Return to the Islands: An Introduction

Ballard, July 2019

Our return feels different

Something was different this time going to Orcas and Crane Islands: we felt like tourists more than former residents; less connected, with warm memories of course, and dear friends but we were no longer island people. We had become city people.

In February 2014 we had moved from Crane Island, just off Orcas Island at Pole Pass (Deer Harbor area), to Olympia, a small, quality city at the south end of Puget Sound and Washington’s state capital. Olympia became our home base for many long trips around the West in our motorhome, Further.

But we stayed connected to the islands. We visited the San Juans for several days at least once every year, staying with friends. Sometimes we met up with Island friends on the road and some stopped to visit us in Olympia.

Then in March 2019 we moved from Olympia to the Ballard neighborhood in northwest Seattle, a busy, attractive place with lots of marine and Nordic history. We loved Ballard from the first day.

Ballard is an hour closer to Orcas than Olympia, but for us at least, it feels much farther away. It turns out Olympia is a small jump from island life; Ballard is a big one. But we didn’t know that until we rode the ferry and saw our friends in Deer Harbor again.

Orcas Island Ferry

Anacortes is the jumping off point for the San Juan Islands and Sidney, British Columbia on Vancouver Island. The Washington State Ferry serves four of 250 islands in the archipelago: Lopez, Shaw, Orcas, and San Juan. There are seven Orcas ferries a day each way, taking 65 to 80 minutes, many stopping also at Lopez and/or Shaw.

The San Juan Islands
The San Juan Islands

Until a few years ago, the Orcas ferry operated on a first come/first served basis for vehicle traffic and in busy times you might have to wait through several sailings before being waved aboard. If you arrived at the terminal later in the day, you might be stranded until the next morning.

Now it’s possible to make reservations. For instance, 30% of the 2019 summer space became available for booking April 23rd. Another 30% becomes available two weeks before a specific sailing. Two days before a sailing another 30% is released. The remainder, 10% is held for stand-by and emergency use at time of sailing.

If you know when you’re going to travel to the San Juans you can get a confirmed reservation, assuming you act two months before the start of the season or two weeks before a sailing and providing you act promptly on the day the space becomes available to reserve. In a pinch you can always try stand-by though you might have to wait.

Some Orcas Islanders use the ferry daily, some several times a month, and some rarely. When living on Orcas we traveled off-island two or three times a month, usually to go to Costco in Burlington, east of Anacortes on route I-5, or south to Seattle, Olympia, California, New Mexico, or Colorado.

In the sixteen years we had property in the San Juans we rode the ferries hundreds of times. At the beginning, once onboard, we usually took the stairs from the car decks to the passenger decks and often found friends to talk with. Later in our Island life, we’d likely stay in the car and take a nap.

Monday, July 29th

Anacortes Ferry Landing

Traffic was light this particular Monday morning leaving Seattle northbound on I-5; southbound was terrible, backed up for miles in spots. (Then on the way back to Seattle Friday morning, southbound was open but northbound snarled from north of Everett to Seattle. Awful. And unpredictably common.)

Even after driving around downtown Anacortes to see if anything had changed since last September (a quick look said it hadn’t), we arrived at the ferry landing well ahead of departure time. We checked in by last name with the booth attendant (there are four lanes/booths). She had us on her reservation list and we paid $45.05 for a round trip Friday departure single ticket, small car, senior driver, with senior passenger. A five ride commuter card for car and driver costs $157.65.

We moved ahead to the lane director’s booth and he pointed us to 12 for the 12:35 Samish departure. In our lane only a few cars were parked ahead of us. The sky was an intense blue, the air clear, and scraps of fog hovered over the center of Guemes Channel to the west in the direction of Thatcher Pass, where we’d be heading. I was surprised to see it in late July. Though fog can appear any time of year in the Islands, it’s especially common in the fall, beginning in October.

To the northeast, 10,781 ft white-capped Mt. Baker (Kulshan) stood head and shoulders above the Northern Cascades. Mt. Baker is a thermally active volcano like its sister to the south, Mt. St. Helens. That volcano erupted in May 1980, losing at quarter mile of its height, killing 57 people, destroying homes, highways, bridges, and forest and dusting eastern Washington with volcanic ash visible for the next year.

Mt. Baker has a great ski area that averages 53 ft of snow a season and is accessible from Bellingham, home of Western Washington University and where some Orcas folks go to retire a bit more.

It’s a beautiful day, about 70, plenty of time before the Samish leaves. Neither Yvonne nor I had a chance to walk in Ballard this morning, so we head for the Guemes Channel Trail by walking down to the beach, onto the boardwalk, past the pilings that mark where the salmon cannery once stood, and on to the paved trail, a repurposed railroad bed, that heads east along the channel with Guemes Island a mile away across the water.

A big, colorful, placard on the left describes the future of the trail; it will run farther east, all the way to downtown Anacortes, necessarily going around Lovric’s Marina and Shipyard, now the trail’s termination. Lovric’s is notable for the ancient wooden ship turned sideways in the channel that forms the marina’s western seawall. The trail will also head west, eventually all the way to Washington Park (camping, boat launch, and day-use, and a good place to go for a walk if you have lots of waiting time) at the northwest corner of Fidalgo Island, west of the ferry landing.

