With the tourists gone, locals settle in for a nice, quiet offseason.
THE FACT THAT a woman is riding a horse right down the middle of main street, Friday Harbor, on a crisp Friday afternoon — rush hour, in the real world — is a lot less interesting than the reaction it provokes.
That would be nothing. No stinging rebukes. Not a single rolled eyebrow nor wagged finger. Nary a sideways glance.
Clippity clop, clippity clop, clippity clop. Meh.
Friday Harbor does not notice. Townspeople go about their business, fetching a brew at the World’s Skinniest Latte place (eyeball guess, about 36 inches, if you must know); puzzling over the Italian/Greek/Thai menu at Kung Fu Pizza; or settling in for the Blue Water Bar & Grill’s happy hour, 2 p.m. to whenever.
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The horse, Pinky, piloted by Karen Chadwick, a local EMT, clomps on by. It stops at the stop sign at the bottom of the hill; looks both ways (swear); turns right; and makes a loop through the ferry loading area before circling back uphill, past the Whale Museum, through the front gate at the County Courthouse and then on its way out of the greater Friday Harbor metroplex, destination unknown.
This, it turns out, is what San Juan Islanders do during the slow-lane winter offseason, says Chadwick, in response to an extremely leading question about what San Juan Islanders do during the slow-lane winter offseason.
Not all of them, of course. That would create a rodeo situation. But it goes without saying that Chadwick’s jaunt through the San Juan Islands’ most-frenetic town, conducted on, say, Labor Day weekend, would come with significantly increased odds of a messy collision with some dude from Orange County tooling around on a rental Harley Davidson.
Things change with the seasons here. And a subtle transition, it is not.
Asked about this, some islanders tend to forego the spoken word and opt instead for body language, letting their heads fall and shoulders droop while making an odd exhaling noise, like all the air leaking out of a balloon. With September being one of the San Juans’ busiest months, the population seepage starts in early October, when all the kiddies are back in school. A growing tide of mostly Puget Sound-area autumn tourists staves off full deflation through the holidays. Then winter hits.
“Come January, it’s like a ghost town,” says Patti Wickham, an employee of the Whale Museum who moved to the island a dozen years ago from Olympia.
In a good way, though. With some snowbirds already long gone, and some local restaurants and other businesses darkened, a general s-l-o-w-ness settles in like Filson-wool-heavy fog on fir trees. And an ancient mindset takes over.
“It’s like having to learn to enjoy boredom,” Wickham says, adding: “Which is OK if it’s not your whole life. There’s something about slowing down and just sitting down to think, or watch a tree grow. People have lost the validity, and importance, of that.”
THE SEASONAL CHANGE in the islands is far more dramatic than just shorter days and colder weather. Here, the place pivots, in a relative instant, from one kind of world to another. The sheer scale of population change — and the abrupt social transformation that comes with it — might be unique in the Northwest.
Once the short days of winter push away those paint-brushed September sunsets, the population of San Juan, the most heavily populated of the four main islands, is cleaved roughly in half. (Imagine that, and feel the burn of envy, those of you seated somewhere within sight of, say, the daily Mercer Mess traffic debacle in downtown Seattle.)
What was a community of about 15,000 living, breathing, deck-shoes-wearing souls goes to fewer than 7,000 full-timers in winter.
That’s not just a minor change. It’s a new reality. One that many year-rounders, despite themselves, can’t help but embrace.
Mike Vouri is one of them. A former newspaperman turned Chief of Interpretation at the San Juan Island National Historical Park, Vouri feels the change in the air, but also sees it in his parking lot at English Camp, a popular tourist attraction.
Before island tourism officials began successfully touting the wonder of the “shoulder seasons” in the San Juans, the parking lot at English Camp would be “dead empty” even in early autumn, Vouri says. Now, the full-stop season has been pushed back by a month or more, starting around November, when the rain starts to go more sideways.
This longer wait makes the “love” part of a predictable love/hate relationship with tourism even sweeter. “There are a few things we islanders like about that,” Vouri confesses.
