North By North­west

Art, na­ture and his­tory con­verge in the San Juans.

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Wan­der­ing the 20-acre San Juan Is­lands Sculp­ture Park, a short walk from his­toric Roche Har­bor Re­sort, I’m struck as much by words as by phys­i­cal ex­pres­sions of art. The poems of David M. Jenkins pep­per the spa­ces be­tween the park’s dragons, mir­rored easels and whirligigs, adding a wise voice to the whimsy. To­gether, the poems and more than 150 sculp­tures in­spire a joy­ful, con­tem­pla­tive jour­ney along a mile of trails through field and for­est, around a pond and near the north­ern reaches of West­cott Bay.

Some of the art has deep lo­cal his­tory, in­clud­ing the four clay prayer wheels by Belling­ham, Wash­ing­ton, artist Chris Moench. Eigh­teen years ago, in re­sponse to a home­town tragedy, Moench built his first: a 3-foot-tall clay cylin­der with memo­rial images. Peo­ple were en­cour­aged to touch, turn and in­ter­act with the sculp­ture; some in­serted mes­sages and prayers into an open­ing at its top. That’s why Moench’s prayer wheels here in the sculp­ture park have re­mov­able lids. In leav­ing a mes­sage, I feel that I’ve left some­thing of my­self in this en­chant­ing place.

To­day is my first day ex­plor­ing the San Juans, which en­com­pass hun­dreds of is­lands and reefs—only a frac­tion of them named—be­tween Ana­cortes, Wash­ing­ton, and Van­cou­ver Is­land, Canada. My fam­ily and I are aboard 75-foot (22.8-me­ter) Hat­teras Ja­mal, cruis­ing with a view of Mount Baker tow­er­ing 10,781 feet over­head. Capt. Jen­nifer Hanna is a Belling­ham lo­cal who spent sum­mers char­ter­ing for the past three decades. Now, re­tired from teaching mid­dle school, she is at Ja­mal’s helm full time. She and her crew have a well­honed char­ter pro­gram. Prior to our ar­rival at Roche Har­bor, a lunch of berry and goat cheese salad and sal­mon ar­rived, just as we cruised past Or­cas Is­land.

Roche Har­bor is a great place to stretch your legs, with miles of walk­ing paths and a wealth of his­tory. In 1845, the Bri­tish Hud­son’s Bay Com­pany built a trad­ing post here, in spite of the fact that the United States also claimed the is­land. U.S. set­tlers ar­rived, and in 1859, one shot a pig that was raid­ing his gar­den and be­longed to a Hud­son’s Bay em­ployee. When the Bri­tish de­manded the set­tler pay an ex­or­bi­tant amount or face ar­rest, the set­tlers called for U.S. mil­i­tary pro­tec­tion. Forces on both sides swelled, and of­fi­cials even­tu­ally agreed to a joint mil­i­tary occupation. Fi­nally, 12 years later, fol­low­ing the sign­ing of the Treaty of Wash­ing­ton, the San Juans ques­tion was set­tled in fa­vor of the United States. Thank­fully (and fa­mously) the only ca­su­alty was the pig.

Roche Har­bor is named for Lt. Richard Roche of the Royal Marines, who was ashore when lime de­posits were dis­cov­ered. Ta­coma, Wash­ing­ton, lawyer

John. S. McMillin turned those lime­stone de­posits into a busi­ness that blos­somed in 1886. The 19-room ho­tel that McMillin built, Ho­tel de Haro, is still just beyond to­day’s 377-slip ma­rina. Wan­der­ing north­east of the ho­tel, to­ward the sculp­ture park, I can still see re­minders of Roche Har­bor’s hey­day, when the place was a busy com­pany town. There’s a church, a school, barns and cot­tages, many now used as re­sort ac­com­mo­da­tions.

A for­est trail leads to the McMillin mau­soleum, com­pleted in 1936. Even here, I feel like I’m see­ing a mem­o­rable type of art. The bases of the chairs that sur­round a cen­ter ta­ble hold the fam­ily’s ashes, and one of the seven col­umns is bro­ken, rep­re­sent­ing how man dies be­fore his work is com­pleted.

