Monday, July 13, 2009

A Pilgrimage

Note: pictures to come, when Blogger and Vista can cooperate. I'm not holding my breath.

I have wanted to be in the San Juans on my own boat ever since my dad died, in August of 1992, thus ending our summer saltwater outings. Ian and I love Orcas Island more and more, and the community we hope to be a part of in a couple years, but anyone can get to Orcas. You drive the 1 ½ to 2 hours to Anacortes, wait in line for an unspecified length of time, then board a ferry. Within an hour's ride, you're there. If you're really feeling like a splurge, you can take the commercial flight from South Lake Union to West Sound, and be at our place within the hour and a half you would've spent on the road. We're actually very happy about this, because we have a lot of friends and relatives whom we hope will visit us frequently in the future. And, since we are planning to have our lives on the island, we like the idea of being able to get off and go somewhere else pretty easily.

There is nothing in the world like the marine parks in the San Juan Islands, however. There are at least 16 islands, either state parks or DNR land, that are only accessible by private boat. There are many other islands that are game preserves, and lots are inhabited and private. The entire archipelago of over 400 islands (some little more than dangerous rocks, ready to stave in your bow if you're not careful) sits well inland from most ocean weather, protected by the Olympic Mountains to the southwest, and Vancouver Island to the west.

The San Juan Islands are also geologically interesting. They are the tip-tops of an ancient, sinking mountain range, a micro-continent, far older than the mountains of Washington State. There are no large predators (San Juan is home to some foxes; otherwise the most deadly animals are the several species of eagle and vulture), and signs of ancient habitation are frequently found. Being in these singular islands makes me feel at the same time humbled and joyous.

I've been on a couple guided kayak trips in the San Juans in the last ten years, and on both of them we paddled from San Juan Island to Jones, a small state park overrun with deer, just outside Deer Harbor on Orcas Island. Definitely awesome, but I was ready to get someplace faster this year. We chose Sucia, which lies north of Orcas. I remember docking in Fossil Bay as a kid, hiking to Ev Henry Point, swimming in Fox Cove. We once ran into boating friends on the dock—the grandparents, in fact, of my own Dr Jason. I, who did not like crab, spent a miserable, steamy time in the tiny galley of our boat one summer cooking it.

Ian and I found space on the same dock on the 5th, and after overshooting by probably ½ mile, came back to the perfect campsite right on the bluff overlooking our moorage (not actually our boat, which was on the very end and dwarfed by the 40+ foot sailboats and cruisers). Sucia is popular enough, and the campsites are spread out enough, that the park has supplied several wheelbarrows to lug your belongings from your boat to your camp, in the absence of sherpas. After setting up our tent that first evening, we took the surprisingly familiar trail out to Ev Henry point—my second revisit of my past, after the dock. After that, we went into Fox Cove, but only just above the knee, as it was north Puget Sound, and cold, and we're adults now and know better. For dinner we had a lentil and tomato soup that I'd frozen and brought from home—a nice change, even for us and our habit of primarily getting protein from cured meats—from all the bacon and sausage and steaks and hamburgers of the previous three nights.

The next day dawned misty and cool, which was not only a relief from living in the open for three days of 16+ hours of sunlight, but also another really beautiful way to see the San Juans. On July 3rd, the day that I had taken all the ladies out on what ended up being a fantastic whale-watching trip, I had somehow wind- and sunburned my lower lip to a crisp. The first two mornings after it happened, I woke up looking like I'd had work done while I slept. Just a little collagen plumping, not much. But oh my gosh, it seared with pain, and all the lip stuffs that I had (I hate to be without them, even in any particular room in my house) were painful to apply because of the burning. So a cool day was definitely welcomed. We had sautéed potatoes and onions for breakfast, with fried SPAM, a fondly-remembered boat food. It was awful, and we both felt a little ill after eating it. We made some sandwiches (peanut butter and marmalade—also boat food, but much more successful) and set off for Ewing Cove, on the far end of the island from where we were.

Along near the north side of Echo Bay, we came upon a new group campsite and a pair of new composting toilets, and then an old retired park ranger from the area. The three of us sat in the gorgeous new camp shelter and kibitzed for awhile. It turns out that this guy had been instrumental in Sucia not, in fact, being dirty (the Spanish name, meaning foul, referred to all the shoals and reefs around the several seemingly safe harbors), but being gorgeously pristine. He took the old trash incinerator off the island ("In the 80s, we had a guy in an asbestos suit burning garbage 24 hours a day!") and made it pack in/pack out; he brought in the clean and non-smelly composting toilets; and he was instrumental in building new camp sites in Echo Bay to make up for the several that had to be closed at Ewing Cove because erosion had uncovered an Indian burial ground. All the more eager to see it and feel the energy of the place, we said our goodbyes, I piddled in the perhaps over-fancy new toilet (slate floors!?!), and we headed on.

For the next several hours, we hiked and saw no one, except for a bald eagle (boy are they not rare anymore), and close by, a little gray mouse (or other mouselike varmint, as Ian likes to say). At Ewing Cove we saw two bowls that I'm convinced were carved into the rocks by Indians, probably Coast Salish of some variety. We have done some research on the perfectly round bowls—which look like mortars missing their pestles—and have come up with nothing. They are several feet above the high tide line, though, and very near to an ancient clamshell midden (which is also eroding, hence really being able to see what it is), all of which strongly indicates manmade to me. I was thrilled to be able to see these things, to stick my hands into these bowls. And Ewing Cove is a snug, well-protected little harbor. No wonder it was popular.

We then went off to Shallow Bay and took a picture in the China Caves, copying one of my brother and me as children. Two guys came out of the woods as we approached the caves, scaring the crap out of me. I hadn't seen anyone but Ian for hours.

Back in camp, we cooked up some pasta and spaghetti sauce from a jar (boat food, although a nice organic sauce instead of childhood's Chef Boyardee), with added salami (but not SPAM), then, not having had (evidently) enough exercise yet that day, we climbed out to a point above Fox Cove to watch the sun set.

The next morning we broke camp with the intention of visiting Stuart Island, just for a bit, to revisit where Dad died. It was what I had intended as my pilgrimage all along—to see Reid Harbor again, to try to determine where we were anchored, to allow myself to feel anything I might feel. As it turned out, I felt my dad's presence so much more on Sucia than I did at Stuart. On Sucia he was with me on the hike to Ev Henry the first night. He balanced along the driftwood in Ewing Cove with me, next to the midden. He was there when I looked up from the trail and into the coniferous woods, Douglas Firs standing straight and tall, second growth, huge rotting trunks from leviathan trees now host to translucent red huckleberries. He was there peeling Madrona bark with me, standing on a promontory in the evening wind. He was with me in the joy of speeding around this unequaled place in my own boat, wind whipping me in the face, currents and waves and calms living under me in a way no lake can.

I'm glad we saw Stuart; it took away my apprehension of the place. It was raining pretty steadily by that time, and our one-mile hike in the woods from Reid to Prevost harbor and back actually kept us a bit drier. We pulled out our camp stove and made some quick hot chocolate on the dock before getting underway again (formerly "under weigh", meaning the anchor was on board), back to West Sound, our future home, where we managed to score the one remaining room in the Kingfish Inn. Frankly, I think after several miles of 30 mph in the stinging rain, Bob probably would've taken us home for the night if he hadn't had a room. As it was, we washed and waxed the boat in a momentary lull, then made our way to a lush, comfortable room with heating and a fine dinner than neither one of us had to cook using fire. We finished our bottle of wine and our piece of homemade lemon meringue pie in our room, in heaven.


Shelley said...

Wonderful post.


allyson said...

xoxo Allyson