Monday, June 19, 2017

A Cruise to San Juan Island, Washington

The main reason we came to Fidalgo Bay is its proximity to the San Juan Islands. We didn't even know these islands existed a month ago, but recently other Washington travelers have told us good things about visiting them. We found we could get to the islands via the Washington state ferry system, just a few miles from our RV park. We made our reservation for the 9:30 a.m. ferry, and read all the tips that told us to get there early. Like usual, we were there earlier than early. But this time it worked out well for us, because we snagged a space on the 8:30 ferry instead. We just gained an extra hour of sight-seeing, that we started as they motioned us to drive into the bowels of the ferry.

If your car is claustrophobic, we wouldn't recommend riding on this ferry. They pack the vehicles on pretty snug. A few more pounds and Denisa would have had to crawl over the seat to get out the other side of the car.

Out on the open water, we met one of the Washington state ferries going the opposite direction. There is a sizable fleet of these boats plying the waters of the Salish Sea, delivering passengers to the biggest four San Juan islands that are visited most frequently.

We filled our car up with gas before we made the trip, as we expected gasoline to be expensive on the islands. That's because fuel is considered hazardous cargo that can't be squeezed on the big ferry boats. So it has to pay the price for a private ride across the water.

Since Denisa has been hankering to go on a cruise, Mark tried to convince her that this hour-long ferry ride was a cruise. After all, we got beautiful cruise-like scenery of the views of the ice-covered mountains of the Olympic peninsula.

There are over 200 named islands in this area, and we got front row views as we cruised by many of them. We're out on deck, scanning the horizon for the orca whales that live here.

There was comfortable seating inside, and many of the experienced passengers were even bedding down on the long padded seats--just like on a cruise ship. But Denisa pointed out the hotdog from the ferry cafeteria didn't stack up to cruise food. It was also a little chilly on this cruise, as Mark is huddled outside the cafe's kitchen door where the warm exhaust was blowing. 

Our ferry's destination is San Juan Island. That's the most populated of the islands, and it also has the largest town--Friday Harbor. It's a cute little sea-side village, with restaurants and shops. Instead of paying to bring a car, many people buy the lower per-person fare and just walk around Friday Harbor while visiting this island.

But we paid the big money to bring the car, so we would have wheels to explore the entire island. That would take us first to the southern tip, where we explored a national historical site--The American camp. Denisa is standing on South Beach that is part of this national park.

We especially liked the wide-open prairies just above that beach. The volunteers at the visitor's center told us a large group of rabbits have made their home here. But we only spotted one rabbit in the field. That's probably because we saw several foxes out hunting for rabbit in the same field.

We saw both orange- and black-colored foxes in the field, prowling and sniffing into the rabbit holes. Mark did some google research, and discovered that a "red fox" can be several different colors--orange, black, silver, or any combinations thereof.

We were really excited to find this one laying in the middle of a field of wildflowers, very close to the road. The other distinguishing feature among all the red foxes is the bushy tail with a white tip.

A young fox is called a kit, and this guy was limping. He certainly doesn't look like a "red fox," but we could see that bright white tip on his long tail.

It was hard to pull Denisa away from taking fox pictures. But she also liked the views from the top of the hill with the wild poppies in the foreground of another beach picture.

Even better than that, she also got a fox and poppy picture with the sea in the background. Triple bonus points! There are signs all around the park reminding visitors not to feed the animals. But from this guy's behavior, it looks like some of the tourists aren't following the rules. He walked right up to the group of cars at the hill-top viewpoint.

We made the drive to the end of the island to see the sad little lighthouse. It is actually slated to be refurbished, and it did make a good silhouette against the pretty blue sky. We probably should explain the historical significance of this American Camp national historical park. In the mid-1800's, both England and the United States laid claim to San Juan island. When an American farmer shot an Englishman's pig that was rooting in his potato field, the "Pig War" became an international crisis. Both countries agreed to set up military camps on opposite ends of this small island, in order to protect their citizens' interests until the true ownership of the island was determined.

The American camp had less funding because we were fighting a Civil War at the time. But we liked it better because of its natural views and fox population.

Before the day was over, we would drive to the northern end of San Juan Island to visit the more civilized English camp. During the 12 years they occupied this post, the British built 23 buildings. So when it was legally determined that the United States got possession of the island, England sadly left. The "Pig War" was a very civilized crisis, that ended with no blood shed.

While we were in the north part of the island, we also visited Roche Harbor. We were glad to see that the lavender is beginning to bloom here, so Denisa finally got to see her purple plants after all.

Our last stop on San Juan Island was one of the best viewpoints for spotting orcas from the shore. We went to the lighthouse at Lime Kiln Point State Park to look across the waters.

It turned out to be a beautiful day, and we had reports that the resident orcas (killer whales) had been spotted coming this way from Victoria Island. There are 3 different pods of resident whales that make their home here, and we sure wanted to see this group of 38 whales.

But we never did get to see one for ourselves. The best we could do was to take a picture at the state park's visitor center with paintings of the orcas breaching and sky-hopping. Denisa is standing beside a life-size model of a six-foot-tall orca fin. That is what we should see first if a pod of killer whales were in the area.

Before we left Lime Kiln Point State Park, we had to figure out where that name came from. It seems that these hills are made of limestone. If it is cooked down in a large oven, it becomes lime that is used in the production of steel. This is one of those old lime kilns from the 1800's, nestled away on the beach here on San Juan Island.

We had a great day exploring San Juan Island. We had thought about riding our bikes instead of going to the expense of bringing the car on the ferry. But with many hills and some distance between sights, we were glad we opted for the car today. We would have been too tired from pedaling to enjoy the sights once we bicycled to each one. Besides, we found out we could explore two islands for the price of one if we moved pretty fast today. So we are heading back to the ferry dock for some island hopping. But that's the story for another island blog.

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