Into the San Juan Islands

View of northern San Juan and southern Gulf Islands

International borders are strange and artificial things—they drive distances between spaces that are not at all far apart.  Charts and maps tend to reinforce such prejudices because often they omit lands or waters belonging to other nations—as on ancient maps, “over there” might well be unknown territory, an unmarked blank zone, or simply, cut off: where the chart ends; us, not them.  Thus, when our friends Paul and Dee first suggested we cross the border and meet them in the San Juans, we thought we’d be going quite a distance. Then we studied the single chart we have that encompasses both US San Juans and the Canadian Gulf Islands, and we realized, with a bit of shock, actually, we’re just a few miles from the San Juans.  Indeed, it really makes no sense to think of these Canadian and American islands separately; their histories and flora and fauna and lifeways are closely linked. It is just–just!?!–the politics and hassle of the border that divides our consciousness thus.  And the simple fact that here, we’d not yet crossed it.

And then we did.


Quoddy’s Run and Blue Pteron anchored in Indian Cove

12 May 2012


A clear blue morning and we are anchored in Indian Cove on Shaw Island, in the San Juans, alongside Blue Pteron, Paul and Dee’s boat.  The day hints of summer—golden sunshine and the mountains in clear view—Mount Baker and the snow covered Cascades.  They hover like mirages above the low spines of the islands and at sunset those snowy caps turn to rainbow-tinged spectacles of colour.

The boat rocks gently as the ferries go by, but the night was calm, the water glassy and tossing back stars when we went to bed.  The air is sweet; it smells like apple blossoms and woodsmoke.  Something on one of the islands is bursting into bloom and it mingles with the freshening sea air blowing up from the Juan de Fuca Straits.


Quoddy’s Run anchored in the San Juan Islands

Yesterday already seems long ago—we hauled up anchor late, then raised sail and set off around the top of Sidney Spit and towards the border.  The Anacortes-Sidney ferry passed us; we slipped by a tug towing two enormous barges piled high with flattened cars, and motor-sailed towards Spieden Island.  Spieden Channel was anything but speedin’—we were slowin’ and slowin’ and almost stoppin’ in the rush of the current, which bubbled and burbled like a stream, tossing the trailing dinghy sideways, tossing us sideways, spinning us in one direction and then another like a funhouse ride.  We slowed as we approached the San Juan Channel: 1.8 knots; 1.4; then hit by a powerboat wake and another tidal eddy, .8, all sails up and working at the engine pushing at 2000rpm.  “We’ve gone backwards in there!” Dee says when we arrive and tell them the story.

As we’d hoped when we read the current tables, the water was with us in the San Juan Channel, and we raced to Friday Harbour at 7 and 8 knots, and up to the US Customs dock.  Lots of standing around waiting—three other boats were there, and crew has to stay on the boats, so while Skipper Marike paced the docks, Karin tidied the cockpit and galley and read.

Finally, the officers arrived, approved us, and gave us a little slip of paper containing a seal and some numbers that we were to paste in our logbook—which we did—and we were off.

A sweet afternoon sail around the bottom of Shaw Island, and then there, a little speck in the distance—Mount Baker rising impossibly high on the right—was Blue Pteron. Anchored. The cove was warm and still when we arrived, and Paul and Dee were floating about in their dinghy, rowing slowly, having been out clamming.  They’d found huge clams, each a handspan wide.  They came aboard and inspected the work done on Quoddy with much admiration.  Then dinner, wonderful wide-ranging conversation, and sleep.


Marike tries to rescue a drying starfish


After rowing ashore and walking along the beach at Shaw Island, and then up through the 10 campsite County Park there along Indian Cove, we dragged the dinghy back out over the tidal flats and returned to the boat. Paul called Dee, who was painting in a rocky grove, and we set off for Eastsound, a town at the head of East Sound, Orcas Island, which was rumoured to have a mead and cider festival.  No wind, some wind, and then, as we turned up into East Sound, 20 knots of wind on the nose.  Either a beat up into it or one very short tack after another.  Let’s not bash into that, Paul said, and so we turned around and decided, the weather being settled enough, to head for Aleck Bay, along the southern edge of Lopez Island.


Quoddy’s Run and Blue Pteron sailing

We sailed through the Thatcher Pass and into Rosario Strait, south, past the State Park on James Island, along Decatur Island and around the southeast tip of Lopez.

Sudden rugged wildness, snowcapped mountains visible everywhere, steep rocky ledges, rookeries, arbutus and cedar clinging to thin soils.  A clear clean cool smell of the open sea—a whisper of coldness—piping in from the Juan de Fuca Strait—absolutely splendidly beautiful.  We anchor in a corner of the cove that permits us to look over the water at the Cascades.