Great Blue Heron fishing in Guemes Channel
Great Blue Heron fishing in Guemes Channel

A great blue heron stands motionless in the shallow water near the trail. Day-glow orange traffic control standards, some connected by yellow tape, mark places where the trail has eroded, the bank compromised by a February storm. The city is ready to begin repairs but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, with jurisdiction over all shore/marine projects hasn’t yet approved the work

When the wind is really bad and the seas high, the ferries returning from the San Juans sometimes reroute through Peavine Pass, between Orcas/Obstruction and Blakely Islands (instead of Thatcher Pass between Blakely and Decatur), and cross Rosario Straight at the north end of Cypress, taking shelter from the west winds behind the island’s bulk. Then they turn south into Bellingham Channel, approaching Anacortes Landing from the north rather than from the west via Guemes Channel.

Leaving Orcas Landing one very windy day years ago, our ferry took the Bellingham Channel route. It was exciting, with waves coming across the car deck, splashing the leading cars, and with spray reaching the pilot’s window far above. Some of the passengers were worried.

Orcas Preview

We turned around before reaching the fence at Lovric’s and were in our car in 20 minutes eating sandwiches we’d brought from home. Food is available at the landing and on the ferries (sometimes) but it’s limited. We needn’t have rushed; the Samish was late coming back from Orcas and hadn’t yet arrived.

Waiting for the ferry
Waiting for the ferry

Yvonne had picked up an Islands Sounder (, the Orcas newspaper of record, and was telling me about a typical Island story: senior citizens at Mullis Community Senior Center in Friday Harbor had started a near riot because the board discontinued the Pledge of Allegiance and prayer at meals, citing the desires of incoming seniors. Claims of bullying, disruptive seniors, demands for recall of board members, resignations. An Island tempest. The Pledge and prayer have been restored. Hard feelings between younger and older seniors persist.

The ferry loading went smoothly. No drivers crashed through the barrier plunging into 40 ft of water (2018, a fatality). No tourists drove in reverse flying off the car deck into the frigid Salish Sea (2004, rescued).

Once on board the Samish, Yvonne reported on a few more Sounder stories, all familiar even if the content was new. Later I reviewed the Sounder and Orcas Issues (, an online crowdsourced/edited community blog.

The state was negotiating with landowners to encourage them to allow deer hunting on their property (with no natural predators the deer have been destroying not just gardens but food needed by other animals). A deadly rabbit disease was confirmed in the San Juans and was killing non-native European rabbits. Deer and rabbits are significant pests in the Islands so residents don’t regret their demise. The Sounder announced an art contest looking for creative ways to discourage the introduction of invasive plants and animals.

A vigil protested the inhumane treatment of immigrants at ICE detainment centers. A local group was providing financial help to a long-time resident picked up by ICE and facing deportation. The county Democrats were hosting immigration experts to speak. National issues with a local flavor.

The Orcas Chamber Music Festival would start the coming weekend and featured a Met performer, ten concerts and some lectures. Our friends in Deer Harbor would be helping out. The annual fly-in at Orcas Island Airport in Eastsound was scheduled for the same weekend and the volunteer fire department across Mt. Baker Rd would serve a pancake breakfast.

The Orcas Island Library Book Fair, a major fundraiser, would follow the next weekend as well the Doe Bay Fest, another music celebration. The county fair, in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, would begin Monday August 12th. Martin Lund’s Jazz Festival was scheduled for September 1st.

The food addicts were meeting. Representatives from the Grange attended a convention that focused on climate change, dam breaching, and permanent, year-long daylight savings time. The Wooden Boat Society was providing rowboats to try out in Deer Harbor. Camp Orkila was hosting a community zip line day. Orcas center was the scene of an art exhibit.

Fun, lots to do, a rich community life.

The Sheriff’s log had the usual entries: speeding tickets and warnings, failing to stop, accidents, DUIs, defective head and taillights, domestic violence, mooring on public landings, dogs fighting, noise, theft, forgery, stolen vehicle recovery (in Federal Way), a beached, dead seal moving with the tide.

Perhaps the most substantive Orcas issue reported revolved around housing: there isn’t enough low-cost housing for workers serving tourists and residents. Full time rental property is being repurposed as short-term rental property, often owned by absentee landlords.

Real estate is expensive on Orcas and workers can’t afford the rents landlords need to justify the investment. On the other hand, short-term Airbnb and Vrbo rentals to tourists have become desirable investments and some long-term rentals have been turned into short-term. Affordable housing is becoming less available.

Some islanders are bothered by the summer and lengthening tourist invasion that sometimes bolloxes up Eastsound and island roads. Others believe tourism is a necessary and an important fact of economic life. Some see Orcas turning into a Martha’s Vineyard where workers are forced to commute from the mainland. Should public housing be built? Who will pay for it? Should landlords be restricted or taxed? Should tourism be discouraged? Are vacation homes the problem?

It’s tough stuff. The Sounder reported that several hundred people, divided into small facilitated groups, had gathered mid-July in Eastsound, to work on these intractable or at least very difficult problems. We’ve seen plenty of disagreement and sometimes heated discussion on Orcas and in the San Juans, independent people confronting real issues, but most of the time they actually listen to one another respectfully, if grudgingly.

