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The Ferry to
Orcas Island

Orcas Island, off the coast of Washington State, radiates a quiet charisma that could pass unnoticed if you didn’t adjust your pace accordingly. Arrive via ferry and you’ll disembark feeling calm, curious and ready to embrace the slow drift into island time. Words by Ayn Gailey. Photography by Anthony Blasko.

Traveling to Orcas Island in the Pacific Northwest may feel like a journey to the end of the earth. It requires at least two of the following: boat, airplane, train, automobile. Depending on your point of origin, you may take all of these in one day.

For a first visit, the ferry may be the least timely means of transport, but it makes for the most memorable. The ninety-minute route begins in Anacortes, Washington, a coastal town situated halfway between Seattle and Vancouver, BC. The car-loading ferry sails west through the Salish Sea—an intricate network of straits and waterways carved by massive glaciers over ten thousand years ago—to the San Juan Islands, where Orcas is located. For the best view, exit your car and head up to the bow. Wind, sea, rock and towering trees conspire to rouse awe. With your back to the mainland, face turned toward the sun, the wind tugs at your hair and everything else falls away.

The name Salish Sea pays tribute to the region’s first inhabitants, the Coast Salish tribes, including the Lhaq’temish (Lummi) or “People of the Sea,” who have fished its shores since time immemorial and still do so today. The Salish Sea is home to three resident endangered orca pods, as well as the North Pacific giant octopus (the world’s largest) and three thousand species of marine invertebrates.

Orca sightings are to be expected on the ferry, but sightings of land mammals in the water also occur. Spotting a family of deer swimming between islands is possible and, a few years back, a black bear swam to Orcas and stayed a couple of weeks, the only predator on the island. In 2017, a folk song was written about Frieda, a pig that escaped a farm truck and fell overboard, only to be found hours later running down a country lane on Orcas.

The San Juan Islands archipelago comprises over four hundred islands, only twenty of which are inhabited, some with as few as two residents, and only four receiving ferry service. The first glimpse of island life can be found on board, where locals may stir your curiosity: a nun from one of the country’s last Benedictine monasteries on Shaw Island; the Ladies Hunting Club; the monthly Floating Ukulele Jam—a collective of strumming musicians from four islands who meet on board.

Once you step foot on Orcas, so much raw beauty is visible that it’s easy to understand why the Lummi have no word for nature: they don’t see themselves as separate from it. You may learn to see yourself this way too. Challenge yourself to summit Mount Constitution, the highest point in the San Juans, for a stunning panoramic view of the archipelago, Mount Baker and Vancouver Island. Alternatively, take a more leisurely hike to Cascade waterfall, paddleboard to the islet in the middle of Mountain Lake to nap under cedars or rent a kayak at Cascade Lake and search for the hidden footbridge.

In summer, wild blackberries abound. In fall, forage the forest for chanterelles and rare matsutakes, or visit the handful of unattended farm stands to buy kale, beets and peonies. For lunch, pack a picnic of sandwiches from Roses or Voyager, two cafés in the town of Eastsound, and lie in the shadow of a restored homestead house, now a chapel, in nearby Sara’s Garden. After, shop the unstaffed Thrift Cabin on Enchanted Forest Road, where you can peruse vintage threads, write down what you take and leave money for what you think it’s worth. Or, in the tiny hamlet of Olga, sit at a picnic table at Buck Bay Shellfish Farm and watch your meal of Dungeness crab get plucked from the bay and the shell remnants later returned to the sea.

If you stay overnight, enjoy a sundowner at the Barnacle. Once a boat shed, the structure is now a tavern adorned with reclaimed windows and live-edge wood tables, all milled from the same walnut tree. The street it sits on, Prune Alley, was originally an orchard of Italian plum trees planted in 1870. Today, the proprietors harvest fruit from two of the original trees to make syrups for drinks.

If you have an important flight to catch on your journey home, it’s wise to reserve ferry tickets and plan to return to the mainland the day before. Delays and cancellations are not uncommon, though you may welcome a reason to linger.

Sara Farish, innkeeper at the century-old Outlook Inn, has roots three-generations deep on Orcas. Farish, who is Japanese American, suggests the idiom ichi-go ichi-e to describe one’s first experience getting to and staying on the island. As she translates it: “Every moment is a convergence of unique elements, making it unrepeatable. Therefore, every encounter should be treasured and met with one’s full, attuned senses.”

The ferry’s steady pulse will ease your return to the mainland, your senses now fully awakened, reminding you to take a moment to slow down and savor the quiet beauty that is life—on Orcas Island or elsewhere.

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