The islands of Puget Sound offer sublime retreats to those who can afford the opportunity to slow down the tempo of their lives…and/or temporarily suspend their hyper-vigilance in the fight against COVID. Yet challenges arise when islands become treasured spots that cost a fortune to live on. (e.g. Opra just sold a house on Orcas for 4 million.) Finding affordable homes/rentals in the San Juans is next to impossible for those who work in the service industry or artists or even those seeking a quieter life style outside the tech industry. Low income housing has been developed on Lopez and Orcas but this is insufficient. Restaurants lack sufficient staff to stay open. Maybe this fall, we need to give the islands a rest from the onslaught.
Ferries transport you to the islands, from one world to another, from one time to another -Island time. Cars, campers, trailers, commercial trucks and semis line up on the decks of the superstructure to carry passengers and goods to the verdant promontories rising from the Salish Sea. But even with reservations, ferry waits are longer as some boats undergo maintenance. Cafes are closed. (As a kid, getting a meal on board was the ultimate.) And one must wear a mask above the car deck. Some deck hands are resisting mask and vaccination mandates. Knowing where the life preservers are located may not be the most critical information…rather the location of anti-vaxxer staff may be the most important survival tip.
As a kid, the one hour passage to Orcas was my first experience with the cruising life. Rich swells had not discovered the San Juans yet.
Growing up in Bellingham, our family were lucky guests each summer, sharing a family compound on Orcas that was owned by our neighbors. The yellow cabin sat on the edge of a small bay near Olga. A wood burning stove not only heated up our meals and the cabin but supplied hot water for showers. We learned to split wood, so that our parents could stock the fire, and the water would warm and we could luxuriate in hot showers on chilly mornings. The cabin maintained a lovely smoky scent like the steam from a cup of lapsang souchong tea or the aroma from a shot of Laphroaig Whiskey. (Of course as a kid, i had no idea about Lapsang Souchong of Laphroaig, but perhaps that is why I was attracted to these taste sensations as an adult…cabin nostalgia.). Doors and floor board creaked. Old springs in the metal bed frames squeaked. The sun porch bent soft light across the bed that offered views of the Lopez Island and the ferry traffic from Anacortes. And each evening, a stone fireplace cast flickering glow across the living room and the well worn furnishings. This was a unique cozy spot…yet adventure was just outdoors.
Low tide exposed tide pools full of exquisite marine life. Orange and purple starfish clung to the rocks, like stranded aliens on a harsh shore. Tiny crabs scuttled for cover as we turned over rocks, disrupting their routine in the shadows. When the tide came in on a dark night, sometimes phosphorescence traced the paths of fish darting through the shallow water. Each logging truck dumping severed trunks into the bay caused minor tidal waves, and the thundering sound of cascading logs reverberated across the water.
Our family friends purchased an old Bristol Bay double-ender that plied the Alaskan waters prior to the onset of motorized fishing vessels. Canneries wanted to control the fishing and were worried that powerboats would give the fishermen more control. Powerboats were finally allowed in 1951. Though not retrofitted completely, this Bristol Bay had a basic cabin and some wooden planks for berths. We dreamed of hitting the high seas with the beamy wooden boat. On land we constructed a boat (just a few planks acting as freeboard) with a drift wood mast to simulate pirate raids and other high seas adventures. When I returned after high school, my best buddy and two of his siblings and I took the Bristol Bay out in the San Juans on our own and test our abilities. We were Horatio Hornblower wannabes.
I fell in love with islands and have spent time around the world visiting some: Puerto Rico, Desecheo, St Kitts, Nevis, St Thomas, Bahamas, Hawaii, Samoa, Fiji, Java, Bali, Barro Colorado (in the Panama Canal Zone), Philippines, Cook Islands, the San Juans and Vancouver Island. (Some of those trips are documented on this blog.)
And recently my wife and I received the gift of island time on Whidbey Island, a rare island of the NW that is reached both by ferry and a narrow bridge spanning Deception Pass.
Our temporary retreat was near Freeland, on a bluff looking due west to the Olympics. Cruise ships were heading north once again with folks seeking new vistas. We did not have to go anywhere.
Just north of Freeland, is the Holmes Harbor Rod and Gun Club. Just south of Freeland is the Tacoma Zen Monastery and the Enso House, a retreat for those approaching end of life. Approaching Freeland from the north, a pink Caterpillar marks the road, and from the south, The Goose Community Grocer pulls you in. Freeland itself got its name when it was established as a socialist commune in the early 1900s. I am pretty sure some of the shoppers at Pay Less who strutted around without masks, were not aware of the origins of this spot, as they looked for a dose of Ivermectin. As a seeker of space outside the city, I am sure my request for free land would not be met with gracious offers.
Other highlights of Freeland: Whidbey Ice Cream outlet, Rocket Taco, Ace Hardware (with Whidbey Ice Cream bars just in case you run out).
But we rarely ventured into the village. We separated from our iPads and kept iphones at a distance, while cracking open a few books hauled along for the duration.
And we actually finished several. My niece’s new novel Fierce Little Thing kept us up into the night with the engaging story of a group of friends returning to the scene of a murder committed when all were young and participating in a cult. In Coupeville, we found an unedited version of the Count of Monte Christo. Michele has read the classic story of revenge served cold multiple times, and I have read it aloud to her once. Reading Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot mysteries puts her in stitches when I imitate David Suchet’s Poirot accent as he puts faith in his “little grey cells”. What I lack in the way of mustache, I make up with much panache.
