Glensheen estate is more than its murders

fullsizeoutput_3158I wasn’t aware that it was approaching the 40th anniversary of the famed murders at the historic Congdon Mansion in Duluth when I visited in June. I make it to Duluth probably once or twice a year, and every time I’ve passed the historic estate, situated just northwest of town behind iron gates, I’ve reminded myself that I always meant to go there.

This summer, I finally made it. The 39-room mansion that faces out on Lake Superior is now run as a museum by the University of Minnesota-Duluth. I’ve read in several articles that many visitors don’t know about the murders that took place there in the 1977, but it was the first thing I learned about Glensheen when visiting Duluth on a family vacation. Someone even told me you could still see bloodstains from that gruesome night.


The Staircase Where It Happened

The story goes that the elderly heiress Elisabeth Congdon and her live-in nurse were killed as part of a plot by her adoptive daughter. Both were killed in the middle of the night — the nurse was bludgeoned to death on the main staircase, and Elisabeth was smothered with a pillow while sleeping in her second-floor bedroom.

Having read this story in advance sated my curiosity about the mansion’s grislier moments, which allowed me to enjoy the rest of Glensheen’s unique, rich history.


A student worker dresses in the uniform of a butler to welcome visitors to the mansion.

Each successive room is like a museum in itself, with different interior styles influenced by cultures from around the world. Chester Congdon, who made his fortune in the mining industry, was a world traveller. Evidence of this is visible in his many collected items of exotic decor throughout the home. His smoking room, influenced by Japanese style of the time, is one of the most interesting examples, with a carved wooden door that seals so thoroughly as to block out sound (and smoke).

I think my favorite room of all was the deep, sea-green breakfast room, with a panorama of windows facing out to the lake. A wrought iron table and chairs sit in the corner, while lush green plants line the walls. Natural light filters through custom stained glass oak leaves, creating an atmosphere of quiet tranquility.


I was especially intrigued to learn about Helen, the Congdon’s middle daughter who seemed like a woman after my own heart. She enjoyed hunting and shooting sports with her brothers, and despite her father’s political stances had the audacity to marry a Democrat.


The mosaic fireplace in Helen’s room, done in the colors of her school, Vassar College.

Of course, my ticket limited me to the first two floors of the mansion, so I did not get a peek at the “men’s floor.”

If you’re willing to spend a little more, you can see the upper floor of the mansion, and even take a “nooks and crannies” tour into places not normally accessible to tourists. I had only an hour to visit, but in that time I managed to get a sense of the family history tied to the mansion, and enjoy a stroll around the picturesque grounds on the shore of Lake Superior.



Minnesotans fight to keep mining out of the Boundary Waters region


Photo from

This is a piece I originally wrote for my newspaper, but I was unable to find a good source with an opposite viewpoint to balance the story out. However, my own views on this issue are unequivocal — once the Boundary Waters are polluted, we can’t get them back.

The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is one of Minnesota’s biggest draws, both to locals and visitors, but the proposal of a copper mine just a few miles outside the protected area has caused concern across the state.

In the northeast metro, one group has been holding public meetings to discuss what mining near the BWCAW might mean for Minnesota’s wilderness and industry. Chris Donato works for the organization Save the Boundary Waters, which has focused its efforts on the proposed Twin Metals mine project south of Ely. The mine would be located along the south Kawishiwi River, in the same watershed as the Boundary Waters.

Impacts on the ecosystem

Watershed MapAccording to its website, Twin Metals would extract copper, nickel, gold, platinum and palladium from four underground mine locations. These metals are encased in sulfide-bearing rock, or volcanic rock that has been buried by centuries of sediment. The rock is located so deep below the earth’s surface that it has never been exposed to oxygen or water. The mining process brings this rock to the surface, where it reacts with air and water to create sulfuric acid. Nearby fish and wildlife would have to adjust to increased acidity in the water, and many would die off. Plant life would also begin to die, and the banks of the waterways begin to erode without the support of those root systems.

The mine website reports that excess rock will remain underground as backfill, but some waste will be stored in aboveground containers known as tailings ponds, which have been known to leach into groundwater. Environmental regulations do not require that a mine create zero pollution; they simply require pollution stay below an acceptable level. For Donato, however, the only acceptable level is zero.

“The Boundary Waters are so pristine that any pollution is going to be noticed, and it’s going to impact the people who rely on these areas,” he said.

This type of mining has never been done in Minnesota, but it has been done in Chile, Arizona, Utah and Montana.

