We trudged up the wooded path from the parking lot of Lime Kiln Point State Park, the so-called "whale-watching park" of Washington's San Juan Island, armed with borrowed binoculars, jackets and hope. It was only 10 a.m., with fog still hanging in the air. Surely the time for orcas to linger in the spot where everyone always said they were seen.
Then we saw the handwritten sign: "Whales went north at 9:30 a.m."
Yeah, right, we sniggered, clambering onto the rocks and listening to the plaintive wail of the little white lighthouse. Just somebody trying to throw us off the trail, to keep these black-and-white beauties for themselves. We weren't fooled. We zipped up our jackets, girded for the wait.
Of course, they never did come.
That was three years ago, on my second trip to the main island in this archipelago just south of the British Columbia border, this orca capital, this reluctant site of "Free Willy" fame.
You've seen those "Free Willy" movies filmed in and around San Juan Island's main town, Friday Harbor. The ones where the orcas - particularly Willy, played by trained orca Keiko - swarm to humans on shore like dogs whose masters have come home.
In real life, it may be a basic element of Pacific Northwest nature that these large dolphins known as "killer whales" often elude those who look the hardest for them, and reward with chance encounters those who have left them alone. In short, Willy is free to delight - and free to ignore you.
This is a part of the country where things immovable as mountains can disappear utterly in haze, not to be found from the same vantage point from one day to the next. Some days from Mount Constitution, the highest point on nearby Orcas Island, you can see Mount Rainier 125 miles south, and all the natural beauty in between. On other days, you cannot see as far as that bottle of wine you optimistically hold in front of you to toast the view that isn't.
San Juan Island, with its twisted trees, placid coves and twinkling marinas, is so achingly beautiful that perhaps it needs some quest to keep its visitors and residents from dying of happiness. A journey that challenges and tantalizes, offering day by day the chance - but only the chance - of fulfillment.
It is a place that needs tension, in its own way. For 12 years, that was supplied by a joint occupation of American and British soldiers, who clashed over which country owned the island. In 1859, they nearly came to war over the death of a pig.
For modern drama, look to 90 "resident" orcas, traveling in pods called J, K and L, tied unerringly to their matriarchs and faithfully to this island. Their patterns have been painstakingly recorded by researchers, and to a certain extent they are predictable: The orcas will follow the rich runs of chum salmon through the waters of Haro Strait.
But they also go where they will. And sometimes even the 50 to 100 boats that seek them each day from April to October have no idea where they are. I had seen the San Juan orcas once - after the endless walks on beaches and vigils from the whale-watching park yielded nothing - after I forked over the typical $45 fee for a three- to four-hour cruise that still does not guarantee a sighting. On a Western Prince boat we sailed out of Friday Harbor, pausing to note the seals sunning themselves on a rock that matched them precisely in color. We cruised for a while without luck, and I began to claim that, really, I wasn't that interested in seeing whales.
And then we saw them. Towering dorsal fins first, taller than our whole bodies. They were "traveling," which meant they wanted to get somewhere in a hurry and didn't want to stop to play with us. They swam with a singular purpose, heavy as small passenger ferries, sleek and speedy as cigarette boats. Nobody but the naturalist on board really spoke. All we humans wanted to do was watch them breathe, the water cascading from their blowholes, their gleaming black backs appearing and disappearing side by side.
When I returned to San Juan Island last Labor Day weekend, sailing into Friday Harbor on a Washington state ferry, I was of two minds about the whales. Forget them, I said to myself. There is plenty to experience here. The old resort at Roche Harbor. Herons and eagles to spot. Beautiful beaches, shops to explore, fine restaurants to sample. Who needs orcas? And the other part said, I do.
For the first day or so, reason prevailed. Having left our car at the Anacortes ferry dock (recommended in the high season), we rented bicycles in town for the 6-mile ride to American Camp at the southern tip of the island, so named for its place in the Pig War. We aimed our bikes down the lane named for Capt. George E. Pickett, who protected America's stake in the island before going on to greater fame in the Civil War.