Aboard the Elwha Ferry

April 08, 2019

By: Lee LeFever

I write books and run a company called Common Craft. I recently moved from Seattle to a rural island. Here, I write about online business, book publishing, modern home construction, and occasionally, dumb jokes.

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

I’ve always considered ferry trips in the Pacific Northwest to be as interesting as the destinations. They are little cruises through beautiful scenery that can make for a uniquely NW experience. I assumed, in going to Orcas Island so often, they would get old. But, it seems I’ve grown to love them more.

It takes about an hour and forty minutes to drive from Seattle to the ferry dock in Anacortes and we usually arrive early. The dock is adjacent to a boardwalk by the beach and a paved path called the Guemes Trail that’s perfect for pre-ferry dog walks.

pre-ferry dog walks

On this trip, the tide was lower than I’d ever seen and I found I could get close to the ruins of an old salmon cannery that used to exist on a pier over the water and take heretofore impossible photos. Pilings that used to support the cannery now support birdhouses that appear to be having conversations.

old salmon cannery

My photography detour knocked us off schedule and soon we heard the muffled echos of a ferry announcement a half mile away. The only words we could make out were, “Lopez, Shaw, and Orcas Island” in the jumble of sounds that reminded me of Charlie Brown’s mom. We both looked at each other, raised our eyebrows, did an about-face and headed back toward the dock with the dogs in tow. We could see cars driving onto the boat in the distance. Were they driving around our parked car to get there?

Intellectually, we knew this was not our boat, but anxiety crept into the backs of our minds like it does when you’re late for a flight. Did we miscalculate? Did the schedule change? We checked the schedule on our phones, rushed back to the car and then found we had time. The announcement we heard was for walk-on passengers only. Soon after, we boarded the beast.

boarded the beast

Every ferry trip has a personality. In the summer, it can be a frantic mess. The San Juan ferries are overflowing with cars and people, usually clad in the latest REI fashions, ready for an island getaway. Families and groups of friends fill the oversized booths that line the edges of the boat’s interior. Kids run laps and people assemble interminable jigsaw puzzles that live on the ferry’s tables.

This trip was different. If summer weekends are a rock concert, this one was cool jazz. It was a Sunday evening headed toward the islands; a trip fit for residents. We planned this trip, like all others, to avoid the traffic and hassle of weekday rush hour.

The ferry was almost empty and the setting sun cast long shadows through the rounded windows. It felt like a Wes Anderson film full of color and symmetry. This ferry was the Elwha, which was built in 1968 and sports its age with modest and utilitarian style.

long shadows through the rounded windows

Just as we got seated, we heard an announcement that usually alerts passengers about food available in the galley on the second floor. This announcement included a strange addendum: “By the way, two foreign nationals are working the galley today, please go up and say hello to Boris and Natasha!” We chuckled. There must be a story.

A bit later we found the galley empty, except for a few of the crew, who were sitting at the tables with food from home. I assumed this was the aforementioned Boris and Natasha and the crew member who named them. I asked, “Which one of you is Boris?”

The tattooed guy ringing me up at the register said, “I guess that’s me?”

At that moment, another member of the crew playfully rushed through the galley with a familiar voice and fake Russian accent, yelling, “Natasha, you’re burning my fish! Natasha, my FIIIISH!” The cool jazz of the passenger deck was now balanced with improv comedy in the galley.

As the sun approached the horizon, we passed two other ferries heading east, the Yakima and the Hyak, both “Super” class, holding up to 2,000 passengers and 144 cars. Washington ferry names often reference local Native American tribes and words. “Hyak” is jargon for “fast or speedy” in the language of the Chinook. Elwha, our boat this day, means “elk”.

I waited on the wind-blown outside deck for the ferries to pass so I could get the photo below of the Hyak speeding past Mount Baker, both icons of the Pacific Northwest.

wind-blown outside deck

Sitting across from Sachi in a booth, I could tell that something was on her mind. We left the dogs in our packed car with a bag of groceries we thought would be safe. If they looked hard enough they could reach a pound of frozen ground pork. Sachi’s mind is constantly thinking through scenarios and ways to avoid negative outcomes and I have learned to see it on her face. What were they doing down there? They had a walk. We hoped they were sleeping.

Then, out of the blue, an announcement came over the loudspeaker that every tourist (and local, really) wants to hear: “A pod of orca whales is visible on our port side.”

This was not a joke and every person on the ferry quickly found a window after quickly asking themselves, “Which side is port?”

Sure enough, in the distance, you could clearly see the dorsal fins and spouts of three or four whales. What a treat.

After nearly an hour, we reached Lopez Island and waited for a few cars to depart before heading to Orcas, which is just around the corner.

Approaching the dock, I prepared for a tradition that has been in place since we first started going to the Yurt. When we roll off the ferry, I queue up a few upbeat pop songs, turn the volume up a little too loud, and we sing and dance in our seats as our car takes the winding island roads to the Yurt.


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On most Tuesdays, I share a story from my life on Orcas Island and a recommendation for something I love. I'm interested in how to design work and home for lifestyle, livability, and fluffy dogs. Learn more.

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