“Treating sulfuric acid pollution takes up to 500 years,” Donato said. “The company claims, ‘We’ll treat it for 500 years.’ I don’t know if you can think of a company that’s been around for 500 years, but I certainly can’t. We haven’t even been a country for 500 years.”

However, Twin Metals has addressed environmental sustainability as one of its standards. “Environmental protection will be a design criteria — not an add on — for the proposed project,” the website said. It promises to work closely with state and federal agencies to meet and exceed all environmental standards.

Mining and industry

Copper and other strategic metals are used in many industries, including modern technology, and in parts used in components of renewable energy resource systems such as wind turbines. Copper mining is required to produce alternative energy. “The problem is, there’s no shortage of copper,” Donato said.

According to a 2012 report from the U.S. Geologic Survey, if all existing copper mines stay at current production, there are approximately 270 years’ worth of copper yet to mined.

“The only reason to open this mine is that the company wants to increase its bottom line,” Donato said. “That’s not a negative thing; that’s what business is.”

Twin Metals has had mining permits for the land since the 1960s, but has never taken action on them. In 2015, the U.S. Forest Service denied the renewal of the mine’s permits in order to conduct a two-year environmental review. After that period, Twin Metals is free to reapply for the permits, but it is likely that the environmental review will recommend that no mining be introduced to the area, Donato said. Some legislators, such as Rick Nolan, have taken action to try to appeal the environmental review process in order for the mine to move forward. In an open letter to the U.S. Forest Service written in July 2016, Nolan wrote: “The potential economic benefits are substantial and provide a ray of hope and optimism for local families and communities that have seen a loss of jobs and a steady painful economic decline over the past 30 years.”

Those in support of the mine recognize that it will introduce many new jobs into the area. The Twin Metals website states that the project would create as many as 1,700 to 1,900 additional indirect jobs in the region’s economy.

“Back in the 1950s and ’60s, people worked in the mines so their kids didn’t have to,” Donato said. “Now you hear people at public hearings saying, ‘My grandfather was a miner, my father was a miner, I’m a miner, my kid’s a miner;’ it’s become part of their economic identity.”

Donato also pointed out that northern Minnesota has cultivated a tourism industry, which could take a heavy hit if a mine is introduced.

“The community depends on people from all over going up and spending money at the restaurants, the businesses, the outfitters. All of it goes together to support this wilderness economy,” he said.

However, the Twin Metals website points out that mining is under threat in the area, and that withdrawing mineral rights in the area will damage the area’s economy irreversibly.

“If enacted, the withdrawal proposal will cause the state to lose the potential for thousands of mining jobs, billions of dollars in future investment in northeast Minnesota, and billions in future revenues for the state’s K-12 education system,” it said.

Effects in the northeast metro

“If you talk to any Minnesota business owner, or the reason why people choose to work and live in the Minnesota metro, one of the biggest things that statistics will show is that it’s access to the outdoors,” Donato said. A 2004 DNR survey reported that 84 percent of Minnesotans reported that outdoor recreation in their daily life was either very or somewhat important.

Donato pointed out that many families in Anoka, Ramsey and Washington counties are cabin owners who consistently travel to the Boundary Waters region. Twin Metals will coexist with this industry, but Donato said the nearby mine may have an impact on home values in the area.

“Any one of those people who owns a cabin or owns property or goes up there and spends their hard-earned money at the resorts and campsites, that all will be diminished if the water quality decreases from these mines.”

Mining is also a finite industry, Donato said. Regardless of the number of jobs it creates in the immediate future, eventually it will exhaust its resources.

“However, the Boundary Waters, if it’s maintained, will be there forever … it is self-sustaining,” Donato said. “It is something that is an economic driver. And it is something that people will move for and people will move to Minnesota for.”

The Forest Service is now holding a public comment period to collect feedback from Minnesotans about the mine. The comment period lasts until April 20, and feedback can be given online at or over the phone at 800-832-1355.

Repeated attempts were made to contact the Twin Metals office for comment, but I did not receive a response before press time. To learn more about Twin Metals, visit To learn more about Save the Boundary Waters, visit The group will also be present at the inaugural Water Action Day at the Minnesota State Capitol on April 19; visit the website to learn more. 13000159_10207971869287321_3290990106088177867_n

Taking part in the largest march in U.S. history

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I was one of more than 100,000 who marched from St. Paul College to the Minnesota Capitol the day after inauguration. I saw many people who wanted to treat participation in this march as controversial. To me, it was simple: I am a woman. I believe in women’s rights, and I believe in equal rights for every citizen of this country.

