Although I’m from the Pacific Northwest, I hadn’t heard of the San Juan Islands until my mid-twenties, when I was living in New York and dating my now husband, Alex, who grew upon Orcas. It’s embarrassing to admit, but I feigned knowledge of his seemingly exotic origins— pre-Google, it took me weeks to figure out that the San Juans were not some Caribbean island-nation but an archipelago of about 175 forested and rocky islets scattered along the Salish Sea, which separates Washington State from Vancouver Island, British Columbia.
(Orcas is the largest of the four reachable by passenger ferry.) I’d listened to Alex’s stories about having just 35 people in his graduating class, taking a ferry to play a rival basketball team, not to mention sailing, hiking, and fishing after school—there being no malls or 7-Elevens to slack in. But it wasn’t until I visited a few years later that I finally grasped how tiny and off the grid the island really is—you can drive the 20 miles from Deer Harbor, on the western edge of the M-shaped island, to Doe Bay, on the far eastern side, in about 35 minutes—or how Mowgli-esque his childhood had been.
Alex’s family’s home is on the eastern lobe, where we spend most of our time. It’s a mountainous, lush area, heavily forested with Douglas firs and enormous cedars. The best hiking and all of the clear freshwater lakes are here too, which means its where swimming and cliff-jumping take place. (The latter is an Orcas teen light of passage that Alex introduced our New York friends to when they decamped to the island for our wedding—the groom and officiant took the plunge about an hour before the ceremony.) The center of the island is mainly rolling farmland with grazing sheep and horses, while the western side is dry and rocky and the vegetation a little scrubbier, giving it a vaguely Mediterranean feel. It’s also, in my opinion, the most beautiful part of this place, and where you’ll find the stunning Four Winds Westward Ho—a throwback of a sailing camp that’s been around since the 1920s.
Anyone can enroll their kids, as we do, though to my daughter’s dismay the girls still wear bloomers and middies. Aside from a few more places to cat, and the introduction of stand-up paddleboarding to the island’s water sports repertoire, Orcas looks remarkably as it did when I first arrived 20 years ago. And with no stoplights, big-box chain stores, or tall buildings, it has seemingly changed little in more than a century. The San Juans’ first recorded inhabitants, the coastal Salish tribes, considered Orcas to be a sacred place.
There’s a part of the island, Madrona Point—a wild, rocky outcropping thick with twisted, ruddy-barked madrona trees that grow right down to the water—that only Lummi nation tribal members are allowed to access. Orcas’s first white settlers were Hudson Bay men sent in the mid-1850s to hunt black-tailed deer—and who, knowing a good thing when they saw it, decided to stay on, marry local Lummi women, and become homesteaders rather than return to Vancouver Island.
The 1960s and 70s somewhat predictably brought artists, organic farmers, and other idealists looking for utopian simplicity, while the 1980s, when my in-laws moved to Orcas from Oregon to take over the local newspaper, saw a bizarrely diverse set of transplants.
They included followers of the spiritual sect Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment (leader JZ Knight, who claimed to channel a 35,000-year-old sage named Ramtha, moved her publishing operations to the island— Ramtha’s sword is supposedly buried somewhere on Mount Constitution); Hollywood types like producer Richard Donner (of Goonies and Lethal Weapon fame); and outdoor-brand moguls such as surfboard and sailboat designer Hobie Alterand Oakley eyewear founder Jim Jannard. In the 1990s, Microsoft money quietly flowed into the San Juans (Bill Gates owns property on nearby Shaw, Paul Allen on Lopez) in the form of subtly expensive, beautifully constructed post-and-beam summer homes. Recently, in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, a wavelet of young entrepreneurs, artists, and farmers relocated to Orcas to pursue their passions without the high risk, rent, and competition of big cities.
But regardless of when locals arrived, they all cite similar reasons for staying: the island’s pulse-charging natural beauty (there’s even a cringeworthy term for the landscape’s dizzying effect—Orcasm) and its almost primordially human pace. Days arc planned around the weather and tides and remain free of mainland intrusion, since cell phonesonly work in the town of Eastsound (and only sometimes). But also, without fail, they’ll pause, shrug, and resort to words like calling, magical, and spiritual. Clearly there is magic at play. But for me, it’s not the type that comes from Ramtha’s buried sword. Rather, it’s from returning again and again to an island that so gracefully captures all that is glorious about summer.