Times and Travels: Orca Watching

The waters of the Pacific Northwest (PNW) are home to many kinds of sea mammals. Some of the most exciting ones to encounter are the pods of whales that roam around the islands of Puget Sound and the Canadian boundary waters. On our recent trip to San Juan Island we were hosted on a small excursion boat with a crew of one, Captain Jim. Many thanks to Ryan’s parents for setting up this unusual outing, and for ordering perfect weather for carrying it out.

Our excursion started the west side of San Juan Island, the small harbor of Mitchell Bay. The whale watching boats are independently owned and operated by men who know the islands and surrounding waters well. We were six in number and a pretty good fit for the captain’s boat. We set out from the harbor with no idea of where to look for whales – a problem which was solved by communicating with numerous other boats on the water. The closest pod of orcas that had been spotted was about an hour north, close to the Canadian border so off we went.

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I loved the tiny cabins at this resort. Have to go back and stay longer!
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Captain Jim getting us on his boat.
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Captain Jim’s boat is equipped with GPS, depth finders, binoculars, and a bathroom!

The sun was out, the temperature was moderate, the water was relatively quiet. All this was not the usual. We went north and west to the Strait of Georgia. You really need to look on the map sometime in order to know how crazy the international boundary is in that part of North America. It zigs and zags through the islands and is connected to some little known history of the Pig War. I had never heard of this war but most of the islanders can tell the story and it is rather colorful.  By the time we located the orcas we were in the Strait of Georgia within sight of Vancouver, in Canadian waters.

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Another whale watching boat and the ferry on the nearly glassy smooth Strait of Georgia

The Strait is a very large area and often has ocean size swells, but as I said, it was almost glassy still. We had Dramamine with us but didn’t need it at all. There were three or four other boats watching the pods with us as we followed them along. The orcas are not whales but are the largest mammals in the dolphin family. They travel in social groups, as large as 40 members, that get numbered and are recognizable by individual dorsal fin characteristics. They are often called killer whales because they are skilled hunters and feed on other marine mammals. They cooperate in the hunt, acting a bit like a pack of wolves.

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Exhale!

If I remember right, we were watching pod 34 and possibly pod 37, which were both resident pods. They stay close year round, whereas other pods travel through as transients.  A number of dorsal fins would appear as the orcas came up to breathe, and we would hear the rush of air as they exhaled. They would dive again and reappear farther ahead.  We kept hoping they would find something to feed on and actually breach completely out of the water, but that didn’t happen. Boats are restricted from getting closer than 200 yards from orcas and are not to block their path or be closer than 400 yards ahead of them but we still got good views. Captain Jim had binoculars for everyone which helped.

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We used binoculars.
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And evidently not just for the whales.

 

After an hour or so of watching, we headed back through the islands, often slowing to photograph the awesome views. Mt. Baker is the volcano visible in many of the photos. What a perfect day it was to be out on the water in the PNW!

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Esther and Ryan enjoying the sun and the water
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Gorgeous scenery like this the whole time.
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Majestic Mt. Baker in the distance

Times and Travels: San Juan Farmer’s Market

I love seeing evidence of people being productive in basic ways, and nothing is more basic than providing food. That is why I enjoy farmers, coming to market to sell to the end user.

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Coming off the ferry at Friday Harbor

San Juan Island is one of many islands in the Puget Sound area of Washington. Ferries are as common as buses around Puget Sound. We took the ferry from Anna Cortes to the small port of Friday Harbor – it happened to be on a Friday too, but that had nothing to do with the name.  We arrived late in the day so it wasn’t until Saturday morning that we returned to Friday Harbor for the San Juan Farmer’s Market.

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Living on an island prompts many people to value independence. They like to produce their needs locally so they don’t have the extra cost of importing from the mainland. The many small farms on the island grow crops, raise animals and bring products to the market in hopes of selling them. I think they enjoy the sense of community as much as anything else. The vendors get to talk with their customers, face to face, explain their wares and answer questions. Shoppers get to see and learn about many interesting products and processes. We were looking for breakfast.

