DEER HARBOR, Wash. —
Reach, dip and pull. Reach, dip and pull.
There is something hypnotic in the motion of kayaking across a glassy surface. The swoosh of the paddle cutting through the water, the measured in-out breathing with each leisurely dig, might lull a sportsman into taking a marine excursion a bit too casually.
But here, in the lee of Orcas Island, we were safe from winds and whitecaps. Among the sheltered bays and inlets of Washington’s San Juan Islands, there are plenty of rocky shoals and breakwaters to impede the bluster of ocean-borne weather.
Photographer Barb Gonzalez and I paddled from the Deer Harbor marina on a recent Tuesday morning with the summer sun shining through a scattering of puffy clouds. A bare hint of breeze stroked our cheeks as we slipped into a tandem craft and headed out to explore the waters of the archipelago with Shearwater Kayaks, a longtime local outfitter.
Our five-mile route took us past tiny, wooded Fawn Island — uninhabited and for sale — and slightly larger Reef Island, its half-dozen private residences accessible only by boat. We wove around dumbbell-shaped McConnell Island and gazed across a seaweed-clogged channel toward Yellow Island, where Native Americans once gathered camas root. We cruised along the shore of Crane Island to shallow Pole Pass, then passed an abandoned fruit-packing dock as we returned to Deer Harbor.
At one point, as we got a glimpse across Spring Passage to San Juan Island, the most populous in the 172-island archipelago, I looked to the north and spotted Canada’s Vancouver Island in the distance. I could turn right here, I thought, and point myself up the Inside Passage all the way to Alaska.
Then again, I was having such a good time on Orcas Island, I knew I wouldn’t be paddling away anytime soon.
Life on Orcas
Surprisingly, perhaps, we saw no orcas while kayaking. Contrary to common belief, the island does not take its name from the “killer whales” of surrounding waters, but from a Mexican viceroy, Juan Vicente Horcasitas, who commissioned an exploratory voyage to the area in 1791.
Fewer than 5,000 people live on Orcas, which covers 57 square miles but has 70 miles of coast. The easiest way to get there is a 50-minute ferry ride from Anacortes, 85 miles north of Seattle.
Shaped like a broad horseshoe, quiet and pastoral, Orcas is split almost in two by a 10-mile-long channel known as East Sound. The island’s only true town, Eastsound, is located at the head of the sound. Around the island are five other small villages, two state parks, and scores of artists’ studios and exclusive estates.
Although we kayaked along several rocky shorelines, we paddled at high tide, so we were unable to see the wealth of intertidal life that lives in these pools. We made up for it with a visit to Obstruction Pass State Park, at the southeastern corner of East Sound.
Nowhere have I seen more sea stars than in the crevices of this tidal shelf. Bright orange or purple, sometimes a rosy transition between the two, the five-armed invertebrates clung tightly to the rocks — and to one another — with their hundreds of tiny, tube-like feet.
Occasionally these docile-looking marine predators had captured a small mollusk; mainly, they stayed as still as stones, waiting for the twice-daily tide to cover them once more.
There are two ways to get into Obstruction Pass — by boat or by foot. We chose the latter option, parking our car at the end of a gravel road and walking a little over half a mile, on a path cleared through stinging nettles and twisting madrona trees, to a small, primitive campground near the shore.
As we approached, a passing hiker asked: “Did you see it? The white deer?”
We hadn’t, but we did. In a campground clearing, a piebald deer — mainly white, but speckled with a bit of brown — stared at us from a thicket.
It turns out this was not an albino black-tail deer, but a hybrid animal descended from a herd of European fallow deer once kept on nearby Spieden Island. When a privately owned game reserve on that island was closed, some of the deer swam five miles east across the President Channel to Orcas, where they interbred and created a new herd.
Moran and Rosario
Mount Constitution, at 2,409 feet the highest point in the San Juan Islands, is at the heart of Orcas’ other state park. Covering 5,252 acres (8.2 square miles, about one-seventh of the island), this park ascends from coast to mountain summit. It includes two large natural freshwater lakes and three smaller ones, more than 38 miles of hiking trails, 144 campsites and an abundance of architecture by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps.
The first thing we did upon entering the park was to drive the narrow, switch-backing paved road to the top of the mountain. The view is not 360 degrees, as we had expected — but it is spectacular nonetheless. Extending mainly to the east and northeast, the panorama looks across the city of Bellingham to Mount Baker and the crest of the North Cascades. The blues of the water and sky, contrasting with the greens of the conifer forests and the snow-topped peaks rising behind them, are the essence of the Pacific Northwest.
Atop Mount Constitution (named for an early explorer’s ship) is a bastion-like stone observation tower built by CCC crews in 1935-36. Designed by a noted Seattle architect and built of hand-cut Orcas Island sandstone, the rectangular tower was the crowning achievement of eight years of work by the corps between 1933 and 1941. The medieval structure has thick stone walls with slit windows, heavy wooden doors and a carved balustrade — and it doubles as a fire lookout.
According to interpretive plaques, the park was gifted to the state in 1921 by Robert Moran, a wealthy Seattle shipbuilder who had retired to Orcas in 1906 at the age of 49. Because the Washington State Legislature did not then allocate funds for park maintenance, Moran invested his own money to build roads, trails, bridges and concrete entrance arches. Many of the park’s later sandstone buildings, including its ranger station, were built by the CCC.
