Why Orcas Island? Why now? ???

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.

Why Orcas Island

Answering the question, “Why Orcas Island?” isn’t as easy as it sounds. Within that question are bigger questions like, “Why move?” and “Why move to an island?” along with smaller ones like, “Why Orcas, specifically?”

We’ll start with the former.

I think a lot about where our happiness originates and what we can do to keep it flowing. Over our many years together, Sachi and I have become accustomed to changing our lives (and our business) to support what matters to us and what we believe will make us happy. At heart, our move to Orcas Island is a change that we hope sets the stage for future happiness.

While acquiring property and eventually moving to Orcas seemed to happen quickly, it felt like it was a long time coming. As we both approached our forties, our perception of city living started to change in ways large and small. 

Access to nature and the great outdoors is one of the reasons people move to Seattle and it was something we valued. We love being able to drive a short distance and find ourselves floating in the ocean or a lake, climbing a mountain peak or stepping deep into the forest.

In recent years, we’d spend a few days without leaving our home office and say, “Let’s go for a hike!”, which seemed simple enough. But then, we’d think about rush hour traffic leaving town and how to avoid it. We’d choose times and locations to avoid crowds.

And it wasn’t just the outdoors. An evening out might include more traffic, finding (and paying for) parking, shuffling through elevators and escalators, crowded trains, standing in lines, etc. These things aren’t new, or unique to Seattle, but our perception of them was changing. We found ourselves choosing to tune out and stay in more and more.

As much as we love the city, we longed for something different. We imagined living in a smaller place, with fewer people, that still offered access to the outdoors, good food and some of the amenities we enjoy. We imagined being more self-sufficient and finding happiness in simpler pleasures on a day-to-day basis.

Further, aside from connections to our friends and neighbors, we had no formal ties to Seattle, like corporate jobs or kids in school. We started to ask: what’s next?

Looking back, there was never a time when one of us said, “We should move to an island!” but I now believe it was inevitable. Sachi, having grown up in Hawaii, has island living in her DNA and has always imagined a return to that life.

In fact, on our first weekend trip away together, we went to Orcas Island. There, by a beachside fire pit, she told me that she would someday live on Orcas. At the time, I’m sure I just smiled. Sure you will. That was nearly twenty years ago.

Below is what Sachi posted to Instagram the day we officially moved to the island.

Sachi posted to Instagram

Living on an island has always been a romantic notion in my mind, but not one I thought would become a reality. It was never even real enough for me to consider, before the move, the trade-offs and consequences.

For example, Orcas is not big enough to be fully self-sustaining. Most of the island’s population depends on boats that bring supplies like fuel and groceries. This begs the question: what happens if the boats stop coming? You can’t just drive to the next town. This reality has bred a culture of preparation and self sufficiency into Orcas that wasn’t obvious early on.

The price of this isolation is also true for healthcare. The island has family doctors, a dentist, optometrist, vet, etc. But if you need anything specialized, or if something serious happens, getting to a hospital can be a trial. That’s why many people, including us, have airlift insurance.

And some of the retail conveniences of city life are scarce. In Seattle, we could walk to grocery stores and coffee shops. We now drive at least 15 minutes to reach them, when they’re open.

In the winter, much of the island has limited hours or shuts down along with the tourist industry. When the long, wet winter arrives, residents convert to a cozy interior lifestyle. As they say… in summer, it’s Orcapulco, in winter, it’s Orcatraz.

But, it’s a trade-off. We were prepared to deal with whatever came our way because we were seeking change. We knew it wouldn’t be all rainbows and unicorns and that’s part of the fun

Within months of getting the Yurt, we were driving back from a hike with our friend, Tony, who asked, “Why Orcas Island, not another island?” It was a perfectly reasonable question, but not one that I had actually considered myself. To us, Orcas seemed like a given. 

Today, two years later, I stand by most of my response. I told him that we had always loved the island and that Orcas checked more boxes than any island we’d found.

loved the island

It has a combination of natural beauty that is spread across mountain peaks, hiking trails, lazy lakes, rural farms and rocky coastlines that are just a few minutes away.

The View from Mount Constitution (2,400ft)
The View from Mount Constitution (2,400ft)
Moran State Park
Moran State Park

There are no chain stores (aside from a bank), no stoplights and traffic only appears when the ferry arrives. Most businesses are owned and run by people who live on the island.

Buck Bay Shellfish
Buck Bay Shellfish

It sometimes seems like there are more boats than cars and thankfully, the waterways stay traffic free.

Deer Harbor
Deer Harbor

And seeing wild animals is as easy as taking a walk by the water or paddling into the Salish Sea.

An upside down harbor seal
An upside down harbor seal

Orcas has four airports (one on land), and remarkable restaurants and bars that rival any in the city. All in 55 square miles and a few thousand people.

But there is something else about the island that is difficult to define. Over and over, a single word appears on social media in reference to the island: magical. Our friend (and Ready for Rain reader) Carter recently used it to describe his visit.

Soon after we moved, we had a short conversation with a friendly server over lunch and she said something I think about often. She said, “Something I love about Orcas is that it’s a small, rural place, but it has an open mind.”

Coming from Seattle, that felt like what we wanted. And she was right. A few nights ago, we attended a Dolly Parton-themed drag show in a tiny craft cocktail bar called The Barnacle. That kind of event doesn’t happen in many small towns. Maybe that’s part of the magic?

Amenities aside, there is one factor that mattered above all others: being a part of a community. One of my biggest worries in moving to Orcas was not finding people like us. This, we knew, was one of the most important sources of our long term happiness and without it, we may not last. I started to ask about it and everyone said the same thing: your community is here. It’s instant. You’ll find it or it will find you. Today, I am amazed at the accuracy of those words. Our social lives are fuller than we ever expected.

Orcas Island continues to feel like a launch pad for the new life we were seeking. The trade-offs seem minor compared to the possibilities. Now that we’re two years into the adventure and knee deep into a house project, I can only say that we have zero regrets. We are more convinced than ever that Orcas is the place for us. 

Once we have the house done, we imagine executing the idea that first drove all the change. We’ll be in a place, both geographically and in our lives, where we can live a new kind of life, at island speed.


Ready for Rain is  a newsletter that's personal

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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