anchored in Reid Harbor, Stuart Island
"There is one word of advice and caution to be given to those intending to visit Alaska for pleasure, for sightseeing. If you are old, go by all means, but if you are young, wait. The scenery of Alaska is much grander than anything else of the kind in the world, and it is not well to dull one's capacity for enjoyment by seeing the finest first."
- Henry Gannett, member of the 1899 Harriman Alaska Expedition.
After six trips to SE Alaska and back, I'm tempted to agree with Gannett's sentiment. Alaska is on a different scale than anything else I have seen: miles of old-growth forests, mountains so steep and so close to the water that they make the Cascades look tame, glaciers that inspire awe, brown bears that inspire fear and totem poles that inspire appreciation for another culture. And our re-entries to the Salish Sea have sometimes been jarring as we adjusted to crowded anchorages and constant chatter on VHF radio channels. So when Steve and I decided to spend two weeks cruising in the San Juans after Labor Day, I wondered how those Alaskan trips would affect our enjoyment of this much vaunted cruising ground.
Normally we experience the San Juans as stops along the way to or from Alaska or northern British Columbia, not destinations in themselves. A cruise to the San Juans would be an opportunity to see more of the islands.
Going after Labor Day turned out to be a good decision. Crowds were down, but seasonal attractions were still open. Almost every State Park we visited had mooring buoys available, and other places had space to anchor. The weather was warm but not so hot we needed our awning.
Here are some other things I appreciated about the San Juans:
Short distances between destinations.
Even if we left an anchorage at noon, we were always at our next destination in time to enjoy it that afternoon. And the destinations are numerous. A two-week trip left places to visit on our next trip.
Convenient Provisioning Stops
. At the small stores of Shaw Island, Roche Harbor and Deer Harbor, we found fresh produce that wasn't wilted. Perhaps only someone who's spent time cruising in the isolated areas of British Columbia and Alaska can truly appreciate that.
Photo: Interior of Shaw Island General Store
And then of course there's Friday Harbor on San Juan Island with its banks, post office, restaurants and other stores. It even has a good independent bookstore: Griffin Bay Books. The town is centrally located and just a short trip away from almost everywhere in the San Juans.
Just as South Sound has Mt. Rainier on its east, the San Juan Islands have Mt. Baker to their east. It can be jaw-dropping beautiful at sunset or on a clear day when the mountain peeks over a rock to surprise you as you sail by.
Photo: Mt Baker
Interpretive signs in parks.
This may seem like an odd thing to praise but in the wilderness of B.C. and Alaska we have to do our own research. We spent two nights at Garrison Bay, part of the San Juan National Historic Park that commemorates the Pig War of 1859 and the joint occupation of San Juan Island by Great Britain and the U.S. from 1860-1872. I was impressed with the quality of the interpretive signs and the videos. The main message -- that by staying calm and following established policies, it's possible to avoid war -- seemed perfectly tailored for today.
Photo: The English Camp at Garrison Bay, San Juan National Historic Park
Another place where I appreciated the interpretive signs was on the trails of Obstruction Pass State Park. Their messages about glaciers sculpting the land reminded me that the processes we saw in action in SE Alaska were the same ones that formed Puget Sound many years ago. The San Juans aren't that far from glaciers.
Compared to bush whacking through swamps and climbing over windfall as we have in BC and Alaska, hiking San Juan trails were a pleasure. For Steve who jokes he's working up to 2 knots they made walking possible. And we didn't need to watch out for bears.
Photo: Hiking trail on Stuart Island
On Stuart Island we hiked to the old schoolhouse and browsed in the tiny museum. At Garrison Bay we hiked up to the English cemetery and admired the rare Garry Oaks. At Sucia Island we walked to the china caves -- sandstone "sculptures" formed by water and wind located just a short distance from our anchorage in Echo Bay.
Photo: China Caves on Sucia Island.
Fishing and Crabbing.
We didn't get Washington State Fishing Licenses or bring our pots and poles because we would only be out for two weeks. But in Garrison Bay we spent an evening with six other boaters feasting on crabs they had caught that day.
We found just enough funkiness to remind us that we were in a rural area: bags of goat feed on the porch of the Shaw Island General Store and the quirky Boundary Pass Traders shop just off the trail on Stuart Island. It's just an old wooden bureau next to the trail near the schoolhouse. You pick out a shirt from the trunk, trying on the samples hanging from the clothesline for size, and mail your payment when you get back to civilization. We both bought long-sleeve T-shirts with dramatic pictures of flying ospreys on the front.
Photo: Boaters shopping at Boundary Pass Traders
Two weeks in the San Juans were just what we needed after a summer of frustrating medical appointments. Puget Sound boaters are fortunate to have the islands so close. The tree-covered islands with their multiple state parks and protected harbors are a great short-term destination. If we have another chance to go back to the San Juans during a "shoulder season," we'll take it. But we hope to be back in SE Alaska, or at least on the northern British Columbia coast, next summer.