Welcome to Planet Orcas

With the great out-of-doors, as with cuisine, there’s no disputing matters of taste. One person’s caviar is another’s soggy dumpling. For myself, I’ve always preferred a good healthy slog through an ancient forest to the more easeful charms of a beach. So it was that, shortly after I arrived on Orcas Island, I began hiking along the Cold Spring Trail. At one point, I encountered two naked back-packers, a man and a woman in their sixties. Both of them stared at my fully- clothed self as if I was some sort of oddity…

Orcas is the largest and most idiosyncratic of the San Juan Islands. It was named not for the toothed whale that belongs to the dolphin family, but for an 18th century viceroy of Mexico who possessed thirteen names, one of which was Horcasitas. Locals call the island Planet Orcas because it isn’t at all like the rest of the country. Taking the ferry to the mainland, they say, “Unfortunately, I’m going to America…”

Photo by Lawrence Millman

“This is as far as you can go in self-exile,” one of my guides, a former resident of Los Angeles, told me. He added that the reason he lives here is not so much because of what the horseshoe-shaped island has, but because of what it doesn’t have—traffic lights, big condo developments, Kentucky Fried Chickens, Burger Kings, and a McDonalds.

What Orcas does have is an abundance of lakes, mountains, and moss-covered habitats. Not surprisingly, it has an abundance of wildlife, too. You’ll often see an eagle flying off with the corpse of a small mammal in its beak. Or you’ll see an otter crossing a river, then posing on the opposite side for your camera. And every time I looked out the window of my room at the aptly named Outlook Inn, I could see fleets of bufflehead ducks, geese, loons, and gulls.

The island probably owes its naturalness to environmentalist John Muir, who traveled (in his words) “anywhere that is wild.” In 1879, Muir met a man named Robert Moran when the two of them were heading up to Alaska on a boat called the California, and they spent quite a bit of time hobnobbing. This meeting seems to have made a strong impression on Moran, later a wealthy shipbuilder as well as mayor of Seattle, for when he took up residence on Orcas, he purchased, then donated more than 5,200 acres to the state.

The most prominent feature in what is now called Moran State Park is 2,499 foot Mt. Constitution, which was named not for our country’s sometimes suspect supreme law, but for the wooden-hulled, three-masted frigate that played such a significant role in the War of 1812. From the mountain’s summit, I could see a panorama that included Mt. Baker, Mt. Rainier, and the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula, but not a single mall or superhighway. This view gave me what locals refer to as “an orcasm.”

On another day, I was hiking along the Obstruction Pass Trail, and the surrounding world was so utterly quiet that it brought a slight whistling to my ears. Suddenly a raven seated on the branch of a Doug fir made an expostulating croak that seemed to ask me, “Hey!  You seen any lemmings or mice lately?”

The island’s natural bounty doesn’t mean it lacks amenities, however.

Photo by Lawrence Millman

The number of good restaurants is remarkable for a place that has only 4,894 year-round residents. Being a shellfish addict, I sampled oysters at a number of these restaurants. Here I should mention that all the oysters I ate were local. Let me repeat that word. Local. For a restaurant on Orcas would no more serve oysters from elsewhere than it would serve Kentucky Fried Chicken.

At Doe Bay Resort, formerly an institute for holistic health, I had a cabin whose chief amenity was not so much its comfort as the fact that it didn’t have a TV. Nor do any of Doe Bay’s cabins, yurts, or rooms have a TV. But the Resort does have a popular clothing optional hot tub in which I found myself seated next to a professor from Seattle who was reading a very moist copy of Anna Karenina. “Poor Anna!” he said to me. “She would have been much happier on Orcas than she was in Russia…”

Other island amenities include: Darville’s, a splendid independent bookstore; a natural history museum full of Native American artifacts; and a 40-mph speed limit. Then there’s the ghost who sometimes appears at the desk of the Outlook Inn. Reputedly, this ghost has a soft, lovely voice  and a very cheerful disposition. How could she be anything but cheerful on Orcas Island?

Lawrence Millman wears many hats.  He is a mycologist, an Arctic explorer, a travel writer, an ethnographer, and a bona fide neo-Luddite.   His 16 books include such titles as Last Places, A Kayak Full of Ghosts, Last Places, Our Like Will Not Be There Again, Fascinating Fungi of New England, and — most recently — At the End of the World. He lives in Cambridge, MA, but is thinking of emigrating to Orcas Island.

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