Ballard, July 2019
Our return feels different
Something felt different this time coming 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, to Olympia, a small, quality city at the southern 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 many 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 islands in the archipelago: Lopez, Shaw, Orcas, and San Juan Islands. There are seven Orcas ferries a day each way, taking 65 to 80 minutes, many stoping also at Lopez and/or Shaw.
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.
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, providing you act promptly on the day the space become 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. 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 seating and often found friends to talk with. Later in our Islands 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 were four lanes/booths). She had us on her reservation list and we paid (under 22ft/senior: $49.60 plus senior passenger: $6.85) $56.45. (BTW, a five ride commuter card for car and driver costs $157.65.)
We stopped at the traffic director’s booth for instructions and he pointed us to lane 12 for the 12:35 Samish departure. Only a few cars were parked ahead of us. The sky was an intense blue, the air clear, and a bit 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, Mt Baker (Kulshan), at 10,781 ft, was still mostly white, dappled with glaciers, standing 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 elevation, killing 57 people, destroying homes, highways, bridges, and forest and dusting the northwest with volcanic ash visible for the next year.
Mt Baker has a great ski area that averages 53 ft of snow a season, accessible from Bellingham, home of Western Washington University and where some Orcas folks go to retire at 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 Guemus Channel Trail by walking down to the beach, onto the boardwalk, passed 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 Guemus 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.
A great blue heron stands motionless in the shallow water below the bank. Day-glow orange traffic control cones, 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 (instead of Thatcher Pass between Blakely and Decatur) cross Rosario Straight to the north end of Cypress, taking shelter from the west winds behind the islands bulk. Then they turn south into Bellingham Channel, approaching Anacortes Landing from the north rather than from the west via Guemus 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, covering the leading cars, and with spray reaching the pilot’s window far above. Some of the passengers were worried.
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.
Yvonne had picked up an Islands Sounder (islandssounder.com), the Orcas newspaper of record, and was telling me about an inside story that was funny, ludicrous, and typically Island: residents at a senior residence had started a riot because management wanted to discontinue prayers and the Pledge of Allegiance at meals. Claims of bullying, disruptive seniors, demands for recall of committee members, resignations. An Island tempest.
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 (orcasissues.com), an online crowdsourced/edited community blog.
The state was negotiating with landowners to allow deer hunting on their property (with no natural predators the cute 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 treated 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, 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 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 having a community zip line day. Orcas center was hosting 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 being reported revolved around housing: there isn’t enough low cost housing for workers serving tourists and residents. What was 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 tourist has become a good investment and some long term rentals have been turned into short term. Affordable housing is becoming less available.
Some islanders are bothered by the 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.
Once through Thatcher Pass and while Yvonne read the Sounder, I walked around the Salish observing. People outside on the decks had their phones and cameras out, awed by a kind of 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 dotted 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.
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 ferry attendants lowering a ramp to the car deck so vehicles, bicyclists, and pedestrians could disembark and others come aboard to take their place. Commotion, excitement, promise, adventure, the incredible beauty of the only partially spoiled natural world.
When a ferry approaches a dock, the pilot, watching from above, must take into account wind, currents, tide, and loading, different each docking. As the ferry approaches, the attendant on the ramp begins to lower the ramp to just above where the ferry car deck will be. Wing walls, a kind of catcher’s mitt, nudges the ferry to the center, and stops its forward motion. The ramp attendant drops lines, left and right, to the deck crew and they secure the lines to huge cleats. The ferry is secure and the ramp attendant can now complete lowering the ramp to the 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 or passenger 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 was able to get to SeaTac by van from Lake Union after a Kenmore float plane flew me there from Deer Harbor.
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 Ship Canal en route to dry dock on 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 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.
But we weren’t going that far so we’d miss the transfer station (where we trucked our garbage), the Exchange (a re-use center now rebuilt after burning down in 2013), the Grange Hall (home of some Orcas theater), 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, now 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 saved our bacon when the Huginn threw a rod) then 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 was the Barefoot Bandit, at that time 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 him. He continued to break into houses, 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 adventure.
But we were going to Deer Harbor and so continued straight ahead along the southern base of Turtleback, then veering right as the cliff-hugging narrowing road and guard rail followed the contours of Massacre Bay, site of an 1858 raid on a local Lummi Indian village by a group come hundreds of miles south from British Columbia.
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 from standing up for so long.
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, you can’t get off the road because of the cliff going up on one side and the cliff going down to the water on the other. Because the road curves and rises and falls there are plenty of blind curves and stretches. I can’t imagine riding a bicycle here.
We pass Cormorant Road on the right, with access west to homes along the water with 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.