I have a weakness for pies, so when I heard Greenbank Farm had fresh pie, we had to break the spell of calm…and make an urgent run. It was worth the indulgence. Whenever we travel in the US, I usually pull off the road for pie. Michele recognizes when the fixation appears as a glazed look of sweet desperation. This time was no exception. We sampled several, including a gluten-free Marion Berry pie. Michele makes better pies (amazing flaky crusts) but this does not dissuade me from seeking bliss elsewhere.
Looking for a kimono, try Coupeville. I had seen a young woman crossing the quiet street in full kimono attire and could not resist tracking her down to this shop, Jan McGregor Studios. Who knew we were interested in the robes, but we took two for lounging attire. The harbormaster’s wife worked the register and worked part-time in the bookstore.
We ran into Harbormaster Bill on the dock. He was the one shouting and wildly waving his hands at an approaching pontoon motorboat to get them to slow down. An inebriated boater, drink in hand, weaved her way back along the dock to a large stinkpot where another round of cocktails was in the works. Next to our lunch table sat a bronze bell to be rung if whales are sighted. Maybe they should ring it for the next round as their guests arrived.
Walking back along the dock, we meandered around painters who were capturing impressions of the shoreline in oils. All had easels with canvas that showcased various levels of ability, though all were enthusiastically rendering the peaceful cove. I could never handle such intense scrutiny by the cognoscenti or even the not so cognoscenti. I draw in private as a closet artist.
Coupeville’s Kingfisher bookstore offered to emboss covers of the sketch books, so I invested in the glory of having my name on a book cover. How often would I get the chance? It looks grand…now I am under some obligation to fill the pages with something other than manic scribbles. It deserves better.
The owner of Kingfisher was surprised by a couple asking if a camera had been left at the store. Then in a blinding glimpse of the obvious, she realized that of course she did, and had been keeping the camera for two years after it was found waterlogged on the beach. Some time after retrieving the camera, a customer dropped in, and curious about the camera asked if he might check to see if a disk was inside. Sure enough. He got permission to see if he could retrieve any images. He found photos of a woman at a school. Kid’s sweatshirts in the image had the school name. He went on line, and Sure Enough, there was the image of the woman who was a teacher. He contacted the school and the teacher, and the circle was completed. In all the excitement and loving confusion on their wedding day, the owners of the camera had left it behind. Seawater had ruined all but the disk. She and her husband (with their newborn) were so appreciative of all that helped reunite them with their camera and past. They bought a book as a gift for the amateur detective who made the connections.
Prompted by this serendipitous moment, the owner told of another marriage moment that occurred right where we were standing (waiting for the embossing) next to an arm chair. A gentleman used to drop by, over a period of two years, and sit in the armchair to call a friend. From the owners perspective, this guy seemed to be trying to entice his acquaintance to join him, though some of the conversations sounded contentious. But one day he walked in with the lady, asked her to sit in the very same armchair and bent down on one knee to ask for her hand in marriage. She said yes.
Independent bookstores make the magic happen!
Well stocked with books, pies, ice cream and kimonos, we settled back at our retreat.
Others were curious as to our intentions. Both the hummingbird and the Douglas squirrel joined us briefly in the living room. Michele managed to escort both safely outdoors, along with a mother and fledgling junco. Given the expanse of windows close in feel to the Philip Johnson Glass House, these native species felt they had clear passage through. The yearling managed to stick with the doe, and avoided the apparent inside passage across the property.
Hummingbirds have a way of approaching within just a few feet and giving you that most curious look – what are you doing, are you friend or foe? After hovering and flashing their color in the face off, they dart to the nearest flower. They must have been very perplexed by the two of us attempting yoga on the upper deck. We are new to yoga and not as yet devotees, but stretching in various positions while facing the sunsets over the Olympic Peninsula…well it was worth the pain. Fish were leaping in the tidal rip. Osprey would go by carrying a recent catch. A Bald Eagle sat like a sentinel on a fir just down the slope. As dusk approached, bats careened around the fir trunks. Breathe in….exhale and do the downward dog. Try not to howl in pain.
In our second week at the cabin, we did make a few excursions across the island. North of Coupeville you begin to notice the “sound of freedom”. Prowler jets on maneuvers sweep in low over the village of Oak Harbor and highway 20, shattering island peace with terrific sonic roars. Not only do these pilots make sacrifices for America, but so do all the residents sacrificing their mental well being under the flyway.
We kept on trucking all the way to Edison and the Breadfarm. We did not make the stop for the bread (though it is delicious…I make my own.)
We went for a variety of goodies they also bake, and set to nibbling right away. But not too much because Slough Food is next door, and offered lunch.
The slough does not offer a tidal bore, but the incoming tidal surge is impressive.
By lovely serendipity, I recognized another visitor as Ann Morris, an artist living on Lummi Island. Reintroducing myself, I reminded her of our visit to her studio in 2019.
The Sculpture Woods is open to the public on the first Saturday of each month from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Ann Morris will be showing her recent work at the Smith & Vallee Gallery in Edison this November 5th -28th.
One more stop on the way back to Whidbey was the Museum of Northwest Art in La Conner. We were lucky to hit the spot when it was open and exhibiting the work of an artist who is a member of the Lummi Nation, Dan Friday.
On our last day in Freeland, we did our daily walk through the fields and along the beach at low tide. We left a tree of life set in the driftwood, and traced the steps of Blue Herons in the exposed sand before the tide washed all traces of our presence.