On the night I arrived in the San Juan Islands, an archipelago sandwiched between mainland Washington and Canada’s Vancouver Island, I decided not to set an alarm clock.
The 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.
Sure enough, as orange light sliced through the blinds the next morning, the alarm rang: the squawk of a 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 island.
I dressed, made a cup of coffee and stepped out into the marina. The air was bright and clean, and I breathed in 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.
Wendy 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 homes but are diligent about locking their dumpsters because getting trash to the mainland is among the steepest expenses of island life.
She 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, that you’d never know you’re on an island.
“It’s like you could be in America,” Wendy said.
“Wait, this isn’t America?” I asked, because surely it was. Canada sat a couple of miles across the water.
“No,” she said and laughed her raspy laugh. “This is home.”
I saw her point. The San Juan Islands don’t quite feel quite like the America on the mainland. Life moves slowly, and people are friendly. There are few if any chain stores. Most important, visitors are beholden to the ferries.
Getting to the San Juans most often begins with a slow ride on one of those ferries from Anacortes, Wash., about 80 miles north of Seattle. This is where the adventure, and foray into the San Juans’ moody beauty, begins.
Slow ride to the islands
On a misty Wednesday afternoon, while locals spent the 90-minute ride reading novels or staring into their laptops, I opted for the bow, to stand beneath 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.
“Look how blue the water is,” one of them said.
“That’s not blue, it’s green,” said another.
“Well, it’s not the brown stuff we got at home,” was the response.
They left it there.
The San Juans are made up of 172 named islands, about 30 of which are inhabited. Four are served by ferries. I was headed for the two largest ones 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.
In a 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 resting place, but days were for exploring.
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; windswept grassy plains; rocky shores; the tony town of Roche Harbor, where gleaming yachts dock; state and national parks; even a lavender farm that blooms bright purple in summer. There’s 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 square miles.
Day trip to Orcas
The 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 Rainier, another snowy behemoth, in the distance.
Orcas, a touch larger than San Juan, also is denser, wilder and more disorienting with its twisting roads. I spent much of the day hiking to the highest point in the islands, Mount Constitution. I wound through a wonderful forest of mossy rocks and trees to a 2,400-foot summit with views of the islands and, in the hazy distance, Vancouver.
The 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 spot for its karaoke. A happy crowd took turns at the microphone with pints of Pabst Blue Ribbon in hand.
I signed up to sing, but the clock was ticking because getting back to my floating home meant I had to catch the midnight ferry.
I 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 haze glowed — lights, presumably, coming from America.