Quoddy’s Run anchored in Aleck Bay, Lopez Island

13 May 2012


Aleck Bay, Lopez Island

Anchored in a rugged rocky cove—echoing just now with the alarms of sentinel Canada geese.  It’s nesting season, and the young, little balls of grey fluff, are just beginning to waddle about in short lines between two watchful adults. Sentinel geese are everywhere, watching; diversionary flights, cries of warning, attempts to mislead potential threats are all part of their repertoire.  It makes for noisy mornings and noisy walks—goose heads suddenly pop up, dozens of them, wherever you go.  Human no trespassing signs don’t strike pangs of guilt in us, but these alarms do.

Cool fresh sea air.  We are just beside the junction of the Rosario and Juan de Fuca Straits, and the air smells of the cold and open sea. Mist lies above the water and the mountains, which we could see last night, are just a bit of shadow—white on white—in the distance.

The water sparkles; the sky is blue, trees and meadows are in bloom.  Somewhere, at one of the immodestly large houses that line the shore, children play and exclaim, oh boy! Let me see!  Perhaps they’ve discovered a large clam.


Paul hoists his horse clams

Paul and Dee have been carrying their enormous clams in a mesh bag hanging from the stern of Blue Pteron.  Paul has taken to calling them ‘horse clams’—we find that that’s one name for Fat Gapers in our Seashore of British Columbia field guide.  Last night after dinner, as we were debarking from Blue Pteron for our own boat, Paul said, “I’m not sure I can eat my horse clams. I’m growing attached to them.  I’ve even named them.  Mr. Ed” (we see the chompers chomping).  –And the other one? “Seabiscuit.”  Hard work not to fall into the cold water we were laughing so much.


Paul contemplates the state of the world

14 May 2012

Aleck Bay, Lopez Island

Another stunning day.  The sky is blue, the sun golden, the eastern horizon rosy.  We rock gently in the swell from a shifting tide and wake slowly, though we’ll be leaving this morning (timing our departure carefully so as not to buck against the currents this time), headed to Bedwell Harbour, a re-entry point to Canada.

Paul and Dee left with the ebb yesterday afternoon for Port Townsend.  No wind really, but the way was clear and the day warm, the currents in their favour.

Before that, we’d taken them on a bit of a wild goose chase around the point to a landing where we’d thought we’d be able to walk.  That’s one of the difficulties here in the San Juans—there’s no landing on some of the beaches, not even below the tide line: “no trespassing on private property or tide lands,” say the signs. Finding places where we can walk is not a simple matter; we’d need a map of public and parklands and not just our marine charts.


Dee paints from the bow of the boat

We’d gone in their dinghy—the engine is a bit larger, and so is the dinghy—more room for the four of us. But then the engine died along the way as we stopped to look at what seemed to be either a large mooring buoy or the remains of a sea lion carcass, peeling in the sun.  It was the latter of course—we caught the awful smell as we drifted downwind, Paul pulling on the cord, turning the throttle up and down and pushing the choke in and out.

Finally the engine caught, and we continued on, and on, through tidal eddies and whirlpools, past endless “no trespassing zone” signed beaches and rocky outcrops to a protected little bay—finally!—and wide beach full of people.  A trawler drew close to shore and disgorged two kayakers in the shadow of a rocky steep mountain covered with trees.  And there, winding up the mountainside was the trail we’d been looking for!

The water was still and green, Mount Baker ubiquitous and majestic above us.  But it was also late; Paul and Dee wanted to leave and all of us were reluctant to turn off the engine in case we couldn’t get it to start again.  So we headed back, through eddies and whirlpools, past the perfect reflections of steep red rocks covered in orange lichens (memories of Mexico), weaving between little rocky islets and up into…a cover where our boats were not.

“Where are our boats?” asked Paul.  I’d been searching too, through the binoculars, thinking aids to my vision might make the boats appear.  But they didn’t.

Dee started laughing.  Wrong cove! she said. Oh, oops.

We went out and around the point and up into the next cove, and of course, there they were, those two boats, Quoddy’s Run and Blue Pteron.

We said goodbye and got in our own dinghy and rowed ashore to a place where there didn’t seem to be any no trespassing signs. We stood on the beach and watched as they hauled up their anchor, then we walked up and down the rocky shore, melancholy with goodbye.  We’ll see them again soon, we know, but still, we miss them.


Driftwood deadhead

About Karin Cope

Karin Cope lives on the Eastern Shore of Nova Scotia. She is a poet, sailor, photographer, scholar, rural activist, blogger and an Associate Professor at NSCAD University. Her publications include Passionate Collaborations: Learning to Live with Gertrude Stein, a poetry collection entitled What we're doing to stay afloat, and, since 2009, a photo/poetry blog entitled Visible Poetry: Aesthetic Acts in Progress. Over the course of the last decade, with her partner and collaborator Marike Finlay, Cope has sailed to and conducted fieldwork in a number of remote or marginal coastal communities in British Columbia and Mexico. Their joint writings range from activist journalism and travel and policy documents, to an illustrated popular material history of the Lunenburg Foundry entitled Casting a Legend, as well as their ongoing west coast travel blog, West By East.
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