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

Lawrence Cheek  – September 1, 2004

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.

Next: Oases in the Sea

More: San Juan Essentials

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