What? The bell tower is missing, tar paper covering its former foundation. Snooping behind the building we see a new pyramidical plywood bell tower roof under construction, evidently to be raised somehow into position eventually.
The building and grounds look good. The heather Yvonne planted thirteen years ago after the kitchen remodeling project is thick and fragrant. Memories crowd around: potlucks, music, fundraising, history exhibits, talent shows, friendships.
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. 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 across the island. If you don’t own the property between you and the object of your view, you’re likely to lose it to Douglas fir growth 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. White cast iron furniture that once graced our deck is available for lounging. The tide is in and the tidal lagoon is 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 in the sky-reaching trees.
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. Many areas on Orcas are not pedestrian friendly. It’s a worry for walkers and drivers.
Rather than walk by the Deer Harbor Marina at this point, we fork left and up hill to Upper Deer Harbor Road, returning to the main road a few hundred yards south, passing houses of friends that have left 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 Appliphile, describes in detail how he was 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 (5000 full-time). UW Medicine manages a 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 and the care excellent. 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 responsive EMT team connected to the volunteer fire department. Serious cases are sometimes airlifted to Harbor View (Seattle) or St Joseph (Bellingham). Air evacuation can be expensive but Airlift Northwest’s AirCare provides insurance coverage. One morning as I walked south on Deer Harbor toward Pole Pass, right where we walked now, I came upon an AirLift helicopter, 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 that front West Sound, but continued instead past what used to be the Carousel Buffalo Ranch (and before that a Kaiser family property).
At Cal’s property, I stopped to silently recall the winter afternoon when Sadie, 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 had no purpose, no agenda to go somewhere and do something. It was outside time simply enjoying the beauty of our shared world. I didn’t repeat the story to our friends. Yvonne had heard it too many times.
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 meet Margaret.
At Deer Harbor Marina, we paused 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).
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, instead of proceeding straight, 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 farm land falling away to the east, Mt Willard southeast, and Mt Constitution, a green mass on the horizon.
In the fall large leaf maples along Crow Valley road turn gold while the firs and fields remain green. Snowberries, evident after the bushes lose their leaves, provide back up food supply for Island birds. For weeks at a time in the fall and winter, the road surface here can be 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 sometimes visible through the trees on the left.
Moran State Park is crowded at Cascade Lake beach. We leave Olga Road at Mt Constitution Road, the easiest way to the summit, and soon bear right for Mountain Lake and though parked cars along the road suggest no spots available at the lake we find a place easily. Both Mountain Lake and Cascade Lake were developed as reservoirs for the Robert Moran Rosario property to drive its electrical generator.
Moran, a Seattle Mayor and shipbuilder, in ill health, built the estate to enjoy his remaining years. Told in 1905 that 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.
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 mostly not 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. Back home in Ballard a few days later we read that a Mountain Lake paddle boader was lost and presumed drowned.
In Eastsound we took a peek Orcas Island Food Bank where Yvonne had served on the board and then 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, 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 had 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 it, a 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 what came into view looks promising. 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 its reliability was questioned and a rock dam underneath prevented the lagoon from flushing. 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 west almost to the water, splitting into four tributaries near the end. 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 the 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 had done construction and contracting on Orcas, helping us make substantial internal and external improvements to our property.
In the last 22 years we’ve had many interesting conversations with the couple. Kate is a gifted painter and horse 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, 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 housing.
We didn’t come up with a solution. The complex 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 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 encouraged redoing the dock but it’s not so simple and it’s very expensive so the tendency 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 Mercer Island, Margaret taught Yvonne how to crab.
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 house to keep the deer out. 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.
Of course because we’d sold the property we’d given up any authority to say what it looked like. Of course. But still….
Margaret had a new cat, pretty and friendly. Her last cat, Mooney, left tufts of white fir around our yard when our daughter’s cat Lola lived with us for a year and frequently got into fights with boundary breaking Mooney.
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 experience and pleasure.
Rather than ferry the four of us back to the Orcas Crane dock, Margaret took us to the Deer Harbor Marina, the center of the hamlet. The marina offers transient and long term moorage, diesel and gasoline fuel, pump out, a convenience store and deli, a laundry, boat rental, whale watch and charters, and dock space for the small Waldron mail boat and passenger ferry. Across the harbor, Cayou Quay marina, where we kept our boats, provides only long term moorage.
After some 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, with 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 at the end of the summer 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 classics. Jens and Chris had each edited four. I’d done the software and David handled the accounting.
The little business had been a great success. We’d published 21 ebooks and sold maybe 6,000 copies – but couldn’t find a way to make a profit. We eventually reduced the price to zero for editors comfortable with that alternative and withdrew the other books, sending the editors their book files so they could republish if they chose to.
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 could only offer that we really don’t know where things are heading and I chose to be optimistic.
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 card 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 plans for Europe. Gordon and Sylvia were back from Germany and taking care of a few of their grandchildren. Jim and Sarah had just said goodbye to their kids visiting from Holland with family.
Thursday August 1st
Chris and Lynn were hosting a neighborhood potluck that evening. With a free morning, Yvonne and I decided to hike/climb Turtle Head/Orcas Knob. Turtleback Mountain at 1519’ is the defining feature of the western leg of Orcas Island. Owned by the Weyerhaeuser family and then an associated foundation, the people of Orcas Island raised the money to buy the 1,500 acres and make it a preserve.
It’s a turtle’s back because the mountain has an adjacent head (or knob). The knob became a preserve years earlier as a separate parcel and can 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 Turtleback trails. 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 you could see 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 have be in Canada.
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 lies 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 between Harro Straight and Boundary Pass. One of the pleasures on sitting on the grass at the lighthouse is watching ships coming and going from Vancouver navigate the turn.
Below Turtlehead, green forest and small ponds stretched 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 looked small in the scheme of things. Below and to the south West Sound seemed to run top against the bulk of Shaw Island.
Climbing Turtlehead was a safety more than strength challenge. Though Yvonne had no trouble with the descent I moved very slowly, very aware of the slippery dried grass or gravel under my feet or rough rock faces I didn’t trust my sandals to stick to. Maybe I won’t be able to climb Turtlehead this way again. Yvonne and I both took naps before dinner.
Chris and Lynn planned to be in Norway and Scotland in the fall so we told them about what we’d enjoyed about Edinburgh, where they’d be and the Kilmartin Valley, with its many 5000 year old neolithic sites, they might chose to visit. 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 Berkley) walked down from farther up the road and Don and Deb (retired from San Diego) from our old property. Bob and Sue (from Seattle Eastside) 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 a done a number of improvements to our old house, now installing a shower upstairs, replacing the tub they didn’t find useful. They both love the house and we’re pleased. Don has become a ceramic artist and Deb can now pursue her watercolor full time in the studio Ken helped us create from the garage.
Karen and Clay also do painting, and also photography, are having their kitchen remodeled, and sometimes 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.
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 that let him learn continuously and try 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 loved. After we had lived in Deer Harbor for a while, I realized that I felt at home in a way I hadn’t since going away to college. As a child in that Chicago suburb, I knew who lived in every house and everyone knew me. That hadn’t happened since until Deer Harbor and Crane Island. What a gift!
Sue, one of three women we know, have 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: “Why ever 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 I was doing a lot.
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. Yvonne and I were having great time in the city and were happy to be renting so someone else took care of everything and we could move somewhere else easily if we choose to.
Don was now their association’s water manager. How was it going? Last summer the community well water level had gotten down 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 gallon a day. Others were profligate, using 10 times or more per day. Giving the sensitivity of the well to salt water intrusion and other problems, it made sense to at least 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 use 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 a.m. the next morning. We had a return reservation so we didn’t have to worry about a spot but we wanted to get breakfast before boarding. Once parked in lane 1 we walked down passed the Orcas Hotel to the Orcas Village Store.
We noticed that the events tent next to the Hotel wasn’t standing in the yard next to the hotel but folded, lying on the ground. No weddings coming up soon perhaps. In 2009, a young couple who had visited us a number of times on Crane decided to marry and celebrate at the hotel and asked me to officiate. I did, with pleasure. Yvonne helped manage the movement of the wedding party during 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 hotel – and for friends and family in Australia watching via realtime feed.
That weekend we housed a dozen guests at our house on Crane as well as hosting a bachelorette party the day before the wedding. The 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 Salish; we returned on the Yakima, a fairly recently remodeled boat. A large, colorful mat on the passenger deck put there by Rock Island, countywide ISP, welcomed me home, pointing out they had made fast fiber-optic broadband available as well as reliable cell coverage (working with T-Mobile) in the San Juans. One of the problems with Island life hand been slow internet and spotty cell coverage. OPALCO, the county, user-owned electricity utility, had also become the county internet and telephone utility after Century Link remained inadequately responsive to improving its service for years.
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 170,000 within the city of Seattle, finding it friendly and stimulating, our daily lives so full of new experiences we often needed naps to cope, that the hold of idyllic memories were being displaced by a richness neither of us had ever experienced before – except perhaps when traveling. 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 weren’t at the end, looking back on the good old days, but at a new beginning, eager for tomorrow, next week, and whatever we could manage until we clouldn’t.
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