Home > Food, Science, Travel > Shaw & Sucia Islands

Shaw & Sucia Islands

Sunset from Shaw Island

Back in April, at the annual fundraising auction of the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture, we were high bidder for an overnight outing to two of the San Juan Islands. The premise of most of the auction items is that you get to spend time with one of the museum’s curators, either in the museum itself or out in the field. In this case, we were bidding for two curators and a generous host couple.

The San Juans, as you may know, lie to the north of Puget Sound and east of the Juan de Fuca Straits, in the waters between Vancouver Island (to the west) and the northern part of Washington State. The US-Canada border snakes through in a complicated pattern, separating the San Juans from Canada’s Gulf Islands to the north. (See the Pig War of 1859 and the ultimate determination of the border in 1872.) Four of the islands are served by Washington State Ferries: Lopez, Shaw, Orcas, and San Juan. But there are many others, such as Sucia, some privately owned and some public.

In outline, we were to arrive at Shaw Island in time for dinner at the host couple’s home along with the hosts and the curators, spend the evening there, then head out as a group on the hosts’ boat to Sucia Island, which lies on the other side of Orcas Island, about an hour away (depending on tides). There, we would explore the archaeology, geology, and paleontology of the island, with a break for lunch, and in mid afternoon we would return to Shaw to catch the ferry back.

Finding a mutually satisfactory time was not entirely straightforward, but we eventually settled on two weeks ago today and tomorrow. Gail and I headed off around 1:30 PM for Anacortes, on Fidalgo Island some 80 miles north of here, and its ferry terminal a few miles west of town. There we met up with Julie and Liz, our guides. Julie was once the museum’s archaeology curator, but has served for six years now as its executive director. Liz is the invertebrate paleontology curator. And both are friends, which was part of the appeal of the trip when we bid on it. (Julie is more than a friend. She’s my long lost twin, having been born on the very same day as me, just hours later. We have shared the fate of having only a limited number of birthdays. Next year is a big one.) The ferries were running late, so we had some time to kill at the ferry landing. The day was warm and lovely, and we were quite content to sit outside waiting and chatting. Once aboard the ferry, we did the same, as we snaked through the islands to Shaw.

I had never been on Shaw before, only looking at it from the ferry. It’s primarily residential. No town. No commercial area, except for the general store and post office just a hundred yards up from the ferry landing. For years, these were managed by nuns, but they left seven years ago, leaving the store in the hands of a Shaw couple. Our host met us, loaded our bags, and whisked us off to his home, where his wife welcomed us. We were shown to our guest quarters, took a few moments to unpack, then headed over to the main house to join everyone.

Soon, as we relaxed over drinks and hors d’ouevres in the most gorgeous of settings, the tour began. A large map of the islands was unfolded and Julie and Liz explained the islands’ geological history, along with that of western Washington as a whole. Birds flitted in and out among the nearby feeders and we looked out at the view across the water to other islands. Our host got the salmon going on the grill, and before long it was time to move inside for dinner.

What a feast! With two weeks gone now, I can hardly remember all the details. Many of the vegetables had been bought the day before at the market in Friday Harbor, the main town of San Juan Island and a short trip by boat. Fresh corn salad, green salad, assorted other vegetables, perfectly cooked salmon. And the conversation was every bit as wonderful as the food.

After dinner, our host took us on a walk up a slight slope on the property to its high point, a wooded area with mysterious boulders that Julie said were not naturally occurring. They would have been placed there by natives, perhaps as a burial area. From there we walked down to an overlook above the water and back to the house. The sun was near to setting, so I headed out with my camera and took shot upon shot, one of which you can see at the top.

Soon dessert awaited us, the most gorgeous of almond tarts. I had been trying to limit my carb intake, but I couldn’t pass up the tart entirely, and our hostess was kind enough to cut off a piece of just the right size for me. It was so good that if allowed, I would surely have had three regular pieces rather than one tiny piece. We talked into the evening, partly about issues of higher education, then headed off to get some sleep before our big adventure.

