It's tough to compete with Mother Nature. At last year's Camano Island Studio Tour, held annually over Mother's Day weekend, visitors rushed past artist Diane Hill's studio shouting...

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CAMANO ISLAND — It’s tough to compete with Mother Nature.

At last year’s Camano Island Studio Tour, held annually over Mother’s Day weekend, visitors rushed past artist Diane Hill’s studio shouting:

“Is this the place with the gray whales?”

Yes, it was. The migrating pod was frolicking off Hill’s bluff that overlooks Saratoga Passage. In previous years, eagles stole the thunder.

Hill and other artists who gathered recently in the sun and shadow for their weekly “plein air” (outdoor) painting session can only shrug at nature stealing their potential customers. Beauty is the very reason hundreds of artists live here.

And with Camano Island’s tourist slogan of “do nothing here,” the sixth annual studio tour, which will be held May 7-9, at least offers visitors a chance to do something as 55 artists display their work through a free, self-guided tour of 27 working studios and galleries.

From left, artists Bob Paczkowski, Sue Uhrich, Diane Hill, Elaine Iodice and Jack Dorsey gather in Hill’s back yard, where they meet weekly.

The studios will be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. The whale schedule is less set.

What do the artists do for fun on Camano? They hike the trails at Camano Island State Park on the south end of the island, kayak or crab at Utsalady Bay on the north end, or view eagles and great blue herons, which are best viewed driving by Port Susan and Skagit Bay.

Down the bluff and around Point Lowell from Hill’s studio (and her stalwart outdoor painters with their fingerless gloves), Falisha Braaten, 14, is doing “nothing” with her family along the 6,700-foot rocky shoreline of Camano Island State Park.

As Braaten turns over rocks to find starfish, clams squirt up like miniature “Old Faithfuls” and gulls enjoy the Captain’s Plate served by the low tide. Braaten steps over empty shells that look like ruffled potato chips and others inhabited by furtive hermit crabs.

“If you lift one of these rocks, you can see all the wildlife,” Braaten says.

Her family comes once a month from Snohomish, occasionally to boat, but usually just to have lunch and poke around on the beach.

Sean Poole of Snohomish explores tide pools.

“It’s peaceful and quiet,” says her mother, Vikki Poole. “We see lots of stuff as long as we time it for low tide.”

There’s an alpaca farm, Alpacas de la Patagonia; an orchid farm, Out On A Limb Orchids; and a retail herb farm, Serenity Herb Gardens. They all offer tours by appointment but the orchid and the herb farms will be open Mother’s Day weekend. There’s a small golf course, Camaloch, and, of course, the studios, which can be found through Camano Arts Association (

But it’s the views and shorelines that have tempted visitors for generations to drive the 20-mile-long (by road) Camano Island, which is 50 miles northeast of Seattle and home to many I-5 commuters.

The island was a summer dwelling for Kikalos and Snohomish Indians, who came for berries and seafood. Starting in the 1850s, Europeans nearly denuded the island harvesting Douglas fir for spars used as masts for sailing ships. For a time, the deep harbor at Utsalady rivaled Seattle as a port.

A starfish lies tangled in seaweed at Camano Island State Park.

Norwegian immigrants came next, making Camano and Stanwood one of the largest Norwegian settlements in the West. Their influence is still felt at places such as the Uff Da Shoppe and the Scandia Bakery & Lefse Factory, both found in what was “East” Stanwood.

Stanwood was two cities until the 1960s, when sewer concerns drew the “Twin Cities” together. West Stanwood ruled when waterways dominated transportation, but East Stanwood grew when trains took over.

West Stanwood still has a flurry of little shops, as well as historical buildings, including the museum and the D.O. Pearson House, a three-story Second Empire Victorian home built by Stanwood’s first mayor, who named the town for his wife, the former Clara Stanwood.

A bald eagle rests atop a fir tree,

To get an idea of how the town looked in the wooden-sidewalk days, visit the newest shopping area, the Pavilion, just off Highway 532, the main route from I-5 to the bridge on Camano Island, where you’ll find a gigantic mural by Jack Gunter.

Families from Seattle and Everett spent their vacations on Camano Island starting with the opening of the swing bridge in 1909. “Auto resorts” allowed people of modest means to stay in beachfront cabins and rent boats.

One of the best of these, 433-acre Cama Beach, will become a state park thanks in part to the generosity of the two granddaughters of the original owners and the support of Friends of Camano Island Parks. Most of the 1930s-era cabins are being refurbished.

Funding for the second phase of construction was recently granted, according to Melanie Ford, Cama Beach conference program supervisor, who says if additional funding comes through next year, the park will open in the summer of 2006.

Ford has 1,300 names, mostly of former visitors, who await the day. To add your name to the list, e-mail or call Ford at 360-387-7542.

Meanwhile, locals and visitors make do with the much-loved Camano Island State Park — which will be connected by walking trails to Cama Beach — and county parks and boat ramps (for a list visit

Camano Island has been discovered anew. Between the 1990 and 2000 census, the population grew 82 percent to 13,347 residents.

The artists talk about their desire to shut the gate, but also how quickly people who move here slow down. Some lose their desire to drive even as far as Stanwood.

When artist Renate Trapkowski and her husband were looking for a place to live after retiring a decade ago, people advised them, ” ‘Oh, no, not Camano! You don’t want to live on Camano Island, there’s nothing going on,’ ” Trapkowski recalled recently as she prepared a meticulous “scratchboard” carving for the upcoming Mother’s Day weekend tour.

“And we said, ‘Perfect!’ “

Sherry Stripling: