On the last day of our sailing trip, a kayaker we met on Cypress Island asked which island we liked best. I paused and thought for a moment then commented, “It depends on whether you prefer a rustic or civilized environment.”
One of the most unusual islands that Rich and I have visited — by ferry or sailboat — is Stuart. Less than three square miles in size, the island is home to around 800 full- and part-time residents who relish the simpler life because… there’s no electricity, running water, or other amenities on the island! The only commercial enterprise is a family-run business called Boundary Pass Traders, which offers shirts and cards from “treasure chests” located throughout the island.
Part of the island is a state park and the two anchorages have state park mooring balls and public docks, making it easy to tie up for a few hours, dinghy ashore, and hike around the island… which has no paved roads. The main thoroughfare, called County Road, is compacted gravel.
Oh, you’re wondering ho w the residents subsist without “modern” amenities.” They have propane tanks or use solar energy. Wells and septic tanks are used for water and sewerage. Along with boat docks, they have two private airstrips for small planes.
I know you’re thinking, “Heck, it must be cheap to live on the island. Land probably goes for a buck an acre.” Not really. Land is fairly inexpensive at $70,000 or so an acre. Because everything necessary to build a house must be brought by boat or barge, the houses are fairly expensive. For instance, a four bedroom, one bathroom, 1,600 square foot house built in 1979 with propane, free-standing stove, deep-water well, septic system, and appliances is $595,000. Take a peek. Thirteen acres on the water sells for nearly a million dollars!
We reached Stuart Island early in the day so we grabbed a mooring ball and rowed our dinghy ashore. An elderly man — in faded overalls stretched tightly over his beach ball-sized stomach – helped tie up our dinghy. Also tied to the dock where two small tug boats, similar in size and charm as this one. I inquired about them and the man proudly announced that he’d spent the past two years building one of them – a delightful boat painted in forest green with burnt orange trim. He explained to Rich that the hardest part was forming the compound curved roof from layers of plywood.
After chatting (or as Congressman Alan Grayson’s terminology “nattering”) for a few minutes, we bid the man good-bye and climbed the steep ramp onto the island. After a short walk, we came upon dozens of wooden stairs that lead down a lush forest. I felt like I was in a storybook. The moss- and leaf-covered paths meandered by bushy ferns and native grasses, around babbling brooks, and towering trees that allowed trickles of light to dance on the forest floor. I’ve never been the Olympic rain forest, but Stuart Island State Pak must be a close approximation.
Above is Rich swinging from one of the many huge trees on the island.
A few steps from the park is County Road, which according to our Xeroxed map lead to the historical schoolhouse and museum. The map didn’t lie; it just didn’t reveal the hefty hill that was probably equivalent in elevation to the staired area we left half an hour earlier.
As we neared the top, I spied a clothes line with tee-shirts pinned to it. These were the shirts available through Boundary Pass Trader. In front of the clothes line was a small shelter made from branches with a treasure chests underneath (right). Inside were silkscreened shirts, hats, and cards with local scenes. Each item is individually packaged with an I.O.U. for where to send your payment, by check or PayPal. Since we have more clothes than we could possibly wear, we opted to purchase a set of four cards.
A sign on the shelter congratulated us on reaching the top of the hill and invited us to enjoy a glass of water from a local well. It was a welcome respite before we visited the one-room school house (below), which had been turned into a museum.
The account of life on the island was fascinating. Early families primarily raised dairy cattle, the milk and cream was then shipped to Seattle to be turned into ice cream, cheese, and other dairy products. While the women stayed home and tended to the children and cattle, the men found work fishing. Families were large and until the 1960’s the primary means of transportation were by foot, using wheel barrels to haul goods from one end of the island to the other, and from dairies and farms onto boats. Today, fuel-efficient all-terrain vehicles are the preferred means of getting around the island.
After wandering through the school grounds and peeking in the windows of the new, considerably larger school (last year, only two students were enrolled), we continued trudging up hills until we reached the Turn Point lighthouse.
I had a preconceived notion that the lighthouse would be a small structure with a narrow turret that led to the light at the top. Built for $15,000 in 1892, the lighthouse is very impressive and is now remotely monitored by the coast guard and Bureau of Land Management.