The next morning, we arrived at the main house from our guest quarters to find yet another feast, a breakfast of eggs and bacon and fruits and berries and bread and more. After eating and loading up, we headed to our hosts’ boat, moored not far away, and within minutes we were off.

Leaving Shaw Island for Sucia Island

The tides were against us as we headed north around the west side of Orcas and then east, along the north side of Orcas to Sucia. We arrived in Fossil Bay, an inlet on the island’s southeast corner, found some dock space to tie up along, and disembarked. The morning was for archaeology.

Julie isn’t just any archaeologist. She’s Ms. San Juan Islands Archaeologist, the famed islands expert, having led digs, studied, and published about them for decades. And Sucia isn’t just any island. It’s the island on which the young archaeologist Robert Kidd did some groundbreaking (I know, this is must be a tiresome pun among archies) research starting in 1960. We walked over to the site of Kidd’s work, where Julie gave us a lesson on the history of archaeological research in the islands. She had brought along photos of the old dig, much of which is now covered over by wild roses and other growth, as well as the thistle pictured below.

Sucia Island thistle

We then walked along the beach in search of evidence of shell middens (the garbage dumps where native residents would have thrown their shells and other waste, and where tools are typically found as well). We didn’t have to look far. We reached one of the raised composting toilets, and there just below was a midden, disturbed of course by the construction years ago of the original toilet. Two parks employees came by and Julie gave us all a lesson on middens.

Time for lunch. We retraced our steps back to the boat, our hosts set pulled out all the food, unfolded a tablecloth on one of the picnic tables that sit on the dock, and laid out feast number three. There were some leftovers, new salads, smoked salmon, homemade chocolate chip cookies, fruit, drinks. Gosh we ate well.

Time for paleontology. We walked back past the shell middens to another stretch of beach, which you can see below. We walked down the beach not in the direction shown, but in the direction behind me.

Sucia Island beach, with Waldron (US) and Saturna (Canada) Islands beyond

This brought us to some cliffs filled with fossils. Let me assure you, in case you have any interest in heading over to Sucia, that fossil collecting is absolutely forbidden. So don’t do it. Unless you have a permit, which you don’t, but which Liz does. Out came two hammers, though Julie showed me that I could pick up any quartz rock along the beach and use it as well.

Sucia Island fossil

We all hammered away at the cliff, or at pieces of fallen rock at the cliff’s foot, turning up fossil after fossil, which Liz duly recorded and bagged. It was great fun. I forgot to mention that Liz had brought some fossils up from the museum collection, showing us back at the house after breakfast what they were and previewing what we might see. As we found new fossils, she was able to tell us what they were.

Well, one can only have so much fun, and there was a ferry to catch, so around 3:00 we started walking back to the boat. Those darn tides. They had gone and reversed themselves on us, setting us up for yet another tide-fighting ride. But a beautiful one, with great company, so we were happy as we bumped along, around Orcas again and on to Shaw.

After docking, we unloaded, carried and wheelbarrowed everything back to the vehicles, and it was time for goodbyes to Julie, Liz, and the hostess, who would be returning to the house. The host drove us on to the ferry landing with time to spare, so we were able to wander through the general store with him and check out the post office. Then one more farewell, leaving Gail and me to sit and look out across the water to Orcas as we waited for the ferry.

The return trip was longer, since the ferry makes a triangle, going on from Shaw to Orcas before returning to Anacortes. We were back at our car around 7:00, in need of dinner. I had seen two possibilities the day before on our way through downtown Anacortes to the ferry, a Chinese place and a Mexican taqueria across the street from it. We drove into town, checked both out, and chose Chinese. A bit of a comedown from the three amazing meals of the previous 24 hours, but perfectly fine. Just what we needed. We got back in the car and an hour and a half later we were home.

We can’t wait for next year’s auction, and perhaps another curator trip, though nothing can top this one.

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