The ‘other’ San Juan islanders go their own way
Beyond the well-known islands, the more remote places offer room for throwbacks and loners, free thinkers and hard workers.
Seattle Times staff reporter
BOB AND Patty Pedersen hop into a golf-cart-size Mule utility vehicle and head out on a heavily pitted, dirt road near their home on Sinclair Island, a largely private enclave on the eastern fringe of the San Juan archipelago that is thick with trees, patches of gigantic skunk cabbage and impenetrable underbrush.
The frequent potholes and mud puddles cause the tiny Mule to lurch violently as the Pedersens give a tour of their little paradise, a 1.6-square-mile rock in the shadow of the more famous Orcas Island just across Rosario Strait.
“I like to say we live in a vacation,” Patty says proudly.
It feels a lot more like rough going for a visiting city-slicker. But Bob and Patty glide along like genies on a magic carpet, at peace with the pitfalls of living off the grid.
“We don’t get much attention out here, do we, Bob?” Patty yells to her husband after yet another hole.
“None at all!” Bob answers back.
Who can blame them for being so good-natured?
A romantic waterfront retreat, beautiful sunsets over Orcas Island, actual orcas frolicking in the blue-green water just beyond their private beach — and not a tourist in sight: It’s a charmed life.
There are no resorts, no stores, no restaurants, no power lines, no public boat dock, no parks, no campgrounds and no paved roads on Sinclair, one of the so-called “non-ferry” islands lining the labyrinth of marine passages in the San Juans.
The island chain officially consists of some 172 named islands and many more land masses lumped into the group that are mostly off-limits to uninvited visitors.
The Washington State Ferries system carries passengers only to the four most-popular islands: Orcas, Lopez, Shaw and San Juan. But anyone who has ever endured the notoriously long state-ferry waits and huge crowds in summer knows what a jarring experience it can be reaching the islands’ top destinations, despite the serene beauty of the marine setting.
The only jarring thing about islands like Sinclair is the scarcity of human activity.
Those who do choose to live year-round on the non-ferry islands — and that’s just a few on this one — are a determinedly self-reliant bunch with a fierce passion for solitude.
“Personally, I wouldn’t have a place on one of those ferried islands,” says Bob, a homebuilder who has spent the past three decades constructing residences on the less-accessible San Juans.
Bob refers to the state ferry system, with its long waits and set schedule, as a pain in the rear, though he uses a saltier word.
He gets to and from the mainland instead in his 30-foot, aluminum landing craft.
With the boat, “you can come and go on your own schedule, and it only takes 30 minutes,” he says.
Bob, who married Patty in 1999 after they met in Sun Valley, Idaho, where she was living at the time, discovered Sinclair back in 1980 after answering a classified newspaper ad about waterfront property for sale.
It was foggy the day Bob visited. He couldn’t see a thing.
“Then the sun came out, and you could see the whole bay — it was sparkling,” Bob says. “I said, ‘I’ll take it.’ ”
He put up a rustic cabin on a bluff just down from the couple’s larger, current estate.
Though few people live year-round on Sinclair, Patty, now a partner in the homebuilding business, insists that life never gets boring.
Living in such a remote place requires a lot of elbow grease and teamwork — and an open mind.
The public dock on Sinclair is falling apart, so mail comes weekly by boat from the mainland and then is placed in a canvas bag on a boat just offshore, where one of the islanders will retrieve and distribute it.
The Pedersens have installed solar panels, giant propane tanks and batteries powerful enough to run a locomotive at the house to keep the showers hot and lights on, even during nasty storms.
The maintenance work never ends, neither at their place nor at the homes of neighbors the Pedersens help out and have over for social gatherings.
“If we want quiet time, we go away!” says Patty, who also co-owns the homebuilding business.
A German couple who stay on the island in the summer have a special word for what it’s like visiting Sinclair, Patty says: “Wundertute.”
In Germany, a wundertute is a gift often given to children, a grab bag with a surprise inside.