Islanders revert to normal, Point A/Point B commutes, ditching pesky tourist-avoidance detours. In town, they can park. Mopeds, motorized cars, electric bicycles and other highway obstacles are parked for the winter. Cyclists are scarcer.
The upshot: Regular “island speed” resumes on local roads. While GPS-fixated tourists poke along at 30 or below, “You can count on islanders to go 40 or 50,” Vouri says.
Grocery-store specials are not routinely gutted, Vouri adds, in the process letting slip one of San Juan Island’s most-coveted local secrets: While tourists are directed to shop downtown, at a grocery store on Spring Street, locals enjoy a much larger, better-stocked store owned by the same proprietor: uptown, out of sight, with ample parking — but without a single sign announcing its presence.
It might be the largest stealth grocery store in America.
“It’s a special store, for us,” Vouri insists. “Really, it’s for the islanders.” (Note: Acting only out of pure journalistic responsibility, your correspondent did manage to locate the store, and even surreptitiously purchased locally roasted coffee beans there. But, under threat of death, or worse, inexplicably canceled reservations, he hereby weenies out on additional details.)
Last, but absolutely not least, the change of seasons heralds the return of Friday Harbor’s greatest cold-months cultural activity — Trivia Night at the Rumor Mill, Thursday nights at 7. “All the locals come out,” Vouri says. “The place is jammed.”
Mostly, though, Vouri, like many other year-rounders, just appreciates the resumption of what drew many of them here in the first place.
“I like the quiet,” he says. At English Camp, “I have my own special trail that I hike. It takes me around the back side of a mountain. It’s so quiet there, you can hear yourself breathing and feel your heart thumping.”
SURROUNDING ISLANDS in the San Juans — even Lopez, Orcas and Shaw, the other three ferry-served islands in this chain of 170-some rocky outcroppings (depending on the tide stage at the moment) — offer a bit more of that solitude, year-round, with a more broadly dispersed mix of permanent and part-time residents. The scale of seasonal change is equally profound there, shifting from slow to glacial, in many places.
This can be a boon to wintertime visitors (not that we would recommend that).
Cyclists willing to brave potential carwash conditions find delightfully open stretches of road on pastoral Lopez. Hikers, bird-watchers and auto-bound tourists have their choice of sea views, forest trails and secluded inlets on Orcas.
Winter quiet even reigns most of the time on the more-populated San Juan, the contrast most striking at isolated, popular spots that blossom into frenetic summertime hubs.
At Roche Harbor, on the island’s northern tip, the atmospheric soundtrack shifts from Jimmy Buffett to Miles Davis as the summer party scene — with hundreds of don’t-ask-the-price yachts from around the globe creating their own bobbing, seafaring community — gives way to a relative handful of year-rounders, their boats snugged in closer to the historic Hotel de Haro, out of the wind and waves.
Down the road at Lime Kiln Point State Park, small crowds still amass on the rocky headlands whenever word spreads of orca sightings in Haro Strait. But those are fewer, farther between and witnessed primarily by locals.
The refreshing sluggishness — the kind you used to find all around Puget Sound — manifests itself in other, more-subtle ways on San Juan in winter as the veneer of the tourist haven is stripped away, exposing a small-town sensibility that clings like a determined barnacle to the glacier-carved bedrock.
You see it on the sidewalks in Friday Harbor when hundreds of locals suddenly assemble on a Friday afternoon to take in the high school’s homecoming parade. There’s no traffic control nor fanfare. Costumed high-schoolers just appear from nowhere, cavorting on foot next to parade floats on flatbed trucks, each bearing signs foretelling the pending demise of the Wolverines’ opponent, King’s Way Christian of Vancouver, Clark County.
A quick look around tells a tale: Everyone streetside is in full-throat support of the 265 local kids at F.H. High. The only off-island interlopers on this block are a guy taking notes and another taking photographs.
Friday Harbor, summertime San Juan tourist central, has already downshifted into its natural small-town self. If not for the occasional ferry-horn blast and hint of a sea breeze, this place might be mistaken, in all the good ways, for small-town anywhere else, USA.
