hike up Washington's Mount Constitution offers a
gorgeous view of a lake on Orcas Island and the
HARBOR, Wash. — Before bed on the night I arrived in the
San Juan Islands, the island chain that sits as far
northwest as you can go in this country before hitting
Canada, I decided, as any reasonable person would, not to
set an alarm clock.
water. The pines. The floating home I had rented for three
nights. They would conspire to wake me when seeing fit.
The wild, peaceful northwest corner of the United States
would be my alarm clock.
enough, as orange light sliced through the blinds the next
morning, the alarm rang: the squawk of a sea gull perched
just outside my loft bedroom. I peeked through the window,
but it was already gone; instead I saw a hulking
green-and-white ferry streaming slowly away from the
dressed, made a cup of coffee and stepped out into the
marina. The air was impossibly bright and clean, and I
breathed it deeply as I strolled past bobbing boats with
names like Just Right, Sea Hunter and Si Horse. All was
quiet. On the boat next to my floating home sat a woman
with an airy, bronzed hairdo, a quick smile and a raspy
laugh. It turned out to be my landlord.
Beckler was smoking a cigarette and reading a beat-up
paperback as her calico cat, Kismet Ariel Braveheart —
Kizzie for short — sauntered around her feet. Beckler
told me about life on the islands, where people rarely
lock their cars or homes but are diligent about locking
their dumpsters because getting trash to the mainland is
among the steepest expenses of island life.
said that she and her husband, Rick Thompson, sleep on the
houseboat I was renting for much of the year, but when
they find a tenant, they head to a patch of land deep in
the island where they park their camper. The land is so
densely tree filled, she said, you’d never know you’re
on an island or even near water.
like you could be in America," Wendy said.
— this isn’t America?" I asked, because surely it
was. Canada sat a couple of miles across the water.
she said and laughed her raspy laugh. "This is
saw her point. The San Juan Islands don’t quite feel
quite like the America I had left behind on the mainland.
Life moves slowly, and people are friendly in the San
Juans. There are few, if any, chain stores. Most
important, as a visitor, you’re beholden to the ferries.
Nothing happens without them.
to the San Juans most often begins with a slow ride on one
of those ferries, which stream several times a day between
Anacortes, Wash., about 80 miles north of Seattle, and the
islands. This is where the adventure, and foray into the
San Juans’ moody beauty, begins.
misty Wednesday afternoon, while the locals spent the
90-minute ride reading novels or staring into their
laptops, I opted for the bow, to stand beneath a swarm of
greasy gray clouds and watch the endless rock and pine on
either side of the boat. I was soon joined by three young
nurses from North Carolina who were intent on some whale
how blue the water is," one of them said.
not blue — it’s green," said another.
it’s not the brown stuff we got at home," was the
left it there.
San Juans are comprised of 172 named islands, about 30 of
which are inhabited. Four are served by the ferries. I was
headed for the two largest in the chain: Orcas and San
Juan. I would be exploring both, but staying on San Juan
Island, in the town of Friday Harbor (the islands’ major
metropolis with a population of 2,140), for one simple
reason: that floating home.
chain of islands, I wanted to sleep as close to the water
as possible. Online research led me to the two-story
floating cottage tucked into a marina slip. It made for
wonderful place to start and finish the day: the ferries’
echoing horn, the squawking gulls, the harbor’s gentle
rhythm. But days were for exploring.
55 square miles, San Juan Island is small and manageable
but varied and complex. I saw pine forest; lush, rolling
fields that could have fooled me as rural Kentucky; the
windswept grassy plains of American Camp, on the island’s
southern tip; rocky shores; the tony town of Roche Harbor,
where gleaming yachts dock; state and national parks; and
even a lavender farm that blooms bright purple in summer.
There are hiking, biking, kayaking, whale watching (in
season) and quality restaurants to fill the belly. On
clear days, the handsome, solitary, snow-capped Mount
Baker emerges on the mainland to the east. Not bad for 55
next morning began with a similar but different alarm: the
booming drone of a ferry announcing its arrival. After
breakfast, I was back on one of those ferries, headed to
Orcas Island, where a man in a Seattle Mariners sweatshirt
pointed out Mount Rainer, another snowy behemoth, in the
a touch larger than San Juan, also is denser, wilder and
easier to get disoriented on with its twisting roads. I
spent much of the day hiking to the highest point in the
islands, Mount Constitution, which winds through a
wonderful forest of mossy rocks and trees to a 2,400-foot
summit that offers grand views of the islands and, in the
hazy distance, Vancouver.
reward was a stop at the islands’ only brewery, Island
Hoppin’, which was packed with more people in their 20s
than I expected to find on such a quiet island. Then the
crowd headed over to The Lower Tavern, a Friday night hot
spots for its karaoke. A happy crowd took turns at the
microphone with pints of Pabst Blue Ribbon in hand.
woman who had just finished "Proud Mary" took a
seat in my booth, asked where I was from and said Orcas
Island was the place to be that night. I couldn’t argue.
signed up to sing, but the clock was ticking because
getting back to my floating home meant I had to catch the
missed my song but made the boat with minutes to spare.
The ship pulled out and began the slow chug back to San
Juan Island, across miles of water stretched like a
shimmering black canvas. Off on the horizon, a
purple-orange haze glowed — lights, presumably, coming
most common route to the San Juan Islands is driving 80
miles north of Seattle to the car ferry in Anacortes,
Wash. (wsdot.com/ferries). The ferry price for a car and
driver from Anacortes to Friday Harbor starts at $35.15
and to Orcas $29.65. Flights also are available from
Seattle via Kenmore Air (kenmoreair.com).
are a handful of options for floating accommodations in
the San Juan Islands, including Wharfside Bed and
Breakfast (360-378-5661, thewharfside.com) and Rick
Thompson and Wendy Beckler’s floating home
(360-317-5188,tinyurl.com/fridayharborboat), on San Juan
Island. Several companies offer overnight sailing
charters, including Schooner’s North (360-378-2224,
sanjuansailcharter.com) in Friday Harbor and Emerald Isle
(360-376-3472, emeraldislesailing.com) and Kruger Escapes
(360-298-1023,krugerescapes.com) on Orcas Island.