In the evenings this time of year, we often hear a deep growling sound coming from across the water that sounds like a call-and-response conversation. We soon learned that the growls come from a group of Steller sea lions that haul out on the tip of nearby Spieden Island. I always imagine them saying “GRRRR, I NEED MORE SPACE”, “UUUUGHHHH, NOT HERE BUDDY GGGGUUUUGGHHH”.
When Sachi mentioned taking the boat out recently, I knew exactly what to do: investigate the source of the growls and get to know our noisy neighbors, who mainly appear in the spring. But there was a problem. Our boat, Short Story, needed gas. As happened before, we first visited Deer Harbor Marina, which is our home base. Their gas system was out of service again. Ugh. Before adventuring, we needed to fill up and decided to cross the channel to Roche Harbor for gas, and then visit the sea lions. If only it were so easy.
Crossing the channel was a breeze. Once we got across, I noticed four or five larger boats congregating. I told Sachi it looked suspicious. It was a weekday afternoon outside of fishing season. As we got closer, it was obvious that the boats were full of whale watching tourists. We slowed down and watched from afar as the dorsal fins of a handful of killer whales came into view. We were excited to have stumbled upon the spectacle and sat for a bit to enjoy the surprise.
The whales, of course, are protected and there are laws that govern how close you can get in a boat and what to do when whales are present. These include, according to the Be Whale Wise website:
Boats to stay 300 yards from Southern Resident killer whales on either side.
Boats to stay 400 yards out of Southern Resident killer whales’ path in front and behind the whales
Boats to go slow (<7 knots) within ½ mile of Southern Resident killer whales
Disengage engines if whales appear within 300 yards.
The tour guides are usually pretty responsible and we stay behind their boats to be sure. After watching the whales, we decided to head towards the gas dock at Roche Harbor. That’s when we realized that we were stuck. The whales and boats had drifted into the smaller channel between us and Roche Harbor. As long as they were around, we couldn’t proceed. Soon another boat approached us from behind and a second boat came from the direction of Roche, all trying to get through. We both laughed. It was a San Juan Islands traffic jam. The damn whales were clogging up the works! We, of course, were more than happy to wait them out.
Before long we were on our way to the marina. We’d been to Roche multiple times, but never for gas. As I’ve written before, marina gas stations sometimes work in mysterious ways and we weren’t sure exactly what their process was, other than to park at the gas pumps. Roche, being a higher-end resort, usually has friendly staff helping with gas, but not today. We got out, looked quizzically at the gas pumps, and saw no evidence of what to do next. I went up a catwalk to a commercial area and Sachi went 50 yards down the dock to find an empty shack. We were stuck once again.
Within a few minutes, a guy walked by and I struck up a quick conversation that ended with me saying, “Do you know if there is anyone who can help us with gas?” He looked around and pointed at the empty shack and said “It helps if you park near the shack.” Duh. We were as far as you could get from it.
Before we could get the boat moved, a young staff member in resort shorts finally arrived and asked, “Can I help you guys with some gas?” He turned on the pump and I started to fill the tank. Once it got full, I let the handle go and waited for the last drops. And then I waited some more. It was like a gasket was leaking and the valve couldn’t close tightly. At the time, I thought the problem could be solved by holding the pump nozzle vertically and handed it to Sachi to replace it on the pump.
Within a few seconds, we realized we had a problem. The nozzle never fully closed and now gas was trickling down the pump. We both tried to jiggle the handle to make it close more fully. No dice. I told Sachi to get the staff guy, who was at the faraway shack, while I managed the leak. As soon as she ran off, I realized that I was in a volatile situation. It was a slow leak, but a leak nonetheless. I was on a dock, over the water, with gas bubbling out of a hose that I didn’t know how to stop. I looked for a nearby spill kit. Nothing I could see. I tried to hold my finger over the nozzle, which was a dumb idea that eventually caused gas to squirt from my thumb.