When we re­turn to Ja­mal, chef Lenore Nolan-Ryan has lo­cal cheeses and chilled wines ready. She trav­els here each sum­mer from South Florida, where she runs a cater­ing busi­ness and restau­rant. Nolan-Ryan says she of­ten comes up with an idea for the next meal a cou­ple hours be­fore­hand, some­times based on a con­ver­sa­tion she’s had with a guest. But on this night, as with the first evening of most char­ters, the din­ner is al­most al­ways roasted chicken and veg­gies—be­cause she says it makes guests feel com­fort­able after their long trav­els. Since I’m pescatar­ian, she’s sub­sti­tuted Alaskan hal­ibut along­side the vi­brant veg­eta­bles and herbs.

When we wake the next morn­ing, Hanna pro­claims it “Whale Day.” She’s re­ceived re­ports that some of the ar­chi­pel­ago’s res­i­dent or­cas are to the north, in Cana­dian wa­ters. As we cruise in that di­rec­tion, the views of the Olympic Moun­tains are spec­tac­u­lar, as is the sight of Van­cou­ver Is­land to the west. Mount Baker dom­i­nates the for­ward vista, a view we sa­vor by

din­ing on the up­per deck aft, dig­ging into cool gaz­pa­cho and warm veg­etable salad as we scout for whales, har­bor seals and bald ea­gles.

As we en­ter the Strait of Ge­or­gia and cruise north to­ward Point Roberts, Hanna sees sev­eral whale­watch­ing boats, and sure enough, an orca is nearby, its inky dor­sal fin slic­ing the sil­ver wa­ter. We fol­low, and sev­eral more or­cas ap­pear, with Mount Con­sti­tu­tion pro­vid­ing a back­drop to the breach­ing and tail slap­ping.

First mate Joey Stern­hagen says some of the or­cas are tran­sients while oth­ers are res­i­dents. The old­est known res­i­dent, “Granny,” is 105 years old and was in the “Free Willy” movies. Stern­hagen can distinguish among the tran­sients and res­i­dents by ap­pear­ance: Tran­sients tend to have a more pointed dor­sal fin top, and their feed­ing be­hav­ior is a give­away. While res­i­dents eat only fish (in sum­mer, mainly sal­mon), tran­sients also con­sume ma­rine mam­mals. If you see a group of or­cas hunt­ing a har­bor seal, sea lion or minke whale, they’re from out of town.

We cruise from there to Su­cia Is­land and spend the af­ter­noon hik­ing along the is­land’s 10 miles of trails, with the peel­ing, rusty bark of Pacific madrone trees lin­ing the way. One path leads from Echo Bay’s clut­tered drift­wood beach to peb­ble-strewn Shal­low Bay, and oth­ers head to Ewing Cove and Fos­sil Bay. These spots are also ac­ces­si­ble by dinghy, of course, and that’s the trans­porta­tion we take at high tide the next morn­ing to watch a colony of har­bor seals loung­ing on ex­posed rocks.

Later, as we cruise south to Or­cas Is­land’s Rosario Ma­rina, the crew hands us pieces of lo­cal drift­wood. To my eye, this is yet more art, shaped and smoothed by the forces of na­ture. We’re en­cour­aged to write a mes­sage, in­clud­ing our con­tact de­tails, on the wood be­fore hurling it off Ja­mal’s stern into the choppy sea.

Nearly three weeks later, my fa­ther, back home in Vir­ginia, re­ceived this email from a kayaker: “Found your piece of drift­wood in the beach clut­ter at the camp­site on the south end of James Is­land on Sun­day night. Set it free again yes­ter­day morn­ing in the mid­dle of Rosario Strait as we pad­dled over to Ana­cortes.”

The idea of send­ing words out into the world, whether in­tended for sculp­ture park vis­i­tors, a clay pot or a stranger, is beau­ti­ful in­deed.

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