People and Places

Island Life

Posted on June 7, 2012

If you read Conde Nast Traveler you know that each issue ends with a “Room With a View” page featuring a photo taken from a hotel room somewhere and an amazing view.  Here in Friday Harbor, the main town on San Juan Island, we have lucked into just that sort of place.  We have a little apartment that sits right on the harbor overlooking the marina and ferry dock, hills and open water in the background.  The Washington State Ferries lumber in and out multiple times every day, four story high behemoths that nevertheless have a certain stately grace about them.  Small seaplanes land just below us.  With a wall of windows and a fire going in the fireplace, even a rainy day like this is enchanting. 

The San Juan Islands — San Juan Island, Orcas Island, and Lopez Island being the big three surrounded by a host of smaller islands, many of them private — sit between Canada and the US, as close to British Columbia as they are to the rest of Washington.  Up close they look so much like the coast of Maine, though when the clouds clear the snow capped Olympic Mountains remind us that we are out west and our White Mountains look like hills to the locals around here.  Friday Harbor is the largest town — a village really — and we worried that it might be too loud and busy.  In fact, it is still early in the local tourist season, they call June “Junuary” for its still cool temps, and the town is pretty sleepy.  A lot of places aren’t open and dinner ends early.  By 9PM it is a ghost town with the exception of Herb’s Bar over on the corner.

The place has a kind of Brattleboro, VT feel with boats.  A lot of aging hippies (Really guys…the long gray pony tails?  You look like wrinkled squirrels.) and drop outs from somewhere else, typical island culture I think.  A lot of retired academics too.  We were told that the islands have more PhDs per capita than any county in the state.  It’s a wonder anything works here, but it does mean a pretty good bookstore.  Alongside the old Volvos and beat up pick up trucks, there is a monied set whose horse farms and glass walled seaside homes line the coast.  They tend to eat in small boutique filled harbor enclaves like Roche Harbor on the west side — more Nantucket to Friday Harbor’s Martha’s Vineyard, if you know what I mean.  The one disappointment is that we expected a much better food culture.  We have found a couple of okay places, but we expected more farm to table and imaginative cooking.  The locals with whom we’ve spoken say it is getting better, but it’s not that great.  Luckily, nearby King’s Market is beautifully stocked and we are well supplied.  Why so few local chefs have taken advantage of that bounty and done more is a mystery to us.

A heck of a lot of the economy seems to depend on the orcas.  There are many whale watching operations, some 85 boats in total serving more than 500,000 people a year, and the whales remain the big draw.  Rightly so.  These are amazing animals, the males growing to 30′ and 6 tons, and able to swim at 30 mph.   At least that’s what we are told.  We went out on a small boat yesterday and spent three hours prowling the waters of the Haro Strait and further afield, but no whales.  There are the pods — J, K, and L — that make up the “southern community” that stay resident in these waters and the whale watching and research operations here are so extensive that they actually pretty much know before you get on a boat where the pods will be found.  While they can travel 100 miles in a day, the operators and researchers are always talking to each other.  So before we boarded yesterday, the volunteer at Lime Kiln State Park — the only park in the country devoted to watching whales because they so frequently swim right to the shore there — told us the pods had gone out to the ocean.  Our best hope would be to come up transient whales, those outliers in much smaller groups that occasion these waters. 

We went out with Capt. Jim Maya on his 27′ catamaran hulled speed boat and he worked hard at it, but no whales. Jeannie, the volunteer naturalist who accompanied us and 4 other passengers, taught us a ton and it was whale of a good time (sorry, I had to do it) to be out on the water for three hours looking for transient whales. Transients  are common, but they are not tracked very well because they do not echo-locate the way the resident pods do (and yes, delightfully, there is an I-Pod as well, though not in this area).  They remain silent because they hunt eat sea mammals instead of fish (the resident pods prefer fish, especially salmon) and do not want their sounds to alert their prey.  So they swim silently and strike suddenly.  If they come upon a 2500 pound sea lion one of the males will ram it at 30 mph, full speed, and throw it in the air to stun it  and then the others will leap from the water one after the other in violent choreography, pounding the unlikely sea lion until it drowns or succumbs to what is essentially blunt force trauma.  Jeannie told us these things with drama and passion and was a great guide.  It is hard not to feel wonder at the complexity and intelligence of these animals.  Transients and residents speak a different language and the three resident pods have different dialects of the same language.  Babies are cared for by the whole pod and no whale ever leaves the pod — or enters it for that matter, except by birth.  They train their young and Jeannie shared the story of a pod knocking a seal off an ice flow and practice hunting it with one of their young and then putting the seal back on the ice flow (can’t imagine his therapy bills after that experience).

While we saw no whales, we saw seals sunning themselves on the rocks, bald eagles hunting, deer on nearby islands, and a wide variety of bird species.  We got to chat with Capt. Jim, a former high school drama teacher who retired early to take up life in the islands.  Jeannie retired to the islands and discovered a passion for whales and now she lives them 24/7.  No really.  She goes to sleep at night with online whale hydraphones turned on at her bedside and she can hear the whales pass by her waterside home (check out:  I love people who are obsessive about one thing and know it with passion and detail.  Jeannie is that person when it comes to killer whales and her passion was infectious and her wonder child-like. 

