Scenery and serenity on Orcas Idyllic: Hills, hamlets, farmsteads, forest and a long coastline draw visitors to the largest of the San Juan Islands.

January 28, 1996|By Steve Silk | Steve Silk,HARTFORD COURANT

With its endless sweeps of evergreens and tiny harbors, the rocky San Juan Islands in Washington's Puget Sound seem miles away from everyday concerns.

After all, this was the place a wealthy shipbuilder chose as his retreat when a doctor told him he had only a few months to live. Decades later, the shipbuilder was still enjoying his island idyll.

There are scores of San Juans, but the islands most visited are those served by the Washington State Ferry system. Boats call daily on Shaw, Orcas, Lopez and San Juan, and each has its appeal.

San Juan is the most bustling, with aptly named Friday Harbor a mecca for weekenders from Seattle and for visitors from all over. Lopez, with its flat farmland, is a favorite for bicyclists. Shaw is rural, with few places for visitors to stay.

But Orcas is, for many, the superlative San Juan: This, the largest of the islands, boasts the most coastline and the highest mountain. On this butterfly- shaped island you'll find rolling hills, handsome farmsteads, tiny hamlets huddled at the head of rock-ribbed inlets and abandoned orchards engulfed by forest.

And there's Madrona Point, where the Lummi Indians were said to have buried their dead. Today it's a lonely place: The wind swirls through the twisting limbs of ruddy madrona trees, and sun-bleached, wave-washed driftwood rattles like old bones. Pink clusters of sweet peas brighten the clearings, but the happy colors offer no escape from the haunting sense of solitude that comes from the churning blue sea and smoky gray sky, and the distant islets that seem suspended between them.

Many Orcas visitors delight in exploring that dividing line where sea meets sky, and their vessel of choice is a kayak, the slender craft developed long ago by Eskimos. Today's craft are made of plastic rather than bones and hides, and they're a lot more reliable and stable than their precursors. So reliable, in fact, that most of the outfitters who offer guided trips around the San Juans welcome even those who've never hefted a paddle.

A morning cruise from Doe Bay, on Orcas, takes paddlers past boat-studded bays, quiet islets and a shoreline containing handsome, fir-shaded log houses. Islanders like to complain about the inhabitants of such houses. Wealthy Californians and other out-of-state immigrants are boosting property values and letting the old farmlands they buy go to seed, so to speak.

But out on the ocean, as clusters of kayakers windmill across Buoy Bay, past stony headlands spiked with craggy trees, such concerns seem distant indeed. Killer whales sometimes swim near kayakers; guides say it's an event to cherish.

Out on the water, boaters bob on a sea corrugated with rolling swells. All around them rise the jagged ridges and smooth knobs of scores of islands, and it's easy to imagine the San Juans as the peaks of some antediluvian mountain range. In fact, that's just what they are. In the last ice age, more than 10,000 years ago, the weight of grinding glaciers caused an entire mountain range to sink beneath the waters of Puget Sound. The peaks are all that remain.

But there are lots of them. A count at low tide tallies nearly 800 rocks, reefs, islands and other features poking above the surface. At high tide, the number shrinks to about 450. Of those, 200 or so are significant or sizable enough to warrant a name.

Eerie reminders

Some of those names are evocative, almost eerily so. Cemetery Island, Smallpox Bay, Barren Island, Deadman Island. Skull Island, Massacre Bay and Victim Island -- all either on or near Orcas -- earned their names during the years the Haida Indians of British Columbia staged slaving raids on the peaceful Lummis, who were perhaps the first summer visitors to frequent the San Juans. The Lummis spent the sunny (relatively) and rain-free (relatively) months of May to September feasting on seafood, deer and berries before returning to the mainland to wait out the winter.

The Lummis' old lands can be surveyed from the stone tower that crowns Mount Constitution, at 2,407 feet the highest peak in the San Juans. The mountain is the centerpiece of Moran State Park, and visitors who'd rather not hoof it all the way to the top can drive up the narrow twisting road that leads to the summit.

Even if you drive, it's worth taking a walk somewhere in Moran. Trails lead to waterfalls and lakes, through incredibly lush forests carpeted with ferns and canopied with Western hemlock, lodge-pole, cedar and Sitka spruce. On exposed ridges you'll find artfully sculpted junipers shaped by years of harsh winds.

The mountaintop itself is a treasure trove of wind-swept trees, but most visitors to the summit turn their attention to the 50-foot sandstone block tower that sticks like a hatpin out of Constitution's stony pate. Kids in particular love to charge up its flights of stairs and peek out its narrow windows. The hilltop stone castle is patterned after a 12th- century watchtower in the Caucasus of southeastern Europe.

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