BY ELIZABETH “LIBBET” RICHTER
A trip to Blakely Island, in the San Juan archipelago of Washington State’s Puget Sound, starts with a shopping list at a Chicago kitchen table. The list is all-important, since two weeks of provisions need to be purchased and transported to a scenic speck of land between Seattle and Vancouver, British Columbia. The day-long journey will involve a flight to Seattle; a drive through Skagit County to Schuh Farms and Mt. Vernon for shopping; unloading in Anacortes at Skyline Marina to meet the Island Express for the trip by water to the Blakely dock; and the final leg by 4-wheel drive vehicle to the house for the sixth and final move of supplies to their final destination. The inspiration? Flats of fresh blackberries, bald eagles’ nests, hiking rocky beaches, and reconnecting with far-flung family.
Fortunately, last August’s list had been annotated by the house’s March visitor, who kept track of the coffee he brought and the cereal he ate in the ongoing inventories of kitchen and storeroom. The tiny marina supplies basics like butter, cereal, and wine (certainly a necessity on an island), but the ambitious cook needs to bring her own quinoa, bay leaves, and ginger root for a festive Fourth of July weekend.
Created by the shifting Cascadia plate, pushed up by the still active volcanic Cascade Range (Mt. St. Helens), and shaped by receding Canadian glaciers, the San Juan Islands have only relatively recently been clearly part of the United States. A long-standing boundary dispute between the U.S. and Britain was not settled until 1872 by an august mediator, none other than Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm I. As a result, the American-Canadian border takes a jog north, locating the American San Juans north of much of British Columbia’s Vancouver Island and its major city Victoria.
Although shell deposits tell us native tribes once held feasts on Blakely, there is no evidence of early permanent settlements. The first known year-round inhabitants were early 19th century pioneers who saw gold in stately stands of towering Douglas-fir. A sawmill was built to tap the power of a waterfall cascading from one of the island’s two freshwater lakes into the sea. Hardy lumberjacks harvested the old-growth forests, perched on platforms set in notches (still visible today in mossy stumps) cut into tree trunks 15 feet in circumference. Ghosts of that settlement linger in the old log schoolhouse and the Spencer cabin with its hollowed-out log of a bathtub, both now preserved by island homeowners.
Blakely’s current history dates back to 1954, when aviation pioneer Floyd Johnson, who once sold private planes to Wallace Beery and James Stewart, acquired the island from a lumber company. Tapping the burgeoning popularity of small airplanes, Johnson carved out an airstrip and established the San Juan Aviation Estates. Just three by four miles in size, Blakely is not large enough to be on the Washington State ferry route. Access is by private boat or private plane.
My own memories of Blakely began with a family visit in the mid-1950s. My uncle, Charles Mills, an Oregon physician, was one of the island’s first fly-in homeowners, attracted by the lush forests, fresh water lakes, and outdoors lifestyle. A city girl more used to swimming pools than tidal pools, I was entranced by the sparkling waters glittering through the tall trees, soaring bald eagles scattering seagulls as they dove for fish, and fresh crab my uncle pulled from traps he set in the bay just a few hundred yards from his deck.
Sharing that love of the island’s unique flora and fauna, my mother would eventually join her brother’s family and choose Blakely to build her retirement home, far from her native Ohio. Among her friends were the late Jack and Ginny Leslie of Winnetka, who had also been powerfully attracted by the island’s charms. Jack, president and chairman of Signode Co., and his wife Ginny, spent many summer months in their forest retreat, now enjoyed by their children Vicki and Jim and their families. Jack and Ginny’s love of the Pacific Northwest was evident in their helping the Field Museum establish the evocative Pacific Northwest galleries.
Today, many families boast fourth-generation Blakely-ites learning to swim and fish in the lakes, dig clams at low tide, and kayak in the Sound.
The busiest time of the year is the Fourth of July holiday, the traditional weekend for the homeowners’ association annual meeting. Planes line the runway and boats fill the marina as residents from as far away as Tucson, Chicago, Idaho, and Rhode Island arrive for the gathering and the community dinner that follows. Such diverse issues as chicken ownership and the ban on parking small turbo jets on the taxiway are resolved this year with finesse by board chair Tobin Richter.
Blessed with good weather on the Fourth, we join a growing extended family of Seattle cousins to sip Washington State wines and watch the fireworks, available on nearby Native American reservations. Beach fires and laughter punctuate the pop and boom of showers of light and color. Throughout the summer, special events dot the calendar: wine tastings led by residents with vineyards in eastern Washington, an astronomy night organized by Seattle Pacific University’s marine outpost on one of the lakes, and concerts by local musicians – and once in a while, those better known, like the reborn Kingston Trio.
But the joys of Blakely also include silence, mist and rain. A favorite afternoon is spent by a glowing fire with a good book, glancing up as passing ferries slowly ply the waters between neighboring islands, announcing their presence with occasional, sonorous foghorns. The forested hills of five islands, including Orcas, Lopez, Shaw (where Microsoft founder Bill Gates has a weekend getaway), and Vancouver Island, frame the view. The ever-changing tides create flickering patterns of light and color on the waters – silver, grays, and pale blues even on cloudy days. Sometimes heavy morning fog drops a solid gray curtain wall between the water and the trees that separate the rocky beach from the deck.
Most days, afternoon sunshine brings out the recreational boaters. Sailboats, cabin cruisers, plus the occasional whale-watching expedition, the Bellingham – Friday Harbor commuter launch, and even Canadian and American naval vessels enliven the view and contribute to the distinctive Blakely soundscape. The low hum of ferries and airplane landings and takeoffs mix with the soft rushing of wavelets hitting the rocky beach, the squawk of seagulls, the drill of woodpeckers, and the whir of hummingbirds to offer a dramatic counterpoint to the more familiar urban sounds of Chicago.
But what of the cook, who also enjoys the water view from her stove? She combines the quinoa with grilled Walla Walla onions, adds the bay leaves to the brine for the pork tenderloin, and grates fresh ginger to dress the Schuh Farms’ organic beets. Local blackberries baked in a crisp demand whipped cream or rich Lopez Island vanilla ice cream. A run on the beach is in order!
Long, lazy summer evenings are ideal for campfires and s’mores or sipping port on the deck as the setting sun splashes the water with red and gold. The cool night air requires an extra sweater or two. It’s good sleeping weather, and the down-filled comforter ensures a cozy and restorative rest.