Off the grid: Exploring the San Juans' most remote islands
By MEGAN BURBANK | The Seattle Times | Published: October 19, 2018
WASHINGTON STATE -- You don't go to the most isolated islands in the San Juans for the amenities. You go for the quiet, for pitch-black nights with the sound of waves hitting the beach. You go for the rare opportunity to disconnect from your modern, plugged-in life.
The latest gossip I hear on Decatur Island, practically before I even have time to unpack, is that a new resident has arrived, bumping the total population of year-round inhabitants to just under 40.
That might not mean much elsewhere. But Decatur is tiny. Just 3.5 total square miles nestled between bigger neighbors Blakely and Lopez in the Salish Sea, it's one of a handful of islands in the San Juans with no Washington State Ferry service. It's reachable only by private boat, and has almost no commerce to speak of. So population growth, however incremental, is big news.
And with no newspapers or blogs, word of mouth is how news travels on Decatur. The only way to get the inside scoop is to talk to people, and the only people you're likely to meet here are the folks who call it home year-round, and those who visit regularly as members of one of the island's three private communities -- Decatur Shores, Decatur Northwest, and the Decatur Head Beach Association.
I'm at the latter. The least-glamorous of the island's retreats, Decatur Head is a tombolo connected by a spit to the rest of the island. I've been coming here since I was a kid. The cabins are all 1970s wooden siding, with lacquer-coated beachwood furniture long predating the reclaimed-wood trend.
You don't come to a place like Decatur for the amenities. You come here for the quiet. You come here for pitch-black nights and the sound of waves hitting the beach that make falling asleep easy. You come here for the misty mornings looking out onto the bay, before the fog lifts and the sun makes beach treks and tennis matches an inviting proposition.
I grew up in Seattle, and my trips to Decatur were a dose of rural isolation in an otherwise urban childhood. I became accustomed to running its tree-lined dirt roads, reading for hours as I looked out onto Davis Bay, showering in well water that smelled of sulfur-loaded dirt, dealing with wildlife run-ins, and sometimes not looking at my phone for days at a time.
If your travel fantasies are less spring break and more "Anne of Avonlea," you really can't do better than Washington's small island communities, which always feel a little behind the rest of the world temporally, in a way that makes the days stretch out, the distractions fall away, and the 9-to-5 churn loosen its grip.
Along the island's roads, you'll see cars abandoned decades ago, grass growing through mossy hulls, rounded bumpers betraying their age. It's expensive to move a car off the island, and so here they sit. There are other reminders of a forgotten past: On a walk across the island, I once discovered the shell of a long-abandoned clapboard building, rising like a whitewashed ghost amid straw-colored fields and jutting evergreens. It had the look of an old grange hall or meeting place, but there was no way to tell for sure what it had been in its previous life.
On the end of the island opposite from Decatur Head, Decatur Northwest is home to stately houses and a sheep farm. At roughly the island's midpoint, Decatur Shores abuts the community's airport, where small planes wait on a grassy runway and locals pick up their mail from a wooden shed that serves as the island's post office.
On Davis Bay, across from Decatur Head, small homes dot the beach. If you follow it far enough, you'll reach Fauntleroy Point, where someone has built hobbitlike tiny homes in the trees.
There's no visitors center here, no hotels, no waterfront kitsch shops. There is a golf course, but it's a rustic construction that has more in common with Greenlake's Pitch 'n' Putt than Palm Springs. Donations to its upkeep can be left on-site when you tee up.
There's one store on the main road that runs down the center of the island. Maintained by a local family, the store sells basic sundries and excellent milkshakes and Turkish coffee. The apartment above the store is an Airbnb, and in the backyard, the family raises fainting goats. On Saturdays in summer, the store hosts the community's weekly farmers market in a large side yard.
Down the street from the store, you hit the school, a real-deal little red one-room schoolhouse. The school generally enrolls only a handful of students, if any, at any given time (for high school, most resident kids take a boat to nearby Lopez Island).
