Orcas Island: Escape From Portland…Eventually

There were years in my life when I could take off anytime I wanted without a word to anyone.  Those were the days before the hubby and the kids. Those were also the days when you could shimmy down to the airport, stand gazing at the outgoing flight board, pick a destination, plunk down cash money and jet. You could smoke cigarettes on the plane and have a cocktail with the pilot if invited. Scary but true. Happily my husband, Jesse, shares my wanderlust, the oldest kid is out of the house, the youngest still thinks we’re cool and our jobs as freelance artists allow us some control of our time. I think they really do enforce the no drinking if you’re flying the plane thing now too. All this means I can still manage the occasional spontaneous trip. Sort of.

A few years ago home in Portland, Oregon it rained for 37 straight days. That’s three days shy of the ark’s final boarding call. My daughter’s pediatrician told me that there was a rickets outbreak in Portland children. Rickets. At midnight on the 38th day of rain I couldn’t sleep. I decided to do a little light reading. “The Collected Works of Edgar Allen Poe.”  Just about the time The Tell Tale Heart thumped its first creepy beat through the floorboard, my email alert rang.  A friend living on the big island in Hawaii was leaving for an unexpected trip to New York and her beach house could be mine for two weeks.  I had to let her know right away or the offer would go to her undeserving single brother who already had his own perfectly good beach house in Santa Barbara.

“I’ll book the flight tonight! God bless you.” I typed.

“I’ll leave the key in the mailbox, bring sunscreen.”  her glorious reply.

I began a frenzied online search for cheap tickets, a job I usually leave up to others.  How hard could it be? After about an hour I found three affordable tickets (hubby, me, and baby made three) filled out all the valid fields, punched in the bank card number, printed the confirmation and voila, time to pack.

I was jacked up on three pots of coffee by 6 a.m. when I woke my husband, Jesse, babbling about the surf being up in Hawaii and how we could spend the rainy day money we had been saving because it had been raining for a whole freaking month, and besides we had a free place to stay, and lets go, go, go! He stared at me a minute then said, “Hawaii? Cool.”


We remembered to bring the baby and took off. In the airport terminal I skipped up to the line bowing my head at the entrance so the sweet elderly man greeting lucky passengers could put a lei around my neck. I looked back at my husband waiting on a row of seats near the window with our daughter. He flashed me the hang loose sign. At the desk I gave the agent our names.

Click. Click. Click. “Hmmm.” she said.

“What?” I said defensively.

“Gosh …I’m just not seeing your reservation.”

I thrust my confirmation print out at her. Ha!

“O.K. Great lets see.”

Click. Click. Click.

I glanced back at my husband who was making the baby do a little hula dance from the Snuggly on his chest.

“Oh I see the problem,” the ticket agent said, in that way you speak to people with dementia or potentially dangerous criminals.

”You forgot to type in the airport code.”

“So type it in” I snarled.

“Thats not really the way it works” she said softly, looking around for a security guard.

“Well…Are there any seats for sale?” I pleaded trying to smile.

Click. click. click. “No I’m sorry that flight is full and its our only flight today.” dismissing

me, with a triumphant smirk.

I turned to leave without a word. The little man at the entrance cleared his throat as I was leaving the line and nodded to the lei still around my neck. I bent my head so he could take it off ashamed to look him in the eye. My husband pulled his hoody up over the baby to keep the rain off her and wrapped a consoling arm around my shoulder. About the time we hit the exit doors they made the announcement,  ”Last boarding call for Hawaiian Air”  just to taunt me I was sure. I looked straight at my husband and began to bawl like Lucy when Ricky would not let her sing down at the club.

This is how we found Orcas Island, Emerald Jewel of the San Juan Islands. My husband, to quell my rising hysteria in the puddle soaked parking lot of the Portland airport said,

“Look why don’t we just go to Seattle, get a sweet hotel, order room service. You could get a massage?”

“Seattle?”  I shrieked. “The only place that’s raining more than Portland? I don’t even know who you are anymore.”

I slumped in the corner nearly catatonic for the entire drive. The baby slept like an angel. Lucky hubby. We stayed the night at The Ace Hotel, a swanky place on the waterfront in downtown Seattle. We had a fine meal sent up which included some sort of heavenly chocolate creation I inhaled. I ran a bubble bath in the giant tub and lined the rim with every bottle from the mini bar. After the last tiny gin bottle was empty I put on the hotels plush robe and plopped down on the bed. My husband was reading a magazine whose cover featured a woman sitting barefoot on a rocky beach which bordered a sparkling blue sea. Her eyes were shut, her face was serene and turned up towards what looked to be, as near as I could recall, the sun.

“Enjoy the San Juan Islands” was the simple invitation.

“I wish we could.” I muttered to the room.

“Could what?‘“ asked Jesse.

“Visit the San Juan Islands.” I flicked the magazine cover.

“We could go there in the morning.” he said.

So here’s the thing, I stink at geography. Love to travel, stink at geography. I can however read a compass and a map. I just can’t do the geography right in my head. I blame public school. So when Jesse said we could simply head for The San Juans in the morning I said something he still likes to refer to as “cute” and “adorable” when he tells this story at dinner parties.

“You mean we could go all the way to Puerto Rico?”

“Honey, The San Juan Islands are between the state of Washington and British Columbia.You know… Canada?”.

I stared at him blankly.

“We could be there by lunch tomorrow.”