Ferry Ride

Once through Thatcher Pass and while Yvonne read the Sounder, I walked around the Samish observing. People outside on the decks had their phones and cameras out, awed by a landscape they’re never seen before; small islands, rocks really, home to a few trees; big islands, mountains rising out of the sea, covered with fir; gliding sail boats, churning power boats, white and green ferries dotting the water between the islands, each setting its own course; no highway here. Soon I could see the Orcas hamlet of Olga a few miles away to the north, on the east side of the entrance to East Sound, with Mt. Constitution rising 2400 ft above it.

Near the Lopez Ferry Landing, Mt. Baker rising behind the Cascades
Near the Lopez Ferry Landing, Mt. Baker rising behind the Cascades

The Samish would stop twice before arriving at Orcas Landing, first at Lopez Landing and then at Shaw Landing. Fascinated tourists stood at the rail watching the Samish dock at Lopez, the landing attendant lowering the ramp to the car deck so vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians could disembark and others come aboard. Commotion, excitement, promise, adventure, the incredible beauty of a lightly touched natural world.

Docking at Lopez Island
Docking at Lopez Island

When a ferry approaches a dock, the pilot, watching from above, must take into account wind, currents, and tide, different each docking. As the ferry approaches, the landing attendant begins to lower the ramp. Wing walls, a kind of catcher’s mitt, nudges the ferry to the center and stops its forward motion. The landing attendant drops lines, left and right, to the deck crew and they secure the lines to huge cleats on the ferry. The ferry is secure and the landing attendant can now complete lowering the ramp to the car deck. The crew directs passengers to begin to unload.

Sometimes things go wrong. In September 1999, the Elwha ferry rammed the Orcas dock making it impossible for autos to disembark. It took weeks to make repairs. In the interim only passengers, no vehicles, could come and go from Orcas by ferry. Barges were pressed into service to carry supply trucks from the mainland. I had to get to the East Coast and did – first to Lake Union by Kenmore float plane from Deer Harbor and then to SeaTac by van.

Ten years before, the Elwha hung up on a submerged rock at Grindstone Harbor when the captain strayed too close to shore to allow a passenger to see her waterfront house.

While we were cruising to Orcas on the Samish this day, the Elwha was in Ballard, where we’d come from, passing through the Chittenden Locks and the Lake Washington Ship Canal en route to dry dock on Seattle’s Lake Union. We would have loved to have seen it

Return to Deer Harbor

Disembarking the Samish, we stopped briefly at the Orcas Village Store to pick up oven-ready pizza for dinner with our friends and then headed north on Orcas Road in the direction of Eastsound, the primary social and shopping area on the island, at the head of East Sound, a ten mile watery intrusion into the center of Orcas.

Orcas Village Store at the ferry landing
Orcas Village Store at the ferry landing

But we weren’t going that far so we’d miss the Transfer Station (where we trucked our garbage – first ferrying it to Orcas when living on Crane), the Exchange (a re-use center now rebuilt after burning down in 2013), the Grange Hall (home of some Orcas theater productions), the Orcas Island Golf Course, Indralaya (a Theosophical retreat), and other Orcas wonders.

Yvonne reminded me to slow down to the 35 mph island speed limit, the right thing to do, of course, and prudent since, according to the Sounder, it was being aggressively enforced.

A bit over two miles north of the ferry landing we turned left on Deer Harbor Road toward West Sound (the hamlet), at the top of West Sound (the extended bay).

We passed the West Sound Marina (Ian, one of the owners, saved our bacon when the Hugin, our personal inter-island commuter boat, threw a rod), the Orcas Island Yacht Club dock (a new classy and probably expensive metal version), and the West Sound Community Hall (for hamlet social gatherings, Yacht Club meetings, and for years the home of the Orcas Island Unitarian Universalist Fellowship).

It was here ten years before, on Deer Harbor Road in West Sound, we saw a young man in an overcoat walking along the road and wondered whether he might be the Barefoot Bandit, at that time both terrorizing and amusing the island. Probably not.

Even with the FBI assisting and Robert Mueller, FBI chief offering a $10,000 reward, law enforcement couldn’t find the bandit. He continued to break into houses and police cars when they weren’t looking, steal bicycles, boats, and planes, and generally confounded the island for months. Colton Harris-Moore became a folk-hero of a sort and even many of those victimized found themselves smiling through his widely publicized adventures.

At the Crow Valley stop sign we continue straight ahead along the southern base of Turtleback Mountain, following the cliff-hugging narrowing road as it echoes the contours of Massacre Bay, site of an 1858 raid on a local Lummi Indian village by Haida that had come by canoe from Haida Gwaii (Queen Charlotte Islands), north of Vancouver Island.

After a heavy snow one Thanksgiving weekend this stretch of Deer Harbor Road became treacherous and scary. Trees had fallen across parts of it and we felt lucky to get home. Many island pickups carry chainsaws to clear roads blocked by trees knocked over by wind, snow, or fatigue.

One sunny day years back, Yvonne and I walked this section of Deer Harbor Road and didn’t like it at all. It’s too narrow and peppered with blind curves and hills. I can’t imagine riding a bicycle here.

We pass Cormorant Road on the right, with access west to homes along the water that have a view of Waldron and farther away Stuart Island. The Deer Harbor Community Club building comes into view on the left. Built in 1905, it served as Deer Harbor’s two-room school before consolidation and busing to Eastsound.