I danced around for a few seconds and eventually noticed two big white boxes that looked like storage tanks. The top cover was flat with half-baseball-sized dimples that looked like they could hold fluid. So, I quickly placed the nozzle in the center of the cover and made sure the gas could leak into the dimples instead of the ground or on me. Just as I got it set, the staff member ran to my side and turned the manual shut-off, which I didn’t know existed. He apologized and immediately started to clean up. That was true for us, too. Our bare hands were starting to burn and turn white from the gas. By the time it was done, it was obvious very little, if any, gas made it to the water.
With washed hands and a full tank, we finally made our way back to the channel and headed over the closely shaven shore of Spieden Island, which was once known as “Safari Island”. In 1969 two taxidermist brothers imported exotic game and turned the 500-acre island into a hunting ground, with visitors buying the stuffed trophies of their kills. This created outrage and was covered by Walter Cronkite in a CBS documentary. The hunting business only lasted a few years and when the brothers left, the animals remained. Today you can still see mouflon sheep from Corsica, sika deer from Japan, and fallow deer from Europe.
As soon as we arrived at the island we spotted groups of fallow deer, grazing the hillside and heading south. It seemed like they were escorting us down the shore. Sachi wondered if they have a water source that they visit every evening. I wanted to believe they wanted to spend more time with us. After a couple of miles of shoreline, the island ended at Green Point, the springtime hangout of the Steller sea lions.
Just as we rounded the corner, it was obvious that we’d found the source of the growls we could hear from home. Only now, they were coming from huge brown beasts lying on the shore like overstuffed sausages on a grill. Steller sea lions can grow up to ten feet in length and weight over a ton. We kept our distance, but you could see pairs of them interacting. It felt like something you’d see in a nature documentary. GRRRAAAGGG… THAT’S MY GIRLFRIEND DUUUUUUUDE… AGGGGHHHHHHH…. I’M FULL OF FISH… UGGGGGHHHGGGG.
I’m pretty sure that’s what I heard, anyway.
I didn’t take any interesting photos of the sea lions on this trip, but I did get this shot of them from a kayak off nearby Sucia island in 2011 with Mount Baker in the background.
As the sun started to set, we moved on and took a quick look at Flattop from the water before heading home. Aside from the traffic jams and gas spills, it was an awesome spring day to be on the Salish Sea. From now on, when I hear the sea lions, I’ll know exactly where they are and maybe, what they’re saying.
From the moment the sun started to shine through the window, I knew I had to get outside. It was a Sunday with temperatures in the mid-50’s; a welcome change from the pacific northwest winter. I grabbed our older dog, Maybe, and told Sachi I was heading down to the construction site.
Over the past year, we’ve lived in a small guesthouse over a neighbor’s garage while our forever house is being built nearby. The guest house is situated on a knob at the top of a large hill that makes a walk in any direction a descent. After feeling cooped up for so long, I was ready to sweat.
As the new house takes shape, visiting the site has been a daily adventure that usually involves walking down a long driveway and then up our road, creating a trail shaped like a “V”. This time would be different. Between the guest house and the new house is a dense, hilly forest and I decided to find a shortcut across the top of the V with Maybe and aim for our road.
At the bottom of the property it was obvious where to enter the forest because generations of black-tailed deer have worn trails that are clear once you know where to look. On wet days you can see tracks, on others, the path is slightly more cleared and worn.
When a log has fallen and starts to decay, you can pick up a trail by looking for a section that’s worn away as deer hooves have crossed it at the same spot over time.
We followed a track that led through brush at a height that hit me in the face but allowed deer and Maybe to pass. I lowered my head and pushed through with the brim of my cap.
The brushy forest opened into an open space covered in moss. It felt like stumbling into a fairy tale. Thick moss grew over large rocks, stumps and logs. In the sun, it glowed and sparkled. It felt strangely manicured, like gnomes had swept it clean. I climbed up onto a flat, moss-covered rock to look around and noticed a patch of moss that had been smashed into an oval by my feet. I couldn’t help but think the deer and I shared a similar vibe. A nap on the fluffy moss sounded just right.
