The San Juan Island Archipelago consists of a staggering 172 islands, some only visible during extreme low tide (look out boaters!), and well over 300 miles of shoreline. The three largest islands are geographically unique: Orcas being the hilliest (The tallest peak is Mount Constitution at almost exactly a half-mile elevation.), Lopez the flattest and San Juan Island is a combination of both.
Although Labor Day weekend is a busy time everywhere I was able to secure a ferry reservation to take the jeep over the San Juan Island for the day. My friend Mark (who I met in Alaska this summer) was in the area and when I invited him to join me for the day he was quick to jump at the chance to explore the island.
“Old friends pass away, new friends appear. It is just like the days. An old day passes, a new day arrives. The important thing is to make it meaningful: a meaningful friend – or a meaningful day.” – Dalai Lama
San Juan Island’s the 2nd largest but most populated island in the San Juan Archipelago Islands (Orcas Island being the largest) coming in at just over 55 square miles. The bulk of the population live there year round, but the population swells from 7,200 during the winter to over 15,000 at the peak of the summer tourist season.
The name “San Juan” comes from a 1791 expedition, on which the group of islands was named Isla y Archipelago de San Juan (whew), but that was mercifully shortened to plain old San Juan when the British were through with it.
Speaking of the British, the island was almost the scene of an international conflict of world super powers – the Brits and us (or U.S.). And it was all because of a pig.
In 1859 Britain and the United States sent troops to the island to defend their claims to it. The dispute arose from the vague wording of the Oregon Treaty, which stated that the northwest boundary between the nations was in “the middle of the channel which separates the continent from Vancouver’s Island.” The two nations interpreted the “channel” differently. Two major straits – Haro and Rosario — separate the San Juan Islands from Vancouver Island and the mainland. Britain claimed that the Rosario Strait on the eastern side of the San Juan Islands was the official boundary, and the United States supported a Haro Strait boundary.
The treaty did not state which nation could claim the San Juan Islands and the actual San Juan Island, uneasily occupied since 1819 by American and British settlers, became central to the fight over the international boundary.
A pig was the first and only casualty of the international boundary dispute. Called the Pig War, it began after an American settler shot a pig that belonged to an employee of the British Hudson’s Bay Company when it wondered into the American’s garden in 1859. The settlers’ argument over legal compensation for the pig turned regional tensions over the northwest boundary into an international dispute. Britain and the United States sent troops to occupy the northern and southern ends of the island, which are today the historical English and American Camps.
Both nations kept a military presence on the island for 12 years until they signed the Treaty of Washington in 1871. Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany presided over the treaty and ruled in favor of the United States. The Americans took possession of the island in 1872 when Britain peacefully withdrew its troops, and the San Juan Islands, including San Juan Island, are part of the United States today.
“Non-violence is the greatest force at the disposal of mankind. It is mightier than the mightiest weapon of destruction devised by the ingenuity of man.” – Mahatma Gandhi
San Juan Island National Historical Park now celebrates how individuals and nations can resolve disputes without resorting to violence. The Pig War ended with no human casualties, a bloodless conflict – unless of course you were the pig.
Along with history, the San Juan Island is chock full of places and things that pique the human interest. The island residents and their sometimes quirky collections are great for photo opportunities. One driveway was lined with interesting cartoon sculptures including a seemingly life-size home of one SpongeBob Square pants. Not sure how Mark missed this iconic cartoon series but just try explaining living in a pineapple under the sea to someone that isn’t familiar with it!
Another interesting stop was the SAN JUAN ISLANDS SCULPTURE PARK, a 20-acre outdoor park with more than 125 unique sculptures founded in 1998 and originally called the Westcott Bay Institute for Art & Nature. The sculptures are primarily by artists from the Pacific Northwest, and apparently, some are quite well known. The rotating art is chosen by blind selection on an annual basis by art academics from local colleges and universities. There is even an opportunity for the visitor to leave a mark by using the provided dremel tool to carve your own legacy into the site.
Also known as Whale Watch Park, Lime Kiln Point State Park is a 36-acre day-use park set on the west side of San Juan Island. The park is considered one of the best places in the world to view whales from land. Although we were hoping for a glimpse of the resident Orcas it was not be be. A great hike took us to a beautiful lighthouse and the remains of lime kilns left over from a historic lime quarry.
In 1860, a lime producing operation began to operate in what is now part of the park. For 60 years, the area adjacent to the park was quarried for limestone. Kilns were built to fire the limestone to produce lime. Buildings were built, roads were cut and much of the island was logged to feed the fires of the kilns. One of the lime kilns was acquired by State Parks in 1996 and has been renovated and interpreted for the public. Today you can see the remains of the kiln and the whitewashed cliffs where the lesser quality lime was dumped from the kilns creating an interesting contrast.
In 1919, the Lime Kiln lighthouse and two adjacent lighthouse keepers’ quarters were built. When electricity was run to the site in 1960, the need to have lighthouse keepers on site diminished. In 1984, the Coast Guard turned the area over to Washington State Parks and the park was created. The Coast Guard still maintains the lighthouse as an active aid to navigation, but the building is used for orca whale research, interpretation, and lighthouse tours.
Every once in a while, or maybe more often than that, an animal captures the popular imagination and even attains fame. That’s the case with Mona, a camel living on San Juan Island who rumor has it, has an irrepressible affection for people. Mona, originally called Moanie for the sound she made whenever her first owner would leave, still can be heard sounding off when people are around.
“A camel that always moves with the camel caravan cannot discover the beauties of the unknown oases!” ― Mehmet Murat ildan
Her original owner obtained Mona from a breeder in Missouri and brought her to the San Juan Islands as part of an exotic animal farm. When he moved to Canada for a few years, he returned to visit Mona every couple of months, but that didn’t prevent her from protesting the separation by dismantling her barn. It was obvious that she needed a new owner who could give her more attention. Mona’s next owner decided not to keep her (not surprising!), which is how Mona came to live with her current owners.
Since coming to live with the Kings on San Juan Island Mona’s popularity has grown and she even has her own wine made by the winery across the street and her own Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/MonatheCamel/
The day we visited was pretty warm on the island and no matter how much coaxing we did; Mona wasn’t about to get up from her comfortable spot in the sun.
So we settled for photos of this famous ambassador of the island after we had enjoyed the “Mona Vino” wine and cheese at the San Juan Vineyards across the road from Mona’s pasture.
“Wine and cheese are ageless companions, like aspirin and aches, or June and moon, or good people and noble ventures.” – M. F. K. Fisher
The ferry ride back to Anacortes was beautiful, the sun was setting as we pulled into the terminal and bright yellows and oranges reflected off the water and off the side mirrors of the jeep creating a fun way to capture the end of the day.
“Keep looking up! I learn from the past, dream about the future and look up. There’s nothing like a beautiful sunset to end a healthy day.” – Rachel Boston
If you have a chance visit one of these wonderful islands – I plan on visiting the San Juan Islands again someday as there are many more places to discover!