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Thursday, July 19, 2012

Waldron Island: A Different Kind of Life

There are over 100 islands in the San Juans, and though only four are accessible by the Washington State Ferry, many others are inhabited. It's amazing how rarely I get off San Juan Island itself, but I always relish the chance to visit one of the other islands and explore another piece of the archipelago. Last weekend I was thrilled to have the chance to visit Waldron, the 4.6 square mile island that is just a little bit different from every other place in the San Juans.

We hopped on the ferry Saturday morning to head over to Orcas, where one of our hosts, Bob, met us in his boat to take us the rest of the way to Waldron. It didn't take long to start leaving the bustling tourist scene behind. As we walked down to the docks, our captain stopped to say hello to a family cleaning up an old boat. "He's the son of the first man I met when I came to Orcas," he explained. That small town community feeling is part of living in the San Juan Islands. I always say there's only one degree of separation here: you don't know everyone, but you know someone who does.

As we pulled out of the marina, a family of four kingfishers patrolled the shoreline, chattering away. We passed an old boat - one that has apparently sunk "two or three times" - with a gull nesting on it. Then it was out into the more open waters to make our way the ten miles from the Orcas ferry landing to Waldron.

We were staying near the north shore of Waldron, and hopped onto the gravel beach near Boundary Pass, with views of Saturna Island and the other Canadian Gulf Islands to the north. We were also welcomed by Bob's wife Winnie and another Waldron neighbor, who helped us get our gear to shore.

The roads on Waldron are county roads, but none of them are paved. They're also narrow and for the most part completely concealed within a tunnel of trees. While there are cars here, most people get around either by bike, ATV, or one of the seven small golf-cart sized pick-up that several families ordered together. The one car we passed on our one-mile walk to the house where we were staying ran on biofuel.

Many of the cars on the island look like this:

 We were lent a couple of bikes and given the "keys to Waldron", a map with some of the points of interest hand-drawn in, including the location of all the bald eagle nests and the lands that are protected as a natural reserve. There are about 80 year-round residents on Waldron, with two or three times that many in the summer, but with no commercial tourism, neighborliness prevails. If you're on the island, you must be a friend or relative of someone who lives there, and since everyone knows each other, there's a distinct lack of "no trespassing" signs, fences, and other borders that serve to keep us apart rather than bring us together.

While there is a county dock at one end of the island in Cowlitz Bay, the only real public building is the local post office. There's no retail, as the last store on the island closed in 1942, though there are a few farm stands selling eggs and local produce. There are three commercial farms on the island, and some of their produce makes it to the stores, farmer's market, and restaurants on San Juan Island. A couple miles into our bike ride, we took in a few of the main points of interest when it comes to human constructions on Waldron, like the airport:

It even has an international gate, though we weren't able to find the first two:

One of the main community centers of activity on Waldron is the school, which serves grades K through 8 and has had as many as 29 students in a year.

Children growing up on Waldron experience a sense of safety that is rare in today's world. They are free to romp around in the woods, climb trees, explore the beach, and bike from house to house without the parents having the worries they do elsewhere. Their kids know everyone, too, and are able to stop it at any residence if they need a drink of water or some air pumped into their bike tires. It must be quite the way to be raised, though some residents encourage the kids to go off-island for high school, perhaps to learn some "street smarts".

The school itself is a beautiful building, complete with library, playground, soccer field, and even a basketball court. Like many structures on Waldron, including many of the homes and lots of the furniture, the basketball hoops are built out of salvaged wood. It looks like the court needs a little bit of work, though:

We didn't get too much further before one of our bikes got a flat tire - apparently a pretty common occurrence on Waldron, and also a common initiation as one of other people we met on Waldron said the same thing happened to him on his first visit. We stashed the bikes along the side of the road, as there's little worry of anything being stolen (unless, we were told, it's beer you leave lying about) and continued on foot.

Aside from the commercial farms, it can be a struggle to figure out how to make a living on Waldron. Telecommuting has opened up new opportunities for some, though as with all technologies, the addition of the internet to Waldron was carefully considered by the community. The island is off the grid when it comes to electricity, with everything being solar or generator powered, meaning neighbors often compare how many watts this or that is when it comes to their conveniences at home. There's no centralized water supply, either. Nowadays, there is internet and cell phones on the island, but in many ways the residents there went from the 19th to the 21st century, skipping a lot of what was in between like land line telephones. Common concerns are about technology are how they might drive the community apart, but it seems phone and internet have been accepted in moderation quite well. The five-page Waldron phone book doesn't keep neighbors from going and visiting each other, but rather facilities easier social arrangements and helps residents reach each other quicker in times of need. The "internet cafe" set up at the school had the interesting side effect of adults waiting to use the internet playing at recess with the kids at school. Televisions, however, don't seem to be too popular.