We kept moving and quickly found ourselves back in the dense forest before coming upon another mossy wonderland. This one was on top of a rocky outcropping that was too steep to climb down. I looked around and wondered why these green oases were here. What was causing the forest to cede so much territory to the open mossy areas? It soon became clear that the moss probably forms on rocks where trees can’t grow. When the rocks are as big as a house’s footprint, the forest grows around them, leaving a cool, shady place for moss to propagate.
The outcropping was steep, maybe ten feet up. I walked back and forth at it’s edge before choosing the starboard side. A few steps off the rock a trail appeared, winding down through the bush and eventually opening into the flat forest floor. Once again I felt the deer and I were on the same channel.
Soon the forest opened just a bit and I thought I could see a dirt road in the distance. At about that time, something caught my eye on the forest floor. The likelihood of another human being there and leaving trash was near zero. What was this shiny thing? As I got closer, it was clear. It was a deflated mylar balloon emblazoned with a faded American flag. Someone’s Fourth of July decoration had landed as trash on an otherwise pristine patch of woods. The symbolism was almost too much to bear.
I picked up the balloon and soon found our way to the road, just a short walk from our driveway. All in all, it was a shorter and much more delightful walk than I imagined. Why hadn’t I done it before?
Visiting the construction site at this stage is like a little Christmas morning each day. The framers, who were recently deemed essential by the state, are at work and whole walls appear overnight. The plans that we’ve reviewed for over a year are finally making the jump to three dimensions. On this day, I could get a feel for the size of the guest bedroom for the first time and what appears in the windows. No plans can simulate that feeling.
When it’s just me on the site, I stay for long periods. I kind of get lost in it and imagine how it will feel to live there after so much anticipation. The more I look around, the more I notice small things that will be enduring parts of living in the house, like where the sun hits the floor through windows at different times of day.
On this day, there was no wind and the channel in front of the house was calm. Occasionally, boats would pass and you could hear people talking or music playing.
As Maybe and I walked around the construction site, I heard a sound that my brain has learned to recognize, however faint. It’s a blowing whooooosh sound in the distance. That sound can mean that whales are nearby and the proof is hearing it more than once. I stood still. Whoooosh again.
OK, I thought, that’s a whale or whales. The next question is their heading. Is the whoooosh getting louder or softer? WHOOOOOSH once again, much louder. I grabbed Maybe and walked downhill, closer to the water. Before I could even get my phone ready, two orca whales appeared right in front of me. Whoooosh. Whoosh. I couldn’t believe it.
I texted a couple of neighbors to let them know. They appeared on their deck and quickly noticed more whales in the distance. Unlike me, they had binoculars.
More whooshing. There must have been ten or fifteen whales in multiple groups. A cabin cruiser stopped and turned off their engine when they saw the whales. A handful of people gathered on the aft of the boat to watch as the song Tennessee Whiskey played on the speakers. A pacific northwest treat for sure.
Usually, the whales just pass through. But this time, it was different. They stopped in the middle of the channel and seemed to frolic and play. They smacked their tails on the water, which created a loud slapping sound that took time to reach me on the shore. They peeked their head out of the water in what’s called a “spy hop” and on a few occasions they jumped out of the water, or “breached” and created a giant splash. I’ve never seen anything like it and people on the boat shrieked with joy. I wanted to hoot and holler, too, but kept my composure.
We’ve seen orcas a few times from the property and it’s often bittersweet. They are beautiful animals and we’re fortunate to see them in the wild. But they are also famous and a huge source of tourist dollars for the region. Often, viewing whales from the shore also means viewing a handful of whale watching boats full of tourists. As our neighbors told us early on, the boats are how you know whales are nearby.
This time, it was different. Washington State had instituted a “stay at home” order because of the coronavirus. There are no tourists or whale watching tours. I couldn’t help but think that the whales noticed and were celebrating. They could finally be truly wild and enjoy life without tourist boats following them around.