“You never know what you will find” on Sinclair, Patty says.
Among the oddball surprises there is a pint-size chapel that doubles as a yoga studio.
Sinclair, which was a hideout for rum runners and smugglers of opium and Chinese laborers a century ago, has always been a magnet for polymaths and exiles of one sort or another. Patty says the island also has seen its fair share of “earth muffins,” her word for back-to-nature types whom she says are “tuned into a different radio station.”
Capt. Dan Crookes, of San Juan Express freight barge service in Anacortes, says the people who choose to live on non-ferry islands possess “very special personalities.”
“Some of them just love nature,” Crookes says, “and others are just throwbacks and don’t feel comfortable in society.”
Or maybe “society” is something more confined for them.
“When you’re here, you’re here,” says Mike Gwost, who has lived on Guemes Island since the 1970s. In all that time, he’s never felt compelled to visit his famous island neighbor a short boat ride away, Orcas.
The Mule emerges from the thicket to the spectacle of a man riding a mower up and down a grassy airstrip next to some cottages and outbuildings on the opposite end of Sinclair.
The man is Larry McCarter, who lives and runs a recycling business in Bellingham. He and his family owned this property and maintained the private airstrip for decades.
A jazz musician and aerial acrobat, McCarter uses his single-engine plane to make the seven-minute flight to Sinclair almost daily to care for the airstrip. A dozen peacocks patrol the nearby grounds with opulent nonchalance.
McCarter hops off his mower and starts reeling off one-liners and half-truths like a sailor on shore leave, or rather a mainlander on leave from shore.
He’s wearing a Day-Glo safety jacket — to help the pilots of arriving 747s spot him as they touch down, he says with a look of mischief.
On Sinclair, it’s often hard to tell when someone’s pulling your chain.
A cannon sits on the lawn beside a pebbly beach stalked by herons. McCarter says that back in the day, the cannon was used to fire bowling balls across the water — just for fun.
McCarter says that whenever he stays on Sinclair, the allure of life on the mainland, just beyond towering Lummi Island to the east, fades.
“I find it takes about two days before I start to think I need to go to town,” he says. “But then, I can’t imagine why I’d want to.”
ONE GETS THE sense that McCarter and Billy Everett, a retired Hollywood cinematographer and director who has made thousands of commercials, are members of the same club.
He and his wife, Karen McEachran Everett, an island real estate agent, are friends with the Pedersens. Like Gwost, the Everetts are longtime residents of Guemes Island, just a five-minute ride away from Anacortes on a small ferry run by Skagit County.
Guemes, with its one cabin resort, artsy local population and lovely views of packed state ferries heading elsewhere, has a special hold on Billy.
He mows lawns for a living and spends evenings sitting out on the couple’s front porch, which looks across Bellingham Bay toward a mainland he has no interest in visiting.
“We sit out here 365 days a year,” Billy says.
“We’re fixtures here on this deck,” adds Karen, who used to be a writer and producer at KIRO-TV in Seattle. She and Billy lived in a houseboat on Lake Union with their kids, Ryan and Austen, until moving to Guemes in 1994.
“It’s not for everyone,” warns Karen, who commutes to an office in Anacortes.
For one thing, there’s no formal nightlife to speak of. Billy, who plays harmonica, bagpipe and guitar, sometimes has as many as 10 other musician friends on the porch jamming well into the night. He turns a wooden shack on the beach into a tiki bar during summer.
Otherwise, “it’s almost too quiet,” Karen says. “People get lonely.”
But just about everything they need is here.
Billy says his grandfather bought the two adjacent lots his family lives on for $25 and $35 in the 1920s. The island is in his blood. Before moving here, the Everetts were already coming regularly to look after Billy’s ailing father.
Ryan, who’s almost 21 now, lives in an ancient-looking log cabin on the plot next to theirs.
Two years ago tomorrow, Austen, Billy’s 26-year-old daughter from a previous marriage, died from cancer. Billy often retreated to the beach to grieve.
