The Elusive Orca…

We went from quaint to quaint-er when we moved to Orcas Island, the largest of the San Juan Islands.  The San Juans are also in the Salish Sea, just east of Victoria or Northwest of Seattle.  About five of the 400’ish islands are serviced by ferry and they are known to be artistic, unpretentious and places for rest and reflection that are significantly influenced by nature and the sea.  Although we say it’s unpretentious in spirit we noticed that the properties there are REALLY pricey, our dinners cost a bit more and it definitely has an upscale vibe. 

After 3+ weeks in the “city” we were ready to get back to the “country”.   We were also hoping to see some bald eagles and Orca whales — there are both resident and transient pods of Orcas that come through the waters around the San Juan Islands.  Our campsite was at the state park and was set back in tall pine trees.  In fact, the trees were so big around that we struggled to find a few that were small enough for us to fit our hammock straps around them… and our hammock straps are 14 feet long.

Our first day on the island we headed out to a place called Buck Bay because we heard they had good oysters and clams.  What we found was a shellfish shop alongside a cove where they farmed their own oysters and clams.  In the yard, they had picnic tables set under awnings and under giant willow trees.  Maya immediately made friends with the chickens that were running loose and started feeding them crackers.  In back of the shop were big water tanks of oysters and clams to pick from, and most excitingly a bunch of big crabs that were constantly trying to escape.  Even though we had just had lunch we decided, hey we need a snack, and sampled a dozen each of two of their oyster varieties along with some wine and beer.  I even got in on the shucking action for the first time…And I still have all my fingers, which is honestly nothing short of a miracle.  While there, we got a few pounds of clams to make linguine for dinner.  So fresh and delicious.   In fact the next day we returned for more clams and I made a thick chowder over the campfire that night for dinner.  

Another night we decided to catch our own dinner.  It is crabbing season so we rented a crab pot and hung out for a day on a dock to try our luck.  Our plan was this:  if we caught 1-3 I would make crab dip, 4-7 I’d make crab cakes, and 8 or more we’d have crab for dinner.  Ideally we would have gone out into deeper water — that’s where dungeness crab live.  But we were ok with seeing how the red rock crabs that are closer to shore would be.  We got there at low tide – which is also not ideal for catching crab, but turned out to be cool because we could actually monitor the trap from above for the first few hours.  Since the water wasn’t too deep, we watched as the crabs would approach the cage and work their way around the outside, trying to find their way into the scrumptious rotted fish in the inner bait trap.  A few of them got in there together and started to fight each other.  Then a third one came in!  All in the first 20 minutes!  We could see a future crab feast coming our way…..

Then one escaped.  He crawled right back out, which they are NOT supposed to be able to do.  So, we decided to get the other two out before they could escape too.  Dennis started pulling the cage up…and both of them got out!   UGH.  We lowered it back down and from there on out we pulled up about every 30 minutes and got our dinner into our bucket.  We spent a great day on the dock — at one point a sea otter even came in the bay and played around for a while — and ended up with 7 crabs that were “legal” size.  This was the end of the “fun” part of crabbing, we soon discovered.  After boiling them, I cleaned them (disgusting!) and we all picked them for the meat and made crab cakes.  I have decided that the only way I’ll eat crab again is if it’s the kind that’s already cleaned and picked.  MAYBE I’ll pick the legs if they are at least an inch in diameter.  We all agreed to this in fact.  And we all took showers and put ALL the clothes we had worn, even our fleeces, into the laundry bin.  

Orcas Island itself has two state parks and we did hikes on both of them.  We hiked one route that went back to Cascade Falls which was a good trip for us in Moran, but the hike we enjoyed most was out at Obstruction Point State Park.  After going through a beautiful forest full of madrone trees, lush mossy rocks and ferns, we descended down to the ocean where we played on the pebbled beach skipping rocks and building forts from the driftwood.  At one point a seal came through the cove, but he swam away before we could get a great look at him.  

San Juan Islands and the Salish Seas are home to several pods of Orcas, and also a cruising route for humpback whales.  Everywhere you go there are ads for whale watching tours.  We had really hoped we would catch a view of one the orcas as we took ferries or hiked, but no luck, so we turned to the pros and went for an evening trip with a “guarantee” to see whales.  We did see some whales…almost immediately after the trip started we got close enough to hear a humpback blow out his air when he surfaced.  We also saw sea lions, seals, and a bald eagle….but no Orcas.  🙁    We learned that they come to eat salmon, and since those salmon runs are down, their visits are way less frequent.  

On the bright side, we have a reason to come back to Orcas Island again….not that we’d have to try very hard to get excited about a repeat visit.  The islands are gorgeous.  Everywhere you turn are spectacular views across the water to other islands, or coves that look like they would be the perfect hangout for the day.