Island Living

10 Jan

I always leave Orcas with tears in my eyes.

Ever since moving away after 9th grade, knowing even then that Orcas Island would most likely never be home again, it’s impossible for me to leave the island dry-eyed.

Leaving Orcas is a process because it is, of course, an island. This means that you need: A) lots of money and a private plane or B) – the far likelier option – to take a ferry. A Washington State Ferry, to be exact. This means that you must arrive – at least in tourist season – at 10:00a.m. for the 3:15p.m. ferry. This is because, as the only real option on and off the island, if you don’t arrive soon enough to claim your place in the ferry line, you will be stuck paying for yet another night at a hotel (if there are any vacancies), or driving your brother-in-law nuts when you drive back up the very same driveway from whence he waved goodbye to you several hours earlier, thus prolonging the inevitable teary last look as the ferry turns the corner, heading to Anacortes and The Main Land…aka, reality.

Coming into the ferry dock on Bainbridge Island a couple years ago. Bainbridge is not part of the San Juan Islands, like Orcas, but it is served by the same ferry system and is much closer to Seattle and the ride is only about 20 minutes as opposed to the hour plus it takes to get to Orcas.


Islanders know to arrive early. Tourists are warned, but they don’t always heed the warning. I remember one time a few years ago, in the height of summer, waiting in the ferry line with three cranky kids in the back seat. One woman had the audacity to walk up to my window and say, “Would you mind trading places with me? I have a plane to catch in Seattle and won’t make it if I don’t catch the next ferry.”

I about slugged her.

I refrained from calling her names and telling her all the things flying through my head – not the least of which was, “How on earth do you even think that a car can get out of line and TRADE places with you?” – and instead mustered my patience (and my teacher voice) and said, “No, not with three kids to keep happy for what would then be another five hours.”

Sometimes kids make great excuses.

The Orcas Hotel, taken from the ferry boat.


I love standing on the deck of the ferry and watching the red-roofed Orcas Hotel grow smaller as we chug away from the dock. I mean, I don’t LOVE it…in that I hate that I’m leaving…but I love the ferry. Though, to be sure, I didn’t love it nearly this much when I actually lived here.

The biggest ferries hold 202 cars and up to 2,500 passengers.


One time, heading to my sister’s on Orcas for my college Christmas break, I was forced to spend the night on the mainland because the ferries couldn’t run in the high winds. My other sister had driven me to the ferry dock and dropped me off. It hadn’t occurred to either of us that I’d be stranded. It takes some pretty fierce winds to stop the ferries running.

This turned out to be a terrible storm. The main power cable to Orcas was ripped out by the waves and my sister had no power for nine days. Thank God for wood stoves. I made my brother-in-law chocolate chip cookies (the mandatory toll for my prolonged visits), which I fried like pancakes on that stove. Gave me something to do.

The wake of the very large ferry!


For years I still thought of Orcas as home. I mean, I grew up there – spent the first 15 years of my life on its beautiful shores. Somewhere along the line Minnesota came to be home and Orcas Island became “the place where I grew up”.

And it was a wonderful place to grow up. Full of “only-on-Orcas-Island” events and moments. I remember telling a friend in college about one of those “only” things. She turned to me and said, serious as you please, “You grew up in a different world than I did, Gretchen.”

I had been telling her about visiting the orthodontist. Now, if you had to see the ortho for a routine check-up, you could go to your dentist’s office on one certain day a month right there on Orcas and get your business done.
BUT, if you had to actually get your braces on, or off, or had some other big reason to see him, then you had to go to his office, in Bellingham, WA. You could take the ferry like any normal person. OR…you could take the Tooth Fairy Flight. That’s right. A chartered plane called the Tooth Fairy Flight would come to the Orcas airport (the same airport, where, if you heard the news a few months back, the infamous Colton what’s-his-name kid stole a plane on his cross-county-and-boarders airplane-stealing spree. Yes, I remember his last name…I just don’t really want it to show up on any Google searches!). You and the other lucky saps who had to go see the orthodontist for some serious dental work got to miss an entire day of school, hang around downtown Bellingham ALONE, and fly in a plane like the rich kid you weren’t.

And if you can’t imagine such a thing, then you’ll understand how my friend felt.

Surging into the ferry dock.