“I went down and sat on the logs, and let the waves talk to me,” Billy says. “It was my own little church. . . People say this is a healing island. I believe it.”
Karen says, “It makes our souls happy to live here.”
THE NEXT MORNING, tidal currents rock Capt. Van Bowling’s Paraclete water taxi as it pushes into Burrows Pass from Anacortes en route to another private island, Blakely. It’s as if the looming islands just ahead are testing us, daring us to approach.
Monolithic Cypress Island is just ahead, its forested hills rising straight out of the water up to 1,500 feet. Just when you think no one would, or could, live here, Strawberry Bay and a smattering of homes come into view, the only break in the mesmerizing, green nothingness of the island.
Bowling says he often carries contractors and groundskeepers to private locales like this to work at luxury estates made even more ostentatious by their dazzling remoteness.
“A lot of times you drop people off and they have to walk,” he says. Cars can’t handle the rough roads on some islands.
Blakely Island, just south of Orcas, boasts a fine harbor with a marina and even a seasonal general store and cafe.
Known as the “Flying Island,” it was originally developed in the middle of the last century as an overnight retreat for amateur pilots. Its paved, lighted aircraft runway (with a terminal building no bigger than a shed) continues to be a major amenity for homeowners who fly in during warm months to stay on some of the 100 or so properties dotting the rocky coastline.
“Most people who come here are either their own bosses or pretty high up in their organizations,” says one of the few permanent residents, island real estate broker Judy Tompkins, as her SUV rumbles up “Ol’ Steepy,” the gravelly, winding, one-lane road that leads up into the mountainous heart of the island, where two freshwater lakes ringed by cliffs look as if they were lifted from the Cascades. It is a bright, sunny day, but the island’s interior is a fun forest of dim, dappled light.
Tompkins used to live on Seattle’s Eastside but moved with her husband and two young boys to Blakely more than 30 years ago. Her friends thought she was crazy.
“They said I’d never survive without Nordstrom,” Tompkins says, grinning as she talks about the two homes her family has built by hand on the island over the years. “I proved them wrong.”
The island, much of which is closed to development, feels wonderfully dormant.
There is almost no sound other than the sea breeze whistling through the treetops — and echoes from the past.
As Tompkins drives by a ghostly, abandoned, one-room schoolhouse blanketed with chartreuse moss and furnished with dusty school desks, she recounts the story of a teacher who once taught there, R.H. Straub.
One day in 1895, Leone Lanterman, his sister, J.C. Burns, and their stepbrother, Ralph Blythe, were busy tending Burns’ potato field on the south end of Blakely when Straub and Irving Parberry appeared out of nowhere and started firing shots at them.
Lanterman is killed in the incident and his shooter, Straub, winds up getting hanged for the crime.
The murder is “probably the most atrocious, brutal and cowardly murder ever chronicled in this section of the state,” or at least that’s the hyperbolic description printed in The Islander newspaper at the time.
Tompkins says Straub was upset because Lanterman and Burns tried to sabotage his teaching career.
Nothing nearly as exciting happens on Blakely these days. Life moves at a crawl. Tompkins is unfazed by the slow grind of a six-square-mile island that takes half an hour to cross, cheerfully bouncing in the driver’s seat from pothole to pothole.
At some point, though, you start getting restless.
The Pedersens love Sinclair but put their estate up for sale recently. It’s time for a new retreat — perhaps the Abruzzo region of Italy, where Patty’s family comes from.
And while Billy Everett wouldn’t dream of moving back to the mainland, he toys with the idea of some day moving from Guemes to far-more-isolated Waldron Island, out by the U.S.-Canada border where confused cellphones go into roaming mode.
His wife, Karen, isn’t quite sold on that idea.
“This is as far as I’m going!” she says with a laugh.
Tyrone Beason is a Pacific NW magazine staff writer. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Benjamin Benschneider is a magazine staff photographer.