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Discovering a New Age Existence

June 1, 2015
Motorcycle Travel San Juan Islands

Exploring island life, where living well takes precedence over living big

Story and photos by Max Durando

Midway between Vancouver Island and the State of Washington’s western coast lie the San Juan Islands. The hour-and-a-half ferry ride breezes by while scanning the waters in hopes of spotting a whale or porpoise breaching the surface. Despite being so close to home, it feels as if we’re headed somewhere far away, somewhere exotic.

My wife, Brenda, and I are en route to explore San Juan and Orcas Islands, the two largest landmasses in the San Juan archipelago. These islands are actually closer to Victoria, B.C., “as the crow flies” than B.C.’s Gulf Islands of Salt Spring, Pender, Mayne, Galiano and Saturna. Today, they offer a peace and tranquility that belies a past marred by conflict.

The Strait Line

Contemplative walking labyrinth, Orcas IslandWhen the border between British North America and the United States was established in 1842, the boundary through the San Juan Islands remained in dispute. Where the mainland ended, the border was defined to run down the middle of the “navigable strait” between Vancouver Island and the mainland. But there are two such straits here: Haro to the west, and Rosario to the east. The San Juan Islands lie between them. Britain considered Rosario Strait to be the boundary, which put these islands in British jurisdiction. The Americans considered the boundary to be Haro Strait, which made these islands part of the United States.

San Juan Island was inhabited at the time by a British naval base and a British-licensed Hudson’s Bay Company fort, as well as a dozen or so American homesteaders who were granted occupancy permits by the U.S. government. Nationalistic tempers flared when an HBC-owned pig wandered onto an American homesteader’s farm, and was shot by the American. The dispute centred on whether the pig was on British land or American land when it was killed. Was the pig trespassing, or was the settler? In response, America made an aggressive move to establish sovereignty. It sent in the army, which erected a camp at the opposite end of the island from the British naval base. Both countries now had a military presence on the island. War seemed imminent.

Cooler Heads Prevail

English Camp at Garrison Bay, site of the former Naval baseTensions mounted as American and British warships squared off at Cattle Point, adjacent to the American army base, but no shots were ever fired. Instead, the two countries agreed to occupy San Juan Island concurrently until the border issue could be sorted out. They eventually agreed to have an arbitrator, the then king of Prussia, decide which strait was properly intended as the border in the Oregon Treaty, and to be bound by his decision. Haro Strait won out, leaving the San Juan Islands to America.

National Historical Parks are situated at both former military bases on San Juan Island. The parks’ staff relay the lesson from this so-called Pig War that disputes between nations can sometimes be resolved peacefully using diplomacy. That message accorded with the tone of our whole visit. These islands are definitely peaceful – the nationalistic tensions of the past long forgotten. Mind you, that’s not much consolation for the pig.

Peaceful Pace

Peaceful is just what we were looking for when Brenda and I decided to take our bikes on a leisurely trip close to our home in Victoria. Brenda rode her Suzuki TU250X and I was on my Moto Guzzi V7 Special. Both are classically styled standards, best suited for slower-paced adventures, as we have no fairings, windscreens or panniers for these bikes. During our five-night trip, we travelled light, each with a small bag strapped to the pillion seat.

The bikes parked near American Camp at South BeachOur bikes were well matched to these islands: they are light and nimble, perfect for rural roads. Speed limits top out at 70 km/h on San Juan Island, and 55 km/h on Orcas Island – nobody went any faster than the posted limit the whole time we were there. This isn’t the kind of place where you need to be in a hurry to get around. And if you tried going quicker, you would raise the ire of residents and visitors alike.

These islands offer more scenery than you could shake two sticks at: quaint farms, rustic buildings, charming resorts and winding country roads lead to sweeping beaches and rocky cliffs. Old-growth forests of fir, cedar and arbutus nurture populations of deer and rabbit seen bounding along the roadside, while high above, soaring eagles keep an ever-vigilant watch.

These islands aren’t big; you could cross either of them from tip to tip in less than an hour. But we still clocked 600 km on them in four days of riding. And that left lots of time to visit parks and interpretive sites, cafés and restaurants, a Saturday public market and some artisan stores. We also had plenty of time to sleep in, soak in the hot pool at the resort and sit on the shore with a glass of wine at the end of the day. These islands have a certain grace about them, an elegance that requires you to pace yourself and absorb your surroundings.

The View From Here

There are some very nice stretches of road, and all are in very good shape. Mount Constitution on Orcas Island has a road to…

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