We continued on foot up "the mountain", the 600 foot tall hill at Point Disney which is part of a preserve currently owned by the San Juan Preservation Trust. It actually turned out to be quite a hike, and while the road map was simple, there were a lot of forks in the road that I'm sure are easy to navigate if you know where everyone on the island but lives but proved a bit difficult to navigate to these newbies. We ended up not even making it to the best view point on top of the sandstone cliffs at Point Disney, but we found a pretty nice spot to stop and eat lunch anyway:

Despite some pretty incredible (for this area) thunderstorms the night before, it was a warm day on Waldron Saturday that ended with a beautiful sunset as seen here from North Beach:

While we had access to a studio cabin, the weather was so nice that we took our hosts up on the offer of pitching a tent by the pond on their property. It turned out to be a great place to sleep. Not only did we not need sleeping pads because of the comfort of sleeping on recently mowed grass, but I was able to identify about 10 different bird species by call before getting up and we also were greeted in the morning by a pair of river otters:

The geology of Waldron is as different from the rest of the San Juans as the culture. It seems to be mostly made up of sandstone, and as a result the beaches are a bit more accessible and less rocky than elsewhere in the San Juans. Sunday morning we went for a long walk on the beach, heading first to Fishery Point.

It was a cooler, cloudier day, but except for a little drizzle the rain stayed mostly away while we explored the beach. In addition to harbor seals in the bay, we saw more river otters everywhere, including all these tracks on the beach:

We turned around and headed the other way towards Sandy Point, passing some shorebirds along the way, including several pairs of killdeer and three spotted sandpipers, an uncommon species in the San Juans.

Many of the properties on Waldron are still in the hands of the initial homesteading family, or have only changed hands once or twice. We passed a few more of the residences, some of them built practically right on the beach, clearly before there were any rules about such things:

At Sandy Point, I was happy to come across a mixed flock of gulls including California and Heermann's gulls among the expected glaucous-winged. Both species were new to my county year list.

All too soon it was time to start heading towards the county dock to catch our water taxi back to Friday Harbor. Along the way I bought some raspberries at a farm stand to snack on for our walk to the dock. 

As we pulled out of Cowlitz Bay, we got a better view of Point Disney, probably one of the most geologically interesting spots in the San Juan Islands:

I read another blogger say Waldron is to the San Juan Islands like the San Juan Islands are to the mainland: that much more remote and away from it all. I found this to be really true. After just two days away, it was amazing how big and crowded little Friday Harbor felt! There were so many cars! So many people! I was thankful to have had the chance to visit Waldron, where they live a different kind of life. With the exception of a few modern conveniences, it felt almost like stepping back in time: getting a glimpse of what it might have felt like to live in the San Juans decades or even a century ago. 

Thank you, Winnie and Bob, for giving us the chance to come and experience this amazing place!


Vera said...

I really enjoyed this blog. I look forward to visiting there one day.
(Adele suggested that she and I go together to visit Winnie)

Shann Weston said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Shann Weston said...

My earlier comment just had typos. I meant to say great blog post! I have also ridden those bikes on those roads and stayed with Bob and Winnie. You captured it well and I am glad you got to go there.

Childrens Writer said...

Enjoyed your account and look forward to visiting.

Anonymous said...

gI just got back from Orcas on a motorcycle trip. While in Eastsound I saw the old wheelbarrow guy and his sidekick. For those that have never seen them, one guy (they both look a bit like old gold miners from way back) pushes his friend around in a wheelbarrow while his friend is holding a big white sign that says 'Peace'. We ran into them in the tavern later. They said they were from Waldron and I became fascinated immediately. Thanks for the blog!

Oliver Perry said...

Look at those woods! Nice place to visit with a big pickup with a barbecue pitch tagged along.

Anonymous said...

I came across your site while reading about Waldron. I live in Arlington and really knew nothing about it. Your photos are amazing and make me want to go visit it. Thanks for sharing.

Marlou said...

Wow! Thanks for this!

Rachel Barker said...

I can imagine living a happy and simple life in this kind of place. Since we’re living in the city I’ve decided to make a nature themed house, I’m happy though with the remodeling but still living in a real close to nature place is better.

Jandyersn said...

Thanks for sharing