The Island featured on the cover was Friday Harbor one of more than 100 islands in the San Juan archipelago snuggled in between the Northwest corner of the U.S. mainland and Vancouver Island, British Colombia, Canada. The hundreds of islands in the archipelago are only accessible by air and water and just six are served by The Washington State Ferry. The ferry dock in Anacortes, Washington is about an hour and a half from Seattle and as we drove towards it past the Shell oil refinery which looked like something from  “Lord of the Rings” the bad years, I was skeptical. Once we made it to the ferry landing itself I began to feel excited. The sun came out suddenly (cue angelic choir) and though the temperature was cool, my spirits were lifted instantly. We paid our fare and then meandered around people watching until the ferry came. It was right on time and once they herded us all on we were free to exit the vehicle and stroll about the upper and outer decks.

We could not wait to get to Friday Harbor. Our plan was to find some cool camping for the week and my husband was totally stoked to do some sea kayaking. The islands are a destination spot for the sport and happily for wildlife lovers like us the area also offers whale watching. I hoped we would get lucky and spy a whale at some point. I didn’t have to wait long and it was the mammoth mystical whale that insured we missed Friday Harbor altogether and landed on Orcas Island.

There we were sitting together on the row of outdoor seats in the bow of the boat drinking hot chocolate. The baby was cooing in her blanket, my head was on Jess’ shoulder, when a mammoth Humpback mother whale and her baby sprung up out of the water right behind the boat. The sea spray salted us with a blessing and the 30 second sighting of those enormous, beautiful animals left us speechless. Apparently it also affected our ability to hear since we missed the Captains call for our Friday Harbor destination stop. We sat there on the ferry in a happy stupor through two more stops until a nice man who was sweeping up said softly, “Last stop folks.” We drove the two feet off the boat and stepped onto the island. Jesse mumbled something about staying forever and wandered into the tiny store at the top of the hill to inquire about camping. He came back laughing and told me we had missed the Friday Harbor stop. “Well, where are we then?” I laughed back. “Orcas.” he said. “Orcas Island.”

We fell in love with Orcas Island at that precise moment and remain loyal visitors. I’m sure Friday Harbor and Lummi and all the other islands are amazing but to tell you truth I’ve never even been to them. I have been back to Orcas many times and always experience something surprising, breathtaking, and comforting. Once in a little cabin built on the edge of a cliff, we sat down for breakfast with the window flung open. I was pouring orange juice when an eagle flew by the window so close the wind from his massive wingspan blew the napkins right off the table. On another visit we chartered an Emerald Island sailing vessel for a six hour day tour in and out of the islands. We spotted huge eagles nests in tall pines, witnessed frolicking sea otters, and learned about The Great Bear Rain Forest along the Canadian Coast where the elusive white spirit bear can sometimes be seen. Still saving our pennies for that week long tour. We have camped near the top of Mount Constitution among the smooth madrone trees and fragrant evergreens. The view at the top of Mount Constitution is 2.400 feet high and warrants at the least a day trip up for the view.

Pilots claim there is a blue hole over Orcas and the Salish Indians have been bringing their sick and wounded to the island for hundreds and hundreds of years to help them heal. It is peaceful and there is magic there to be found. The Island sits like two big breasts glittering emerald green in the middle of the sea and I myself have had some experiences both strange and powerful each time we visit.  The Rosario Hotel is even rumored to be haunted if you are into ghosties. Also of spiritual value, the perfect potato pancakes served with home made applesauce at the Sunflower Cafe and a local art purchase from Orcas Island Artwork a collective gallery housed in an old strawberry packing plant over in Olga. The sea kayaking was a thrill for Jesse and although it’s a little wild out there for me I get why he loves it. Orcas Outdoors offers rentals for the experienced and the novice with kayaks available to you by the hour to paddle yourself around or book a guided tours and go on exploring for days.

The last time we went to Orcas Island we invested in our future. We brought my 17 year old son and two of his friends for a three day workshop weekend on The Bullocks Permaculture Farm. Sam Bullock and his family own and operate this world famous homestead teaching permaculture practices during weekend workshops. Young interns from groups like WOOF work the farm in exchange for room and board. The Bullocks teach using a hands on practical application curriculum that is impressive and memorable.

Permaculture is a land use design that is sustainable and gentle. It means people and the land they work and live on not only survive but thrive in harmony together. At the Bullocks place, apple orchards grow right outside the front door for easy picking, compost teas are brewed up in huge vats to replace valuable microbes in the soil, Hawthorne trees, an invasive species, are grafted and become tall flowering fruit trees. Those young people of ours in attendance at The Bullock Farm that weekend spent three days, alongside teachers, physicists, a fireman, and a family or two from all over the globe learning real earth stewardship strategies which can work to restore any environment no matter how ravaged it may be. I have seen those kids apply the lessons they learned on that trip in their daily lives and listened while they shared with peers knowledge about sustainable communities. Hard to beat that return.

Serendipity or lack of internet know-how or an exhausted mom goes a little crazy in the rain, no matter the reason, I found Orcas or it found me. The Island is there waiting a short half day trip from Portland, anytime I need to visit and relax on the shining Emerald of The San Juans.

Incidentally we are headed for Hawaii’s big island in June for a wedding and no, thank you very much, i did not book the tickets myself.

Shannon Jeffries Written by:

An Alabama native, Shannon was born into a family of working artists and traveling musicians. Surrounded by tales of adventures told by master storytellers she quickly developed an insatiable appetite for all things expansive. When a childhood injury and subsequent surgery threatened to cripple her and left her bedridden for a year she read everything about everyplace she could get her hands on and began to dream of a life spent traveling. A favorite Aunt, an intense creative in her own right, gave her a collection of essays and artwork by Mexican born painter Frida Kahlo, Shannon was inspired to heal and begin to pursue her goals. Happily living her dreams with a special travel focus on North and Central America, Shannon earns her living as a freelance writer,painter and artist representative for the Portland based studio Bellydownstudios.com ( a community collective)