Story By Eric Rosane

Just 10 miles of water, sea life and gusty winds separate the green and brown cliffs of Anacortes from the vacant country hill shires that surround the Lopez Island ferry terminal, one of the closest of the San Juan Islands that lie out in the Puget Sound. 10 miles might seem like a lot, depending on the context, but when we’re talking a weekend getaway or an excuse to get out into the mild fall air, 10 miles is meritable for a day trip. 

But why stop at Lopez Island, and why stop at a day trip?

PULSE traveled to the San Juan Islands to discover how best to spend a weekend away from the chilly autumn of Central Washington.  

Staying Alive on the I-5

Friday, 1:00 p.m.

“Ferries are a fact of life around here,” Bry, our host, said. 

Whenever you’re considering travel through the Washington State Ferry system, always make sure that you know all there is to know about your ferry, what time you need to be there, where you need to go and which scheduled ferry will take you to you desired destination. With this weekend in mind, we always recommend showing up for your ferry at least 45 minutes before departure and, if possible, making reservations with WSDOT so that you’re guaranteed a spot for the time that you desire. 

Calm Before the Storm

Friday, 9:30 p.m.

Our ferry, the equitably-named Yakima, arrived on the shores of Lopez Island at around 9:12 p.m. Coming in at barely under an hour’s ride, we departed the dimly lit cavern of the ferry and drove off into the star-filled night to meet with our hosts. Lopez Island, at night, seemed very dormant and sleepy; signs for small summer campsites passed us by. Going at a meager 25 mph, you’d think it’d take us forever to get anywhere. But within a 20-minute drive we were parked at the docks across from a small diner, The Galley Lounge, where we would later eat.  

Our place of refuge for the next two evenings would be a small boat made in the 1970s, which had enough room for four people to stay in, given the amount of beds but not the stretching space. 

We met Bry up at the base of the dock. It was a little windy, but no rain—a god-send, especially when considering how stormy the forecast was set to be this weekend. With the clouds clearing, the sky would make for some excellent astrophotography as well. Bry was very talkative and easy-going—a perfect first example of what we would come to expect and see of the locals of Lopez. We talked to him for a good 30 minutes—he recommended some places that we visit, including several travel destinations and spots hailed by the locals. 

One thing we noticed when coming into the San Juan Islands was how great the cell service was throughout the area. 

“Some years ago, the cell providers wanted to build a bunch of towers here and all the locals drove them out because they were [believed to cause] ‘brain tumors,’ or something like that,” Bry says. 

Years after that, due to some communication errors with some of the emergency departments on the island, T-Mobile set up some amplification towers so that people could properly use their phones. So if you’re looking for seclusion, you might find it a little difficult to get off the grid.

A Drink With the Stars

Friday, 10:00 p.m.

Although it was forecasted to be one of the stormiest weekends so far this season, we wouldn’t have to experience it tonight. For the moment, the sky melded into the sea with the clouds and formed a beautiful show, put on by planet Earth itself. 

After enjoying the simmered breeze and calm waves, we ventured off the dock onto the mainland and across the street to the local Galley Lounge—a small combination cafe and bar that served two different roles, depending on the time of day. Inside we found around 20 people conversing at the bars, playing pool and enjoying the crisp Friday night. We got to talking to a few of them, but were never quite sure if they were actually locals themselves. According to a survey of the island, roughly 50 percent of the houses on the island are owned by double homeowners—people who visit primarily in the late spring and summer. All around us were men with heavy rain coats and three-month-old beards.  

For a small bar, the beer selection was fairly modest and welcoming. Later in the evening, we tried to order some bratwursts. This dish you could easily smell from the moment you enter the establishment, but unfortunately they were out for the night; a sign of either high popularity or poor preparation. After enjoying a few rounds, and allotting the time to walk them off, we hit the road to explore a little bit of the beaches that surrounded Fishermans’ Bay.

Howlin’ For Some Food

Saturday, 8:45 a.m.

Having woken up later than expected, especially with such a calm night, we began preparing for the day by getting some breakfast and coffee. Once again, we traveled up to Galley Lounge to witness both sides of the coin. 

Inside the cafe area of the Galley Lounge, towards the back of the establishment, lie a dining area and full kitchen. When we arrived to the cafe, we were surprised at the amount of people. Four other people lined the window side of the cafe. One couple was talking about their plans for the weekend and their day. The other couple, a little older, seemed to be catching up after a hiatus from each other’s lives. 

After browsing through The Seattle Times and drinking the first round of coffee, we decided to try The Growler—an open-ended omelette with plenty of cheese and meat to spare, which filled our stomachs twice over and was particularly notable. 

After another round of coffee, we grabbed our checks and made off for Lopez Village—the economic epoch of the island. 

Takin’ it or Leavin’ it

Saturday, 11:00 a.m.

After perusing the shops and taking a nice drive around the perimeter of the village, we decided that it was proper time to experience a program that Bry had spoken very highly of. At the Lopez Island dump, the program ‘Take It or Leave It’ seemed to be very popular with the locals.

Amongst the piles of rusted bikes, stained couches and old 1980s Eddie Bauer jackets, you might just find what you need. Take It or Leave It (TIOLI) is a recycle program put on by Lopez Island Solid Waste Disposal, run by volunteers, that’s been active for quite a while on Lopez island. In 2016, TIOLI recycled 132.1 tons of goods back into the community. 