Also, that’s called feminism. It’s not a dirty word; and it’s not even just for women. (As you can see in the photos, there were quite a few male participants in the march as well).

Few things can be more American than the right to public demonstration of opinion. The Constitution was written on principles that (theoretically) made it possible for each person to live freely according to their own belief system, without fear of persecution. We are still working to become that society. I saw this march as one of many ways in which we as a nation are still exploring our ideals and our rights.

Not every person agreed with each and every sentiment that was expressed during this march (one of more than a few shortcomings of being a two-party system). I heard many criticisms that pro-life women were not welcome (and there was quite a bit of emphasis on pro-choice values, so I understand that this was not the friendliest environment for women with different beliefs.) There was also quite a bit of emphasis on female anatomy, which I understand left out a large group of individuals who identify as women but who are not represented by that anatomy. For both those groups, I wish there had been a way to allow them to feel accepted, as this event was more about finding common strength, rallying flagging spirits, and resisting attacks against human rights than making any specific political statement.

But I was amazed to see so much support for each other, and to hear so many inspiring words from people who have made strides for change and who are just a few of my personal heroines. Here’s to the American woman.


Sax Zim Bog: a primordial winter retreat

Contrary to what most of my posts suggest, I do actually spend lots of time in Minnesota, exploring the outdoors mostly near home, but sometimes a fair jaunt away to the more remote reaches of the state. img_2457

This is the case with one of my latest ventures, which was coordinated with an effort to achieve three northern Minnesota Checkpoints in one day (for more about the Checkpoint challenge, see my post from last year.) But Mission One was to make a stop at one of the premiere wilderness areas in the state: Sax Zim Bog.

The bog is renowned by birders, especially during winter, for the number of boreal species that winter there, most notably the enormous and ghostly great gray owl, as well as sharp-tailed grouse, white-winged crossbills, pine grosbeaks, boreal chickadees, and a number of other rarely seen owl species. The mixture of woods and fields makes the location an attractive habitat for these birds, many of which have flown south from the far reaches of Canada and beyond. The area is also home to northern mammals such as moose, gray wolves, and pine martens.

Typically, a bog conjures images of a muddy wetland. I always envision dark fairy tales of lost wanderers stumbling blindly after malicious will-o’-the-wisps and meeting their demise in quicksand-like mud pits, or urban legends (based on truth!) about human remains that are found mummified and unnervingly well preserved by the acidic, oxygen-poor conditions of the surroundings. Really a bog is any wetland area where dead plant material is accumulated (mostly mosses), and in the case of Sax Zim it is populated by a mix of spruce, tamarack, and white cedar, in addition to nearby hayfields and sedge meadows. This offers a wide variety of terrain, which makes it perfect for the large number of species that reside there. img_2459

The bog is north of Cloquet, about a 2 1/2 hour drive from my home near the Twin Cities. We traveled into the tiny town of Cotton and went west a number of miles down a snow-packed country road to the heart of the nature preserve.


The drive took us through Cloquet, where we passed by the famous Frank Lloyd Wright gas station.

A tiny welcome center, heated with solar energy and lacking running water, sits on the property. Nevertheless, it is kept warm inside and several birders were sitting patiently with long lenses nearby, waiting for something interesting to visit the feeders. Each year, the organization Friends of the Sax Zim Bog hosts a winter birding festival, this year to take place Feb. 17-19.


Somehow I had a feeling this would be the only owl I’d be seeing on my visit.

Feeders containing seed and suet are placed in various places around the bog, and these are often the best spots to find bird activity. Most people simply drive slowly down the long, snow-encrusted roads, scanning for movement without ever leaving their cars. Others prefer to hike, ski, or snowshoe through the area. Our time was limited, so we asked the desk volunteer where we might spot the best activity from the warmth of the car.

She pointed out a loop slightly north of us following Admiral and McDermitt Roads. She described the area as quintessentially boggy, full of spruce trees, and recommended a drive through at dusk to look for owls. The day earlier, she said, a great gray had been spotted sitting directly on the feeder.


Squirrels were aplenty at the Sax Zim feeders.

On our drive through, we occasionally encountered other birders stopped on the road along the way, indicating a sighting nearby. In fact, small traffic jams started to build up this way. The first of these was a really fun encounter with a ruffed grouse, which was busy peeling the bark from a few thin branches and was twisting and turning this way and that, nonplussed by the observers in the nearby vehicles. Photography is challenging in this environment because if one chooses to stay in the car, the heat emitting into the cold air from the open window will cause a rippling wave effect which can blur the picture quality.