I took a moment there on the hillside and thought about how this virus had turned the human world upside down and in doing so, created rays of light. I don’t actually believe the whales were celebrating, but I wanted to believe. I wanted to see that this situation was creating joy and happiness for them, at least. I looked down at Maybe laying by my feet, as happy as could be.
As we pushed back through the forest and up the mossy hills, my mind wandered to the deer and whales and dogs. Part of me wanted to be more like them: unconcerned with human problems and feeling more free to splash about. A nap on a mossy rock in the forest could do wonders.
If I told you about an island that was known for watching cormorants and the name of the island was Cormorant Island, it would be safe to assume that the island was named after the bird that calls it home, right? How else would the name originate?
Now imagine an island known for watching orca whales named Orcas Island. Surely the name comes from the whales, right? They are in the water surrounding the island.
The name Orcas Island is even more apt if you know a bit about the orcas in the pacific northwest. Along with “transient” orcas, the Salish Sea is home to three pods of “southern resident killer whales”, which are a distinct population of whales that have been on the endangered species list since 2005.
There are currently 75 southern resident whales, who are closely watched, in part, because their numbers are at a 30 year low and may be falling.
As you might imagine, their plight is big news and I am not immune to feeling the heartbreak. This is especially true now that we live with them in our backyard. Do you remember the national news story of the mother orca who carried the lifeless body of her baby on her back for over two weeks? That’s Tahlequah a southern resident orca. After learning so much about the residents, I couldn’t watch that saga in the news.
Having orca whales in the area is one thing. Having resident whales with names and stories, is another. They feel like OUR whales and it seems entirely logical that an island could be named after them, right?
As it turns out, it’s all a strange and unlikely coincidence.
When we visited the San Juans before living here, I always wondered why this part of Washington bore names that sounded so Spanish. To access the islands from the Pacific, you must pass through the Strait of Juan de Fuca and sail past Port Angeles. Lopez Island is one of the San Juan Islands. These names seemed out of place among very English sounding names like Rainier, Baker, Vancouver, and Washington. Why was this the case?
Along with English explorers like George Vancouver, the Spanish were the first Europeans to explore the pacific northwest in the late 1700s and named much of what they saw. One of those Spanish explorers was Francisco de Eliza.
Eliza was under the command of the Viceroy of New Spain (now Mexico). The Viceroy’s full name was: Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo.
To honor the Viceroy, Eliza named the area around what is now Orcas Island “Horcasitas” and from that point on, the island was known as Horcasitas on Spanish maps.
The English, not satisfied with the Spanish version of names (or native names for that matter) eventually shortened the name to “Orcas” on their charts in 1847. The new, abbreviated name stuck and the island has been known as Orcas Island ever since.
This is why the name is such an interesting coincidence. The name of the island and the name of the whale appears to have no connection at all.
The southern resident orcas were probably swimming these waters when Orcas Island originally got its name. This begs the question: Were the whales named after the island? The short answer is no. Their name comes from their scientific classification as Orcinus Orca (1758), which references a god of the underworld.
For most of their history, they were called blackfish or killer whales because they were seen killing much larger whales. Only in the 20th century did we start calling them orca whales. For the record, orca whales are technically large dolphins.
And so, despite the unlikely origins of the name, there is no more pervasive symbol of Orcas Island than the orcas who live around it. They adorn everything from mailboxes and yard art to cutting boards and yoga outfits that tourists take home as remembrances.
When those visitors arrive home, they might tell stories of seeing orca whales from Orcas Island and it will all seem to make perfect sense. After all, they’re in the water.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Like so many Seattleites, we’ve always aspired to have a house with a view. But it never happened, despite views being relatively common in hilly Seattle. Views of the city, Elliott Bay, or Lake Washington came at a premium that always felt out of reach.
