Yankees go home – San Juan Islands of Washington State

Lewis Green

Yankees Go Home

Winter Comes to the San Juan Islands of Washington State

The San Juan Islands of Washington State possess a quiet beauty–deep coves, chilly waters, broad hills, dense forests, and wind-swept meadows. Fauna flourishes: bald eagles soar on the currents, great blue herons glide just above the water’s surface, sea lions sun on the rocks, and killer whales span the sea in graceful arcs.

For much of the year, there is still isolation, a quiescence so deep only an invasion can disturb it. And like migrating fowl, that invasion arrives each summer.

From June to September, tourists come to package paradise in their Kodak Instamatics. In doing so, they change the face of the place: automobiles crowd every road; visitors fill every shop. Locals react by remaining safely within the bosom of home. Even the eagles depart. And the ferry docks turn to muck.

On a summer weekend the population may balloon by 20,000 or more. Boaters and anglers sail and fish the waters to seek protected coves and reel in salmon. Combers and hikers walk the beaches and the hills to find flotsam and gain views. Bicyclists and mopeders travel the byways, whale watchers scan the sea, and sightseers jam the shops.

During the tourist season, an unspoken tolerance exists between visitors and natives. Some resentment bubbles beneath the surface, particularly among residents who see no value in tourism. Most islanders begrudge the taking of their peace but suffer silently because they need the touro-dollars. Without them, few could survive the stagnant economy of the islands, where the cost of living is high, jobs are few, and wages are low.

When winter arrives, however, residents reclaim their lives. As summer savings dwindle, meager off-season livings are squeezed from the islands. It’s not unusual for a year-rounder to trade a college diploma for work as a carpenter, plumber, or backhoe operator. Most employment is part-time.

Since the 1970s, the face of the citizenry has changed. Mixing with the leathery looks of farmers and fishers are the styles of the moneyed and the middle-classers willing to sacrifice higher socioeconomic levels for a slower pace. Many come from California; all come for the lifestyle. The landscape is stunning; there is no need for traffic signals; crime is nearly nonexistent. Even the weather is relatively mild, kept that way by a rain shadow cast across the islands by the Olympic Mountains–which exposes the San Juans to just half the rainfall of Seattle–and warm currents that modify the temperatures.

The overburdened Washington State Ferries are the island’s primary defense against runaway growth. Although islanders complain (to the point of staging sit-ins), they admit privately that the delays and queues are in their best interest. If service weren’t limited and inconvenient, more tourists would visit–and more people would stay.

The ferries dock only at Lopez, Shaw, Orcas, and San Juan–the islands’ most civilized outposts by modern standards of power and sanitation, and man’s best attempts at taming an archipelago that stretches from the Strait of Juan de Fuca to Canada. The last glaciers left this string of pearls when they receded 10,000 years ago.

Those who count such things claim hundreds of islands, rocks, and reefs at low tide, 172 at high. Only a handful shelter some 19,680 full-time inhabitants.

Many of the inhabited islands are private. You don’t visit without a boat and an invitation. The four open to exploration are as different from each other as they are from towns on the mainland. Their physical features are unique and so are their people.

About 45 minutes after leaving the dock at Anacortes on the mainland, the ferry noses into Lopez Island. A few passengers disembark, mostly on bicycles.

Lopez Island is 13 miles long and 4 miles wide. The rolling landscape is checkered with farmland, orchards, dairy herds, poultry, pigs, and sheep. There are but two parks with campsites and only two bed and breakfasts. The neighbors are ambivalent about tourists. Following the Labor Day exodus, the 1,200 residents celebrate a “Thank God They’re Gone” party, even though relatively few travelers visit this island.

The Ferry’s next stop is Shaw. Tourists are not welcome here. There are no public facilities. The coves, beaches, and rocky shores have little public access. Homes are tucked out of sight within stands of timber and rolling farmlands.

Orcas, on the other hand, is a tourist haven. Residents experience a complete lifestyle change when winter comes. Rosario and the other resorts slumber; the picnic tables and campsites at Moran State Park are vacant. Returning eagles perch atop spruce and fir trees. Once again, traffic flows easily through the island’s largest town, Eastsound. The woods teem with deer; the low-lying mountains are silent.

The same is true on San Juan, the most populous of the islands and the seat of government and commerce. In Friday Harbor, the San Juans’ largest town, residents who come to town only once or twice the entire summer now come daily to chat with their neighbors, to catch up on the gossip. The sidewalks are spattered with small groups of friends passing the day in talk. The marina no longer bustles. No one hurries; business revolves around conversation and cups of coffee.

Even the countryside takes on a different look. The trumpeter swans return to take back the ponds. The valley turns a solemn brown, rarely whitened by falling snow. Horses and cows graze undisturbed. Whales pass the Lime Kiln Lighthouse whale-watch unseen. Roche Harbor Resort is still, the bed and breakfasts nearly empty. The restaurants open when fancy strikes.

“Timelessness is the soothing essence of these islands,” the author Ruth Kirk explains. She is right. Any change is threatening. Today, there is much to be threatened by: tourism is on the increase and so is development, and the possibility of a new industry–aquaculture–stirs controversy. Yet, despite the hassles, winter brings a sigh of relief. Islanders call it “going on island time.” They usher the tourists homeward, reclaim their rocks, savor the flight of the eagle, and get reacquainted.

COPYRIGHT 1988 Saturday Evening Post Society

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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