Fall’s a good time to visit county park on San Juan Island

  • By Sharon Wootton / Herald Columnist
  • Friday, September 22, 2006 9:00pm
  • LifeGo-See-Do

Colorful kayaks and brightly dressed kayakers were eye candy at San Juan County Park on the west side of San Juan Island. The paddlers were too busy listening to the guide’s instructions to notice a nearby family of Canada geese slipping past, the young paddling fast to keep up.

Did the kayakers know that they were on the shores of Smallpox Bay, where American Indians, burning with smallpox fever, waded in to cool off?

Or that smugglers came here to drop off moonshine, opium or other illegal items; that the Navy put a small base on the property and anchored a PT boat; or that Warner Bros. filmed a few scenes on the open bluff for the Sandra Bullock-Nicole Kidman film “Practical Magic”?

The 12-acre park is usually packed Memorial Day to Labor Day, said park manager Joe Luma, with visitors from as far away as New Zealand, South Africa and Iceland.

But now’s a good time to be in the rain shadow of the Olympic Mountains at a county park halfway between Lime Kiln Point State Park and Snug Harbor Resort, about 10 miles from Friday Harbor.

Campers often are greeted by the black-and-white park cat, Vinny. Luma said campers miss their pets.

“They’re feeling pretty guilty about leaving them behind (so) they pet Vinny.”

San Juan County Park host Sandi Ugrin of Seattle and a white Samoyed dog, Jazzmine, live in a trailer next to the office.

“I love this place,” Ugrin said. “Any morning I can see eagles, seals, river otter, herons coming out from their roost, orcas going by. What more could you want?”

Ugrin’s favorite camp sites are No. 18, just off the beach and away from other campers ($34/night); and Nos. 15 and 16 (standard $25), with views across an open field to Haro Strait.

Ugrin fields many visitors’ questions, including the frequent “What time do the orcas go by?” She said that whale-researcher Bob Otis determined that, statistically speaking, 3 to 5 p.m. is the busiest time slot.

Another good bet is on an incoming tide, because it pushes fish against the island shelf, which drops several hundred feet about -mile offshore.

The park has two short trails, one through the woods off the south side of Smallpox Bay. Another starts near the boat ramp and follows the bluff edge, ending in the day-use area. Just offshore is Low Island, part of the San Juan Islands National Wildlife Refuge.

A beach walk on the north side of the bay is usually short except during an extremely low tide, but there’s more tide-pool life on this side than the south side. The park also attracts divers, who can walk to dive sites from their campsites or snorkel in the small bay.

Park manager Luma appreciates all of the views, especially from a bench about halfway along the bluff trail.

“It’s the best spot in the park for sunsets.”

The county, according to the parks department, bought the original homestead cabin and land in 1937 from Jim and Peg Marshall. It may have seemed a foolish move, even for the $1 purchase price; now it seems visionary.

If there’s a dark side to the park, it’s that cell phone users may get charged for an international call. Line of site is from your cell phone to a Vancouver Island, B.C., cell tower.

At this time of year, there’s no need for reservations but for more information, call 360-378-8420.

On the bookshelf: “Canada: Visual Journey” ($35, Whitecap) is a coffeetable book that captures Canada’s essence as seen through the eyes of Canadian photographers, from a splendid shot of the seventh natural wonder of the world (Niagara Falls) to an iceberg trapped in sea ice off Baffin Island and fall color in British Columbia.

Human-made sights are part of the show, including huge grain elevators on Lake Superior, Canada’s oldest lighthouse on North America’s eastern tip, and a sculpture of four white Canada geese outside a Regina building.

Columnist Sharon Wootton can be reached at 360-468-3964 or www.songandword.com.

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