell at all. The still waters added to the mystery, and it all seemed more lake-like than part of the great Pacific Ocean. The lack of familiarity was alternately surprising, inspiring, and unsettling. I was so close to home, but everything felt exotic and foreign as though I was halfway across the world.
Deception Pass is a narrow strait between Whidbey and Fidalgo Islands. It was named in 1792 by Captain Vancouver because, like Rick in Casablanca, he was misinformed. I was reminded of Cape Disappointment, another Washington waterway that confused a late 18th century explorer. Of course the only ones deceived and disappointed were the conquerors, not the people already there. Or perhaps “fake news” has always been with us.
The bridge soars thrillingly high over the water with breathtaking views on either side, boats and beach-goers in the State Park below, glacier-carved cliffs, and views of scattered islands. The underside of the bridge shows the intricate structure of the cantilevered truss bridge that took only a year to build in 1935. It is a delight of long strong lines, and impressive engineering genius. A plaque on the bridge rail honors a fisherman who is now “one with the sea” which I thought maybe I’d like to have for myself instead of my previously requested park bench memorial.
Anacortes is the main jumping off place for ferries to the San Juan Islands. The 75 minute pleasure cruise was impressive, beginning with the system they used to line everyone up and pack all the cars onto the boat – a clearly well-worn time-honored groove making everything move smoothly. One ferry returns and another takes off, going round and round in an eternal system. I breathed in the setting sun, the changing clouds, the variety of passing boats, the water dotted with forested islands large and small, distant shores of agreeable houses perfectly designed for island living, birds working the waters, and a crowd of people embarking on unique adventures.
We settled into a wonderful rental, a second home on an 80 acre waterfront property that included chickens, ducks, rabbits, goats, deer, an apple orchard, and garden. The comfy chairs and wrap around deck overlooking the water was our jumping off spot for our days of exploring, and a sheltering port for lazy hours of reading, playing games, watching the sunset, and some porch yoga and music playing. The trip was planned to escape Oregon summer heat, and the mid-70s weather all week gave us everything we wanted. My analytic brain checked out while my pleasure-seeking brain took over.
Although Orcas is the largest of the San Juans, it’s still limited by surrounding waters, and I hoped to see it all. We headed to Moran State Park several different times, first hiking from Cascade Lake, a popular swimming and boating spot, to Cascade Falls, a secluded flow into a creek surrounded by woods and fallen trees, perfect for climbing (or setting up traps for some of us).
We drove to the top of Mt. Constitution in Moran Park (some people hike it, but…) with panoramic views of Orcas, its lakes, the surrounding islands, the Cascades and Mt. Baker across the water in Washington, and drifting fog combined with haze from fires that seem to have engulfed the entire west coast. It was like a movie I didn’t want to stop watching, and we just hung out and breathed in the view, staring into the middle ground with all it’s earthly magic and beauty. At 2400 feet, this is the second highest island mountain in the lower 48 states. In a serendipitous connect the dots moment I found out that the highest peak is on Santa Cruz Island, near my old home of Santa Barbara.
We climbed Mt. Constitution Tower, a Rapunzel-style medieval watch tower rising up 53 feet. It was built from 1000 tons of native sandstone in 1935 by the CCC, who braved freezing winds with few resources. The architect presciently left a brass plaque hidden in the tower’s woodwork, which wasn’t discovered until a 1970 restoration, saying, “To him who restores, my sincere commendation. On the one who would alter, my eternal damnation!!!” Not sure how that turned out, though the more recent cell antennas did get removed.
When first hearing about the San Juan Islands, my impression was that there were a half dozen islands, but it turns out there are 172, plus a few hundred more unnamed rocks. All of the sounds, straits, channels, inlets and waterways combined are called the Salish Sea, shielded from the effects of the Pacific Ocean by Vancouver Island and the Olympic Peninsula. From the high vantage point, looking in any direction, the water is dotted with land masses of all sizes; a fairy land or sci-fi fantasy or heaven, depending on your mindset.
The centrally placed village of Eastsound has only a few streets, offering a fun bookstore, stuff to buy in plenty, and good food to satisfy our group’s diverse eating needs. The little historical museum adds a bit of depth, and a new appreciation for the challenges of island life in the mid-1800s, and how inventive, hardworking, grim, and resilient the settlers were. More interesting to me are the stories and trials of the Coast Salish natives who lived well on the abundant foods found in the sea, and were mainly summer residents, just like today’s residents.
We walked Crescent Beach where low tide revealed a wall-to-wall carpet of mussel, clam, oyster and other shells, so many that as I strode along I felt like Gimli in the Lord of the Rings movie, walking on skulls, wincing at every step. A couple people in the shallows were working in a long stretch of beds built for harvesting shellfish, and I appreciated their back-breaking work at almost every meal.
We hiked the steep southern approach to Turtleback Mountain for more stunning views, this time from about 1500 feet up, looking east toward Waldron Island, San Juan Island, and Canada beyond. It was worth the climb, though as always, I brought up the rear, and huffed and puffed my way up, stopping occasionally to “look at the views.”
Our third visit to Moran State Park was a swim in Mountain Lake, a gem we’d glimpsed from the mountain. There were few people swimming or boating, so it was quiet. The surrounding sky and forest and the luscious, deliciously cool, clear water, all helped melt away the dust and aches from our travels.
Then another great meal, and suddenly it was all over. As usual after a vacation, I spent the ferry ride back planning my next island trip. Maybe some boating and biking, and taking better notes next time.