Islands of delight

A visit to Washington's San Juan Islands just might change your life

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Normal, satisfied, well-balanced people visit the San Juan Islands all the time, but they don't usually decide to stay. If they do, it's probably a mistake, and they'll have to pay a pile of cash to ferry their worldly goods back to the mainland a few months or years later. The San Juanderers who come and stick are different. They are creative, ingenious, self-reliant, romantic, iconoclastic, unapologetically odd. And they would cheerfully embrace all these adjectives as compliments.

Everyone who craves to stay and carves out a way to do it has a story, usually a good one. Rhea Miller, a two-term county commissioner, thought she was coming for a three-week visit. "When I got on the ferry to go home, I wept. I knew then that this must be home." To scrape together a living, she chopped wood, cleaned houses, and cooked for six years.

Skip Snaith was tired of the crowded East Coast, so he came out with friends who were buying a large farm and tinkering with a strange scientific project. Since he didn't figure their project to pan out, he worked construction for three years, then developed a business building classic Aleutian skin-on-frame kayaks and teaching the ancient art.

"See these indentations?" Snaith is showing me dings in the cedar ribs of a kayak taking shape in his Orcas Island shed. "They're tooth marks. You bend the ribs by biting on them. It compresses the fiber in the wood."

I am spending a week in the San Juans, constantly bumping into people such as these, and late each evening, I review the day's adventures, wondering whether I might be eligible to become an islander. I weigh the islands' serene beauty against the headaches of a four- to six-hour car-and-ferry commute to Seattle, where I might need to go for at least occasional employment, and nightly the balance shifts in my mind. At week's end, intuition and local anecdotes convince me that anyone who's waffling ― who isn't totally committed to the place ― won't make it.

On the ferry back, I don't weep. But the boat arrives on the mainland way too quickly. I hate having left.

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