People and Places

Farewell to the Island

Posted on June 9, 2012

It happened.  We saw them.  We can go home now.  Orcas.

Despite a wonderful three hours on Capt. Jim Maya’s boat last Wednesday, the resident whales of the area, J, K, and L Pods, were away and no transient whales (sort of the motorcycle gangs of the orca world) revealed themselves.  Yesterday morning Jim emailed me and said they had seen J Pod late the day before and when I asked them if he had  a current location, he said they were an hour south of Lime Kiln State Park and heading north.  We jumped in our car and drove the 10 miles or so across the island and joined another 20 people or so spread out along the shore (the word had got out) and in the distance saw the first tall dorsal fins slicing through the water.  Below us, seals were making their way out of the water and onto the rocks, preferring to join us as spectators instead of playing the role of orca lunch.

It was amazing.  While they mostly swam and broke the water in graceful curves, the orcas would occasionally jump and splash as if doing belly flops for their friends.  The whale watching boats sped to the area — we could see Capt. Jim’s blue and white boat, The Peregrine (second fastest boat in the fleet), keeping its required distance away.  On boats and on land, camera shutters clicked like we were paparazzi shooting celebrities.  It was J Pod and they spent an hour cruising the waters off this remarkable state park.  Even the rangers came out and sat on the rocks to watch the show.  The whales were not as close to us as we’d like, but we could see them clearly and it was one of those moments — like a walk through the Hoh Rain Forest or the time we kayaked amidst porpoises in Port Clyde, Maine or seeing elephants on the Serengeti — where one feels genuine awe in the presence of nature and especially those wild animals that inhabit the planet with us.

Because I love knowing things about animals and find them fascinating I once loved zoos, but I’ve come to hate them.  Thinking about the orcas in places like Sea World and then seeing them here with their freedom, families, and intelligence, is it any wonder that they would attack their trainers?  I think intelligent animals like elephants and primates must suffer a kind of madness the ways humans do in prison.  Maybe worse.  There is a  YouTube video of a polar bear in a European zoo trying to break the lock of his cage with a rock.  I’m rooting for his escape.  In my view, zoos should exist to care for animals that would otherwise be extinct in the wild, holding onto the last few in the hope of perhaps rebuilding the species some day, caring for hurt or wounded animals until they can be released, and for research that helps preserve the species.  There may be a handful of animals so dumb they’d go extinct on their own and who might not even realize they are entrapped, pandas come to mind, but I’m done with zoos.  They are too sad for words.

On a happier note, our quest for decent food was finally rewarded on our last night on the island when we discovered the Duck Soup Inn.  Whew — it was amazing.  I’m sort of glad we didn’t discover it earlier or I would have insisted we eat there every night and I would have come home A) broke and B) looking like the Hindenburg.  I have a running list of the best version of dishes I’ve ever had.  For example, I am not a risotto fan, but had a green apple and taleggio risotto in Sicily that was the single best risotto I’ve ever tasted. I still dream about it.  On a boat in Halong Bay in Vietnam I had the best Pho I’ve ever eaten – -had three bowls of it that morning. These are dishes that reached the Platonic ideal and all subsequent versions can only be pale imitations or shadows of those life-changing meals. 

The Duck Soup Inn took the lowly chicken wing and elevated to the level of gourmet.  I told Hannah, our vegetarian, that if she ever decides to eat meat again she should get on a plane, fly to Washington, rent a car and drive to Anacortes, get on a ferry to Friday Harbor and run, not walk, to the Duck Soup Inn and order a platter of these chicken wings.  Chef Gretchen Allison told us she smokes them first and maybe that is the difference, but they were heavenly.  Emma and I shared an order and after our first bite we both had “Are you tasting what I’m tasting?” looks on our faces.  Everything else was splendid (check out and this is one of the really great restaurants in the region, but come football season it will be the chicken wings of which I dream.

