In the past few years, I've seen more of the Pacific Ocean than the Atlantic. Since I live in Tamworth, how is that possible? I guess the White Mountains have captivated my attention here in the summer. Plus, usually once a year, I try to get out and visit my brother, Clay, and his wife, Karen, on Orcas Island, Washington, for a week. This week, I am there.
This says to me that I need to get to the Maine coast as soon as I get back. But what is it about the Pacific that has satisfied my need for the sea? Believe me, that need is pretty strong. In the past, just hearing a CD of waves crashing on the shore would send me scuttling to the Maine coast. To be more specific, what is it about the Salish Sea, located off the coast of Washington?
It's an awesome place. Statistically, the Salish Sea is 6,535 square miles of water that stretches from the coast of British Columbia in the north down past Puget Sound. It is all protected from the open ocean, in the northern section by the long southward reach of Canada's Vancouver Island.
In the middle of this placid sea in the north is a small cluster of U.S. islands called the San Juan Islands. The largest town there, called Friday Harbor, is on San Juan Island. But the biggest island is the mountainous, 57.3-square mile Orcas Island.
Although orca whales ply the waters around the island, it is not named for them but rather a Mexican viceroy named Horcasitas who sent an exploratory expedition north in 1791. Though a few might say they "discovered" it, the indigenous Lummi Indians had lived in the San Juan Islands for centuries.
Orcas Island was special to this tribe, reserved for solitude and vision quests.
One small Lummi village on Orcas Island was at the end of the long East Sound, location of today's only village there — Eastsound. It is a modern place with cars, shops, a grocery store, a library and a modest airport. A small spit of wild land extends into East Sound. Owned by the Lummi today, it is considered sacred and was once the burial ground for their village. Today, it is called Madrona Point, named after a special Northwest tree that loses its outer bark, leaving naked orange/red limbs.
My brother and his wife know I need to revisit wild places on the island when I come. On my annual trip to Orcas this week, I took one rest day after arriving by seaplane.
But the next day, I grabbed my pack and boots and headed for Eastsound from the small hamlet of Deer Harbor. My plans were twofold — to walk around Madrona Point, and later hike 3 miles up to Turtlehead. The summit of Turtlehead is 1,005 feet above the sea directly below it. It is a promontory at the end of a ridge that extends out from a higher mountain called Turtleback (1,510 feet). The trail to Turtlehead is new in the past few years. It passes through a damp forest to a mossy top with great views.
Driving on Orcas Island is a pleasure. There is very little traffic. I drove by a drop-off into the ocean, through farmland and passed through a tall stand of enormous Douglas fir before descending into Eastsound. Then I turned right on the short dead-end street where the trail for Madrona Point was located.
Leaving my vehicle and walking through a small meadow, the transition from modern village to ancient rocky shoreline on sacred land was quick and astonishing as usual. I scrambled along the shore, snapping photos. Down on the rocks between ledges, I passed the carcass of a harbor seal.
Later, after a brief required stop at Darville's Bookstore in Eastsound, I drove back about 3 miles to the trailhead for both Turtleback and Turtlehead.
It started out on a dirt road that wound up through a tall fir forest toward the top of Turtleback. The steep roadside was completely covered with a blanket of fern moss, called that because each small stem looks like a fern.
In a while I caught up with a guy that looked to be in his late 60s. He was struggling a little up the road but was determined keep moving. We acknowledged with a nod and I kept going. Later, for some reason, I wondered if it was the cartoonist Gary Larson, who lives in retirement somewhere nearby on the island. There was a certain glint in his eye.
I reached the side trail to Turtlehead. It dropped down an old logging road into a majestic fir forest. Then it traversed a saddle before winding up to the summit. It was a great trail for meditation and reflection. Giant yellow leaves from the northwest's version of the maple tree were scattered here and there on the moss, each leaf about 6 inches wide.
The trees began to thin, and I climbed up to the mossy top. A low split-rail fence had been put up there by the San Juan Conservation Trust to keep hikers in a small area on top and not trample the rest of the summit, which is completely covered with moss. The view was classic Orcas. Directly below to the southwest was Deer Harbor and West Sound. Beyond the Strait of San Juan De Fuca were the rugged summits of the Olympic Mountains. To the south on the horizon was unearthly Mount Rainier (14,409 feet).
Directly below to the north, set in the placid waters of the Salish Sea, was green Waldron Island. In the channel before it, a large sailing vessel slowly moved forward.
It was good to be back on Orcas.