Ruffed grouse

Unfortunately, our drive did not result in any other species observations (other than the numerous black-capped chickadees and red squirrels that were common at the feeders.) Despite the lack of bird cooperation, we were treated to a magnificent sunset along the jagged edges of the spruce tree line; an idyllic northern Minnesota scene.

We had three other cities to get to that night, so we had to hit the road after only a few hours at Sax Zim. I hope to revisit the bog soon, to keep looking for those elusive northern species. img_2526

The ocean and the mountaintop

Part 1: The Ocean


When we left Sucia in the morning, everything was quiet. We were headed for our last stop on the journey – the large island of Orcas.

The morning waters were ethereal – with no wind, the surface was like a mirror. A dense mist hung overhead for a couple of hours, obscuring the tops of the craggy islands we passed along the way. We were almost silent, taking in the view and not daring to cause a disturbance with our chatter. After about 45 minutes, we started to notice the black, sickle-shaped dorsal fins of pilot whales cutting through the waters at a distance, sometimes falling back into our wake.

We didn’t sail at all – it was preternaturally still, and we sat back under the protection of the awning, which shielded us from the cold mist. It was like we were waiting for something to happen.

There wasn’t much of an alarm, but one of our group leaders got a call from a leader on the other boat, something got murmured about orcas, and then everyone was on high alert, scrambling for rain jackets, cameras, a good perch on the deck. I buttoned up my green slicker, tucked my camera in the roomy pocket so it would stay dry, and clambered into the chilly drizzle just beyond the main. I stood on the slick deck for about 20 minutes with numb hands and cold ocean spray in my face, peering hard at the horizon.

One of our group members had a family cabin on a nearby island, and her relatives had called her boat to report that they’d just witnessed a pod of orcas pass by. We happened to be very near the location of their cabin, and the info got relayed to our crew, so we diverted course in hopes of catching sight of the elusive whales. We all scanned the water fervently, watching for the slightest motion in every direction.

“There!” someone yelled from the wheel, and ahead I could just barely see what looked like four brief explosions of white water. I wasn’t sure of it at first, but as we got nearer the sporadic splashes continued, and it was clear there were some very large animals in the waters ahead.


Before long, one of the double decker whale watching cruises arrived on the scene, along with several other sailboats eager for a sighting. We killed the motor and drifted in closer, where we could clearly see the enormous black fins, at this distance like needles among the waves. Once or twice we saw a bit more of the animals as they lunged a bit further out of the water, but mostly it was backs and dorsal fins. Sadly, one or two motorboats zipped obliviously straight through the pod, defying the distance regulations that are in place to protect wild orcas.

As the pod moved, it appeared that an adult and calf were isolated from the main body of the pod and encircled by a ring of eager viewers, including ourselves. This gave us our best view of the orcas yet. I felt a little bad that the whales were isolated among so many boats, but the day before, the whale watch volunteer had told us that the animals are used to a lot of boat traffic. I think it would have felt too commercial, too cheap, to pay fare for a whale watching boat, but the sighting seemed amazing and rare as we just happened to be sailing along. Lucky we received a tip from our crew member’s relatives – it was impeccable timing.

I still can’t believe we saw the whales. By Day 5, I was prepared to accept the fact that we probably wouldn’t, especially because the whale watching point at Lime Kiln had yielded nothing. I stayed on deck long after we’d turned away toward our destination.img_7585

Part 2: The Mountaintop

The weather soon cleared into a terrific sunny day, and we docked at Rosario Resort around noon, leaving us the rest of the day to explore the island. As we pulled in, there were families playing volleyball in the sand court, children playing a hand game, and guests splashing in the outdoor pool. The point was dominated by an enormous white mansion, which was once the extravagant home of the Moran family. It now contains a luxury hotel and spa.


Rosario Resort marks our last stop before ending our journey.

The town on Orcas was on the complete opposite side of the island, so most of us opted to explore nearby Moran State Park. I banded up with a few others who wanted to climb up to the top of the San Juans’ only mountain, Mt. Constitution, which was located in the park.

The towel lady at Rosario gave us directions and maps, but dissuaded our group from climbing to the summit because it was likely to take three hours or more, and visibility would probably be limited due to clouds. She suggested a few alternative trails around Cascade Lake.

