Friday, July 12, 2013

Offbeat Washington: San Juan Islands

scared at a haunted mazeMe: "What do you mean you've never been?"
Ian: "I've never been to the San Juans!"
Jaw, meet floor.
I expected that the San Juans, like Leavenworth, were just a place every native Washingtonian went to (that's right folks, we're Wash-a-tone-ians). So when we were making plans for our triumphant visit home, (ok, maybe not triumphant but a definite visit to the NW), the San Juan Islands was one place I couldn't let my native East Washingtonian husband avoid any longer.

San Juan Island History

Unlike many of our NW locals with their confusing native American names (try pronouncing our hometowns of Snohomish, Yakima, or places like Dosewallips, Chehalis, Puyallup or Sequim), the island chain was named Isla y Archiepelago de San Juan by Spanish explorer Francisco de Eliza in 1791.

Our area was just being discovered by the white man in 1846 when the Oregon Treaty established the 49th parallel as the boundary between Canada and the U.S. However, there were ambiguities about ownership of the islands. Both sides agreed that all of Vancouver Island would remain British, but the treaty did not specify which channel the boundary should follow. Basically, the US claimed Haro Strait as the international border, while Britain claimed Rosario Strait. The resulting boundary dispute escalated in the 1850s with the new Island County first being determined to be part of the newly created Washington Territory in 1853, tax rights further angering the citizenry, and an eventual war over a pig. Yes - really.

Onto the Pig War! On June 15, 1859, tensions boiled over when Lyman Cutlar, an American farmer, found a large black pig in his garden and promptly shot it. The pig was owned by an Irishman, Charles Griffin, who was employed by the Hudson's Bay Company (one of the roots of the tax issues).  The neighbors were unable to come to an agreement, getting their countries involved. Brits were all like "We're going to arrest you by jove!" and the American settlers were like "We got guns!" According to my favorite source, Wikipedia,
"For several days, the British and U.S. soldiers exchanged insults, each side attempting to goad the other into firing the first shot, but discipline held on both sides, and thus no shots were fired."
And thus the affair basically ended as our respective capitols got wind of the fighting and told them to basically knock it the F*$% off. Both sides agreed to retain joint military occupation of the island resulting in two of the main attractions today, the British camp (north end) and the American camp (north end). Tempers cooled, and booze brought people together as park rangers tell visitors the biggest threat to peace on the island during these years was "the large amounts of alcohol available."

This short, bizarre war was also known as the Pig Episode, the Pig and Potato War, the San Juan Boundary Dispute or the Northwestern Boundary Dispute and was concluded with no shots exchanged and no human casualties.

Undoubtedly the most interesting point of San Juan history. And, most importantly, America won because whose island is it today England? USA! USA! USA!

San Juan Islands jump shot
Those are some American jumps!



San Juan Island Attractions

Washington State Ferry

Ferry Boat San Juan Island

The largest island and most necessary to be explored by car, first be prepared for the ferry ride over. Washington ferries are a trip in them self (if you are looking to just take a cheap ferry ride, I recommend a walk-on to Bremerton for a day trip).

Our ferries are large, efficient, generally on time, and offer some of the most majestic views of the Northwest you can find. They are also expensive.  To go to San Juan Island from the port of Anacortes in a Prius with four passengers cost us $80. There includes return, but yikes! Calculate your cost on the excellent ferry site:

American Camp

Northwest Coast island

The American camp, where the tragic pig shooting took place, was our first stop off the boat. There is a small visitor center with piles of brochures, some original buildings and historical placards, but
why you really come here is for the trails and beach. So pretty!

NW coastline beach 

Grandma's Cove San Juan IslandWe made our way to Grandma's cove and wandered the NW beach scene (read: rainy, a little rocky, and lots of wildlife). We checked out sea anemones in and out of the water, tons of crabs (some dead), birds, and -yes- a slug. (pics of the wildlife & more of the island here).