Islands like Decatur have vibrant (albeit small) communities, but other remote islands in the San Juans have none. Decatur's nearest neighbor, James Island, is a state park. You can dock there for a day of hiking, or skip stones on one of its beaches, where the rocks are perfectly flat discs, and you can pitch a tent for the night. But no one lives there, and there are certainly no services.
That's the beauty of traveling in the San Juans' low-traffic zones. Where else can you visit an island where you're unlikely to see anyone but whoever you brought along with you? The isolation can feel edgy sometimes after months in a city, but it's rare to find in modern, plugged-in lives. Island residents understand this, and once you go, you'll understand it too.
The first time I ever slept on Decatur, I was a preteen. My family had been invited to the island by a friend who was a cooperative member at Decatur Head. There was no Wi-Fi, no TV, sketchy cell service. I hated it. I was a city kid, and the island's isolation made me lonely and petulant.
But while I was there, I found a poem by Rachel Lyman Field about sleeping on an island tucked into a notebook in the house where we were staying: "If once you have slept on an island / You'll never be quite the same; / You may look as you looked the day before / And go by the same old name," it begins, ultimately suggesting some sea magic that slips into your body when you make your home in a hard-edged place by the water, even temporarily.
The poem, cheesy though its sentiments were, made sense to me. I still was irritated that I was missing SNICK on Nickelodeon every time my family journeyed out to the far reaches of the Salish Sea, but I could not deny that once I'd experienced that sense of isolation, I couldn't forget it. Slowly, I began to love it. Coming back as an adult, I found it again on Decatur, spending my days reading entire books, drinking coffee slowly while wrapped in a gigantic blanket on the front porch, sipping whiskey on the dock at night with my mom, going on long runs, and practicing ballet jumps on the dock, where almost no one could see me. When my work schedule gets overwhelming, and I'm tired and cranky, I take comfort in knowing that the cleanest disconnect from my everyday life is only a few hours away.
At the farmers market on my Labor Day visit to Decatur, I met the island's newest resident. She didn't seem interested in sitting down for a formal interview, and respecting other people's privacy is a key part of island etiquette.
But my brother's girlfriend recognized her from their shared boat trip over, and the three of us chatted beside the granola and Anzac cookie sellers' table. When I asked her why she'd decided to make her home on Decatur, she mentioned Field's poem. "If once you have slept on an island / You'll never be quite the same," she began, reciting it right there in the farmers market. She knew every word by heart.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: The Washington State Ferries don't go to the smallest islands in the San Juans, so the best way to go is by private boat or water taxi. Two options out of Anacortes' Skyline Marina are the Island Express and the Paraclete. Family-owned Island Express (islandexpresscharters.com) offers $45 one-way transport to many islands in the San Juans, including Cypress, Decatur, Obstruction and James, and offers custom quotes if you need transportation to an island outside their list of usual destinations. Paraclete Charter Service (paracletecharters.com) offers transportation with prices based on five different zones, ranging from $38 per person in Zone A (including Blakely, Center, Decatur, and others) to $95 per person in Zone D (including Sucia, Waldron and Stuart Islands). Both services sometimes charge extra if you bring along bulky items like bicycles and kayaks, so plan ahead.
Lodging: There was a time when it was difficult to find places to stay on the San Juans' smallest islands unless you had a friend with a house, but this is changing through private rentals, almost all of them operated through sites like Airbnb. On Decatur, the proprietors of the island's only store rent out the apartment above it, and you'll find listings for other private homes on the island, including a yurt. Where it's available, camping is also a great option, especially on islands like James that have no lodging.
On the way: There are several good places to stop in Anacortes for roadside coffee and snacks. For a drive-thru, I like Diederich Espresso (3119 Commercial Ave., Anacortes), especially if the Scone Lady's been by that day. The Store (919 37th St., Anacortes) is also a good place for decent espresso and a dizzying variety of muffins. If you're driving through Mount Vernon, the Skagit Valley Food Co-op (202 S 1st St., Mount Vernon) feels like a piece of Old Seattle dropped right into the Skagit Valley. And if you forget something, Anacortes has a number of grocery stores for basic sundries before you say goodbye to the mainland. (This is especially key if you're going to an island with limited or no commerce.)