Exploring the San Juan Islands

Exploring the San Juan Islands

The San Juan Islands teem with porpoises, sea lions, seals, river otters and more than 250 species of birds. Year-round sea kayaking, hiking, wildlife cruises, birding and scuba diving await. Enjoying nearly 250 days of sunshine each year, the islands are ideal for both land and water activities.

After a short flight from Seattle via Kenmore Air Express, I arrived in Friday Harbor, located on San Juan Island between Seattle, Vancouver BC and Victoria BC.

San Juan Island National Historical Park is famous for re-enacting The Pig War — a 12-year standoff between British and American troops in the late 1800s.

It all started on June 15, 1859, when an American settler shot and killed a pig found pilfering his potatoes. The pig belonged to an English settler. Both England and America claimed the San Juan Islands and an already tense situation escalated.

When British authorities threatened to arrest the pig-killer, the Americans sent for reinforcements. Forces (and tensions) grew on both sides, and by August 10, five warships and 2,140 English faced off with 461 American soldiers.

For 12 years token forces were maintained by both sides at what are now National Historic Sites, American Camp and British Camp. The main issue was ownership of San Juan Island.

In 1872, Germany intervened and declared north of the 49th parallel Canadian and to the south (including San Juan Island) American. So ended the Pig War — the only casualty, a hungry pig in a potato patch.

I stayed that night at a converted turn-of-the century schoolhouse turned dance hall, turned ranch-hand quarters and finally a country inn — the States Inn and Ranch. It's San Juan's only bed and breakfast on a working 60-acre farm with chickens, sheep, alpacas, horses and walking trails. My day began with a scratch-cooked breakfast made with ranch-grown foods and a visit to the ranch store, stocked with homemade goodies.

In the morning, I rented a car and took the ferry to Orcas Island. There I found some great places to hike, bike, camp and enjoy the outdoors. From the top of Mount Constitution, I could see miles of uncluttered land and seascapes. There are no real towns on Orcas, only charming little villages with wonderful restaurants, galleries and shops nestled in the rural landscape.

If you want a truly unique B&B experience, follow me to the Kangaroo House bed and breakfast. Built in 1907, it is the oldest continuously operating bed and breakfast on Orcas Island.

An Australian steamship captain who brought along a little kangaroo named Josie purchased the home in the 1930s. Islanders prized Josie. She alerted them when a storm was imminent by sheltering under the big cedar tree on the north side of the house.

The Kangaroo House is cozy and relaxed — no phones or television in rooms, just blessed peace. The library is stocked with fun books and games for the whole family and the big Craftsman-style furniture invites curling up by the stone fireplace. The breakfast I had was one of the best ever, inventive, hearty and delicious.

I returned to San Juan Island and checked into the Diamond Inn — no B&B — but I was welcomed with a basket of fresh fruit. I enjoyed the short walk in and around Friday Harbor, absorbing the warm, friendly atmosphere and the many art galleries and historic buildings, especially the Whale Museum. Unless you have a degree in marine biology, you're guaranteed to learn something about these amazing creatures.

The Tlingit legend of the Orca's origin depicts the spiritual relationship between man and whale. A video loops with close-up footage of the whales in their natural habitat, focusing on recent behavioral research by local biologists.

The most intriguing genealogy of local Orcas is displayed. Whales are separated into pods and sub pods with birth dates and affiliations, just like a human genealogy tree.

On my last morning, I took the whale-watching cruise aboard the Victoria Clipper and enjoyed the incredible variety of wildlife in the Salish Sea and nearby islands. Time to go. As I boarded the Clipper headed for home, I treasured memories of a special vacation and vowed to return.

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