The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.
I suppose it’s possible to never leave Orcas Island. With good health and tolerance for mild isolation, one could live on the island indefinitely. For most, however, leaving is required from time to time, and that means boarding a ferry for an hour-long trip to the mainland where family, Costco and other forms of abundance await.
Along with trips to the mainland, there is another popular ferry route that is limited to the San Juan Islands; an “inter-island” route. This route is serviced by a sixty-year-old ferry named Tillikum, or affectionately “Tilly”, that runs all-day-everyday among four of the most populated islands. She is the closest we have to a road that links the islands, both socially and commercially.
A couple of weeks ago, my friend, Jesse, on a neighboring island asked if I could help him with a house project and I jumped at the chance to see him and ride the ferry on a nice autumn day. Jesse’s house is on San Juan Island, which is home to Friday Harbor, the county’s seaside commercial center and tourist trap.
When the morning arrived, I carefully packed a backpack with snacks, sunglasses and my drone so that I could take overhead photos of his house. As I packed, I thought the backpack would be easy to forget and that I had to be careful; it had precious cargo. Maybe that was on my mind when I left the house without two things that I looked forward to using on the 45-minute ferry ride: a full flask of coffee and my headphones.
I drove to the Orcas ferry terminal, parked the car at its free parking lot and walked down the hill to the terminal to catch the 10:30 ferry. Riding the inter-island ferry is always free to walk-on passengers and that was my plan. I’d walk-on and disembark at Friday Harbor where Jesse would pick me up and drive to his house.
By the terminal, there is a petite, but mighty, grocery store that makes espresso and delicious homemade pastries and I never miss a chance to grab a scone before boarding. Usually, the store is a hive of activity and a place where locals cross paths. When we first started coming to the island, I wanted to be someone who knew other locals in the store. It seemed like a rite of passage. On this trip, I got to be that person when I saw Allie, one of our first island friends. She and her partner, RJ, hosted the party that eventually connected us with Drew, our builder. Allie and I ended up sharing a ferry booth on the ride to Friday Harbor and both delighted in seeing harbor seals frolic along the way. The thought of missing headphones never crossed my mind.
After we docked at 11:15, I disembarked and met Jesse for the short drive to his house. He’s currently renovating it and we spent the day cutting holes in walls, installing appliances and assembling furniture. As the day drew to a close, we planned to get a beer and early dinner in town before my 5:30 ferry and never made time to fly the drone, which sat safely in my backpack.
We parked in Friday Harbor and I decided to take my bag with me, knowing that I’d probably go straight to the ferry and that if someone stole it from the car, I’d never live it down. We ended up at a dive bar called Herb’s Tavern. And as we sat down, I put the bag in the seat next to me and noted that it was easy for me to see and remember to grab when leaving.
Over a beer and a Reuben sandwich, Jesse and I reviewed the day’s work and talked about Seattle life versus island life. We used to be neighbors and I enjoyed having time to reconnect. In fact, I was probably so engaged that time got away from me. With the ferry departure time approaching quickly, we paid the bill and just before leaving the table, I looked back and said words that I hear consistently from Sachi, “Do you have everything… phone, wallet, keys?” Everything seemed in order as we rushed out the door.
In minutes, I was alone on the Tillikum wishing I had my headphones when I realized that I’d made a huge mistake. My backpack, with my drone, was still sitting in the chair at Herb’s Tavern. Shit. It was the one thing I needed to remember. As the ferry pulled away from the dock, I could only think about Sachi rolling her eyes. Sadly, this is not out of character for me. I called Herb’s and had them store the backpack until I could return. The bartender said he’d place it in the locked “liquor room” and asked if I’d be back that night. Heh. No, I would not be back that night. I was was on the last ferry to Orcas Island.
Most people have left something at a bar or restaurant that required retrieval. Usually it involves a u-turn or a short drive. But this was different. I left something on another island. I’d have to spend hours taking a ferry to retrieve it. What a mess. I arrived home that night with a sheepish grin and a plan. The next morning, I would repeat the entire ferry process, with one exception. I would attempt to disembark in Friday Harbor, grab my backpack and board the same ferry, bound for Orcas.
The next morning I left home with nothing but headphones, a full flask of coffee and a bit of stress that I could get off and back onto the ferry in time. Like the day before, I went to the store for a scone, but they were out. But I did see Ezra, someone I knew from the island. I told him about my plan and he shrugged as he said: “Well, there are worse ways to spend the day than on a boat.” I had to agree.
Once again, I was on the 10:30 ferry to Friday Harbor. In our region this time of year, the sun never gets very high and it seemed to follow me around the ferry as it wound its way through the islands. I switched from one side of the boat to the other to escape the glare as walkers circled the deck to get in a bit of exercise. I recognized a few people but talked to no one. I was on a mission.
As Tilly approached the terminal at Friday Harbor I called Herb’s to ask them to have the bag ready and they were happy to oblige. Perhaps I was not the first person to attempt the ferry gambit. I waited with a few dozen walk-on passengers for the gate to open and rushed to Herb’s to get the backpack. Thanks to my call, the bartender had my bag ready and handed it off like a relay as I rushed back to the boat. If I missed it, I’d have to wait three hours for the next one.
The waiting area at the terminal was empty when I arrived because the other passengers had already boarded. Would they still let me on? As I made my way down the loading dock with the vehicles, a ferry worker motioned me on and I breathed a sigh of relief.
Once I made it to the passenger deck, I accounted for everything. I had my backpack, my coffee flask and my headphones for my fourth ferry voyage in two days. I sat listening to music and watched as the islands passed by my window like a movie. This trip was a result of a careless error and was a waste of time, but I didn’t mind. There are worse ways to spend a day than on a boat.
If you’d like to read about another ferry ride, check out Aboard the Elwha.