We hiked up a trail toward the park and zigzagged across several roads, and I lost the group almost immediately as I puffed my way up a steep hill and stopped to take a picture of a bird/catch my breath.

I thought two things: 1. If I was having this hard a time just getting to the park, I probably would never had been able to get up the mountain (never mind keep up with my energetic crew mates), and 2. I could certainly never hope to one day hike the Appalachian Trail.

Since I lost the group, I instead took my time on a stroll along the lagoon, photographing birds, deer, frogs, and interesting plants. The lagoon led to a bridge that bisected it from Cascade Lake, where lots of vacationers were enjoying every type of water activity imaginable: swimming, kayaking, paddle boating, everything. The water had that perfect


Rosario Resort marks our last stop before ending our journey.

emerald-blue hue that lent an air of unreality to the scene. I moseyed along the rocky trail, encountering an old man with one of those ergonomic bicycles. He was pushing it along and asking for directions; I helped as best I could using the map the towel lady had given me. I rounded the lake and arrived near the park office. Nearby was the tiny flowage of Moran Creek on its way down to the lake, and a few structures that I found were an interpretive station and tiny fish hatchery for stocking trout. Just behind it was the trailhead for Cold Springs.

The Cold Springs trail rose gently uphill beneath towering cedars, before disappearing around a bend. Consulting my map, I decided to follow it a little ways, just to see what it was like on the mountainside, and whether I couldn’t make it to Cold Springs, if the summit was out of the question. The trail sign said 2.3 miles, which seemed manageable, although the map categorized the hike as “difficult.”

I spent the next two hours slogging it bit by bit up every hairpin switchback, stopping to catch my breath about every 15 minutes or so. I was surrounded by magnificent, ancient cedars, sprawling carpets of moss and ferns, and the constant trickle of shallow mountain streams in the background. I halted at a wooden bridge over a rocky ravine, where I sat cross-legged and ate a Pop-Tart. I contemplated turning back and completing my stroll around Cascade Lake, which was easy walking. Two women and a friendly black labradoodle came motoring through; one said something like “Having a quiet moment?” and I said, “Seemed like a good spot for a Pop-Tart.” The absurdity of that sentence really struck me as funny all of a sudden.

Just after they were out of sight, and the woods were still and quiet again, a second dog came rocketing around the bend and past me on the bridge without a second glance, trying to catch up. I laughed aloud at this spectacle.


A “cyanide millipede” I found on the trail. They emit a scent like almonds, which is why they’re called that!

Anyhow, every time I was ready to call it quits and took a much-needed rest, I felt a little bit better and thought maybe I could go a little further after all. Soon enough, I ran into a few other members of my group, who had taken a rather expensive taxi ride straight to the top, where they had ice cream before trekking down. They told me that they had been hiking down for an hour, and that if I was aiming for Cold Springs, it wouldn’t be all that much further to the summit itself. The view was well worth it, they said.

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll plan to be back a little late. I’m going to climb this mountain.”

It was almost another hour of rocky switchbacks, but everyone I met on the mountain was extremely nice. Even the two superhuman joggers who breezed past uphill said “thank you” as I stood aside to let them by. Every person I spoke with offered encouragement – “You’re almost there!” – and compared hike times. img_7689

The shade of the massive cedars and damp chill of the moss kept me comfortably cool, and soon I could feel the pure, refreshing ocean air coasting up the mountainside. When I hit the trail crossing I nearly shouted in relief – everything from there on was relatively easy going, and I was able to enjoy my surroundings a bit more. I passed several pristine mountain bogs and crossed the road to the last mile. To me, that last mile seemed like a mystic spirit wood, like something straight out of “Princess Mononoke.” I had a lot of time to think, contemplating the associations between mountains and wisdom, the significance of elements in spirituality, and reverence for the natural world, as well as human symbols and meaning-making. I felt a little bit like a pilgrim: a young learner seeking knowledge at the mountaintop.

I stopped to have my second Pop-Tart at the base of a cedar on the bank of Summit Lake. Near the top, the terrain changed drastically to a scrubby, lichen-covered rock face with small, witchy gray spruce and steep slopes of salal.img_7718


Nearing the summit, this is my first glimpse of the lake and ocean below.

A short climb upward, and I was suddenly among hordes of noisy tourist families swarming over the old stone tower on the summit. Despite my fellow travelers’ promises that there was ice cream at the top, the Sugar Shack and gift shop were closed by the time I arrived.


