The ocean and the mountaintop

Part 1: The Ocean

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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!

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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.

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

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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.