Deer Harbor historic school and community club building
Deer Harbor historic school and community club building

What? The bell tower is missing, tar paper covering its former seat. Snooping behind the building we see a new pyramidical plywood bell tower roof under construction, evidently to be raised somehow into position eventually. Howard, past president and jack-of-all-trades, is surely involved.

The building and grounds look good, well cared for. The heather Yvonne planted thirteen years ago in back after the kitchen remodeling project was completed is thick and fragrant. Memories crowd around: potlucks, music, fundraising, history exhibits, talent shows, friendships. Our Deer Harbor cohort has done well by this historic building.

The road continues south, up and over a small hill, with the Deer Harbor Inn, restaurant and vacation housing on the left, and a gorgeous view of the Deer Harbor hamlet and harbor below – only now, this summer, the view is gone. Bigleaf maple trees have grown up and across the road in the 22 years since we first came to Deer Harbor and now block the view. Loss of view is endemic on Orcas. If you don’t own the property between you and the object of your view, you’re likely to lose it to growing trees in between. A water view turns into a peekaboo view that turns into no view.

We’re in our old neighborhood

Chris and Lynn have invited us to stay in their guest room, created by Chris when he finished the lower level of their house. As we enter the driveway we see a beautifully tended, fenced garden, in green and flowering profligacy. Familiar white cast iron furniture that once graced our Orcas deck invites lounging. Across the road, the tide is in and the lagoon full. I look for Maggie’s pretty post and beam house on the ridge across the way but in the years since she’s been gone, it’s disappeared among fast growing firs.

After we exchange greetings with our friends and transfer luggage inside, the four of us amble south on Deer Harbor Road to walk and visit. And a good bit of our walk will actually be on the road. Most of Orcas is not pedestrian friendly though the Deer Harbor community has done a lot to provide gravel walkways along the road through the hamlet.

Chris, trained as an engineer, is an avid boater, technology maven, and organizational behavior expert. Lynn, also a boat lover, is an expert quilter, gracious hostess, and excellent cook. Many holiday times the Oregon couple has invited scores into their home to celebrate the winter’s solstice.

Rather than walk by the Deer Harbor Marina, we fork left and up hill to Upper Deer Harbor Road, returning to the main road a few hundred yards south, then past houses of friends, like us, who have left the island and others with health problems struggling to stay.

Lynn and Yvonne talk mostly about family; Chris and I talk about health and technology. Chris, an Applephile, describes in detail how he uses his iPhone and Apple Watch to manage his exercise routine, sleep, and general health.

Like a rural small town, Orcas struggles to provide first class medical care to its small population (5500 full-time). UW Medicine manages Orcas Island Clinic and several additional physicians operate independently but the nearest small hospital is in Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island. Some of our friends travel to Seattle for all their health care, others to Anacortes or Bellingham, but many swear by a favorite local doctor. When living on Orcas and then Crane, we found it easy to get appointments at the Clinic and had no complaints about the service. We got to know the doctors and PAs and saw them in social as well as clinical settings, one advantage of living in a small community.

Orcas has a well-trained, responsive EMT team. Serious cases are sometimes airlifted to Harbor View (Seattle) or St. Joseph (Bellingham). Air evacuation can be expensive but Airlift Northwest’s AirCare provides optional insurance coverage to residents. One morning as I walked south on Deer Harbor toward Pole Pass, right where we were walking now, I came upon an AirLift helicopter squatting on the road, rotors turning slowly, waiting for EMTs to appear with a serious case needing a lift.

At Four Winds Road we considered walking into the Four Winds and Westward Ho summer camps area that front West Sound, but continued instead past the former Carousel Buffalo Ranch (and before that a Kaiser family property).

Passing Cal’s property, I recalled the winter afternoon when Samantha, our black, long-haired, short-legged, Lab-Corgi mix and I observed a raven watching the gold, yellow, rose sunset, floating, almost without moving, 200 feet up, buoyed on the southwest wind. It seemed to have no agenda to go somewhere and do something. It was simply enjoying the beauty of our shared world. I didn’t repeat the story to our friends. Yvonne had heard it too many times.

Crane Island dock
Crane Island dock

Farther on we walked through the parking lot and down to the Crane Island community dock, its counterpart on Crane a half mile west through Pole Pass. We’d made thousands of crossings in our years on Crane, not all without incident. We’d be back to this beautiful spot Wednesday to visit Margaret.

Walking back up Deer Harbor Road, we paused at the marina to look across the road at Worldmark Deer Harbor (a Wyndham timeshare resort – with new construction – why?), Island Pie (a recent restaurant, closed today) and the US Post Office (where we often met neighbors when picking up our mail and frequently hung around to visit. It is now owned by the Deer Harbor Community Club who bought it to preserve a hamlet Post Office presence).

Tuesday July 30

We’re due at Rose’s at 11:30 in Eastsound for lunch with Janice and Gordon but we have time for a walk around Mountain Lake in Moran State Park on the other side of the Island. Our Washington State Discover Pass hasn’t expired. We’re good to go.

