January 22, 2013

Delights of the Northwest

I FEEL QUITE SORRY for those of you who haven’t yet experienced the delights of the San Juan Islands of Washington State and their northern continuation, the Canadian Gulf Islands. For some reason, you don’t hear much about this sleepy, largely undeveloped archipelago of state parks and cozy anchorages. It doesn’t generate the publicity some other parts of the country enjoy, despite the fact that boating is big business here. Some of the largest sailboat charter companies in the United States are located in the fascinating inland body of salt water known as Puget Sound and the Salish Sea.

Here and there you’ll come across bustling little resort harbors such as Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor where you can refuel, reprovision, and indulge in highly civilized gustation, but in the main the mantle that lies over these welcoming islands is one of peace and tranquility. Here the stars actually blaze at night in snug anchorages and the moon throws solid black shadows on the deck. During the day, the scenery is magnificent — blue water, green forests, and lofty background mountain peaks capped with brilliant white snow all year.

In summer and fall, the air that drifts off the islands smells sweetly of warm pine and cedar. In winter and early spring the weather is mostly cold and damp, but many people still use their boats year-round.

The aspect that greets your eye in this archipelago is almost exactly the same, in most cases, as it was hundreds of years ago, when Native Americans plied these waters in their dug-out canoes. They still do, as a matter of fact, but now only occasionally, and for ceremony and pleasure rather than for a living.

The roiling currents provide a fecund, fertile habitat for a host of sea creatures ranging from whales, orcas, porpoises, and seals to geoducks, mussels, and those famous Dungeness crabs.

My wife June and I have seen ospreys and puffins, eagles by the dozen, seagulls by the thousand, and even the shy, dainty phalarope. I had wanted to see a phalarope ever since Alan Paton wrote a novel called Too Late the Phalarope and I couldn't pronounce it. One calm day in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, we came across a small tight-knit group of them floating on the water, fluttering and agitated for no reason we could discover, except that they might have been in a feeding frenzy.

But the sight that sticks in our minds right now is that of a tiny sea otter living just on the Canadian side of the border, near South Pender Island. We cruised up to within a few yards of him before we could make out what was happening. He was lying on his back, clutching to his chest a fair-sized crab, and trying to take bites out of it. But he was surrounded by half a dozen large seagulls, all floating on the surface, jostling each other, pecking voraciously at his crab and trying to wrestle it away from him. Time after time he would submerge with his meal to get rid of the gulls, but he couldn’t stay under for long and as soon as he reappeared the birds would fly over with great squawks of indignation and continue the assault with their strong, sharp beaks.

I don’t know how that particular battle ended, because we soon drifted away, but we couldn’t help feeling sorry for that sweet little otter, outnumbered as he was. It wasn’t a fair fight, but of course Nature knows nothing about fairness, only survival and extinction, so even if we could have weighed in on the side of the otter it probably wouldn’t have made much difference to the Great Scheme of Things.

It makes me wonder about seagulls, though. They’re actually only scavengers; rats with wings, really. How is it that they were given such desirable gifts? They’re beautiful to look at. Their flying skill is wonderful to behold. They can swim in water and walk on land.

Something unfair here, surely? Especially if you’re a decent law-abiding Northwest otter just trying to eat a peaceful lunch.

Today’s Thought
Worldwide travel is not compulsory. Great minds have been fostered entirely by staying close to home. Moses never got farther than the Promised Land. Da Vinci and Beethoven never left Europe. Shakespeare hardly went anywhere at all — certainly not to Elsinore or the coast of Bohemia.
— Jan Morris, “It’s OK to Stay at Home,” NY Times, 30 Aug 85.

“How am I doing?” asked the battered boxer between rounds.
“Keep swingin’ pal,” said his despairing second. “You might give him pneumonia.”

(Drop by every Monday, Wednesday, Friday for a new Mainly about Boats column.)


Jack said...

Heartly agree with you John, a marvelous area to sail. I have in the past had some good times on the Canadian side, when living on Vancouver Isl. One of the most memorable was on a vessel "Pacific Grace", a 138ft Gaffed rigged Schooner. Along with 30 eleventh graders from the northern interior of B.C. we sailed the Gulf Islands for a week. Some of the students hadn't even seen the sea before and their first "dip" in the ocean in was enlightening to say the least! When a pod of Orca's made their way by just as we returned to Victoria harbour, the whole ship's company stopped what they were doing it seemed, to watch even though I'm sure some aboard had seen this sight many times before. Jack

JAS said...

I've never heard of a seaotter in the Gulf Islands or San Juans. Are you sure you don't mean River Otter? They are common throughout the inland sea.

John Vigor said...

JAS: Ever anchored in Sea Otter Cove, Vancouver Island? Any idea how it got its name?

John V.

Blue Fuel Blog Team said...

I have to agree with JAS on this one. I've lived in and around the Gulf Islands for nigh on 50 years and have never seen a sea otter here. River otters, yes. Now the west coast of Vancouver Island is a different matter.

John Vigor said...

Thanks, guys, I must confess I don't know the difference between a river otter and a sea otter. I do know, though, that river otters also fish in salt water. Apart from that, otters are just otters as far as I'm concerned. Cute little creatures.

John V.

Jack said...


For those who are interested

I've seen them on the East Coast of Van. Isl. Campbell River area (and not in the river either )
Jack G