“I went there yesterday and got a couple windows for my house that I’m building. It’s so Lopez to live off the dump. The locals have this thing where they say ‘the dump will provide; the dump will provide,’” Bry says, with hands clasped for prayer.  

Training, Education and Outreach Coordinator for programs at Lopez Solid Waste Disposal Nikyta Palmisani has been living on the island for over three years now. Palmisani came over to stay at her parent’s summer home and fell in love with the island. 

Palmisani, as well as Mechanical Engineer Page Reed, told us about the problems with waste disposal that the islands have been having and what Lopez is currently trying to do to stay at the forefront of progressive recycling and community engagement, with regards to reusing and recycling on the island. They’re trying to keep the island independent and self-reliant, especially since on January 1 China stopped buying mixed plastics from the United States. 

“This community has a really traction-able social justice ability. You can go from conversation to policy really quickly,” Palmisani says. 

Folkin’ Around

Saturday, 11:45 a.m.

Just as we were beginning to leave, Retired Puppeteer and Local Folk Artist Stephen Carter decided to show up in his self-painted pick-up truck.  

When we asked who Carter was, Palmisani quickly showed us a mache statue of a fighter-pilot that was made out of used beer caps. The statue was held by strings from the ceiling of the shed that housed TIOLI.

Carter greeted us with a warm smile and eager conversation. We spoke with him about what inspired his paintings and texturous form of his beer cap art. He tells us that, like the improvisation that happens in puppeteering with the stories he tells, so too is there a level of improvisation with painting and sculpting. When asked about Lopez, Carter says that the island definitely has defined characteristics of charm that make it so attractive. 

“[Amongst] the San Juans, Lopez is the most rural of the islands. There’s more farms and open land,” Carter says.

Hittin’ the Hikes

Saturday, 12:45 p.m.

After chatting it up with the locals at the dump, we finally decided to head out on our first hike. Iceberg Point is a small cape that extends from the south side of Lopez Island. When we arrived, we parked our car off next to the shores and sandy beaches of Outer bay and walked south through the forests into the sharp cliffs of Iceberg Point.  

When we reached the tip of Iceberg Point, we slowly started to feel the rain approach. We enjoyed the exploring and walking along the cliffs, watching the waves crash up onto the side of the rocky cliffs. Some cliffs even provided some artificial stairs that a hiker could take down onto the base of the cliffs where all the driftwood and thick rocks were. 

The Blossom and Dinner at Haven’s

Saturday, 3:30 p.m.

After picking up some peppers from the local Horse Drawn Farms, we began to head over to Blossom Grocery. This tiny eight-aisle coop houses a little bit of everything that you’ll need to call Lopez ‘home.’ From locally-roasted coffee beans to an excellent variety of farm-fresh cheese and the essentials, Blossom is a unique quick-stop shop. The prices, compared to other island stores and grocers, were fair. 

At around 5:45, after enjoying some refuge from the rain on the boat with our cheese and bread from Blossom, we headed out to Haven. Haven is a frilly, but low-key, restaurant that resides on the water at the heart of the Lopez Village. We tried the fried pickles as an appetizer, and were impressed by the breading and spices that seemed to compliment the inner core of the appetizer. 

To end the night, we ordered the baja tacos and the slow-cooked beef noodles. Each were uniquely flavorful and present in their taste. The lowlights of the restaurant seemed to highlight it’s location; the wind began to worsen the waves outside. Over speakers, soft indie-folk music played throughout the night.

Isabel’s and Holly B’s 

Sunday, 8:00 a.m.

Having gotten little sleep the night before due to the waves rocking the boat into an endless spiral, we thought it would be best to start the day off right by getting the supposed “best coffee” on Lopez Island. Isabel’s Coffeehouse is housed in a small coffeehouse across the street from Haven. We ordered the classic caramel macchiato, which was salty sweet and the latte, which was exceptional.

Holly B’s has been in the bakery game for over 41 years. Last year, the original owner, Holly B, actually sold the shop for someone else to take over, keeping the same staff. This bakery has an excellent variety of tarts, pastries, muffins and rolls—everything you could need out of a bakery. The almond butterhorn is a fan favorite.  

The Exchange and Hiking Around Mount Constitution

Sunday, 10:00 a.m.

We made our ferry promptly at 9:55 and headed out to Orcas to enjoy driving around the hillsides and venture forth into the highest point in the San Juan Islands. Driving through Eastsound, we made our route up onto the top of Mount Constitution. At 2,398 feet above sea level, the peak served as a reference point to not only the greater majority of the San Juan Islands, but also to the great northwest corner of Washington state. On clear days, you can see from the Skagit Valley all the way to Bellingham and Vancouver B.C. Unfortunately, today was not a clear day, but the trees still danced and provided shelter from the passing rain. As the clouds continued to roll over and past the small mountain perch, the travel boys planned our way back through Eastsound and to our ferry that would take us across the busy waves of the sea and piled trees that hid the islands, like the clouds disguise the sun. 

Upon our arrival back onto the mainland of Anacortes, Wash., the PULSE team was still hungry for more of what the San Juan Islands had to offer. Even through the rough storm that had hit the islands that weekend, there was some part of island life that seemed mysterious and yet unexplored.  Sure, we’d searched and scoured the majority of Lopez, mingled with the locals and climbed to the top of Mount Constitution, but there was still so much to experience within the islands. Was one weekend enough? Though we were only able to visit Lopez and Orcas, could more opportunities have presented themselves in the harbors of San Juan Island or be tucked away in the tiny confines of Shaw island? Maybe PULSE will have to make a return one day.