Leaving Deer Harbor we retrace yesterday’s route to West Sound but at the stop sign we turn left on Crow Valley Road, heading north along the eastern base of Turtleback Mountain. Crow Valley is one of the most beautiful parts of Orcas, meadows and farmland falling away to the east, Mt. Willard southeast, and Mt. Constitution, a green mass on the horizon.

In the fall bigleaf maples along Crow Valley road turn gold against an evergreen fir and cedar background. Snowberries, visible after the bushes lose their leaves, provide winter food for Island birds. For weeks at a time in the fall and winter, the Crow Valley Road chip seal pavement is glistening and wet, never drying day to day.

Crow Valley School Museum hides in the trees near the Turtleback Mountain North Trailhead. Island Hardware and Supply, where I spent so much time over the years picking up lumber, paint, tools, supplies, and gassing up, lies farther north at West Beach Road, one approach to Orcas Island Pottery. Then on through Eastsound, past Ship Bay and its oyster farm to Olga Road and then south, East Sound waters occasionally visible through the trees on the left.

Cascade Lake beach, in Moran State Park, is crowded this summer morning. We continue south and leave Olga Road at Mt. Constitution Road, the summit route, but soon bear right toward Mountain Lake. Though parked cars along the road suggest no parking available at the lake we find a place easily. Both Mountain Lake and Cascade Lake, really reservoirs, were created more than a century ago to power generators for Robert Moran’s Rosario estate.

Moran, a Seattle Mayor and shipbuilder, in ill health, built the estate to enjoy his remaining years. Told in 1905 he had a year to live, his retreat to Orcas gave him 38. He donated most of his land to Washington and it became a state park in 1921. It’s a great place for hiking, mountain biking in winter, swimming, kayaking, and camping. On clear days at the Mt. Constitution summit, Mt. Rainier, a 100 miles south, is a familiar and ghostly presence on the horizon.

Mountain Lake trail
Mountain Lake trail

Though we saw people near and at the campground, there weren’t many on the trail around the lake. The morning sun filtered through the trees, dappling the fir needle-covered trail with light. Close to shore the lake, marked with long fallen firs, was clear; farther out the quiet surface was green, reflecting Mt. Constitution’s slopes. At about four miles, it’s a great hike, not flat, but only occasionally demanding.

Mountain Lake is a series of photo ops. This day we saw kayakers, canoeists, and paddle boarders on the lake. Sometimes we see swimmers doing long crawls its length. Back home in Ballard a few days later we read that a Mountain Lake paddle boarder was lost and presumed drowned.

Late morning In Eastsound we took a peek at Orcas Island Food Bank where Yvonne had served on the board and then we parked on North Beach Road, across the street from the Historical Museum, band shell, and Village Green Park, site of the Saturday Farmers Market. When Yvonne was part of the Rock on the Rock choir, they sometimes did concerts on the Village Green. Walking to Rose’s Bakery Cafe on Prune Alley, we could see the recent addition to the Public Library on the bluff above, planned when I was on the Board but not completed until 2017.

We didn’t see Janice and Gordon inside Rose’s so we took a table and looked around. It’s a small, popular restaurant with a visible staff of eight (how do they make that work?). Janice and Gordon were currently living near Raleigh but owned a nearly-finished custom home they’d never lived in part way up 1400’ Buck Mountain, just east of town. The mountain offers fabulous views but in the winter storms sometime leave residents snowbound.

Why were they visiting Orcas right now? With the Buck Mountain house nearly done (after fourteen years – it’s a long story), they were thinking of coming back to the island and living in the house, at least part-time. But – Gordon was building a new business in the East and couldn’t leave it. He believes he has a practical answer to at least part of the international affordable housing problem. I asked him lots of questions and he had practical answers. I’m eager to know more. Janice and Yvonne had been confederates in Master Gardeners and the Garden Club. Orcas is a great spot for growing things; Janice wants to come back.

After some quiet time in the afternoon back in Deer Harbor, we were off to Kate and Ken’s for dinner. We drove by the firehouse on the left, then what had been the Inn at Deer Harbor, a lovely B&B, now transformed into a private residence, on the right, Deer Harbor Boat Works on the left (where Michael helped us with our various boats), and then across the new (only a few years old) bridge that crosses the tidal flow between the harbor proper and the slowly silting-up lagoon.

The old bridge had been controversial because of its questionable reliability and the rock dam below that prevented the lagoon from flushing completely each tide. One Deer Harbor dream has been to bring salmon back. A century ago a salmon cannery was perched on pilings near the head of the harbor. Today the Cayou Quay Marina, where we moored our boats, stands in its place.

Channel Road runs almost to Orcas’ west side, unbraiding into four lanes at its terminus. On the way Spring Point Rd. and Crest Drive branch off to the left, both to subdivisions, the first large, with some houses on the water, the second, smaller and at higher altitude.

Our destination was Wood Ranch, home of Kate and Ken and their four mustangs, acquired by auction from federal lands in eastern Oregon. Kate had helped us buy our house in Deer Harbor in 1997 and then helped us sell it in 2006 when we decided to move to nearby Crane Island. We’d been good friends ever since. Ken has done construction and contracting on Orcas, helping us make substantial internal and external improvements to our property.

In the last 22 years the four of us have had many interesting conversations. Kate is a gifted painter and an inspired horse-whisperer/trainer. Ken is a source of informed and interesting ideas on many topics, spiritual and practical. He first brought the idea of sense of place into my thinking and it’s helped me understand our process of feeling at home in the Islands.