Our final day on the island was perhaps the most beautiful day of the trip.  We picnicked at Cattle Point, the most southern spot of the island, and returned to nearby American Camp National Park to walk the prairies again.  We saw three or four foxes and one seemed to be following us.  Thinking of the often rabid foxes of the north east, I was wondering how we might defend ourselves.  There wasn’t a stick in sight on the wide open prairie grassland.  Rocks were few.  Taking a cue from the orcas, I thought maybe  I could kick the fox to stun it and then Pat and the girls could take turns jumping on it.  As sometimes happens, I forgot I was not using my “inside my head” voice and they only looked at me strangely for my suggestion.  Foxes are so elusive, I was curious about his interest in us and the ranger later sighed and  told me that tourists feed them and they have lost their fear of humans.  She said he was following us to see if we had snacks for him.  Can I just say again: the National Park Service is the best federal agency, hands down.

Thursday was our one rain all day, find things to do day of the whole week.  We went to the nearby Whale Museum, a quaint little place in an old house nearby, full of hand painted whale murals and amateur videos of whales, but also charmingly passionate about the whales (who isn’t around here?) and interesting.  Favorite tidbit: whales using a seal like a frisbee, tossing it to one another.  Not fun for the poor seal, but how cool are these orcas.  The amazingly friendly (who isn’t around here?) clerk in the little museum store confirmed that the really beautiful lined rain coats were only $25.  I expressed my wonder and said, “You know, you could charge double for these.”  She laughed and said, “Well, we sell so many that we make a little money and don’t want to charge too much.”  What’s with these people?  The local San Juan Island Bakery looked like a movie set when I walked in, three young attractive bakers all singing and dancing to a Motown song playing in the background while they baked – sort of like a Meryl Streep film — and were just so pleased that we had come back.  When I went the local outfitter to find a cheap duffel bag to lug home all the fruits of our shopping (the girls discovered a great consignment shop with vintage style dresses and I did buy that $25 rain coat), the young clerk said, “Oh, I have some that are even less money and just as good” as she led me to another part of the store.  At dinner, Emma asked, “Are people here just naturally more fit and better looking?”.  Maybe you have audition to live here.

Lest you think we had wondered into some sort of magical land where ALL the people are lovely and helpful and gentle, I did use the rainy day to wander into the local barbershop and felt almost oddly reassured to meet a racist jerk (though a pretty darn good barber).  The barber told me how he had moved to San Juan Island from San Diego because there were so many Vietnamese moving in there, that the rules didn’t apply to them, and they were living 18 to an apartment, and so on.  He told me about his divorce (can’t blame the poor woman for dumping him really).  About how he wouldn’t help his kid out in a  financial crisis because he “needs to learn a lesson.”   He even criticized Canadians (!!!) for being aggressive drivers and told me about being cut off by one and wishing he had his Uzi with him in the car instead of home.  Since he had sharp scissors in hand, I just smiled a lot and nodded sympathetically.  He was a pretty good barber.

As we sat on our little roof top deck late yesterday, soaking up the sun and looking out over the harbor, we all agreed that we could never live on San Juan Island.  Unlike maybe Port Townsend, just not enough culture, not enough happening.  Even in June it closes up early.  It would get too claustrophobic, something we often hear about island dwelling.  We also realize we came at just the right time.  A shop keeper told us that in three weeks the crowds will arrive and the lines for the ferries will snake through town and that the counter at the open air burger and crab place will be 35 people deep at lunch.  In contrast, we’ve felt like we’ve had this charming place to ourselves.  It gave us everything we sought on this vacation: beauty, nature, quiet, a respite from the day to day race to get things done, really gracious and warm people, and on our last night at least, amazing food.  We’d recommend it to anyone — it well deserves its reputation as one of the country’s truly special places and we all agreed last night that Washington exceeded our expectations.

Washington — land of vampires, serial killers, and gray depressing skies — I take it back.  I came wary, even worried, about what awaited us here.  I leave utterly charmed.  I know I could never live here.  We are too much New Englanders and rooted to our region to leave it for even a place as idyllic as this one, but it makes me feel better to know that it is here and that we can come visit again.  I’d do so just for the chicken wings.

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