The llama nuns of Shaw

The day gets off to a misty start off of Shaw Island.
The day gets off to a misty start off of Shaw Island.

Our second day in the San Juan Islands was focused around a very special visit to Our Lady of the Rock, a monastery and working farm on Shaw Island. The only information we had about the monastery, prior to visiting, was that the nuns there had a very unique way of calling their herd of llamas in to feed.

Admiring the old growth forest on Shaw.
Admiring the old growth forest on Shaw.

The weather was the kind that the Washington Coast is famous for: unending drizzle, too light to call rain, but constant. The damp didn’t deter us; we zipped up our raincoats, put ashore, and began a long hike down several long, isolated roads. At some points the road was surrounded by towering, old-growth forest until it sloped down into grassy fields and views of the island’s many small bays. The first sight of llamas was exciting to most of us, who clustered close to the fence to get a closer look at the animals.IMG_7288 IMG_7289 IMG_7283

We were greeted by a large brown dog and one of the monastery sisters, who brought us to the cattle pasture. Several highland cows were grazing – along with the llamas, they provide wool that is sold in various places around the San Juans. The monastery is also famous for its unpasteurized cheese, which can also be found in a few local stores.

David shows us around the farm.
David shows us around the farm.
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David’s bee hive.

Most of the nuns at Our Lady of the Rock are aging, so they employ interns to lend a hand around the farm. David was one of these interns, and he was happy to show us around other areas of the farm, including a large chicken coop (complete with a painted sign that read “Chicken Heaven”) an herb and flower garden, a vegetable garden, and his own personal project, a honeybee hive.  IMG_7304 IMG_7314IMG_7319

We were given the opportunity to meet with the leader of the monastery, Mother Hildegarde, who reclined on a hay bale under the shelter of the barn as she spoke. Before coming to the monastery, she’d worked in child psychology, experimenting with therapy animals. During our talk, David mentioned that he sometimes visited the tiny Shaw Island library to write poetry. Mother Hildegarde exclaimed, “I didn’t know that you wrote poetry! He’s a real Renaissance man. I keep saying, if I were 30 years younger, he’d be the man for me.”

Mother Hildegarde.
Mother Hildegarde.
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Garden sanctuary.
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Blooming lilies on the water create a sense of peace on the koi pond.

We broke for lunch and ate in a dripping garden before a beautiful koi pond sanctuary, roosting in whatever dry spots we could find as we pulled baggies of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches from our soggy daypacks.

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Beached boat outside the library.
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This old building houses the historical society of Shaw Island, and the library is right next door.

David drove a small group of us up to the Shaw Island schoolhouse in the rickety blue “nun van.” We had about 15 minutes to explore the library he had mentioned, which was situated in a historic-looking wood-shake complex, covered in moss and lichen. It looked like something from a fairy tale. An old fishing boat, grayed by the seasons, lay beached outside.

David then dropped us off at Hoffman’s Cove, where we had an hour and half to explore before the hike back to the boat. The views were stunning, and I enjoyed poking my head into the old fish house/bunkhouse with chalk messages written on doors, walls, and floors. A bundle of lavender was lying in the windowsill above the fish cleaning sink, beside a few empty bottles. A back room contained several empty wooden bunk beds. One chalk message said, “We’re going on an adventure!” and beneath it, “Sup, Bilbo.”  The front door said both “Welcome” and “Turn Back.” IMG_7392 IMG_7385 IMG_7388 IMG_7394IMG_7400

After the lengthy hike back to the boat, we cruised a short distance over the San Juan Island, where we docked in Friday Harbor.

Friday Harbor is a picturesque town with a busy main street scene, home to many galleries, souvenir shops, and restaurants of all varieties. We had some time just to explore the town and for researchers to get interviews done. My stops included an art gallery, the visitor’s office, and the local grocery store, where I got a few copies of the San Juan Islander newspaper.

I decided against having seafood (despite the delicious smells that drifted through the town) in favor of pasta alfredo on the boat. We turned in for the night, ready for a full day of exploring San Juan Island, and hopefully sighting some wild orcas, in the morning.

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