Back to land.  San Juan Island is beautiful –a  rocky coastline with charming little bays, rolling farmland and a lot of horses and one alpaca farm, and prairie.  Yes, I said prairie.  I think of prairie as the vast grasslands of South Dakota and Montana, but any temperate grassland counts and the islands have prairie.  We walked the trails of the American Camp National Park here and if you ignored the sea in the distance, we could have been out west with golden grasses waving in the breeze.  It was gorgeous and in the occasional copse we saw deer and a fox (it’s been an animal filled trip really, the slacker whales notwithstanding).  The American Camp and the British Camp are two national parks that preserve the sites of two military encampments when Britain and America almost went to war over a border dispute (remember the islands lie between Canada, then a British colony, and the US).  In 1859, an American shot a British owned pig foraging in his garden and that almost sparked what is known as The Pig War.  Cooler heads prevailed and it was agreed that the two military units would withdraw to their respective ends of the island until a resolution could be found.  Twelve years later Kaiser Wilhelm, the appointed arbitrator, decided the islands belonged to the US and war was averted. 

The British encampment was charming.  Set on a protected bay and provisioned by nearby Victoria, the soldiers bult sturdy quarters, planted a formal garden, hosted dances and dramatic readings. The Americans, led by a guy who was 59th in his class of 59 students at West Point, chose the prairie grass site, open to constant winds.  They had ramshackle quarters, were under-provisioned, and life was sort of miserable.  Seems a bit reflective of the two cultures: the Brits creating a charming and cultured place, very orderly and tidy.  The Americans choosing a big, open space — all drama and drilling, while up close the quality of day to day life was not so great.  Funny side note: the British were so puzzled by the choice of the American encampment they were sure the Americans were up to something, but couldn’t quite figure out the scheme.  Before Kevin Bell and Phil Sands read this and get too haughty about English superiority, let me just say two words of reminder: American Revolution.  Not to mention other two word pairings that speak to our greatness: pop tarts; hot dogs; sports channels; music video; Newt Gingrich….ahem, maybe I better stop here.  We do have better dental care, so there.

Other small observations from the last few days:

West coast people really are different than New Englanders.  We meet people and within ten minutes we hear the intimate details of their lives, which makes those details not very intimate if you think they do this with everyone they meet.  Even our girls observed the slightly awkward conversation when a newly met local tells us about their midlife crisis.  As Hannah said, it would take a New Englander thirty years of friendship before sharing like that.  Here, thirty minutes suffices.

Also, west coast people move slower.  We discovered one really good sandwich shop here, but you have to call in your order at breakfast if you hope to have four sandwiches done by noon.  At dinner last night we must have sat for ten minutes before a waitress ambled by to say she would be by soon to take our drink order.  In NYC, she might have been dragged out into the streets and beaten like a sea lion.

Alpacas might be right up there with pandas and koalas on the cute scale.  Check out those we saw on the farm:  Bought a sweater and it is the softest piece of apparel I’ve ever felt.  I asked the woman if they make alpaca underwear.  Only got a strange look.  Never mind.

Because Herb’s Bar offers the only real nightlife here, we went to the charming little movie theater and chose of one of two options: Men in Black 3 or Snow White and the Huntsman.  I will now lose any street cred I might have had by admitting that we chose the latter.  Critics really disliked it, but I have to say that I liked the movie.  It had its flaws admittedly, but it had some absolutely original visuals, charming surrealism, and it included Bob Hoskins, one of my favorite English actors, as one of the seven dwarfs.  They actually steal the show.  Though Charlize Theron is also great as the Evil Queeen and it is a movie where women lead, though Kristen Stewart of Twilight fame is pretty flat and pale (too much vampire in her life?).  It is certainly “rental worthy.”

The best part of these family trip is simply our time together, laughing, talking, eating, reading, watching old episodes of Madmen.  With conversations that range from how to make the best guacamole (amazing avocados out here) to the self-analytical paralysis of Anthropology as a discipline to retelling family stories to Syria’s meltdown to a debate over best beers, these are the precious hours that busy day-to-day life doesn’t allow for or at least provide in ample enough amounts, especially as we go off to far flung places (Emma back to Syria later this summer, Hannah eventually to Berlin for the year).  The getting away that is vacation is ostensibly about whales and water and restaurants, but it really is about getting together and there is something about a ferry ride and island that at once makes one feel further way and more fully together.

One thought on “Island Life

  1. Kevin Bell says:

    Our revenge for the American Revolution is also a two-word response.

    Piers Morgan…. – enjoy !!

    btw – I think it’s great that you can carve out time and space from the crazy pace of life to “breathe” with your family. And don’t worry – the Snow White confession can not really *negatively* affect your street-cred given your former Hugh Grant man-crush 🙂

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