In and around the community center building is where the market is held. It didn’t take us long to find the inside table of baked goods, manned by a couple of local ladies. They were selling all kinds of pastries, quiches, brownies… it all looked like breakfast to us. I bought a pastry and a generous slice of something made with egg, cheese, potato, veggies and pasta. I’m glad we got there when we did because their table was sold out by the time I came back hoping for a brownie. Oh well.

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Music, island style.
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Island produce – good stuff.
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Fresh seafood, cooked on the spot – a popular place.

There were vendors selling crafts as well as food. A potter, some water color artists, some jewelry makers, all gave us shoppers something to look at and consider. There was a trio of musicians providing festive tunes – way better than “elevator music”. Around the perimeter were tables and chairs for eating and visiting. The sun was shining, children were playing, laughter and conversation abounded. Makes you want to go there, doesn’t it? Maybe you should find a farmer’s market near you and check it out this week!

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Yes, they got the last brownie (but they shared).

Times and Travels: Vashon Island Get-Away

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On the way to Vashon on the ferry. Mt. Rainier faintly in the distance.

I come from a place where you hardly ever call anything an island. People tend to laugh if you call it anything but a “key”. Here in the PNW there are lots of islands around and in Puget Sound. People will laugh if you call the place we went to this morning Vashon Key.  It’s an island.

We rode the early ferry from West Seattle to the dock at the east side of Vashon.  The ferries are part of the transportation system and very well maintained and operated. Cars, buses and semi-tractor/trailers were lined up on deck for our 20 minute trip across the Sound.  It’s Friday, so there isn’t a crowd like there probably will be on the weekend.

This was the morning that Ryan Bruel was scheduled to receive the keys to his new property. But first things first – breakfast at Cafe Luna in the town of Vashon.  The signs on the way warn travelers that this is a rural area, although I’m not sure what danger that poses. The small town has a library, numerous businesses, a grocery, some artist shops, a school – pretty much what is needed is what is found there. I imagine there has to be some degree of self-sufficient mindset for a person to live comfortably on an island.

At Café Luna we ordered breakfast burritos, fresh quiche, hot from the oven and our latte’s. Esther walked around the corner to her favorite bakery for a Bob’s Burger.  The food and the atmosphere were good introductions to the island.

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Ryan’s cabin is midway between Vashon and the ferry dock, so we back tracked and pulled into the drive marked by the mailbox with the red butterfly. The roughly 3 acre property was owned by an elderly man until it got to be a project he could not keep up with. It is mostly forest, except for the drive and the clearing where the cabin, garage, and small studio sit.  I’m sure the buildings were built back when there were few codes to follow, and there have been additions and remodels since then, none of professional quality. This is to say that there are quaint surprises in many rooms of the main cabin.

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Kitchen – all
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Vintage decoupage knife block coordinate with vintage wall paper

The realtor and some helpers were there taking away some of the old appliances, and removing layers of old carpet. There were newspapers between the layers dating from the early 1990’s.  It will be a cabin suitable for camping and will provide years and years of interesting renovation projects for Ryan and Esther.

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Small loft areas adorn both ends of the main cabin, accessible only by ladder. Curious little spaces (with questionable usefulness since bathroom vents into this one…)
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Ryan and Esther, in the last moments of their comparatively restful life before property renovations

Codes now will prevent them from building new structures on the property but they can fool around quite liberally with what is already there. The separate studio is a sturdy one room log cabin and even though it has only one chair in it at present, it stirs my imagination in all kinds of interesting ways.

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the log cabin studio – how could you not be inspired to write here?
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complete with minimalist decor…
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One of many ancient guardians of the property

The forest around the clearing has numerous giant, old growth trees.  There is also a protected wetland and a green algae pond. The predominant ground cover is blackberry bushes. The clearing has been recently cleaned of growth but I can envision how fast it will come back and become wild again.  For people who have been living in the city, working at tech jobs in stressful environments, the Vashon Island get away is going to be an adventure of a whole different sort. That’s what they’ve been wanting.

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The lovely mystery pond – nobody knows what’s in there.