This night over salmon and once we’d caught up with the news, the topic was the latest version of the perennial Island quandary: how can Orcas provide both marketable short-term housing for tourists and affordable long-term housing for workers that is attractive to landlords/capital, doesn’t require public investment, and doesn’t spoil what makes the Island so special to visit and reside on? Kate and Ken knew the issues from all sides, as realtors, builders, landlords, and parents with grown children with families needing Island housing.

Oregon Mustang called to dinner
Oregon Mustang called to dinner

We didn’t come up with a solution. The knot of housing issues isn’t new but the recent rise in popularity of Airbnb and Vrbo with both Island tourists and landlords has made finding workable solutions more pressing.

Wednesday July 31

Margaret had invited Lynn and Chris and Yvonne and me for lunch on Crane Island. She’d pick us up at the Orcas-side Crane Island Community Dock at 11:30. She was late, we couldn’t see her boat on the way, and when Tom, with his boat at the dock, offered us a ride over, we took it.

Tom had been talking with Rocky and someone else I didn’t know about the outer portion of the floating dock. It serves as a breakwater and had finally broken after years of storms and big boats ignoring “Slow” channel buoys in the vicinity of Pole Pass. I’d been the Crane Association dock steward for a few years when we lived on the island and I’d supported redoing the dock then but it’s not simple (many governmental approvals required) and it’s very expensive so the path of least resistance is to wait and see.

As we approached Pole Pass, site of some nerve-wracking experiences over the years, Margaret and her boat appeared from behind the Crane-side rock breakwater and came through Pole Pass. Once she saw we were in Tom’s boat she turned around and followed us to the dock. Her run-about must be at least 40 years old but with the outboard and canvas top replaced recently, it remains a good commuting and crabbing boat. A retired Ohio State anthropology professor raised on Mercer Island, Margaret taught Yvonne how to catch and prepare Dungeness crab, plentiful in the islands.

Walking to Margaret’s cabin we passed our former house and felt a sense of loss, not because we no longer lived there but because the new owners clearly had radically different ideas about what made an ideal, waterfront, island house.

We had cleared small trees and bushes so the lot could be more open and sunny. They had densely planted trees and bushes so the house wouldn’t be visible to people walking by on the path. Yvonne had planted annuals and flowering shrubs and tended a raised bed garden of beans, greens, and squash. We put an almost invisible black string mesh fence around the garden to keep the deer out. Now the fence was gone and all the plantings. I cut the grass regularly; now it was unkempt. We wanted the property to look attractive; today it looked abandoned.

Because we’d sold the property we’d given up any say in what it should look like. Of course. But still….

On Crane looking at Bell Island
On Crane looking at Bell Island

Margaret had two new cats, the one we saw pretty and friendly. Her last cat, Mooney, regularly left tufts of white fir around our yard when he and our daughter’s cat Lola tangled.

Margaret reported that incoming Crainians, replacing dead or moving residents, were a delight, generally an improvement to island life and association membership. Our experience had been mixed, with cantankerous, even paranoid residents, coloring our time on the small island.

Approaching Deer Harbor from the south
Approaching Deer Harbor from the south

Rather than ferry the four of us back to the Orcas dock after lunch so we could walk home, Margaret took us to the Deer Harbor Marina, the center of the hamlet, and a mile north of Crane. The marina offers transient and long-term moorage, diesel and gasoline fuel, pump out, a convenience store and deli, a laundry, boat rental, whale watching and charters, and dock space for the small Waldron mail boat-passenger ferry. Across the harbor, Cayou Quay marina, where we kept our boats, provides long term moorage.

Deer Harbor Marina store
Deer Harbor Marina store

After an afternoon quiet time, Yvonne and I drove through Eastsound again, this time to Orcas Highlands, a community on the northeast slope of Mt. Constitution across Olga Rd from Rosario, once the Robert Moran estate and now a resort and spa that has a marina, store, restaurants, and museum.

In 1997 Yvonne and her friend Julie stayed at Rosario on a moms’ weekend away. They’d loved it and Yvonne called me in Boulder from the Orcas Hotel while waiting for the ferry to take them back to Anacortes. She convinced me that we should come to Orcas with our youngest son in August to look at real estate. We did and ended up buying our house in Deer Harbor. We’d been to Rosario many times since and always enjoyed it, for meals, lectures, and being with friends.

Jens was celebrating his 70th birthday and with Susan their 45th anniversary. We were invited and would see other long-time friends. Jens, Chris, David and I had formed a little company years ago to publish value-added electronic versions of literary classics. Jens and Chris had each edited four. I’d done the software and David handled the accounting.

The little business had been a success, sort of. We’d published 21 titles and sold about 6,000 copies – but couldn’t find a way to make a profit. We eventually reduced the price to zero for editors willing to give their books away and gave the source files to the other editors to republish as they saw fit. Last year we “sold” about 9,000 of the remaining titles

Jens, a retired professor, had been doing lectures and classes on Orcas, focusing on the literature of authoritarianism, and found a following. His two sons and families were on Orcas for the party, one a journalist who is doing essays on current presidential candidates. He was discouraged.

