North From Seattle
Cruising The Briefly Embattled San Juan Islands
August/September 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 4
Friday Harbor, the commercial center, is deceptively ramshackle. Old wooden houses climb a steep hill above a waterfront alive with million-dollar yachts and sailboats and the continuous coming and going of huge Washington State ferries, announced by blasts on their deep horns. From the front terrace of the excellent Whale Museum, set high over the harbor, a magical view takes in distant islands and the silver-glinting sea. Off in those waters reside the whales the museum lovingly portrays. Taped voices of the orcas, mournful and musical, ring through the tall, raftered building. The skeletal remains of a 20-foot male orca hang from the ceiling, made poignant by the details of his final days. He was last seen alive, I read, on July 23, 1977; his carcass washed up on Vancouver Island on August 5. “Cause of death unknown.” Luckily the island offers good possibilities for live sightings of three local pods (about 90 whales in all) at Lime Kiln Point State Park, billed as the nation’s only whale-watching park.
One of the best things about this particular trip is the amount of time, a full day or more, allotted to each port, allowing one to explore without fear of missing the boat. When we were in Victoria, one couple took off for distant parts to dine at a famous restaurant and made it back safely before a late-night sailing. Another plus is having a naturalist aboard. On our trip John Scheerens, an Alaskan who gave lively talks in the ship’s lounge on the history of places we were visiting and, most notably, the geography and geology that shaped the waters that carried us there.
After the civilized pleasures of Friday Harbor, we sailed off to spend the next day at two islands in the San Juan chain that, except for day-trippers, are uninhabited. Sucia can be reached by commuter ferry. It has manageable hiking trails and wide sandy beaches strewn with silvered driftwood, tokens of the second-growth forest that forms its core. Prevalent is Sitka spruce, which, John Scheerens explained, is even today better than any other product for repairing parts of airplanes and musical instruments. The island’s isolation, its proximity to the border, and the caves that pock it helped smuggling become a big industry in the 180Os. Not only drugs and liquor moved in and out of these isolated shores; humans did too. Chinese laborers were hidden here until they could be moved into Washington to work the railroads. Sometimes, it was rumored, when the authorities pursued them at sea their captors got rid of the evidence of by throwing them overboard.
We landed on Sucia Island in inflatable rafts carried aboard the Yorktown and made the final yard to shore by foot, in a “wet landing” that was the essence of soft, very soft, adventure. Later, as we sailed back to the Yorktown Clipper , the crew of a small fishing boat called us over, pointing to their dinghy floating behind. A furry head poked up; it belonged to a baby harbor seal that had found a cushy berth and didn’t seem at all ready to give it up.
At the end of the cruise and even after visits to Victoria and Vancouver, passengers agreed that the tiny island of iMatia, with its thickly rooted paths through a never logged true old-growth forest, was the best part of the trip. Some people followed our naturalist on what several returning walkers reported was a scary hike (“had to watch my feet more than anything else,” said one). I opted out and carefully made my way along on my own, following a sketchy trail. I was ready to turn back at any time, but I just kept going, lured by the evocative scent of ancient rotting leaves, the sight of enormous mats of ferns, and the filtered sun that spotlighted textures of root and bark. Walls of rock rose suddenly in front of me, and huge fallen logs seemed to promise no way forward; then I would find a way. At one moment the quiet hum of insects was broken by the manic hammering of an outsized pileated woodpecker. It was clinging to a tree at least 40 feet above me, but I could see each individual wood chip flying.
The trip wound up in Vancouver, where the art museum was holding a definitive exhibit on Emily Carr, a wonderful Canadian painter of the 1920s and 1930s and later a successful writer. She spent much of her working life on islands not far from where we had sailed. “Air moves between each leaf. Sunlight plays and dances,” she wrote. “Nothing is still now. Life is sweeping through the spaces. Everything is alive. The air is alive. The silence is full of sound.”
Emily Carr had a lifetime to listen to these ancient forests. I had part of a day. But thanks to a journey on a graceful small ship I made a start.