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.


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.


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.


Garden sanctuary.


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.


Beached boat outside the library.


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.

Embarking from Anacortes


These two visitors spent the night on this wooden platform at the rear of our slip in the Anacortes marina.

It’s not every day I wake up just feet away from a harbor seal and her pup – that was how our first day in the Anacortes, WA marina began.

The day earlier, I met up with a 20-person team of field researchers at the Seattle-Tacoma airport. We had all flown in from colleges and hometowns all over the country to complete a summer internship program with Minnesota-based company Global Treks and Adventures.

Together, the team was researching different topics about the San Juan Islands (such as wildlife, conservation, economy, water resources, and more) to compile a collaborative visitor’s guidebook to the area. Global Treks takes interns on trips like these around the world, to places as far as the Spanish Virgin Islands and remote areas of Australia. Last year, I sailed with Global Treks through the Apostle Islands on Lake Superior, and was thrilled to travel with them again to this scenic wilderness in the Pacific Northwest.


White-crowned sparrow

It was a long and slow drive up the Washington coast into Salish territory. Over the course of several hours, we left the busy cityscape behind for a landscape of tall Douglas firs and exotic-looking madrona trees. Some of us dozed in the comfort of the backseat while we waited to arrive at our jumping-off point: the Anacortes marina.

The exhausted group held it together long enough for a pizza party in downtown Anacortes, before heading back to the marina to spend our first night aboard our respective vessels. I was assigned to the impressive 50-foot Christelle, along with 11 other crew members. The smaller Maggie was docked a few slips away, with an eight-person crew.


Evening in the marina, before sailing into the San Juan Islands.

The first morning of our venture was spent quite lazily for most of us, but soon became frustrating when boat inspections were taking longer than usual. It gave the researchers plenty of time to relax and get used to their new, tighter living spaces, but anticipation to explore the waiting wilderness soon dominated the mood. It wasn’t until afternoon that we finally glided out of the marina, beneath a perfect blue sky with islands all around sweeping up in impressive slopes from the waterline.


Sailing to Lopez Island.

It wasn’t long before we noticed numerous types of seabirds and other wildlife; the mustachioed rhinoceros auklets would surface with tight-packed beakfuls of silver fish, and the elegant pigeon guillemots were almost never out of sight. Every now and then, the round, blubbery head of a seal would surface for a few seconds before ducking beneath the waves.

By early evening, we had anchored in a bay off Lopez Island, where we motored by Zodiac to the saltwater lagoon of Spencer Spit. We took off our shoes to wade into shore. A woman was seated on a log of driftwood not far away, and when we approached, she greeted us loudly. She introduced herself as Hillary, said that she was very drunk, and tried to convince us that clamming here on Lopez Island was one of the best things we could do, ever. She said that she and her family visit the island annually to dig clams and have a huge clam bake afterward.

“All you need is a shovel,” she said. “You just look for holes and dig.”

We only had an hour or so to explore, so a group of us set out to try to find a park ranger at Spencer Spit State Park to learn about the area. While we located what looked like a ranger station, there were no rangers to be found, so we instead hiked around the lagoon, stopping to admire washed up treasures such as the carapaces of tiny crabs and shells of countless creatures. A few sandpipers were foraging in the shallow marsh water, and a great blue heron was hunched in the center of the tall grasses, almost motionless.


Worn out from the excitement of our first day on the water, we were eager to return to the boats for soup and grilled cheese before settling in for a peaceful night of sleep on the Salish Sea.

A sojourn through the San Juan Islands

IMG_7391The most frequent question I get asked when telling about my recent trip to the San Juan Islands is, “where exactly is that?” For many, myself included when I first heard of the destination, a mental image of a white sand beaches, palm trees, and sea turtles in gentle azure waters comes to mind.

Some of the Global Treks and Adventures expeditions are like that – but the San Juan Islands are a land apart. Located on the coast of northern Washington State, the San Juans are an assortment of coastal wooded islands bordering Canadian waters. I had the great privilege of spending a week with the Global Treks crew sailing through the islands, visiting everything from a working farm run by nuns to a whale watching center to the summit of a mountain. The following is a short series of posts documenting the places and people, both wonderful and strange, we met along the way. IMG_7215