The hike back down took another solid hour and a half – but the downhill strolling offered a different set of physical challenges. Namely: not slipping on loose rocks/accidentally rolling an ankle, and quickly developing blisters from the repetitious pressure. Dusk was settling in, and beneath the trees it began to get chilly. I sang a few songs, kept up a brisk pace, and enjoyed the gorgeous setting, even glimpsing a few deer through the trees. I developed a sudden fierce appetite and stopped once to devour a granola bar I’d stowed in my daypack.

Sore, blistered, and dirty, I hauled myself back down the trail to the waterfront (it gave me some satisfaction to realize I’d gone from lowest to highest elevation on foot in the span of just a few hours). My crew mates were sitting around a bonfire chatting, and warmly welcomed me back from my venture. It was a wonderful way to end our last day in the islands.

You can bet I can slept pretty well that night: floating in the sheltered cove of Orcas Island.

P.S. After everything, what struck me as funny was that nothing I climbed on the mountain was nearly as strenuous as that stupid steep trail leading out of Rosario, where I lost my group in the first place. It was literally the toughest traverse of the day!

The enchanting tide pools of Sucia

A purple sea star clings to the rocks at low tide.

A purple sea star clings to the rocks at low tide.

We had an early and easy voyage to Sucia Island, one of the more remote islands that sits so low in the water that it is more like a series of islands than one island alone. We arrived in a quiet bay, passing huge, boulder-like exposed rock formations. A bald eagle swooped past as we secured the boats to a couple of freestanding mooring posts in the shadow of the pine-filled coast. We’d come in just in time for low tide: the best time to observe the activity and sea life that can be found in the island’s many tide pools.

It was a short ride in to a nearby beach, piled high with huge, smooth driftwood logs. Almost immediately, I discovered a piece of ghostly green sea glass, and soon found that more small fragments littered the sand all around. I began combing the beach for other interesting artifacts, finding a few alluring beached moon jellyfish in the process.

Moon jellyfish. There were many in the waters around Sucia.

Moon jellyfish. There were many in the waters around Sucia.

A hike took us along some bluffs and over onto a protruding rock peninsula. At first we weren’t quite sure these were the tide pools, because this pitted rock surface looked a little less spectacular than it had sounded. All around the edges, the peninsula was crusted with hard, bony barnacles and a slippery green substance that seemed to be some kind of filmy algae. A closer look, however, revealed hundreds of water-holding crevasses, tiny environments teeming with thousands of organisms. Everything from mud-colored crabs to spiky sea cucumbers to soft, brushlike anemones to plump purple starfish clinging to the undersides of rocks.

The low landscape of Sucia makes it ideal for observing marine life up close.

The low landscape of Sucia makes it ideal for observing marine life up close.

One of hundreds of tide pools found on Sucia.

One of hundreds of tide pools found on Sucia.

Purple sea stars under the rocks.

Purple sea stars under the rocks.

I was thrilled to discover an oyster burrowed deep into the muck in one of the pools, and I actually witnessed a yellow butterfly rest for just a moment on a purple starfish near the waterline.

After a single slip on the seaweed that landed me on my butt and left everything else — including the camera I was holding — unharmed, I decided to walk back along the trail and investigate a route labeled “China Caves.” Slaves were known to be smuggled into the islands from China in the 1800s, and the natural caves found on many of the islands, including Sucia, provided a good hiding place for smugglers and their illegal goods.

I was expected actual, deep caves that stretched deep into the ground, but they were actually

China Caves

China Caves

several shallow hollows carved into the bluff face. When I arrived, two young men had just climbed up into the largest of the caves, with a couple of guitars in hand. I jokingly asked if they were playing a show, and we chatted for a while. They were part of a summer collaborative program between the University of Washington and the University of Victoria. Both of them were Canadian. I’d run into a few of their classmates along the trail; they were cleaning it up with rakes and shears. All of them were ultra friendly.

Two university students enjoy the China Caves.

Two university students enjoy the China Caves.

We all sort of made our way back to the beach, where a few of us decided to return to the boats and others decided to remain ashore. Eventually we joined the others on the boats for dinner. It began to get a bit rainy, but we ultimately decided to try for a bonfire on the shore.

A raven had been cawing on the beach all evening, and there were tons of great blue herons

Raven on the beach.

