Before bed on the night I arrived in the San Juan Islands, the island chain that sits as far northwest as you can go in this country before hitting Canada, I decided, as any reasonable person would, not to set an alarm clock.
The water. The pines. The floating home I had rented for three nights. They would conspire to wake me when seeing fit. The wild, peaceful northwest corner of the United States would be my alarm clock.
Sure enough, as orange light sliced through the blinds the next morning, the alarm rang: the squawk of a sea gull perched just outside my loft bedroom. I peeked through the window, but it was already gone; instead I saw a hulking green-and-white ferry streaming slowly away from the island.
I dressed, made a cup of coffee and stepped out into the marina. The air was impossibly bright and clean, and I breathed it deeply as I strolled past bobbing boats with names like Just Right, Sea Hunter and Si Horse. All was quiet. On the boat next to my floating home sat a woman with an airy, bronzed hairdo, a quick smile and a raspy laugh. It turned out to be my landlord.
Wendy Beckler was smoking a cigarette and reading a beat-up paperback as her calico cat, Kismet Ariel Braveheart — Kizzie for short — sauntered around her feet. Beckler told me about life on the islands, where people rarely lock their cars or homes but are diligent about locking their dumpsters because getting trash to the mainland is among the steepest expenses of island life.
She said that she and her husband, Rick Thompson, sleep on the houseboat I was renting for much of the year, but when they find a tenant, they head to a patch of land deep in the island where they park their camper. The land is so densely tree filled, she said, you’d never know you’re on an island or even near water.
“It’s like you could be in America,” Wendy said.
“Wait — this isn’t America?” I asked, because surely it was. Canada sat a couple of miles across the water.
“No,” she said and laughed her raspy laugh. “This is home.”
I saw her point. The San Juan Islands don’t quite feel quite like the America I had left behind on the mainland. Life moves slowly, and people are friendly in the San Juans. There are few, if any, chain stores. Most important, as a visitor, you’re beholden to the ferries. Nothing happens without them.
Getting to the San Juans most often begins with a slow ride on one of those ferries, which stream several times a day between Anacortes, Wash., about 80 miles north of Seattle, and the islands. This is where the adventure, and foray into the San Juans’ moody beauty, begins.
On a misty Wednesday afternoon, while the locals spent the 90-minute ride reading novels or staring into their laptops, I opted for the bow, to stand beneath a swarm of greasy gray clouds and watch the endless rock and pine on either side of the boat. I was soon joined by three young nurses from North Carolina who were intent on some whale watching.
“Look how blue the water is,” one of them said.
“That’s not blue — it’s green,” said another.
“Well, it’s not the brown stuff we got at home,” was the response.
They left it there.
The San Juans comprise 172 named islands, about 30 of which are inhabited. Four are served by the ferries. I was headed for the two largest in the chain: Orcas and San Juan. I would be exploring both, but staying on San Juan Island, in the town of Friday Harbor (the islands’ major metropolis with a population of 2,140), for one simple reason: that floating home.
In a chain of islands, I wanted to sleep as close to the water as possible. Online research led me to the two-story floating cottage tucked into a marina slip. It made for a wonderful place to start and finish the day: the ferries’ echoing horn, the squawking gulls, the harbor’s gentle rhythm. But days were for exploring.
At 55 square miles, San Juan Island is small and manageable but varied and complex. I saw pine forest; lush, rolling fields that could have fooled me as rural Kentucky; the windswept grassy plains of American Camp, on the island’s southern tip; rocky shores; the tony town of Roche Harbor, where gleaming yachts dock; state and national parks; and even a lavender farm that blooms bright purple in summer. There are hiking, biking, kayaking, whale watching (in season) and quality restaurants to fill the belly. On clear days, the handsome, solitary, snow-capped Mount Baker emerges on the mainland to the east. Not bad for 55 square miles.
The next morning began with a similar but different alarm: the booming drone of a ferry announcing its arrival. After breakfast, I was back on one of those ferries, headed to Orcas Island, where a man in a Seattle Mariners sweatshirt pointed out Mount Rainer, another snowy behemoth, in the distance.
Orcas, a touch larger than San Juan, also is denser, wilder and easier to get disoriented on with its twisting roads. I spent much of the day hiking to the highest point in the islands, Mount Constitution, which winds through a wonderful forest of mossy rocks and trees to a 2,400-foot summit that offers grand views of the islands and, in the hazy distance, Vancouver.
The reward was a stop at the islands’ only brewery, Island Hoppin’, which was packed with more people in their 20s than I expected to find on such a quiet island. Then the crowd headed over to The Lower Tavern, a Friday night hot spots for its karaoke. A happy crowd took turns at the microphone with pints of Pabst Blue Ribbon in hand.
A woman who had just finished Proud Mary took a seat in my booth, asked where I was from and said Orcas Island was the place to be that night. I couldn’t argue.
I signed up to sing, but the clock was ticking because getting back to my floating home meant I had to catch the midnight ferry.
I missed my song but made the boat with minutes to spare. The ship pulled out and began the slow chug back to San Juan Island, across miles of water stretched like a shimmering black canvas. Off on the horizon, a purple-orange haze glowed – lights, presumably, coming from America.