Published Date Written by Ed ParsonsAn important part of travel is returning, and seeing home and with renewed appreciation. I just got back from spending a week visiting my brother and his wife, who live on Orcas Island, located in the Salish Sea off Washington state. It is a strikingly beautiful place.
I remember one brief conversation I had with an islander there, when I commented on how wonderful Orcas Island and vicinity was. She asked where I was from, and I said the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Her immediate response indicated she had been here, and found it lovely as well. "Many people call the White Mountains one of the most beautiful places in the world," I affirmed, paraphrasing various world travelers who have commented extensively on the diversity of color and climate found here.
Now back home, that interaction comes to mind. And, it is also time to look back at my stay in the far northwest.
My brother, who lived in the Bay Area for many years, retired in a beautiful and challenging place. Orcas Island, at 57 square miles, is the largest island in the San Juan Islands. They are located in the middle of the Salish Sea, an 18,000 square kilometer network of coastal waterways between the southwestern tip of British Colombia and the northwestern tip of the state of Washington. Puget Sound is part of this, and located southeast of the San Juan Islands.
Most of this body of water is protected from the swells of the open Pacific by Canada's Vancouver Island (the Canadian city of Victoria is located on the southern tip of Vancouver Island, and is actually south of Orcas Island). Calm seas make the Salish Sea a great place for boating, and island culture. Human culture there goes back to the undisturbed Lummi Indians. Today, about 4, 500 people live on Orcas Island alone.
The islands are serviced by the Washington State Ferry system. The largest of these ferries are capable of carrying up to hundred cars and easily fit trailer trucks along with cars. They leave from the mainland port of Anacortes. It take an hour and a half to get to the Orcas Island landing, stopping a couple times at other islands along the way.
This was my second time out there visiting. Three years ago, I went in the winter, usually the rainy season. The San Juan's get less rain than Seattle because of the intervening Olympic Range, but they still get quite a lot.
But I lucked out and got some clear days. I climbed 2,409 foot Mount Constitution, the highest peak on the island, perhaps comparable to Mount Chocorua in difficulty. It is located in Moran State Park, a place of steep hills and mountain lakes. There is a road up the other side to the top, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps. A stone tower on top is patterned after a 12th Century watchtower of the Caucasus Mountains. The view from it is said to be one of the best island vistas in the world. Also seen on the mainland to the west, the snowy Cascade Range rises, culminating in the 10,781 foot volcano called Mount Baker (incidentally, the second most active volcano in the northwest).
David Eastman who writes Country Ecology for this paper, once spent time in the northwest as a helicopter pilot. To describe the San Juan Islands themselves, he said take the White Mountains and flood them with water half way up. You get evergreen summits poking out of a blue sea. That's about it, though the evergreens out there are mostly Douglas fir. These trees are so prolific, that my brother jokingly calls them "weeds," possibly because he also has to pull them up in his landscaped yard.
On my trip this year, I had two objectives. One was to go out in my brother's 35 foot boat with him, something I wasn't able to do in the winter, when it is covered. The other was to do more hiking.
Both happened. From the Deer Harbor Marina, I went out three times with him in his boat. I soon discovered that the view of the distant Cascades Mountains is common out on the water, and combined with sky, islands and water, made for amazing scenery.
In our second voyage, his wife came along and we sailed west for 12 miles to Stuart Island. We tied to a buoy in Reid Harbor, and took his small Zodiac dingy into a pier.
Part of this island is a state park, the rest is private and Coast Guard owned. We hiked for 2.5 miles, first through forests of Doug fir and the bright tan madrone tree (pronounced ma-dro-na), an ancient species of tree that has bark that breaks up and peels off, leaving it, in effect, partially naked. Surprisingly, it is a member of the Arbutus genus, and related to the tiny mayflowers of the White Mountains, though its twisted thick limbs easily reach 50 feet.
We walked out of the state park and along a dirt road, with a few houses of year round residents. Soon were back in the forest and descending steeply on the winding road to Turn Point Light. This is an old lighthouse first built in 1893, and automated on 1974. It is located next to a sharp bend in the wide and deep Haro Strait, used by big ships heading north to the city of Vancouver-- hence the name Turn Point. Turn Point itself is the most northwest spot in the continental United States. Briefly, when I scrambled down a short way on a conglomerate cliff above a kelp garden in the sea, I was the most northwest person in the country.
The next day, I hiked up Mount Pickett (1,850 feet), also located in Moran State Park. The state park was named after Seattle shipbuilder and mayor Robert Moran.
He had a stressful life and a heart condition in the city, and was told by doctors that he only had a year to live. He decided to move to Orcas Island, and in 1906, began the construction of an estate there that he called Rosario. He moved there, and quietly lived another 38 years. In 1927, he donated 2,700 acres of mountainous land located near his estate to the state of Washington. Today, Moran State Park is 5, 252 acres.
Although most of the original Douglas fir there were cut in the late 19th century to help built Seattle — something that occurred on every island in the San Juan's-- the forest has since grown back to a substantial height.
There are also a few steep and out of the way spots with virgin trees, like the western slope of Mount Pickett down to Mountain Lake. Mountain Lake is an emerald body of water tucked between the steep slopes of Mount Pickett and Mount Constitution.
It was a cloudy day with sprinkles that I climbed Mount Pickett and walked around the picturesque Mountain Lake. The Douglas fir and western cedar trees in this moist area are gigantic, and reminiscent of redwoods. Everything is covered with moss or some other greenery.
On the last day of my visit I got up early, took the ferry with my brother to Anacortes, where he did some errands. Then he drove me south to Seattle, located an hour and a half away. As we made our way through the skyscrapers of downtown Seattle, the summit of 14,411 foot Mount Rainier appeared to the southeast, and the mountain came fully into view as we headed for the airport south of town. It was a pleasant way to end this visit to the green and wild northwest.
And when I arrived home it was a reminder that during the four seasons of the White Mountains, in any small nook tucked away in the forest, such beauty can be easily found.