Raven on the beach.

around. Our fire was brief, but enough to make a few s’mores. On our way back to the boat, we could see the glowing bioluminescence rolling away in our wake. The night was perfectly dark, with an overcast sky. When the water was still, it was like millions of winking fireflies drifting on the water, and it was clear enough to see at least a couple feet down into the depths. When I waved my foot in the water, a ring of light erupted around my ankle and trailed behind like a shooting star. It was wondrous. I could have sat there for hours on the cold, soggy deck, just watching the waters light up like pixie dust,  but everyone was eager to get to bed and I soon followed.

Sunset from the back of the boat.

Sunset from the back of the boat.

Post Script: The next morning, one of our company shared that she’d had to pee in the middle of the night but didn’t want to wake anyone up by coming into the head. Instead, she peed off the stern of the boat, straight into the bioluminescent waters, and said said it was the most magical pee of her life.

Exploring San Juan Island

Fried egg jellyfish in Friday Harbor.

Fried egg jellyfish in Friday Harbor.

We glided into a slip at the far end of the Friday Harbor marina, taking note of the many tiny jellyfish and floating sea life surrounding the docks. Overlooking the harbor is a small park with a gazebo and fountain, and a huge totem structure representing the native ties to the Salish sea. After a couple days in the more remote islands, arriving at San Juan felt like rejoining civilization. We looked forward to the prospect of sampling the ice cream flavors and taking a hot shower in the comfortable marina facilities.

Beyond the marina, Friday Harbor feels like a tourist town, filled with souvenir shops and expensive cafes and eateries. We stopped in a few local businesses, including the pharmacy.

We learned that living on the islands is expensive. This reminded me of something David had said back on Shaw Island: “If you live on the islands, you either have three jobs or three houses.” The isolation and scenic seaside views  appeal to many, so much that a number of celebrities own vacation homes in the area. He mentioned that Bill Gates owns some land on Shaw, and the cashier at the Friday Harbor pharmacy told us that she’d seen Chris Pratt and Anna Faris in the last week, visiting their island property for the Fourth of July holiday. She told us that one of the pharmacy’s longtime employees remembers when John Wayne visited the island long ago.

The second floor of the whale museum contains many educational tools to help visitors understand the lives and behaviors of resident orcas and other marine animals that live nearby.

The second floor of the whale museum contains many educational tools to help visitors understand the lives and behaviors of resident orcas and other marine animals that live nearby.

But the islands aren’t just for the rich and famous. San Juan is a destination for those seeking to learn more about the wildlife and famous resident orca pods that frequent the waters nearby. Downtown Friday Harbor houses a small but very fun Whale Museum. The two-floor building boasts a couple of full-size whale and porpoise skeletons, as well as many native artifacts, including clothing and items made from seal fur and other animal parts. Each admission card for the museum is printed with the bio of a different resident whale — my card featured Cappuccino, a K-pod male, but I was jealous because someone else in my group got a card for a K-pod female named Spock! The second floor of the museum contains a large genealogy chart, which breaks down  the relationships in the resident pods (J, K, and L) and explains the matriarchal structure of whale culture and behavior. An entire back room is set up as a

"Recording booth," which is filled with cassettes of whale sounds.

“Recording booth,” which is filled with cassettes of whale sounds.

“recording booth” filled with cassette tapes, where visitors can listen to the sounds of different pods and individual whales that have been recorded over the years.

The island is one of the largest in the archipelago, but a shuttle bus service makes it easy to get from one end to the other, a ticket that comes with some local commentary and hokey jokes from the bus driver.

Eager to catch a glimpse of orcas, we hopped the bus to Lime Kiln Point State Park, which is home to a tiny and picturesque lighthouse seated on a rocky cliff. This building serves as the whale watching center – resident pods often pass through the gap between San Juan and the Canadian coast seeking the salmon that makes up the better part of their diet.

Yours truly in front of the Lime Kiln Point Light, which also serves as a whale watching station.

Yours truly in front of the Lime Kiln Point Light, which also serves as a whale watching station.

We talked to a whale watching volunteer inside. During the rest of the year, she’s a teacher at a school on the east coast. But each summer, she flies out to San Juan to help collect data for the whale watching center.

This year, it isn’t looking good, she said. Whale activity is abnormally low – although she was quick to add that the data is only collected between certain hours on certain days, meaning that the movement of some whales is unrecorded. Even so, she said there is a drastic change between last year and this year, with fewer and smaller pods passing through. She explained that the dams on the Snake River have had a devastating impact on Chinook salmon populations. The fish are unable to swim upriver to spawn, which means fewer salmon, a major food source for orcas. As a result, whale families have had to search farther and break into smaller pods to find enough food to sustain them. Whale sightings have become more infrequent as a result, although we learned that part of J-pod had passed through the previous day, and a second group was expected sometime that afternoon. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to wait around to see; those who were with me caught the bus back to Friday Harbor, but I bought myself another 50 minutes to explore the park by opting to catch the following bus.

