The Forgotten San Juan Islands: Spieden and Lummi

Spieden Island

Positioned directly northwards from San Juan, in the Spieden Channel, Spieden Island, three miles long and a half mile wide, is a mysterious, wildlife sanctuary. Shrouded in strange and exotic tales of non-native wild animals and unconfirmed sightings of Sasquatch. Uninhabited, with around 550 acres, it is now home to Corsican big horn sheep and Fallow deer from Asia amongst others.

All living and peacefully grazing, safe in an environment freed from any hunting for at least 22 years. Spieden has been privately owned since the late sixties, a time when game birds in their thousands and countless grazing animals were brought to its shores. The island was named after William Spieden, purser on the Wilkes Expedition vessel of 1838-42, and over the years has gradually developed into a secure conservation area. A combination of its position, in Vancouver Island’s rainshadow and the region’s climate, has given Spieden a northern territory of thick forest and an almost barren south – scarred to bedrock by glacial erosion. Visually, however, this is what makes Spieden stunningly unique amongst its immediate neighbours.

If you’re fortunate to venture past Spieden – it’s around one hour away from Friday Harbor – along the island’s steep, rugged southwestern flank, you will often see belted kingfishers plunging seawards and back on their quests for food. This conspicuous, stocky blue/white-grey mariner is one of the few members of the species still commonly found in the Northern US, Alaska and most parts of Canada. Their preferences, aside from fish, include frogs, insects, crustaceans as well as small mammals – and their accuracy in catching prey is pinpoint.

Apart from this tenaciously astute fisherman, there can be few experiences more amazing than sharing Spieden’s coastal waters with the region’s largest inhabitants: Orcas. Breaching, playfully, sociably and gracefully introducing their young to the aquatic lifestyle. In Haro Straight alone, there are at least 86 of these resident giants, so you have every chance of seeing and photographing at least some of them – preferably from a safe and secure vantage point. Watch out for families of harbour seals as they surface to breathe, nervously darting back below the surface. Or catch a fleeting glimpse of sea otters cavorting about their business.

Although it would be an experience to venture ashore and share the island with its flocks of Italian mouflon sheep, a relative of bighorn sheep, grazing and roaming their island, Spieden is privately owned with surveillance all around. By all means bring your binoculars and camera, as you never know what intriguing sights you might see from a ferry deck. From their high vantage points, bald eagles are often seen, majestically surveying their habitat. Keeping a keen eye open for fish (hence the name ‘fish eagle’). With an impressive, silent wing span of up to eight feet and weighing in at up to 15 pounds, they are a formidable bird of prey, with phenomenal eyesight. They are capable of seeing a submerged fish while flying at least 100 feet above, and seeing a bald eagle in flight is unforgettable.

Back in the nineties, Spieden was leased to become a living classroom for children, teachers as well as family groups. The facility enabled them to see at close quarters, marine life as well as mammals. It gave night classes in astronomy. Participants engaged in kayaking, walking, scuba diving and snorkeling. They slept under canvas with the resident wildlife close by. It afforded them the opportunity to become one with nature and the great outdoors, while still retaining an element of civilisation. A modern lodge, housing essential bathrooms and showers, also had cooking facilities, gymnasium, jacuzzi, library and swimming pool.’The Island Institute’, as it was known is alas, no longer in operation. But don’t let the past tense cloud your judgement. Although Spieden is a privately owned wildlife sanctuary and closed to the public, its mystique makes it an island you’ll not forget.

Lummi Island

In Bellingham-Whatcom County, a well kept secret lies waiting. Almost like the long lost relative of the San Juans, Lummi Island is a tourist destination with a distinct difference. Accessible via the small car ferry ‘Whatcom Chief’, tourists voyage on a six minute crossing from Bellingham and the service runs once an hour till midnight. Half rural, half mountainous, this gem is an unspoilt getaway from it all island. Peaceful beaches and country roads stretching for well over 18 miles make it a very popular destination for walking, biking and bird watching.

No campsites, RV or State Parks ensure Lummi’s holiday visitors are, like the island, unique. Artisans and artists have made Lummi home and play host to ‘Artist’s Tour’ open houses three times yearly – Labor Day, Memorial Day and the first weekend in December. Open on Saturday mornings May through to September, the Summer Farmer’s Market, near the ferry terminal, is an excellent source of organically grown fresh produce, as well as live prawns and crab. If you fancy something a little more spicy, Lummi also hosts an annual chili festival in mid July.

This rural island may appear undeveloped but tourist services are still very much available. There are espresso shops, two full service restaurants and a country store. The Willows Inn Restaurant particularly, features fine organic cuisine with a spectacular view of the San Juan Islands. It also hosts intimate wedding celebrations. The Beach Store Café, is a delightful country bistro. There is a well stocked public library. A post office. A charming, rustic country church and lodging including comfortable beachside rentals and intimate B&B establishments.

With a fossilized palm tree that dates back around 60 million years, a petroglyph from 1700, and acres of unspoilt scenery, Lummi Island is very much the secret find. Climb to the top of the second highest point in the San Juans – Baker Mountain – and the western facing trail will give you a breathtaking view of Rosario Strait. Lummi Island’s calm waters are very popular for kayaking and Orcas are often seen close into the shoreline. Almost serving as a reminder that you are still very much in the San Juan Islands.

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