I had a chance to talk to Andrea, a local protest artist, and member of our UU Fellowship, library booster, and fellow student in Richard’s well-attended literature classes. Mutual friend Ruthie was in San Jose, now suffering from dementia, in assisted-living, and watched over by one of her sons. Ruthie, Richard, Ken, and I had spent a summer as a little book group, discussing Goethe and Mann in the shade on front porch of our Deer Harbor house, hummingbirds flitting among the flowers, an occasional passing car crunching gravel on the road below our boathouse. A halcyon time.

Jay couldn’t make it but Yvonne and I each talked to Julia about their recent cruise north to Desolation Sound, a place we much enjoyed in 2004, and their plans for Europe. Gordon and Sylvia were back from Germany and taking care of a two of their grandchildren. Jim and Sarah had just said goodbye to their kids visiting from Holland with their families.

Thursday August 1st

Chris and Lynn were hosting a neighborhood potluck that evening and we’d attend. With a free morning, Yvonne and I decided to hike/climb Turtlehead/Orcas Knob. At 1519’ Turtleback Mountain is the defining feature of the western leg of Orcas Island. Rather than have the mountain developed as a resort, the community raised $18.5 million in 2006 to buy the 1,578 acres and make it a preserve.

It’s a turtle’s back because the mountain has an adjacent head (or knob). The knob, 500’ lower, became a preserve years earlier as a separate parcel and can now be accessed from Turtleback Preserve by the North Trail, the closest trailhead, on the east side of Turtleback at the Crow Valley School.

We’ve climbed Turtlehead many times but never via the Turtleback trail. We’ve always come up from the very steep south side through private property we’ve gotten permission to cross. Turtlehead is especially satisfying because views to the northwest, west, south, and southeast are uncommonly unimpeded by trees.

Once we reached the steep part of the abandoned logging road, fallen trees created a bit of a problem. Even with the hiking poles we’d borrowed from Chris and Lynn we struggled to get our trailing legs over the massive cedar trunks. Farther on as we labored up the steepest slope before the summit I started to think about what would happen if I lost my footing.

Even with a hazy, overcast sky, it was a pleasure to be on the summit. Below on President Channel, two power boats raced each other southeast. Fast to them, slow to us. Noisy to them, quiet to us. We could see Point Disney to the north on Waldron, across the channel. It was Disney, I’d heard, because with imagination one could see those characters in the cliff face.

A bit to the west and much farther away, Salt Spring Island was visible, one of the Canadian Gulf Islands. The Gulf Islands are part of the same archipelago as the San Juans. If Kaiser Wilhelm, mediating the U.S., British dispute that caused the Pig War had decided that Rosario rather than Harro Straight was the international boundary, the San Juans would be in Canada.

Speiden center behind Flattop, Johns, then Stuart to the right
Speiden center behind Flattop, Johns, then Stuart to the right

To the northwest we could see Johns, Stuart, and Speiden Islands, the northwest boundary of the San Juans. Reid Harbor on Stuart was the site of our first major boating debacle, the adventure of the dragging anchor. The Turn Point Lighthouse sits at the north tip of Stuart and is accessible by trail from Reid Harbor. It’s Turn Point because the international boundary forms a right angle there where Harro Straight and Boundary Pass meet. It’s a great pleasure to dawdle at the point in the mild summer sun watching ocean-going ships coming and going from Vancouver navigate the turn.

Deer Harbor from Turtlehead, San Juan Island in the background
Deer Harbor from Turtlehead, San Juan Island in the background

Below Turtlehead green forest and small ponds stretch away to the west end of Orcas. In the background we could see San Juan Island and the entrance to Roche Harbor. To the southwest, Deer Harbor and its two marinas were tiny and insignificant. Below and to the south the mouth of West Sound bumped against the bulk of Shaw Island.

Though Yvonne had no trouble with the descent I moved very slowly, aware of the slippery dried grass, gravel, and rock under my feet. Maybe I won’t be able to climb Turtlehead this route again. Yvonne and I both took naps before dinner.

Talking about Scotland and Norway
Talking about Scotland and Norway

Chris and Lynn plan to be in Norway and Scotland in the fall so we related what we’d enjoyed about Edinburgh (Fringe Festival) and the Kilmartin Valley (neolithic sites). We talked about how expensive Norway has become, the drama of the Vigeland Sculpture Park, the Viking Ship Museum, Norse Folk Museum, the Fram Museum, and the National Museum.

Karen and Clay (retired from Berkeley) walked down from farther up the road and Don and Deb (retired from San Diego) walked up from our old property. Bob and Sue (from Seattle Eastside with roots in Colorado) drove up from the marina area. Everyone brought a dinner contribution. Out on the deck in the early evening sunshine it was a bit hot, with just a little breeze coming from the lagoon, filled by the afternoon tide.

Don had done a number of improvements to our old house, now installing a shower upstairs, replacing the tub they didn’t use. They both love the house and we’re pleased. Don has become a ceramic artist and Deb can now pursue her watercolor passion full time in the studio Ken helped us create years ago from what had been a slowly collapsing garage.

Karen and Clay also do painting, and photography as well, they’re having their kitchen remodeled, and sometime travel with their Airstream trailer. Bob and Sue have been in Deer Harbor the longest and spent many summers serving at Malibu Club, a Young Life camping property at the mouth of the Princess Louisa fjord in British Columbia, and skiing at Vail in the winter.