A volunteer interprets the whale sighting data, explaining the challenges to healthy whale behavior.

A volunteer interprets the whale sighting data, explaining the challenges to healthy whale behavior.

I hiked to the kiln, which was used for more than 60 years to convert limestone into lime, used mainly in plaster and mortar for building construction. I passed by the kiln, to where the state park transitions into property owned by the Land Bank. Beyond, there was a second, more dilapidated kiln, and more stone ruins (I had to pause for breath; there was a lot of uphill!) But the weather was sublime — just enough sun, and just enough breeze. I followed some noisy tourists down the stairs to explore the ground level of the kiln, and though their chattering was a bit annoying, they alerted me to the presence of what they at first thought were a couple of seals on a rocky slope near the water. It was a bit bright to tell, but my photo later showed that it was actually a pair of river otters that were clambering ashore.

Restored lime kiln.

Restored lime kiln.

Former lime kiln ruins along the Land Bank trail.

Former lime kiln ruins along the Land Bank trail.

River otters near the kiln.

River otters near the kiln.

That was about all the time I had left in the park, so I ambled back to the bus stop where I met with a few other members of my group. We rode back to Friday Harbor together, admiring the view. I arrived back just in time to meet with the group who were hiking to Friday Harbor Laboratories, an oceanographic research center run by the University of Washington. The laboratory was a large campus of long, low buildings, visible from the marina where we were moored, but we hiked the long route along the point, so everyone was already tired out by the time we got there.

We met with a woman named Michelle, who was a researcher and caretaker there. She led us out to a rocky, lichen-covered bluff overlooking the bay, where we sat and listened as she

Michelle explains how the laboratories work.

Michelle explains how the laboratories work.


An experimental tank at the lab contains a pink algae and various sea creatures.


Two researchers organize samples of an aquatic plant.

explained the history and purpose of the labs. However, the information may have been a bit too heavy in technical details for all of our group members, with our diverse specialities, to fully comprehend. She took us for a tour of the laboratories, showing us a variety of tanks and apparatus designed to learn the finer biological details of the varied creatures that can be found in the waters nearby. Perhaps most interesting in the lab’s history is the fact that it is where Dr. Osamu Shimomura, a marine biologist, isolated the glowing green fluorescent protein during his study of the bioluminescent creatures found in the San Juan Islands. Several organisms emit a glowing greenish light when disturbed by movement, and the phenomenon can be observed on dark nights in many of the bays around the archipelago. Michelle said that kayaking at night in the bays can sometimes feel like being in a scene from James Cameron’s “Avatar.” Shimomura’s curiosity about the phenomenon led to a breakthrough in chemistry that later won him a Nobel Prize.

We hiked back into the harbor just in time to hear the end of a live music set from the nearby park, had dinner aboard the boats and then walked into town for some after-dinner ice cream. One of the shops on the waterfront has an overstimulating variety of flavors — I opted for a honey lavender, in honor of the large lavender farm on the island that I hadn’t had time to visit  that day.

We thought we might stick around for the morning farmer’s market, but it opened at 10 a.m., which was a little late for our fast-paced taste. We decided instead to get an early start toward Sucia Island, home to hundreds of tide pools filled with fascinating creatures.

Post Script: In my journal, I noted that I forgot to mention the extremely entertaining marine life in Friday Harbor. The marine lights lit up the area just perfectly enough to illuminate the show going on beneath the surface. Several varieties of beautiful jellyfish such as moon and friend egg were visible, as well as leggy shrimp, tiny schools of silver fish, and the occasional wormy lamprey. And seals, of course. One night I thought I saw the shadow of an enormous fish approach, only feet away, when suddenly a loud, snort-like exhale made me realize a seal had just stuck its head out of the water to get a better look at me. Connor and Sam said that some families had paid a woman near the base of the dock for a handful of fish, which could be fed to “Popeye,” a one-eyed seal that lived under the dock and would splash the water with his flipper when you clapped.

A seal relaxes on an unoccupied slip in the Friday Harbor marina.

A seal relaxes on an unoccupied slip in the Friday Harbor marina.

A local ice cream shop boast colorful flavors.

A local ice cream shop boasts colorful flavors.