All of Summer in a Day on San Juan Island

28 August 2019

Some days are just meant for an escape. Such was the 28th of August. We had actually planned our escape. We had checked the weather forecast. My Driver made reservations on the Anacortes ferry. I made egg and cheese sandwiches and packed juice and grapes for a breakfast on the road – or in the ferry line. I charged my cameras and made sure I had extra chip space; ice water; a jacket and snacks for the meantime. We went to bed early, anticipating an alarm that would ring at 5:00 a.m.

By 6:00 a.m. we were on the road headed for Anacortes and the 9:05 ferry through the San Juan Islands to Friday Harbor. The drive north was exquisite – we saw the sunrise over the Cascade Mountains and all the mountains were clearly visible while ground fog hung in the lowlands of the Skagit Valley.

Our reservation was gladly accepted at the ferry toll booth and we queued up in the lane to disembark at Friday Harbor. With an hour before we sailed, it was the perfect time for a breakfast picnic. When the ferry arrived we boarded, parked the car, and went up on deck to enjoy the ride amidst the wonderful sunshine and extremely clear views in every direction. Never before have we experienced such a clear and beautiful ferry ride through the San Juan Islands. We’d seen lots of fog and rain before – but nothing like the picturesque, starkly gorgeous day that was today. With every mile out into the straits between the islands, the current events of the day and any anxieties we carried, drifted away with the marine breezes.

An hour and a half later we were driving off the ferry onto San Juan Island at Friday Harbor, making our way to American Camp. The camp was the spot where American troops had made their settlement in 1860 to lay claim to the island. We walked out into the prairie at the southern tip of the island and marveled at the 180 degree views. We could see every island, every mountain from east to south to west. It was breathtaking. We walked the grounds of the old camp, examined the officer’s quarters, and climbed to the highest elevation for better views of the distance. It was as if we were alone on top of the world, with beauty unsurpassed in every direction.

Leaving American Camp, we traveled west and north to find Lime Kiln State Park on the western shores of the island. The park is well known as a popular whale watching spot, however, there were no whales to be seen today. We hiked a trail up and down along the coast until we came to the Lime Kiln Lighthouse. Every view was a keepsake picture. The day was like a treasured postcard.

By the time we found our car back at the state park, we knew we had to find some nourishment. One picnic a day is sufficient, so we were looking for a small cafe in Roche Harbor for lunch. When we found it and found parking for the car, the line for service at the cafe went out of the building and down the wharf. Since there were no other establishments that suited our tastes, there was nothing to do but wait in line. Thankfully, the line moved quickly and soon we were ordering and locating a table. The lunch was better than expected and we both enjoyed it along with a signature homemade doughnut from the cafe’s bakery. It was definitely worth the wait in line!

After lunch we walked the tiny wharf area and explored some of the local artists’ booths as well as the remains of some of the old lime kilns. There was some interesting history there. Fortified with lunch to continue exploring, we headed back south just a short way to find English Camp.

This was the site where the English settled in 1860, hoping to lay claim to the island. The 49th parallel had not yet been drawn across the San Juan Island, so who the island belonged to remained in conflict. There remained an uneasy peace between the American and English settlers until 1859, when an American soldier shot and killed an English pig that was rooting in his garden – and the dispute known as the Pig War began. Both countries sent troops to the island in 1860 and it was not until 1871 that peace was declared with an arbitration agreeing on the 49th parallel. Thus, the island became part of the United States. It remains a famous “war” in local history, where the only casualty was a pig.

English Camp was strikingly different from American Camp. There were manicured gardens and officer’s quarters on the cliffs above a cove, lots of trees and hills rising from the bay. The English obviously had more “settlement” houses and amenities for their troops, while the Americans had much more of an old Western style fort on the prairie. Both camps remain as a testament to history that conflicts can be worked out with civility.

Our last stop completed our circle of the island and we returned to Friday Harbor, the largest town on the island, to get into the ferry queue. Since it was only 5:00 and our ferry reservations were not until 6:30, we had time to walk the town and the harbor. We found an ice cream shop and enjoyed a delightfully cool treat in the shade looking over the harbor. After walking a few blocks, we realized we were totally out of steam and went back to the car to rest and wait for the ferry. The day had climbed in temperature and it was now 80 degrees – even in the islands. That’s a hot summer day, and we felt every degree of it. But, without the full sun and the lack of clouds, we would have never seen the glorious scenery we saw during our tour of this delightful, tucked away gem; the once disputed island that lay between Canada and America.

The ferry ride home was an experience all its own. The sun was setting over the islands and the water gleamed a clear vibrant blue. The bow of the ferry provided some natural air conditioning and the most remarkably stunning views of Mt. Baker I have ever seen. As we approached Anacortes, the ferry came to a complete stop. I walked to the bow to see if I could discern the problem. As I suspected, the previous ferry had not yet left the dock, so we could not approach. The ferry captain took us on a wonderful little side trip closer to Guemes Island and views of Mt. Baker. As we turned back west to dock in Anacortes, the sun was disappearing behind the hills of the islands and the sky was turning a soft, peaceful, golden, magenta. There are not words to describe the beauty and pictures do not do it justice. It was grace painted across the sky, the water, and in our hearts after such a summer’s day.

We drove home in the darkness remembering all the highlights of creation we had seen during the day. It felt like a gift of summer all in one, long day. And it was glorious.