Moran’s private mansion, halfway up the eastern shore of East Sound, was called Rosario. Constructed with an eye to his teak-and-brass nautical past, it was massive yet elegant and gracious, like an ocean-going vessel. Yet he embraced the blossoming Arts and Crafts movement in the design and craftsmanship. There’s no better example than the Music Room, which features a two-story, 1913 Aeolian pipe organ on which public concerts are presented at 4 p.m. daily in summer.
Beyond the rich mahogany paneling and stained-glass lighting, however, no pictures were hung on the walls of the Rosario manor. Instead, Moran chose to focus on the natural views through a great many large windows. He hired famed landscape architects the Olmsted Brothers to enhance the grounds, and their work remains one of the enchantments of Rosario today.
Five years before his 1943 death, Moran sold Rosario for $50,000. Three owners later, in 1960, it was converted to a handsome resort. But visitors need not have a room reservation to explore the manor and its grounds, listen to a concert or dine in the restaurant.
It seems that all roads on Orcas lead to the town of Eastsound, where the two sides of the island join. Indeed, if you’re traveling between the west side of the island (the ferry terminal and Deer Harbor) and the east side (the state parks), you’ll be guided through the community by directional signs.
One bayside road, Main Street, sweeps past a couple of inns and restaurants, shops and galleries, and a tide-dependent corridor to tiny Indian Island. A pair of side streets — North Beach Road and Prune Alley — extend north lined with additional cafes and shops, offering gifts, collectibles and candies.
Also on North Beach Road is the Orcas Island Historical Museum. The collections are housed in six early settlers’ cabins, dated from the 1870s to 1890s, disassembled from around the island and reconstructed on site in the 1950s and 1960s.
The community of Eastsound extends a mile and a half across the island isthmus to a small commercial airport. Nearby is a beach facing Sucia and Patos islands, northernmost in the San Juan chain, each of them an individual state park. Water taxis carry hikers and campers, bikers and paddlers to these islands for day and overnight adventures.
There are some wonderful artists’ ateliers in Eastsound — the Jillery, Creative Edge Gallery and Art of the Salish Sea, to name but three. Still, my favorites are located elsewhere on the island. East and south of the main town are collector Leo Lambiel’s elegant, appointment-only Lambiel Museum of fine art and The Orcas Island Artworks, a cooperative of 50 island artists, in the village of Olga.
Two fine pottery studios are on the west side. The original location of Crow Valley Pottery & Gallery occupies a two-room cabin built in 1866. And at Orcas Island Pottery, for 65 years situated at the end of a gravel road near West Beach, visitors can watch ceramists at work.
We chose to lodge in a moderately priced, rural bed-and-breakfast inn, whose peaceful, pastoral setting offered no distractions.
Bill and Susan Fletcher have owned and operated the Turtleback Farm Inn since 1985. Now great-grandparents, they continue to pamper guests in their 19th-century farmhouse, while tending Scottish longhorn cattle and hungry sheep (one of them is nicknamed “Chomper”) on 80 acres of pasture and woodland.
Attached to the quaint dining room of the inn is a broad deck, where a white-linen gourmet breakfast may be served as the morning sun illuminates the fields and an apple orchard. The living room offers posh seating beside a classic Rumford fireplace, and the guest rooms — seven in this building, four in the nearby Orchard House — boast private baths, many with claw-foot soaking tubs.
Bill Fletcher told me the story of the Turtleback Mountain Preserve, which rises to more than 1,500 feet immediately west of his farm. Once earmarked for private development, the primitive conifer-and-oak woodland was protected in 2006 after a partnership between the San Juan County Land Bank, the San Juan Preservation Trust and the Trust for Public Land raised $18.5 million through private donations in a matter of months.
Today, miles of trails weave around and over Turtleback Mountain. Hikers venture through the 1,576-acre wildlife refuge on a daily basis; horses and mountain bikes alternate use on an even-odd, every-other-day basis. The trails cross open grasslands and pass pocket wetlands to viewpoints with outstanding views to the north, west and south, taking in Shaw and San Juan islands, the Olympic Peninsula and the Canadian Gulf Islands.
One might assume that, for islanders to donate $18.5 million for a natural preserve, there might be a few deep pockets on Orcas. In fact, the roster of full-time and part-time residents includes film producers Richard Donner and Warren Miller, author Richard Bach and cartoonist Gary Larson. As well, many corporate business executives — including surfboard and sailboat designer Hobie Alter and Oakley eyewear founder Jim Jannard — make their homes on this quiet island.
On our kayaking excursion, guide Wyatt Hersey pointed out a couple of the elegant waterfront homes as we paddled past.
After the trip, Shearwater Kayaks founder Tom Carter exulted in the cool but sunny weather. But he had a postscript comment for a visiting travel writer and photographer.
“You can see how beautiful it is here,” said Carter. “That’s why I’m perplexed about a slight decline in our summer business. I blame iPhones.”
“It’s those weather apps,” he said. “I’ve had guests cancelling reservations because their weather app tells them it’s raining here. I’m looking out the window, and the sun is shining, and we haven’t had rain all day. But they’d still rather believe their phone app than believe me.”
They don’t have any idea how they’re missing out.