More impressive is the spectacular 200-220-degree (to the right and below) view across the Haro Straits. If you stand by the lighthouse, stretch out your arms, pushing them back as far as possible, then turn your head back-and-forth to look at your fingers, you see the ocean, islands, across to Canada, and more ocean. The panoramic view is nothing less than breathtaking. You are literally standing on the tip of a thin sliver of an island, surrounded by hundreds of miles of water.
Built a few years after the lighthouse was an elegant “duplex,” barn, water tank and other ancillary buildings for the lighthouse keeper and his assistant. One keeper, who arrived in 1900, had 13 kids!
The most civilized, or more appropriately, the most upscale island we visited was San Juan Island, in particular Roche Harbor. A harried sail across the Haro Strait from Sidney, British Columbia, Roche Harbor is a port of entry for pleasure ships. It also seems to be where the elite keep their multi-million dollar yachts during the summer season.
We got to the harbor around 10 o’clock and were able to tie up to the guest dock, in front of several sailboats. We then ambled up the dock towards the shoring, passing dozens of huge ships. The marina can hold 377 vessels, ranging from 30 to 150 feet in length. It’s like walking between rows of semi-trucks, except, most trucks are around 53-feet in length and just 14 feet high. These ships easily towered 20-30 feet above the dock and were longer than an average mobile home!
To give you an idea of the types of ships we saw, I found a listing for a 55-foot Fleming yacht for sailing in Roche Harbor for $1.6 million. Here’s the site for Fleming Yachts, which are popular in the Pacific Northwest because they’re made in California and can be cruised up to Washington. If you’re in the marketing for a yacht on the west coast, you might want to check out Crow’s Nest Yachts.
Because of its proximity, Roche Harbor piqued the interest of several countries. In 1787, Captain de Haro and his crew were the first Europeans to sail among the San Juan Islands. The Canadian Hudson’s Bay Company built a log trading post at the head of the harbor in 1845. Meanwhile, American settlers migrated to Roche Harbor from the surrounding Islands, along with key cities like Bellingham and Anacortes.
In 1871, the United States and Great Britain selected Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm to arbitrate the territory dispute. The United States won and in 1881, two brothers, bought Roche Harbor and stated the island’s lime industry.
John S. McMillin, a Tacoma lawyer, discovered a large deposit of lime in the area and began negotiating for the brothers’ claim. In 1886, the Tacoma and Roche Harbor Lime Company was founded, igniting the start of a thriving town. The Hotel de Haro (below) was built along with a modern lime factory, warehouse, docks, ships, pieces, offices, company store, church, schools, barns, and homes. Bunkhouses were built for single men and one- and two-story cottages for families.
Many of the original buildings, including the hotel wharf, and stores, have been restored and contribute to the charm of the town. Several of the streets are now paved with the bricks that lined the lime kilns, which consumed 26-cords of wood per day. Many of the surrounding islands were severely logged to keep up with the need for wood.
Today, the trees have grown back and seemingly everywhere are gardens and seating areas with planter boxes and formal gardens with lush billowing bushes, fragrant blooms, and carefully pruned trees.
A short walk from the hotel is the original church and many of the original cottages, which are now part of the Roche Harbor Resort. I took a picture of the old school houses (below). Through the window, you can see the marina in the distance!
Near the resort is the San Juan Museum of Art & Sculpture Park. According to the web site, it’s a “nineteen-acre microcosm of the San Juan ecology, forest, meadows, freshwater wetlands, saltwater wetland, and rocky outcroppings” with a “rotating exhibit of over 100 sculptures” made from bronze, stone, wood, metal, glass, and ceramic. Some of the sculptures were for sales. Many were ridiculously priced. For instance, one artist put common window screening on the frames of old umbrellas and hung them from a grouping of trees. It was priced in the thousands!
I was most fond of the sculptures that made sounds or rotated in the wind… or was a scary, winged dragon (right).
After wandering through the sculptures, we moseyed to the mausoleum built for John S. McMillan. The picture in the gunkhole book resembled marble. The mausoleum, however, is made from plaster and painted rather grotesque colors. It was big and I suppose impressive, but I found it rather distasteful. You can read about the significance of the pillars, stairs, and other symbolism on the San Juan Masonic Lodgehttp:// site.
Before leaving Roche Harbor, we made a quick lunch, which we ate from the cockpit of our sailboat while watching the flurry of activity in the marina, including floatplanes taking off and landing, and large yachts cranking on their bow thrusters to wedge in-and-out of tight slips.