Mostly, though, growing up on Orcas was…normal. As normal as a place can be when you get there via plane or ferry. We’ve spent three weeks out here in WA (as well as a few days in Vancouver, B.C.) over the holidays and it’s been wonderful. I’ll definitely be posting more about our trip in the weeks to come!

Oh, and I think today I’ll post another crop of pictures with more ferry shots…and shots taken from ferries…just because I took too many photos and I want to share them with you! I’m not bothering to post the pictures of the pod of whales we saw from the ferry, though. They weren’t cooperating…in other words, they swam AWAY from us. Shoot. All I captured was tiny black spots…and a whole lot of personal enjoyment in the moment!

Can you spot the old derelict - but picturesque?! - boat as seen from the ferry?

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8 Responses to “Island Living”

  1. Minnesota Prairie Roots January 10, 2012 at 7:22 am #

    Wow, this is gorgeous, but not a place I likely could visit as I really do not care for boats. And that waiting in line for hours would be more than I could handle (and I don’t even have little kids). Why don’t they put another system in place, like selling advance tickets to take the ferry? Crazy.

    I love that hotel. Is it as vintage inside as it appears?

    How different this is from living on the Minnesota prairie. I bet you miss the water.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell January 10, 2012 at 7:57 am #

      Good morning! Yes, I miss the water and the mountains a LOT! BUT…I pretend that the clouds on the horizon are mountains and that helps! Ha.

      They do have advance ticket sales if you take the ferry up to Victoria, BC, but other than that, it’s first come first serve. People who work on the mainland often walk on the ferry (so you don’t have to arrive early) and then keep a second car on the mainland. You do what you have to do!!

      I haven’t been inside the hotel for probably 25 years so I’m not sure if it’s been fixed up or not. Last time I saw it it was okay, but nothing too exciting, as I recall.

  2. Laurie (Morrill) French January 10, 2012 at 8:54 am #

    WOW! I get so homesick for Orcas some times. I spent my first 18 years on the Island. Went to the same school, grades 1-12. When I was 12 my Mom and Dad got me a horse. I rode everywhere by horseback, every chance I got. Back in the 60’s and a little bit into the 1970’s, alot of the roads near me where dirt so that was great for horses. The ferry rides were a bit annoying tho. I imagine the waiting is a whole bunch worse now a days. I graduated in 1973 and only left because I needed to either go to college or get a job. Neither of those opportunities were available on the Island. Orcas holds great memories for me. I’ll always be able to say I grew up there…:) Thanks for sharing Gretchen!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell January 10, 2012 at 9:57 am #

      Thanks for your comments, Laurie! Yes, so many kids there have horses. We never did, though. And yes, the job situation can sure be hard there. I have a friend who works 5 part-time jobs on Orcas just to make things work.

    • Helen Haddon Wyrich July 25, 2015 at 1:04 pm #

      Hi Laurie….I have looked for you for years. I am Helen Haddon…lived up the road from you on Prune Ally in East sound, and used to visit when you moved I believe it was to Olga. Remember when I was staying the night….and a bat got in the room? My Uncle John Allison caught it…

  3. Jenny January 10, 2012 at 10:51 am #

    Living here, when one needs to go to “America”, you get up to catch the red-eye around 5am. There are later ferries but if you need to power-shop the other ones don’t make any sense. I can make it to my first stop, Target, by 8:30. Our grocery store here is amazing, but sometimes you need to go to Costco! That’s usually the last stop before the ferry. All day you keep the clock in mind and the list in hand. I usually get home from 7:30 – 10:30 pm. The ferry ride is actually the nicest part of the day. You can read, nap (keeping it light so as not to miss your stop) or go upstairs and talk to friends if you see them on the same boat. Though I have talked too much and had the loud speaker call for all the drivers to Orcas to Please return to your cars! Oops! When we’ve been off island for an extended time it is a wonderful feeling to round the last bend and see the Orcas ferry dock ahead. It feels like sanity and the way the world really should be. Top road speed is 40MPH, no fast food, 1/2 the rain that Seattle gets, no chain stores, no traffic lights and knowing the people next to you in the grocery store. We really don’t live in the real world here! And I’m all right with that!

    By the way, I love the picture of Mount Baker at the top of your site.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell January 10, 2012 at 11:08 am #

      🙂 Love the report! I’m going to post a lot more pics/stories about the trip in the next few weeks and will accept any and all comments about Island Living! And yes, the mountain picture turned out well – I’ll post more of those, too!

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