It  was great to be back in the Northwest. As much as we love Berlin, there is no doubt our area of the world is spectacularly green and lush and  soothing.
San Juan Island people
Happy to be back in the Northwest


English Camp

We didn't really give the English camp it's due. The rain had picked up, we stopped by at the end of the day, and honestly, could it be any better than the American? (USA!)


My parents are nuts for nature. One of the reasons the NW suits these California transplants so well. And the San Juans are rich in wildlife watching opportunities. We practically ran into several groups of deer (the island is lousy with them!), followed a bald eagle, laughed at a lounging seal, and engaged in one of the most common activities on any island - whale watching. 

San Juan Island Whaling Station

There is a popular viewpoint with a visitor center and displays for kids. They can give info on last sighting, best times, etc. but actually spotting a whale can be difficult. Those buggers are elusive!

There are three pods of Orcas, the “Southern Residents”, that typically roam the islands from mid-April to early October with the best chance to see them is from late May through September. There are all sorts of boat tours that offer certain guarantees on likelihood of seeing a whale.

I've seen whales just a handful of times, and it is usually unexpected. A glimpse off the ferry, or randomly from a friend's boat, or driving around the island looking out at the water....I don't ever count on seeing one, but when you do - it's magic.

Telescope for whales

Sadly, my dad did have his heart set on seeing one so we hung out at the look-out 2 separate times hoping for a glimpse. As I said, I wasn't too put out and enjoyed tromping along the beach, taking pictures of all the lovely scenery like this lighthouse. But my poor dad was a little bummed. Sorry daddio!

Guide to San Juan Island, Washington State


Friday Harbor

As the main town of the island, there are several dining and shopping options around Friday Harbor.

We went to the Cask and Schooner Public House & Restaurant which was conveniently located just off the ferry entrance. It provided an upscale lunch environment and perfectly fit into the English style pub ambiance.
Lunch Friday Harbor

More excitingly for my crazy family, Friday Harbor is home to a hot sauce shop. We've had a long time love affair with spices and a little fire is the primary thing we miss in German cooking (hence the Hunt for Mexican Ingredients in Berlin).

The Hot Shop and Flavor Emporium had previously been a stopping point for my parents and Thomas - our German foreign exchange student - and we weren't about to pass it by. Bloody Mary mixes, chocolate hot sauce, chipotle, spicy chocolates ... this is a peppery heaven.

Taste Test Hot Sauce

Check out our spicy haul!


Roche Harbor

Historic Roche Harbor has seen an astronomical rise in condo and summer living accommodations. Understandable, as the Hotel de Haro sits in a ridiculously scenic cove, and charming shops with necessities of groceries and not-so-necessary boutique shops have popped up to accommodate the influx.

Hotel San Juan Island

 Seal Statue

San Juan Islands

It is important to note that this is an island chain, so while San Juan Island is the largest island, it is by no means the only island to visit. I have fond memories of riding on the front of a friend's boat and letting my legs dangle in the water as I watched a world of sea life pass beneath, whale watching on Orcas Island, and spending long summer days in the wilds of Lopez. Visit them all, because they are all wonderful. I know I am planning to take Ian to everyone...eventually.


How do you know you take too many picture? When you take a  don't even realize you're missing some of your best pics from the other camera. Yikes. I'm a haphazard blogging disaster.

A few more highlight photos...

Northwest Washington island

Washignton State beach logs

whale watching Washington State

...and even more pictures of our San Juan Island Visit

More Washington?



Mandi | No Apathy Allowed said...

I thought it was like a requirement for school children to be loaded onto buses and taken to the San Juans as part of their Pac Northwest indoctrination. In any case, glad that Ian was finally able to make the visit!

~ cheryl said...

Although the weather didn't make for l a lovely warm day - San Juan is picturesque and always interesting. A great way to spend a day with our favorite E & I. Loved your blog post - and the description of the Pig War was great!!

Christine said...

San Juan is beautiful and it looks like you both had a lot of fun. I have never heard of it before but it sounds like a great place to visit when in the USA or Vancouver!

We're Back in Berlin Ja!

We're Back in Berlin Ja!
ebe & ian at Yak-toberfest 2008