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April 1, 2010
By Julie Summers Walker
Like a modern-day Brigadoon, the tiny town of Friday Harbor, Washington, rises from the mist off the port side of the Cessna Caravan as the Kenmore Air flight delivers its passengers to this enchanted island. Friday Harbor is the largest town in the San Juan Island archipelago, a 170-island chain in Washington; it’s on San Juan Island, the largest of the islands. There are a little more than 2,000 residents of Friday Harbor and the town encompasses just one square mile. And like the residents of the legendary Brigadoon, the residents of Friday Harbor like their small size and relative isolation. In fact, locals say they are “going to America” when they leave the island.
Towering Ponderosa pine trees surround this Pacific Northwest town. The skies are usually a brilliant blue (the San Juan Islands receive half the rain of Seattle across the sound and the area is called the “Banana Belt”), and the land is lush and green. The port of Friday Harbor is situated at the base of the town on Front Street. A gentle climb up the main avenue, Spring Street, takes visitors to the restaurants, gift shops, and other quirky shops of this seaside village. The orca whale makes its home in the waters here, and its image is everywhere in town. There are several whale-watching options and a whale museum.
Friday Harbor has a beautiful waterfront park. This is where the ferries from Bellingham, Seattle, and Vancouver arrive and where Kenmore Air’s seaplane base is located. Up the stairway from the park is The Whale Museum. Here visitors discover the Gallery of Whales, which offers a special focus on the orcas of J, K, and L pods, which live in the waters of the San Juans. These social groups that travel and protect one another can range in size from six to 40 orcas. There is a fascinating collection of exhibits, artwork, models, and artifacts, including whale skeletons and a family tree of the resident orcas. Visitors can listen to the songs of various species of whales in the “Whale Phone Booth,” and watch a free, 30-minute video on Pacific Northwest orcas.
Visitors should explore the town and island first; however, a whale-watching exhibition is not to be missed and should be booked right away. The trips take at least three hours, and the various excursion companies all guarantee you’ll see the whales—no matter what it takes. My trip lasted nearly four hours in the driving rain (this was one of those days that it did rain in the San Juan Islands), and we completely circumnavigated the island in search of the whales. We discovered them in the Haro Strait off Henry Island, where the giant freighters pass from Vancouver and Seattle.
For thousands of years the inland waters of the Pacific Northwest have been the summer feeding grounds for several pods of orcas. The J, K, and L pods, known as the Southern Resident Community, are generally found in the San Juan Islands/southern Vancouver Island area from May through September. Researchers have been studying these whales in their natural habitat since 1976. Each orca can be identified by the shape and size of the fin on its back (dorsal fin) and the gray-and-white markings beneath and behind the fin (saddle patch). Each animal has been given a pod identification number and a common name that reflects a bit of its heritage, personality, or the circumstances of its discovery. Currently, there are approximately 80 whales in these three pods. I saw the whales of J Pod, which includes Ruffles, the oldest male identified in 1951 and one of the orcas in the movie Free Willy, and Granny, the oldest whale in the pods, believed to be more than 90 years old.
There are more than 10 options for whale watching (as well as simply standing on the island’s shore), and I chose the 65-foot yacht Odyssey from San Juan Excursions. The boat can hold 90 passengers, but on this rainy day there were only 20 of us, along with two naturalists and the captain. Our trip started south down the San Juan Channel until the radio chatter indicated the whales were to the north. So we turned and headed north up the channel, passing some of the small, uninhabited islands such as Yellow Island and Cliff Island. We rounded the top of the island at the only other town on San Juan Island, Roche Harbor. I had eaten dinner there the night before at McMillin’s Restaurant—the special was halibut cheeks.
When we encountered the whales there was great excitement. We crowded to the starboard side of the boat and watched as Ruffles, with his giant six-foot dorsal fin, broke the water and Granny guided the pod’s newest member, Eclipse, through the waves. The whales feed on salmon as they swim around the islands.
And now I will admit that I got seasick. This is highly unusual, both for me and for the excursions—the waters around San Juan Island are usually very calm. But pretty heavy storms had kicked up the sea, and the swells were exacerbated by the wake from the numerous freighters in the channel. Seeing the orcas breech and put on their natural display was worth it.
The trip to Roche Harbor from Friday Harbor is less than 20 minutes and it’s an opportunity to see the interior of the island. It’s green and lush, with rolling hills and farmland. Along the way you’ll meet Mona. Mona the camel. Why there is a camel in the Pacific Northwest I do not know. Also along Roche Harbor Road is San Juan Vineyards and a cove where you can purchase Westcott bay oysters straight from the bay. At Roche Harbor is McMillin’s Dining Room, a fine dining restaurant located in the former home of John S. McMillin, founder of the Roche Harbor Lime and Cement Company. It is perched on the waterfront shore, overlooking the seaside harbor. The food is excellent, although I played it safe and had salmon, as my dinner companion kept wondering what the halibut looked like without his cheeks. I found it a disturbing mental picture.
The restaurant in Friday Harbor’s Best Western was remarkably good. In fact, many locals frequent The Peppermill. I had a good, hearty breakfast at the Rocky Bay Café on Spring Street, and locals told me that Duck Soup Inn, Downriggers, The Place, and Maloula’s are all good.
There are several interesting places to stay in Friday Harbor. The Best Western Friday Harbor Suites is close to the airport. The hotel offers one- and two-bedroom suites with small kitchens, although there is also a complimentary breakfast. Nothing is too far away in Friday Harbor, so the airport was a less-than-10-minute walk one way and the port was less than 10 minutes the other way. The Friday Harbor Inn and Spa looked nice, as did the Friday Harbor Inn. I noticed a number of bed-and-breakfast houses too, such as The Kirk House and Inn to the Woods.
Westwind Aviation 740 Airport Circle Dr Friday Harbor, WA 98250 ph: 360/378-6991 For providing flight training, air charter, and scenic services in Friday Harbor.
Friday Harbor Airport (FHR) has a 3,400-foot runway and is non-towered (the “tower” you’ll see is the airport manager’s office, converted from an old control tower). Summer can be extremely busy and private aircraft will compete with air charter companies Kenmore Air, San Juan Airlines, and Island Air. There is a seaplane base at Friday Harbor (W33) and also at Roche Harbor (W39). Noise abatement procedures are posted at several locations on the field; when departing, head straight out and do not turn until you reach 1,100 feet agl.
My visit took place in early May and the island was beautiful.
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