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The San Juan Islands: Another World

July 19, 2010

Descending the Cairo Side a novel of the traveling life

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Photos by Kit and Diana Herring

We arrive in Anacortes, barely an hour’s distance from Seattle, and the morning is still young.  Leaving the bleak Interstate-Five corridor behind we approach the shore of north Puget Sound.  Views of islands and distant inlets swirl in the morning fog.  Passing through town, anticipation is in the air along with a hint of blue sky to the west.

Finally we drive into the marina from where our boat will depart.  Today Diana and I will visit Camp Norwester on John’s Island to see Shawn, who has been there for two full weeks already.  The Western San Juans, only a few short miles from the Canadian border, exist within a rain shadow and so their micro climate is usually more sunny than that of the eastern shore of Puget Sound.  We look forward to good weather; the summer has been a cold one in Seattle.

The charter boat pushes away from the dock on schedule but the dank cold is too strong to linger very long on deck.  The mists seem to have become even thicker.

1) Departing Anacortes

The vessel crosses the channel between the mainland and the first of the San Juans in thirty minutes.  Now the sun has begun to poke through the clouds and burns clarity into the atmosphere.

2) The weather clears as we reach the islands

The San Juans, for generations home to fishermen and farmers who scraped a living from the unforgiving soil, have now become a playground for the techno-rich of Seattle and their acolytes.  Land values have skyrocketed and it seems every bay and beach has a mansion tucked into its folds.

3) Island summer home

We continue to the west toward John’s Island.  Now we cruise alongside Orcas, where yachts rock gently in the breeze, waiting for their owners to arrive from the corporate worlds of Microsoft or Amazon.  Most of the boats wait in vain.

4) Harbor on Orcas Island

At last we cross the remaining empty sea.  Vancouver Island is visible through the haze, appearing as a great landmass on the horizon.  The sun now dominates the sky and the day is noticeably warmer as we near the dry and barren south side of Spieden Island. We leave it to our left and ponder the exotic animals that wander its forests, descendants of critters who were haplessly hunted for “sport” in the 1970s.

5) Spieden Island

We can see John’s Island, our final destination.  We run along its southern side.  With great incongruity, what looks to be a Sioux Native American village hovers in the tall grass above the beach. We have reached camp.

6) Campers’ tipis

The island has a primitive feel since there is no electricity, roads, or cars.   The few people who own property and summer cabins have to get to the island on their own.  The lack of running water means outhouses are the rule of thumb.  But in return for putting up with inconvenience the reward is a marvelous sense of remote isolation.  Especially for those at Camp Norwester.

7) Main lodge and beach at the camp

The property that hosts the camp, some 100 acres or so, used to belong to Nell Robinson, an eccentric woman who lived alone and raised sheep.

8) Nell Robinson’s house, now the residence of the camp caretaker

Walking around the island we are continually struck by the natural beauty of the Salish Sea and its islands.  You can almost see forever from here.

9) Looking east to Mt. Baker near the Canadian border

10) Another beautiful view

Shawn is happy to see us and for a time, at least, all is well in the world.

11) Shawn (on the left) at a camp sing-along

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