Don and Deb were the newest to the community. How did he like living in Deer Harbor? “I love it.” He was living a life of continuous learning, trying things he’d thought about but never had a chance to do.

I told him we’d been attracted to Deer Harbor because of its beauty but once we’d spent some time it was the people, the community, that we especially prized. Deer Harbor had come to feel like home as nothing else since I’d left for college at eighteen. As a child I’d known everyone in every house and everyone knew me. So it was in Deer Harbor.

Sue, has a knack for keeping track of everyone and everything in Deer Harbor. She didn’t wait long to ask the question that had been bugging her: “Whyever did you move to Seattle? I can’t imagine.” I replied that it wasn’t Seattle exactly, it was Ballard. It wasn’t noisy where we lived but we were close to all kinds of cultural opportunities. It was a great place to walk and we were doing a lot. Etc.

Sue wasn’t buying it. It might make sense to move to the mainland, to America as the Islanders say, but not to dirty Seattle, with its terrible traffic, legions of homeless, and sky high real estate. I gave up trying to explain. We’re all different. Our Boulder friends thought we were a bit flighty when we left after 25 years. We do seek novelty, but we think on average only about every seven years. We’ve heard a lot about “aging-in-place” but that idea doesn’t suit us.

Everyone knows everyone
Everyone knows everyone

Don was now the homeowner’s association water manager. How was that going? Last summer the community well water level had dropped to 4’; it was nearly sucking air. When we lived in the neighborhood everyone paid a small fixed annual fee for water – no matter how much they used. Some members were careful, using 50 gallons a day. Others were profligate, using 20 times that or more per day. Given the sensitivity of the well to salt water intrusion and other problems, it made sense to impose a charge for usage over some reasonable household limit.

Chris and Don had convinced the association to charge for excess usage and bills would go out soon. How would members react to a $3000 bill when they’d paid nothing before?

As twilight descended from the ridge across the lagoon, six of us walked up the gravel road to Karen and Clay’s to see what they were doing with their kitchen remodel and house generally. New decking was going down outside their studio replacing “immature” redwood that had failed prematurely. Island climate is very hard on wood decking. Clay pointed to a dead white fir next to the driveway and blamed its demise on climate change.

Friday August 2nd

We left for the Anacortes ferry before 8:00 the next morning. We had a return reservation so we didn’t have to worry about a ferry spot but we wanted to get breakfast before boarding. Once parked in lane 1 we walked downhill passed the Orcas Hotel to the Orcas Village Store.

Orcas Hotel
Orcas Hotel

We noticed that the events tent usually standing next to the hotel in the summer was folded, lying on the ground. No weddings coming up soon perhaps. In 2010, Kelly and Tim, sometime Crane visitors and good friends, decided to marry and celebrate their wedding at the hotel and asked me to officiate. I did, with pleasure.

Yvonne queued the wedding party, managing their entrances to the ceremony. Participants came from all over the U.S. and some from Australia as well. It was a wonderful time for all of us at the Orcas Hotel – and for the groom’s friends and family in Australia watching via a realtime internet feed.

That weekend we housed a dozen guests on Crane and hosted a bridal shower the day before the wedding. Our septic system was overwhelmed. Blockage at the entrance to the tank caused sewage to back up into the house bathtubs and showers. I found myself hanging down into the tank with a hose, spraying the clog to shake it loose. It worked but oh my….

We’d come out to Orcas on the Samish; we returned on the Yakima, a fairly recently remodeled boat. A large, colorful mat on the passenger deck put there by Rock Island, a countywide ISP, welcomed passengers home, pointing out they had made fast fiber-optic broadband as well as reliable cell coverage (working with T-Mobile) available in the San Juans. One of the problems with Island life had been slow internet and spotty cell coverage. OPALCO, the county, user-owned power utility, had decided to become a county internet utility via Rock Island and telephone facilitator with T-Mobile after Century Link remained inadequately responsive to improving its service for years.

Approaching the Anacortes Ferry Landing
Approaching the Anacortes Ferry Landing

We’d had a wonderful time on Orcas and Crane, seeing friends, sharing meals, catching up, getting out on the water, hiking, remembering, discussing issues. But the visit was different than others we’d made over the last five years. We felt more like visitors and less like former residents. What had changed? What was different this time?

Perhaps it was because instead of living in Olympia part-time and cruising the West in our land yacht part-time, we were living in Ballard, a city of 25,000 within the city of Seattle. We found it friendly and stimulating, our daily lives so full of new experiences we often needed naps to cope. The hold of idyllic memories was being challenged by a cultural richness neither of us had experienced before.

We’re not so young but our lives are again, as they’d been in our youths and as they’d been when moving to Orcas. We aren’t at the end, looking back on the good old days, but at a new beginning, eager for tomorrow, next week, and whatever we can manage until we can’t.

© 2019 – 2021, johnashenhurst. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “Return to the Islands: An Introduction”

  1. Intriguing description of Island Time, raising questions about choices in life, sense of place, and, the joy of friendship no matter where you live. Thank you, John, for stirring brain cells!

    • Lynn, you’re welcome. We love the islands and our friends abiding there. And now we find we love the stimulation of the city too. Feeling pretty lucky.

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