The Emerald Isle ~ Orcas Island, WA

Commonly called the Emerald Isle, with its lush forested hillsides, Orcas Island is the largest of the San Juan Islands.   Looking like two saddlebags or some might say a horseshoe, with the most populated village of Eastsound connecting the two, it has the largest mountain in the islands, rugged coastline, and rural countryside.  Old apple orchards and remnants of turn-of-the-century prune-drying barns could be seen as we wound our way around the island.

Biking is said to be a big sport with locals and tourists alike, but its steep hills and winding roads did not call out to us.  We much preferred the rolling hills on Lopez Island for our two-wheeled adventures.

If you were looking to take to the trails, this would be the island for you.  These hikes may not be of the same caliber as those we enjoy in the national parks and other well-known western trails, but a girl can only be without her hiking boots for so long.  We had read that Turtleback Mountain Preserve near Deer Harbor offered some nice trails so we decided to investigate.  The lovely 3-mile Turtleback Mountain south hike didn’t necessarily take our breath away with only an 830’ elevation gain, but the views from the lookout most certainly did.

And of course, after a hike it is important to replenish fluids, right? 😉  How could we turn down the opportunity to taste test a flight of craft beer from the only brewery on the island – Island Hoppin’ Brewery?  It seemed many others felt the same way, as it was rockin’ when we arrived.  Our favorite, no surprise, was the Oatmeal Stout.

The highest point on Orcas, at 2409’, Mt. Constitution, can also be hiked and is where you will find the tower.  Climb to the top and you are looking out over island-studded waters and snow-capped Mt. Baker, provided the stars are aligned and you are blessed with clear views  We had neither a clear day nor anyone manning the Learning Center, but luckily we had seen some beautiful images atop Mt. Constitution already, thanks to Nina of Wheelingit.

We were nearby the historic Rosario Resort, and thanks to a friend’s recommendation, we decided to tour the property. Shipbuilder Robert Moran, who held a deep respect for nature, hand craftsmanship and the arts, constructed this striking resort.  His meticulous eye could be seen throughout as we walked the resort and grounds. A presentation of the history of this unique building, via film and music, rounded out our time there.

Eastsound, one of a few of the little villages dotting the island, was a great place to grab a meal and wander the shops.  We enjoyed a great farm-to-table salmon salad at an Asian café, The Kitchen.

Like other islands in the San Juans, the arts play a big role in the culture of this island as well, with local artists’ work featured in many of the shops and galleries.  If you enjoy pottery, a visit to Orcas Island Pottery should be on your list.  For more than 60 years it has been a destination for those visiting the San Juans, being the oldest pottery studio in the Northwest.  Just a few miles from Eastsound this quaint cottage studio is tucked into a forest of old-growth cedar and Douglas fir, overlooking the President’s Channel.  The cottage, outbuildings, and the yards are filled with colorful, creatively designed pottery in all shapes and sizes.  And a grey whale graced us with an appearance in the channel off the back of the property.

Confined by the ferry schedule, we had to leave exploration of the south end of the island for another visit.  I am confident that will happen. 🙂

Ferry leaving Orcas Island
Ferry leaving Orcas Island

It All Began With a Pig ~ San Juan Island, WA

San Juan Island, second largest in the San Juan Island Archipelago, is the most populated of all the islands.  At high tide over 400 islands and rocks dot these waters, 128 of which are named.  San Juan Island is one of four accessible by ferry.

One wouldn’t know it now, but this quiet little island was once on the brink of an international conflict between two world super powers, the British and the U.S.

The Pig War, a confrontation in 1859, spurred by the shooting of a pig, escalated to a boundary dispute between these two countries, both claiming rights to the island. Luckily no blood was shed.  Well, not exactly true…there was the pig.  Today remnants of both the American and British camps are available for touring.

Homesteaders moved in after this conflict, taking to the sea.  Salmon fishing and harvesting clams and oysters was big business until the 20th century when the island vibe shifted to a gentler pace, focusing on nature and wildlife.  Today the island draws those seeking outdoor adventures, kayaking, fishing, whale watching, and boating.

As the ferry docked at Friday Harbor, a vibrant seaport lay before us, filled with boutique shops, cafes, museums, and galleries, many honoring the natives, first inhabitants of the island.  It is a town devoted to art, with festivals scattered throughout the year showcasing the unique talents of the local artists.

We made Demeter Bakery our first stop for great coffee and delicious pastry and when hunger pangs announced lunchtime, we headed to Market Chef for a yummy sandwich and salad.

A few of our favorite stops were the Arctic Raven Gallery, featuring intricate Indian carvings and colorful Arctic and coastal native art, wonderful little Griffin Bay Bookstore, and the San Juan Islands Museum of Art, where we were treated to a rare glimpse of Susan Middleton’s fascinating exhibit, Spineless: Portraits of Marine Invertebrates, the Backbone of Life, and a unique installation called Liminal Currents.

As we lie on the floor, looking up at the swaying branches we experienced the dancing underwater world as perceived by an animal such as the orca, who uses sound to understand spatial relationships within its environment.  Orca generated sounds, from the residents pods in the San Juans, have been added to enhance the experience.

I spent a few moments writing an intention, which I tied with ribbon to part of the linear sculpture.  At the wrap-up of the exhibit, the contents, branches, and messages will be gathered and burned, “transforming the scribed energy into light”.

As we moved beyond Friday Harbor, a diverse landscape opened before us – pastoral farmland, driftwood-strewn beaches, and bluffs overlooking island-dotted shimmering water.

The hike up Mt. Finlayson, a lovely walk through Douglas fir and red-barked madrona trees, provided us a birds-eye view of Cattle Point Lighthouse from the top.

Lime Kiln Point, a day use park, is considered one of the première places in the world to view whales from land.  Orcas are often spotted here but on our visit, gulls, terns, and an occasional oystercatcher were the only wildlife.  This is where the little sentinel Lime Kiln Lighthouse stands watch, a navigational aid still today for ships traversing Haro Strait.

We passed on a whale-watching trip while in Port Townsend, joining Laurel and Eric (Raven & Chickadee) instead on a tour booked through Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching, where we grabbed the last remaining seats.  Caption Jim uses a smaller boat for a more intimate experience, sprinkling in some history of the area as well.  We had heard that it was the best tour around, and being two of only seven on the boat, we had to admit it was pretty special.

Captain Jim & some of his crew
Captain Jim & some of his crew

A quick stop to Roche Harbor, a charming marina harboring some of the most beautiful yachts in the world, and we took to sea in search of orca.

Before long a resident pod sighting was confirmed in an area they are seldom found, off the shore of Spencer Spit State Park, right where we are volunteering.  It seems we needed to board a ferry to San Juan, hop on a whale-watching boat, and return back to the very spit we have walked most days since arriving on Lopez, just to see these beautiful creatures. Go figure!

(Not very clear shots but gives a perspective of how close these amazing creatures were to the spit.)

For their safety, we had to stay within 200 yards of the orcas, so my camera could not do these beauties justice.  Captain Jim graciously allowed me to share some of his stunning photos.

The above images are photo courtesy of Captain Jim of Maya’s Legacy Whale Watching.  If you plan a whale-watching trip on San Juan Island, we highly recommend this tour company for a more intimate experience. You won’t be disappointed. 🙂

A visit to the Sculpture Garden near Roche Harbor rounded out our visits to San Juan Island.   We know there is much more to see, giving us reason to return.

We are most grateful to Laurel and Eric, for introducing us to the islands that have become their second home, providing us great recommendations, and including us on the whale-watching adventure.  You two are the best!

Next Up: Orcas Island