San Juan Islands, Washington
Formed by tectonic activity, glacial sculpting, and the forces of erosion, approximately 450 islands (over 700 during low tide and just 172 named) dot the Salish Sea between southeastern Vancouver Island and northern Washington. Accessible only by air and sea, the views are astounding—on a clear day, you can turn in a circle and see the Olympic and Cascade Mountain ranges, Mt. Baker, Mt. Rainier, and Vancouver Island. The archipelago’s southern border is the Strait of Juan de Fuca, to its northern edge lies the Straits of Georgia, and to the east is Bellingham Bay and Rosario Straits. The San Juans and Vancouver Island are separated by Haro Strait. In the protective rain shadow of Vancouver Island and the Olympic Mountains, the islands receive half the rain as Seattle, about 15 to 20 inches per year.
The waters are cold, deep, and prolific with life both above and below. Massive schools of salmon travel from the open waters of the Pacific with the flushing tides through Haro and Rosario Straits, making this a favorite hunting ground for resident, salmon-eating orcas (known locally as the J, K, and L Pods.) Transient orcas also travel through this area periodically to prey on marine mammals. The waters are home to minke whales, Dall’s porpoise, harbor porpoise, harbor seals, and sea lions. California gray whales pass by in fall on their way to calve in Hawaiian and Mexican lagoons. In the spring, they will pass by again, heading north to the nutrient-rich waters of Alaska.
Keep an eye out overhead or on the shorelines and rocky outcroppings for cormorants, oystercatchers, tufted puffins, terns, gulls, scoters, bald and golden eagles, turkey vultures, and more! Over 290 different species of birds have been identified in this birdwatcher’s paradise. Eighty-three islands have been designated as National Wildlife Refuges, divided into the four habitats of reefs, rocks, grassy, and forested islands. Each island is unique and has its own stories of natural and human heritage.
The islands are full of rich and colorful history. One particularly unusual chain of events that had a lasting impact on the islands began on San Juan Island. The event began with one small act in 1859 that nearly resulted in a war between Britain and the United States and was called the “Pig War”. It all started when a pig owned by Englishman Charles Griffin of the Hudson’s Bay Company broke into the tasty potato garden of American Lyman Cutlar one too many times. Cutlar shot the pig, admitted to shooting the pig, refused a trial by the British, and sought the United States’ protection. Since it was unclear at that time exactly where the U.S./Canadian border really was, a 12-year standoff ensued. The English garrison was established on the northwestern side of the island; an American garrison was set up on the southern tip. In 1872, a German arbitrator, Kaiser Wilhelm, settled the debate by establishing the U.S./Canadian boundary and “gave” the San Juan Islands to the United States.
This would not be the final colorful story to be told. The islands were settled in an initial bawdy “wild west” fashion. Even into the 1930s, as some communities claimed to be "civilized," the islands had plenty of bootleggers who were utilizing the intricate waterways around the islands to trade their goods during Prohibition.