Shaw Island in the San Juan Islands is small, private and quiet, by design, but a peek into its world finds a timeless community of cloistered nuns, reclusive millionaires and faithful stewards of a protected way of life.
This is the last of four stories about the San Juan Islands.
SHAW ISLAND — This island isn’t all about nuns, but you’ll be hard-pressed to avoid the topic. Especially if you’re driving too fast on that first hairpin curve just up from the ferry dock, and you meet the prioress rounding the corner in her Subaru.
Yes, the head nun of Our Lady of the Rock monastery drives an Outback. She’s a small woman — you might have to look carefully to see the black-and-white wimple above the steering wheel.
Shaw became famous as the “nuns’ island” in the 27 years during which Franciscan sisters operated the rustic wooden ferry dock and ran the neighboring general store. Ferry passengers bound for bigger islands in Washington’s San Juans would line railings to snap photos of the women in their habits as they tended the one-lane auto ramp.
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But while those nuns left Shaw in 2004, two more orders remain on the island — a branch of the Benedictines, on a donated 300-acre farm called Our Lady of the Rock, and a small contingent of the Sisters of Mercy.
So it is still the nuns’ island.
That says a lot about Shaw, a quiet, mostly wooded, untouristed 7.7-square-mile island from which you need to hitch a ferry to Friday Harbor if you want “bright lights.” The smallest of the four ferry-served islands of the San Juan archipelago, it’s the perfect place for a cloistered life, whether you’re heaven’s gatekeeper or just a Gates (both Bill Sr. and Jr. have places here). The day I arrived, mine was the only car getting off the ferry.
But the big news on Shaw is there’s now tourist lodging where before there was none. Steve and Terri Mason, who took over the store and dock, now rent out a 110-year-old waterfront cottage that the nuns formerly occupied. For the first time in recent memory, insular Shaw offers visitors a place to stay other than the county campground.
Shaw is quiet by design. Zoning prohibits businesses beyond the existing store and the headquarters of a grandfathered-in firm that makes fish tags. With only about 250 year-round residents, it seems that everybody knows everybody.
“Oh, yeah,” said Steve Mason. “They know what you’re going to do even before you think about it. It’s like a family, with all that goes with that!”
Just off the ferry, I ran into Alex MacLeod, longtime islander and a retired Seattle Times managing editor (who as a volunteer emergency medical technician in his current life might be the first to show up if you break a leg here). He pointed out a roadside kiosk across from the store. “That’s the center of island life,” he said wryly.
Tacked on its bulletin boards were envelopes with islanders’ names scrawled on front — it’s quicker than the mail. A shelf held recycled trophies that are awarded at each year’s Fourth of July parade, a do-it-yourself affair. (“There’s cars and trucks and horses and sheep; whatever people want,” said Terri Mason, who grew up on Orcas Island, a five-minute ferry ride away.)
There are actually a few other centers of island life, starting with the little general store, whose weathered fir-plank floors date to 1924, but whose modern wares — from Thai peanut sauce to a good selection of Washington wines — cater to today’s more affluent island residents.
Up the road about a mile is a community hall that has regular yoga classes and events such as the islanders’ annual New Year’s Eve bash — a memorable toga party in recent years — that raises about $15,000 a year for Shaw’s independent library.
The little library ($5-a-year membership, or $50 for a lifetime) is a peaceful refuge of gray-washed cedar, smelling like the woods among which it is tucked at the island’s main crossroads, next to a one-room log-hut museum and kitty-corner from Shaw’s historic red schoolhouse.
I got a tour of all from Chris Hopkins, a Shaw resident whose family bought vacation property here in 1959. A former fifth-grade teacher in her mainland life, she, like many residents, helps out at both the school and library. Shaw has its own district to run the 22-student school.
Why not become part of a larger library system or school district?
“People here have their own way of doing things and they just do not want to abide by some other rules,” Hopkins said.
122 years of classes
The K-8 school, founded in 1890, lays claim to being the longest operated school in the state. Its belfry has a real bell, rung every school day. But inside it’s not old-fashioned; kids raise salmon fingerlings in a tank, for a biology lesson, and there’s a well-equipped computer lab.
But it takes a village, or a bunch of islanders. The nuns from Our Lady of the Rock, who came in 1977, pitch in to help with the kids’ education. Mother Hildegard (aka Dr. Hildegard George), a plus-size nun who says what she means and means what she says, leads 4-H outings in birding and geology.
The monastery is another option for a place to stay on Shaw, and as “guest mistress,” Mother Hildegard is a visitor’s first contact.
The nuns offer guest quarters for a few visitors at a time, from whom a reasonable donation is expected (the seven-member order gets no outside funding from the Catholic Church, and raises much of its own food on the farm). Guests may come to pray — the chapel is an architectural work of art, with stained glass of Mount Baker — or to help with farm chores, or both.
“You don’t have to be Catholic, but we do want you to somehow partake in our life,” Mother Hildegard explained as she showed me around, shadowed by her two big Portuguese water dogs, Kokopelli and Bella.
For campers, there are 11 simple sites at Shaw Island County Park, on sandy South Beach (for reservations, https://sanjuanco.com/CAMP/parkreservations). Besides a nice view of the Olympics, I found one of the San Juans’ fanciest privies, freshened inside with a swatch of dried lavender, decorated with artwork, and with a magazine rack offering Vanity Fair and Mother Jones.
Looking for a quiet picnic spot? Take a blanket to the grassy bluffs of Cedar Rock Biological Preserve, donated to the University of Washington by Robert Ellis, of the same family that gave the nuns their farm. Just beyond the south end of Hoffman Cove Road, a giant old madrona crowns a windy point among thickets of wild rose.
I finished my visit at the three-table Silver Bay Café in the back of the Shaw store, watching herons landing in trees where they nest.
Proprietor Terri Mason said they enjoy preserving the store’s look. “I love the kind of antique quality, and we try to make it feel like it’s back in 1924.”
But there are challenges on a small island where people can be set in their ways.
“When we first started a customer came right up to me and said, ‘You’ve ruined my life!’ And I replied, ‘I’ve ruined your life?’ And he said, ‘Yes, the mayonnaise has been in the same place for 30 years, and you’ve moved it!’ “
Overall, though, Shaw Island seems blessed by its sense of timelessness. Or just plain blessed. Some of its residents help see to that.
Brian J. Cantwell: 206-748-5724 or firstname.lastname@example.org