2010 10 31 Sunday
Halloween and Sunday. What to do? With only three houses occupied on Crane this season, with an average age of 69, we didn’t expect trick-or-treaters so we didn’t have to stay home, and if we did we knew all we would do was work. I suggested a walk around Mountain Lake, in Moran State Park on Orcas, a four mile reasonably flat track partway up 2400′ Mt. Constitution, the highest point in the San Juans, and the same relative height as Green Mountain rising over Boulder, our last home base. Yvonne suggested Turtle Knob, a mile north of Deer Harbor so we’d spend less time driving – 7 minutes versus 35. We had a plan and off we went.
Turtle Knob or Turtle Head is a mostly bare dome that joins Turtleback Mountain on the west side of Orcas Island. Viewed from the southwest, say from San Juan Island, the formation looks a lot like a turtle, with its head to the left. Five years ago the Orcas community bought Turtleback Mountain and made it a preserve. The 1578 acres had been owned by the Medina Foundation and they wanted to turn the asset into cash to fund their good works. The Orcas community feared the mountain would be turned into a subdivision, cut by roads, speckled with mansions, and a Christmas tree at night. It’s said that Norton Clapp, Medina Foundation benefactor, had bought up Turtleback in the first place so he wouldn’t have to look at lights on Turtleback from his house in Deer Harbor.
The Trust for Public Land and the San Juan County Land Bank provided the $17 million needed to buy the mountain. A late summer party we attended in a sheep pasture on Orcas Road drew half the island’s population and raised another $1 million to go towards maintenance. It had been a beautiful day with Turtleback looming just to the west. We wrote a check we couldn’t afford but couldn’t resist.
Turtle Knob had been a nature preserve for some years before Turtleback became one but unlike the adjoining body, there was no public road access to the trailhead. Practically speaking the only way in was to cross Jack Helsell’s property. I had visited him five years before and bought some firewood and he said he had no objection to our walking through provided we stayed on his road going in and then on the trail going up the Knob. His sister had owned the Knob.
We parked in an open area below Helsell’s sawmill and walked up the road along the west side of his horse pasture, two sod roof farm houses across the way. Turtle Knob was visible above the trees straight ahead. On the north side of the pasture, we stopped to admire the six horses grazing not far from the fence. We ambled on through a patch of woods and then a meadow with a seasonal pond and then through more trees to the Turtle Knob trailhead, an old logging road.
The forest here was thick with big western red cedars and almost no Douglas firs. Here and there a four or five foot wide rotting cedar stump, cut years ago, dwarfed the newer two and three foot trees. The trees caught nearly all the direct sunlight so the forest floor, covered in brown flat foliage sprays (cedar leaves) discarded by the cedars, was clear of vegetation, except for an occasional small fern struggling for purchase.
Farther up the track steepened and a treeless moss covered rock outcropping let in light. Higher still the track got steeper still and the cedars gave way to the ubiquitous Douglas fir. Then the old logging road dead-ended to a narrow trail that broke through the trees into the meadow near the top of the Knob. Not so steep now, the trail lead across the Knob, gaining altitude and then entering the rocky area just below the summit.
From the Turtle Knob summit, at 1,050’, we had clear views to the southwest, south, and southeast. The view to the north and east was blocked by trees and Turtleback Mountain. Partly visible through firs on the summit, we could see Waldron Island, a mile and a half northwest across President Channel. It’s home to a few dozen reclusive souls who value being off the grid. The leading edge of the incoming tide was clearly visible on President Channel, almost as deep, below the cliff to the west, as Turtle Knob is high.
Stuart Island with its wonderful trail from Reid Harbor to the Turn Point Lighthouse lay to the west, flanked on the left by Speiden Island, for a while a big game preserve. Clearly visible, the city of Sidney on Vancouver Island, Canada, lay twenty miles to the west.
The Deer Harbor Marina was visible to the south and San Juan Channel behind it silver in the afternoon light. We could see the western end of Crane Island but most of it was hidden by hills on Orcas. Shaw Island lay behind Crane. Barely visible between San Juan Island on the west and Lopez Island on the east, Cattle Pass marked the boundary between San Juan Channel to the north and the Straight of Juan de Fuca, on the south, passage to the Pacific and the rest of the world.
We examined a carved marble plaque, set into the summit, and cracked into three pieces, that commemorates a World War I veteran, whose name is now indecipherable. An eight foot circle of stones with a peace symbol inside lays below the plaque, the north side of the circle now almost invisible. Vole holes dot the summit and their tracks crisscross it. Moss and grass coexist and cover the thin layer of soil among the rocks. Flecks of red, leaves of something like a dandelion, stick up tentatively here and there. A few small yellow daisy shaped flowers hang on. The world on view. Down the mountain to Deer Harbor and across Pole Pass on Deer Harbor Road, lies our community on Crane. Canada is only a short hop away and Japan, China, and Russia just a bit further across the Pacific.
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