Sunday, December 8
The San Juan Web
About A Listing!
A few of the smallest islands are owned and lived on by individual families.
The islands together comprise San Juan County, one of the smallest in the state, but Washington's fastest-growing county. The county seat is at Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island. It is also the islands' largest and only incorporated town.
Waters surrounding the San Juans remain open to navigation by, and are extremely popular with, boaters from both countries. Also because of their strategic location, they have in times past proven attractive to smugglers and rum-runners as routes for the illicit transporting of everything from illegal aliens to drugs, wool, liquor and other commodities. On the whole, though, the islands have historically been populated by hard-working farmers, fishermen, seafarers and others.
Beginning in the 1970s these demographics began to change. Traditional occupations had become less profitable and the tourist business was becoming more important, even as increasing numbers of mainlanders came looking for alternatives to the problems of big-city life. Today with improved transportation and with better services and living standards, the islands are less remote and more liveable than ever before. Besides increasing numbers of retirees, many in the San Juans today are artists, writers, and others able to live where they like, including a new breed of working professionals comfortably connected to their far-distant big-city offices by computer terminal.
The San Juans are actually the remaining mountain-tops of a receding continent much older than the American mainland. The islands are generally quite hilly, the tallest mountain being Mount Constitution at almost exactly a half-mile elevation (see "Orcas Island" below), with some flat areas and valleys, often quite fertile, in between. The coastlines are a mixed bag of sandy and rocky beaches, shallow and deep harbors, placid and reef-studded bays. Gnarled, ochre-colored madrona trees grace much of the shorelines while evergreen fir and pine forests cover large inland areas.
The islands get less rainfall than, say, Seattle because of protective shadowing from U.S. and Canadian mountain ranges. Summertime high temperatures are around 70 degrees Fahrenheit while average wintertime lows are in the high thirties and low forties. Snow is infrequent in winter except for the higher elevations, but the islands are subject to high winds at times-- those from the northeast sometimes bringing brief periods of freezing and arctic-like windchills.
Besides Friday Harbor, the village and resort of Roche Harbor are worth a visit. Roche Harbor was a typical company town earlier in this century, where lime production was a major industry and revenue source. The whole town and, some say, the souls of the workers were owned by boss John S. McMillin. The historic Hotel de Haro, which once hosted President Teddy Roosevelt among other VIPs, and the remarkable McMillin family mausoleum are among a number of places worth inspecting.
Other notable attractions are the old British and American Camps at opposite ends of the island which together comprise the San Juan National Historical Park, which commemorates the 1859 "Pig War" (see "History" above). Interpretive centers and reconstructed buildings, formal gardens etc. recall the events and lifestyle of that era. In season, Park workers and volun- teers in period dress recreate significant moments for visitors.
Orcas is slightly larger but less populous than San Juan. Shaped like a pair of saddlebags, it is almost bisected by fjord- like East Sound (two words), at the northern end of which is located the village of Eastsound (one word), the second largest town in the county.Eastsound has a number of stores, inns, and excellent restaurants in addition to gift and souvenir shops, gas stations and other businesses.
There are other, smaller settlements at Orcas (where the ferry lands), West Sound, Deer Harbor, Olga and Doe Bay, each different and worth a leisurely sightsee. At Olga there is an attractive and popular cafe and store (the rustic building is a former strawberry barreling plant) where local artists hang out and sell their work.
Half-mile-high Mount Constitution is a prime attraction. The easy drive to the top (except in the worst winter weather when park rangers close the road) rewards one with a spectacular 360-degree marine view said to be one of the finest anywhwere in the world. The mountain is part of Moran State Park, which also offers camping, swimming, fishing and hiking par excellence in its nearly 5,000 acres of woodland peace.A long-time institution on Orcas Island's northwest shoulder is Camp Orkila, which has been offering healthy summertime fun to boys and girls here since 1906. It is operated by the greater Seattle area's YMCA.
Shaw is not a large island, and is unique in having virtually no commercial or tourist-oriented facilities other than two smallish parks, most of the island being privately-owned by people who like their slow-paced privacy. Roads are mostly inland and afford little access to, or even views of the shoreline.
Always a surprise to first-time visitors and ferry-riders, the dock at the Shaw landing is operated by brown-habited Franciscan nuns who also run the adjacent Little Portion store. There are two other Catholic religious orders on Shaw, including the Order of the Benedictines which has a monastery on the island.
Most travellers to the San Juans arrive by Washington State Ferries which originate in Anacortes. The islands are also accessible by ferry from Sidney, near Victoria, British Columbia. The current ferry schedule is reproduced below. Be advised that ferries are often crowded and it is best to arrive early at the terminal in order not to be overloaded to a later sailing.
It is also possible to park your car at the Anacortes terminal and board the ferry on foot. The problem is that except for Friday Harbor, where the ferry dock is right in town, there isn't much you can see and do on arrival without transportation. Auto, moped and bicycle rentals are available in some cases, and the major resorts will pick you up by advance arrangement.
Air transportation is available from various mainland points, or by charter, to each of the larger islands; but again you will need to arrange for transport on arrival.
If you are a boater you can of course cruise the archipelago at your pleasure and find moorage at any number of ports and marinas.
Although the islands now have a great variety of facilities for tourists including inns, resorts, motel-like lodges and bed- and-breakfast establishments, as well as overnight parks and campgrounds, all of these places are in demand much of the year. It is never wise to come to the San Juans without a firm reservation.
For more information...
This brief introduction to the San Juans is courtesy of David Richardson, author of two best-selling books:
Magic Islands--a Treasure-Trove of San Juan Islands Lore Buy
and the more formal
Pig War Islands: The San Juans of Northwest Washington. Buy
Orcas Publishing Co., P.O. Box 104, Eastsound WA 98245