Love and loss in the San Juan Islands

A refuge where we shed the world and its shams, it's now an enclave for millionaires.
Crosscut archive image.

Neck Point on Shaw Island in the San Juans. (Washington Department of Ecology)

A refuge where we shed the world and its shams, it's now an enclave for millionaires.

Shaw Island sits at the center of the small spiral galaxy that forms the San Juan archipelago. The larger islands – Orcas, Lopez and San Juan – float gracefully around its axis. Of the four islands that have regular ferry service, Shaw is the smallest and, despite its location, the most isolated. Orcas has many resorts; San Juan hosts the county seat, Friday Harbor; and Lopez is noted for its bikeable roads and B&Bs. But Shaw has resisted the outside world.

For nearly 30 years, from the late 1970s until 2004, an order of Franciscan nuns ran the island's general store and ferry dock. Those nuns were the face of the island for hundreds of thousands of ferry passengers and became emblematic of Shaw's difference: Unlike the other ferry islands, Shaw was a place that could do without tourists. Shaw has no B&Bs, no amenities, no mountaintop viewpoints, no condos. It's an island without a welcome mat.

The San Juans have always attracted those seeking isolation. Most of the islands have no regular ferry service – they are private oases for people with boats or planes. The islands used to have a population of hermits, too, people who sought escape and self-sufficiency. As a child, I remember going to visit a widow who lived all by herself on Yellow Island, now a wildlife refuge under the care of the Nature Conservancy. Her name was Elizabeth "Tib" Dodd, and she lived in storybook coziness in a driftwood cottage where her main companion was a well-thumbed set of Charles Dickens' works.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, more and more city folk from Seattle began buying summer property on the islands. Seattle is famous for its livable neighborhoods, but it was not uncommon for middle – even lower-middle – class people of that era to have a vacation home, too. It's unimaginable now, but back then a Boeing salaryman could support his family, buy a house, put his kids through college and have a nice little cabin on Hood Canal or Shaw, paid for with a single income.

Why would people in Seattle need to get away? Clamming, fishing, hiking, beachcombing, boating: Many of these pleasures can be found within the city limits. The real appeal was a chance to shed "the world and its shams," as the line from the old Puget Sound settler's song "Acres of Clams" goes. To get away and live, if only for a weekend, like the Tib Dodds of the world.

In the 1960s, Shaw Island was that place for our family. We had been visiting the islands for years. My mother's cousin and her husband, both artists, had retired and built a home on Shaw. One day, while we were vacationing on Orcas, they picked us up in their boat and took us to their property on Shaw's Neck Point. That outing changed our lives.

We fell in love with Shaw Island, all the more so because it was small and private and unglamorous. The inhabitants then were mostly fishermen or small ranchers, summer folk, even a ferry captain or two. There was a one-room schoolhouse (now expanded to two) and no social scene. Even the ferry service was irregular. Shaw Islanders needed to raise a wooden "flag" to get the ferry to stop, but sometimes on busy summer holidays, the homebound ferry would skip the island and leave us stranded. Not that we minded.

My parents ended up buying an excruciatingly beautiful, yet affordable, piece of waterfront property with hard basalt bluffs softened by thick moss. The madrones and Doug fir, old and sometimes wind twisted, had so much personality they felt like individuals, and eventually friends. We erected a prefab A-frame cabin and moved in, at least when we could get time away from work and school. We were newcomers, but we adopted the local ethic of leaving things be. Like other part-time islanders, we were eager to pull up the drawbridge behind us.

Our summers became Shaw Island summers. We spent days exploring the coastline in a skiff, walking the woods, collecting old fishing floats on the beaches. Our only social life consisted of hanging out with my mother's cousin and her husband. Margaret "Babs" Cameron was an artist who made sensuous wildlife sculptures in soapstone. Her husband, Malcolm, was an illustrator and architect who built wooden steamboats for fun. He also carved Shaw's road signs with a distinctive hand.

The Camerons weren't hermits, but on Shaw they found the isolation they needed for their art. My parents, part-time artists too, found the place stimulating. My dad began experimenting with found-object sculptures and tapped out a suspense novel, and my mother found inspiration for her poetry. In the mid-1970s, my parents decided to retire on Bainbridge Island and sell their Shaw home. When my aunt died, our last link with the island disappeared.

Property prices skyrocketed. The Franciscan nuns moved to the island in the '70s (eventually there were three separate orders on the island), and they represented an alienation I felt: They were guardians of a place to which I no longer had a key.

I have been back to Shaw a couple of times in the last 30 years, to my aunt's funeral and for a speaking engagement at an island writers' conference. This winter, I took my mother there for a brief visit for her 90th birthday.

On a blustery day we drove off the ferry and across the island to our old property. We were stunned at how little the island had changed. So often these days, development has obliterated the landscape of one's personal past. But Shaw is remarkably preserved: small roads, no commercialization, few people. It's not by accident.

Much of the island has been bought up by wealthy individuals who value Shaw's low-key life. Some of the land is protected in trust. While it doesn't look like a gated community, essentially that's what it is, a place where Seattle millionaires can get away from it all. Families like mine are priced out now. That's bittersweet, because as much as I hate the idea that I can never go back, I find solace in the fact that the island I remember endures.

My mother recently told me that she would like her ashes scattered to the wind on a certain point on Shaw. Maybe that's the only way any of us exiles can return.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.