We assumed the same premium would apply on Orcas Island. Surely, a house with a view was out of our price range and we’d be limited to vacant land. Our first visit to the Yurt changed that thinking and now explains why we bought the first and only house we visited.
What we saw that day was a mismatch. The cozy, quirky, Yurt-shaped house was set with a view it didn’t seem to deserve. We thought we’d need millions of dollars, or the means to go back in time 50 years and be a first-mover when properties were first being platted, to have this view. Indeed, this is the story of the Yurt, which was built by people who had the pick of the litter, so to speak, in the seventies.
On that first visit, we were standing on the deck of the Yurt with our realtor, and we thought, “Could this really be ours?” It didn’t seem possible.
In a moment I’ll never forget, a bald eagle then soared right through the view at eye level causing us to chuckle. Our realtor then turned to us with a raised thumb and knowing smile, and jokingly said, “SOLD!” She was right.
The Yurt is positioned atop a bluff at about 270 feet above sea level. It faces west over President Channel and dozens of islands that make up the San Juan Archipelago and the Canadian Gulf Islands. We can see Canada from the Yurt and even Pender Island, where our Canadian friends, Darren and Julie, have plans to build a house. You really can’t get much more geographically northwest in the continental U.S., and it sometimes feels as if we’re reaching out to the Great White North. Or, judging from the “Welcome to Canada!” messages we get on our phones, Canada is reaching out to us.
Looking from the deck, our property extends past long-felled logs, deer tracks, and stumps down to the water where a 15-foot cliff makes a dock impossible. Many have suggested a zip line or funicular, but it ain’t gonna happen.
In my experience, a full accounting of the view requires a bit of time and observation. For example, the more prominent islands in view are either uninhabited (Spieden Island), nature preserves (Flattop Island, Cactus Islands), an off-the-grid community (Waldron Island) or islands so far away it doesn’t matter. This creates a distinct feeling of isolation. In the evenings, when the sun is setting and the boats are all docked, it feels like you’re all alone and looking out over an unspoiled wilderness. There are no lights or signs of human life. The view over the cold water is just as it’s been for hundreds or even thousands of years. I’ve rarely seen nights so dark and stars so bright.
And I am continually fascinated by what’s out there. Because it’s part of the ocean, it seems virtually anything could appear. There is a never-ending supply of boats, from sailboats and fishing boats, to giant cargo ships in the Canadian shipping lanes in the distance. Barges move houses and tug boats pull log booms full of thousands of logs. At least once a day, a little green boat called The Loon travels back and forth to Waldron Island (permanent pop. ~83) with supplies that arrive in the mail at our post office in Deer Harbor on Orcas.
The water itself has become a source of entertainment. Each day, it has a personality that’s driven by tides and winds and storms. It can be the kind of glassy that begs for water skis or a white-capped fury that keeps boats safely in the harbor.
And each of the water’s personalities has a sound that is apparent from the moment you step onto to the deck. On calmer days, it’s a low hum of white noise in the background; a gentle roar generated by a million waves lapping in unison. As the wind picks up, the roar grows and combines with the sound of wind whipping through conifers to drown out all other sounds. If I look closely, it sometimes feels like the tall trees sway to the rhythm of the waves. I love a nice calm day, but storm watching is where my heart is.
The San Juans are known for sea life, which brings tourists in droves. We often see harbor porpoises, harbor seals and sea birds aplenty from the deck. But the real stars of the show are the whales. We don’t see them often, but humpbacks and orcas have both been spotted from the deck. This is somewhat unique on the island, as the west side faces a deep channel where they feed. When island residents visit, they often ask the same question: do you see whales? It still boggles my mind that the answer is, “Sometimes, yes.”
When we first dreamt of property on Orcas Island by the campfire, we never considered the possibility of having a property with this kind of view. We didn’t even know this kind of experience existed. Once we saw it and decided to make an offer, it set in motion of a number of events that continue to this day. The Yurt is fun and perfect for us in so many ways. But it’s just a building. The location, the view and the experience of being on the island could last a lifetime.
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.