The View from the Yurt on Orcas Island 🏝🌊🐋⛵️

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.


The View from 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.

Strangely, the lower deck is inaccessible from the unfinished basement
Strangely, the lower deck is inaccessible from the unfinished basement

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.

bald eagle

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.

dozens of islands

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.

stumps down

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.

Spieden Island

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.

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.”

deep channel

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.

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