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One Whale of a Time on San Juan Island

September 30, 2010 By:
Lauren Kramer, JE Feature
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There's a mystique about islands that can never quite be undone. Perhaps it's the fact that getting to and from them requires a purposeful separation of self from life on any relevant mainland.

With that journey over glistening water comes relief from the pressures of home and a sense that on an island we can discover what truly matters.

I can't help but get excited every time I anticipate an island trip, and my visit to San Juan Island in Washington state was no exception. Of the 172 isles that constitute the San Juan archipelago, 152 are entirely unpopulated.

Kayak to their shores, and all you'll find around you is raptors, beavers and a few deer who proved their strength by swimming through the currents to get there.

The two most populated isles -- San Juan Island and Orcas Island -- are home to small Jewish communities, whose members congregate at one another's homes and at public venues to celebrate Jewish holidays and the occasional Shabbat dinner.

Devorah Gottesman, a singer and songwriter who has lived on San Juan Island for 22 years, estimates that there are between 80 and 150 Jews on the island.

"In the past, we've been able to organize guest rabbis and hold events together, sometimes up to three times a year," she says.

"On Passover, we'll rent a hall in a church and set up tables to have a seder. What's remarkable is that we're all drawn together; we feel each other's presence and the energy of the other Jews who live here. There may not be much physical expression of our Jewishness, but the spiritual connection is there."

The chavurah on Orcas Island is the more active of the two communities, with 40 to 50 families, according to Julie Gottman: "We started this chavurah a couple of years ago, and are increasing the frequency of our get-togethers because people are responding well."

Life of Beauty and 'Spiritual Passion'
The Gottmans visited Orcas Island for 20 year before moving permanently from Seattle 18 months ago.

"Living here is heaven," she says. "The beauty of the place really augments our spiritual passion. It's more difficult to feel a community that you'd have in a shul, with a Torah and a rabbi -- that's irreplaceable."

For Gottesman, the remoteness of the islands and their natural beauty is a big draw. On a morning power walk, she might see orca whales, seals and bald eagles. The San Juan archipelago is the playground of orca whales between May and October -- the months when sea life is most abundant, and when migrating salmon, the whales' favorite meal, pass through.

San Juan Island is nicknamed the "Whale Freeway," and on a good day, from its shores you might see whales feeding and breaching. For those who suffer from seasickness but want to sight these gentle giants from dry land, San Juan Island is the answer.

Or not. The day we drove off to Lime Kiln State Park, a prime whale-watching site, a chalkboard posting the last viewing noted that we'd missed them by four hours.

Luckily, that view is bewitchingly beautiful. Jagged black rocks streaked with high tide markings meet the swirling water, and giant purple starfish peek out from between the crevices.

As they do on land, Canada and the United States almost rub shoulders in the islands. From San Juan Island -- the most populated of all the San Juans with a community of 7,700 -- Vancouver Island is six miles away and Pender Island around the corner. The lines dividing the two countries seem so arbitrary from this vantage point. Friday Harbor, where the ferry docks, is the only spot on the island where you might encounter traffic. The village contains a cluster of restaurants, gift shops and galleries, but once you leave it behind you, the crowds dwindle.

The folks who choose to live in this secluded corner of Washington state are special people, many of whom eke out a living from things about which they are passionate.

Richard Foote and Angel Michaels are two of them. The owners of States Inn Bed & Breakfast www.statesinn.comgreet us in the parlor of their home, a converted schoolhouse filled with history and charm.

Richard is a gentle soul who takes pleasure in his 63-acre farm, and tending to its alpacas, sheep, hens and pigs. We rise before breakfast to collect eggs from Angel's brood of hens; a few minutes later, we're seated with other guests in the dining room, eating cheddar-mushroom soufflés made from those very eggs.

Finding multiple sources of income is a necessity on the island, so when their overnight guests have left, Richard and Angel don aprons, and then head back to the kitchen to clean up the remains of breakfast and start a batch of pasta and crackers. This, together with the lettuce, tomatoes and herbs they grow in their vegetable garden, gets sold to island restaurants.

Another island entrepreneur is Stephen Robins, owner of Pelindaba Lavender Farm www.pelindabalavender.com a few miles down the road. Robins, a retired doctor, purchased 20 acres of land and moved to the island to retire, later opting to farm, instead.

He picked lavender because no one else on San Juan Island was growing it, and because of its amazing variety of culinary and therapeutic properties. Today, he has a line of more than 200 products.

The word Pelindaba is Zulu for "place of great gathering," and at the farm's visitors center, there's lots of interesting gathering points.

Later, we return to Friday Harbor to zoom around the island in a motorboat with Bish Wheeler, co-owner of the Friday Harbor Marine Center www.fridayharbormarine.com. A retired insurance salesman from the mainland, Wheeler lives on his boat and spends his free time careering around between the islands.

"Essentially," he says, "we're on an inland sea, protected from big storms but connected to the ocean, which means we get to see seals, salmon, eagles and whales, sometimes daily. Every day on the water is different and unique. To me, this is paradise."

For more information on the San Juan Islands, go to: www.visitsanjuans.com .

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