A COUPLE HOURS later, the homecoming game is in full tilt beneath bright lights on a field that wafts the deliciously sweet, damp smell of real sod. Here, homecoming is exactly that — about 100 people of all ages mill about on the track, renewing old acquaintances with grads young, old and indeterminate.
Smoke billows from one corner of the field, where Lori Guard is flipping burgers on a grill with practiced grace. She and her husband were Wolverines back in the day. Their kids wear the colors today. They consider themselves “Old Island” — year-round not just thanks to some stock windfall, but roots.
The school’s tall principal, Fred Woods, is on the sidelines shouting encouragement from beneath a faded “FH” cap as a small-but-tough Wolverines halfback, Jess Hargrove, breaks a tackle and spins for a first down. He thinks out loud about what makes island life, non-touristed, special.
“It’s not just that everyone knows everyone else here,” Woods says. “People support each other in unbelievable ways. The community’s really student-oriented — and that’s both the old and newcomers.”
Most teachers who come here, while struggling to find affordable housing, tend to stay, he says. He plans to do the same.
Woods says he has broken up a single serious fight among students in nine years here. He wouldn’t trade places with most of us.
“It’s the perfect job in the perfect place,” he says, pausing as if to wonder whether he should’ve given that up so casually. “We’re all on the same boat here, together.”
Some kids can find the island’s physical, saltwater separation from other Puget Sound communities frustrating. But for most, it’s all they know. Summers are always entertaining, and winters, well … “Do I enjoy being able to find a parking spot downtown? Yeah,” Woods says with a grin.
Look around, he says: See a single fast-food franchise? How about a stoplight, of any kind?
“It’s a good life.”
DOES THAT MEAN islanders would prefer the rest of us simply leave them alone for this season of Silent Nights?
Well, yes and no.
Some Puget Sound types caught on long ago to the relaxing respite of visiting the San Juans in winter. It is a chance to see the place without Californians, videographers and other flotsam.
Of course, the simple act of going up there might contribute to mucking the whole thing up. Classic tourist’s quandary.
Fact is, the islands, almost entirely dependent on tourism, could use the money. And many locals would prefer spreading the tourist load by taking on a few more in winter, a few fewer in summer. Still, many of them practically blanch at the notion of a Seattle-published story about the wonders of their quiet winter lifestyle.
Given those (understandable) sensitivities, we offer here for the record a few concluding points about life in the San Juan Islands’ wintertime slow lane as we know it — and some qualifiers we offer up in the hope we might someday be welcomed back, ourselves:
Yes, these islands are natural treasures — all, in reality, majestic mountaintops, appearing magically at eye level. It is as if the gods of nature, after calling home the glaciers, opted to surround these craggy chunks of splendor with the calming waters of the Salish Sea just to give us an ever-gentle lift to the top, to soak in all the majesty. Like that’s a big deal.
Sure, it rains about half as much here as in Seattle, and parts of the islands seem, year-round, to live under a star-kissed dry spot, the famed “Blue Hole” of the San Juans. Good luck chasing that unicorn.
Yeah, you can easily find a place to stay; people are super-friendly; and before you leave, you’ll probably walk some placid shorelines and bump up against wild critters most people only see on Nat Geo. So what? You’ll probably send them into a panic and push them over the line to starvation.
And yes, the primary reasons to avoid the islands in the summer — crushing crowds and long ferry lines — vanish a couple weeks from now, after Christmas. Enjoy decoding that Rube Goldberg-designed ferry schedule!
And of course, the net effect of all this is that the San Juans, in their wintertime repose, are probably as close as a person can still come to seeing the old, good life in the Puget Sound area — the way a lot of people nostalgically remember the entire region before the word got out, Prime Shipping arrived and everything went to hell. Impressive, perhaps, if you’re into that sort of thing.
Bottom line? Just move on. Not much to see here, folks. Trivia Night only gets you so far, then you’ve heard all the answers, and that last boat has already left. Did we mention that it really starts to warm up in June?