The arrival of fall lures me away on a day trip by ferry from Port Townsend to Fidalgo Island.
Waiting to depart, I lean over the railing on the upper deck and watch blasé gulls sleeping on pilings below, despite the roar of the massive engine. My favorite thing is to be in the water swimming, but after that, it’s to be on the water in a boat. I love the sway of the boat, the churning of the waves as we push across the bay, then the escalating wind as we gain speed. I feel hyper-alive at such times.
Perhaps we never tire of the magic of crossing water in any sized vessel. There is always that desire to see what’s over there. But for me, the journey itself is every bit as important. I have taken this round-trip ferry ride as a walk-on passenger just to enjoy the sunrise above the Cascade Mountains that flank the east side of these waters.
Today as I drive onto the boat I enjoy the intense glints of light dancing in ever-changing patterns on the bay. As we surge across the shipping lanes that head down the Strait of Juan de Fuca toward ports in Seattle and beyond, we encounter all manner of ships. There is always a steady parade of freighters and tankers bringing in oil and taking out trees. A hardy tug blowing smoke tows an impossibly huge barge like an ant dragging a leaf thirty times its size. On this fine day, white triangles of sailboats cruise the shorelines.
Then I spot what I hate to see: two Coast Guard cutters escorting a nuclear submarine on maneuvers. This is a fairly common site, even from my house, as there is a sub base in the area at Bangor on Hood Canal. The image of the black sub—only partially exposed—moves through the water like some sinister whale. I hate to think of the destructive capabilities contained in that dark shape. It’s a vivid reminder that we are at war, and that I live on the very edge of the country whose borders need patrolling.
So I walk to the other side of the ferryboat and settle in on a sunny bench to savor autumn, my favorite, the season of transformation. I love watching the alchemy of greens going yellow then ochre, orange and overnight to scarlet. I collect leaves in every hue and scatter them across all the altars in my house.
It’s not enough that fall is decorating the landscape in flaming color—I need to bring the evidence inside where I can marvel at it hourly.
But out here on the water the signs of fall are subtle, even as we near the island there are simply suggestions of gold and amber on the hillsides. Back down on the car deck, I poke my head out a porthole to watch us glide into this shallow bay at Keystone. A sandy beach strewn with driftwood is just a few feet away as we slip easily up to the dock.
Later, on the return trip, the Holland America cruise ship Zaandam cuts across our path and dwarfs us, its black hull and many stories blotting out the setting sun. I can see passengers in the glassed-in boxes settling in for their trip to Alaska. During the summer and early fall on Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings, several ships each day head out on this same voyage. I don’t envy them—it’s as if a small city follows them wherever they go. I need quieter, smaller scale modes of travel. Still, it is an interesting perspective on one of these ships which I usually watch from afar. It makes me wonder exactly how it stays afloat, so huge and boxy is its shape. Of course it’s all mathematical calculations of tonnage and displacement of water that I’ll never understand. To me it’s just another example of the magic of crossing water, of being able to go where our own bodies were not designed to take us.
Rosario Beach, Fidalgo Island
It is unmistakable—it feels different up here. Vignettes of picture postcard perfection morph and delight every few feet of path I walk. The sound of Rosario Strait tumbling small stones into roundness is bliss. A pair of squirrels frolicking in upward spirals around an ancient fir makes me laugh out loud. There is a sense of peace in this remote place.
But even more, it is the allure of all these San Juan Islands—hundreds of them—from tiny verdant dots of rocks and trees to the four largest which are served by ferries. All of the other inhabited islands are accessed only by plane or boat, which is a romantic notion in itself. As a hermetic type, the appeal of rooting way up here detached from the mainland is magnetically attractive. I think it would be easier here to remain apart from most of the madness of the 21st century, to turn back in time and live more elementally. To relate primarily to sun, rain, earth and sea, to have as next door neighbors eagles, orcas, seals and gulls. To turn inward and upward to make sense of it all.
Of course what would make that possible for me is the technology of the 21st century—my invisible uplink to the Internet. More magic—connecting to people around the world with a few clicks and keystrokes. My own refuge on the bay, while not an island, still feels like one. I see water from all my windows and these very islands across the Strait. So I already have the isolation and the views, just not that sense of total separation. Time will reveal if I need that, too.
• What are the islands or magical places in your life?
• Is there some place you fantasize about?
• Do you need some sort of refuge right now?
• Do you need to slow down, maroon yourself somehow?
Share your stories of special places below.