I came for the sunshine, but I stayed for the beautiful trails.
Oh, and the pork-based international incident that nearly started a war.
The San Juan Islands are and forever will be one of my favorite places on Earth. As a youth, I camped on Orcas Island for two summers, visited other islands as a young college student and, as someone who can afford to have something more substantial than vinyl walls as my shelter, I enjoy an annual trek to our island neighbors to the northeast.
Consider how close Sequim is to the San Juans; we are separated by just 21 miles, from the Dungeness Spit lighthouse to the south end of the islands.
But those are nautical miles, and, unless you've got a boat, a plane, a good friend who owns a boat or a plane, or a combination of strong arms, a mighty will and a good sea kayak, the islands are a pain to get to.
No matter how you get there, however, San Juan Island offers plenty for the Northwest hiker, even if you do like to wear socks and sandals.
My most recent trip came this spring. We started out of Friday Harbor and headed due west to American Camp, home to perhaps the oddest stories ever about a pig-inspired war.
Or the only stories about a pig-inspired war.
In 1859, a pig kept wandering onto property owned by American settler Lyman Cutler. For the bacon or simply out of frustration, Cutler shot the pig that unbeknownst to him was owned by England's Hudson Bay Company.
Still sore about that whole American Revolution thing, Hudson Bay officials demanded reparations and got backing from the British Army, who, like their nemeses, happened to claim the San Juan Island chain as their own.
The Brits established a camp seven miles or so north of American Camp and went about the business of saber rattling and whatnot. All quite exciting, to be sure, but no battle ensued.
The most interesting factoid from the non-materializing battle: George E. Pickett was stationed at American Camp until, alas, he found another battle worth fighting for some years later.
What remains of American Camp are a few buildings looking very much at peace, restored and sanitary and boring as a dusty, illegible history book.
The setting, however, is to die for. Hikers get a grand, wide-eyed view of the Strait of Juan de Fuca and can look well onto Vancouver Island and even back into Sequim and Port Angeles on a clear day. A tourist trail guide keeps you near the camp but take the paths to the rocky shoreline instead, as well-worn paths show the way to small coves and outcroppings.
The wife and I didn't see much vegetation to speak of, save some seaweed and your standard fare of evergreens, but a mile-hike later we came upon a fox and what looked like a quail or some small bird in a tussle.
The fox won, in case you're curious.
Much of American Camp has passed away with the years. Near the parade grounds and lieutenant's quarters stands a flagpole, broken and unfettered with Old Glory, reminding me that no matter how much we build, nature always outlasts our efforts.
And the bitter cold wind coming of the strait reminds me to get back in the car and turn on a heater.
We shuffled back into town and it made me wish we'd taken bikes instead of four wheels.
A city hike
The second part of the adventure was a city hike; a jaunt around town still keeps the heart rate going and, frankly, I find nearly as many interesting things hiking around a town I don't know as a mountain trail I don't know.
We meandered north from the ferry dock and headed east where we ran into (almost literally) the San Juan Historical Museum. Closed for the day - darn the luck - the museum still had plenty of interesting wares housed in an open-aired barn out back. We could see all sorts of odds and ends from days past, from antique boats and automobiles to aged farm equipment and knickknacks.
I learned later that the museum is located on the grounds of the James King farm, once a 445-acre piece of property. The museum boasts eight buildings in all, four of which are from the original farm. Original structures include the 1894 James King farmhouse, a carriage house, root cellar and milk house.
Nearby stands a ball field with a rickety fence, then a church, then a school in antiquated, barely-standing buildings. It was like walking into Mayberry - without that creepy Barney Fife character hanging around.
Circling back into Friday Harbor, we hiked downtown to vistas of the harbor and the ferry pulling into dock. Impeccable.
Lime Kiln, English Camp
The next day we took on the north end of the island, first stopping by Lime Kiln State Park. There aren't many trails to speak of, but there is the lighthouse. The path to the Lime Kiln Lighthouse is about four miles shorter than to the New Dungeness Light Station and doesn't inspire the same awe, but with frothy waves crashing nearby, it is worth a snapshot or two. A quarter-mile from the lighthouse rests the kiln ovens, once used in the production of steel, plaster, cement and paper.
We parked ourselves at a nearby picnic table for some grub from a local bakery and enjoyed the serenity and wind.
Later in the afternoon we traveled on to British Camp. Housing about 2,000 soldiers, the camp is similar to American Camp in that all the buildings have been sanitized and clinically boarded up - all but one that serves as a sort of museum. Alas, it was closed for the late spring when we arrived.
A group of 20-year-olds with thick backpacks and an abundance of facial hair sat in a semi-circle, gazing into placid Garrison Bay.
A small trail leads hikers back east past the parking lot, across the main arterial road and toward 650-foot Young Hill.
Nestled between the hill and the road lies British Camp's cemetery and the bodies of seven men, mostly young. Sadly, their gravestones reveal most of these 20-somethings died in accidental drownings in nearby waters. One reveals 31-year-old William Taylor inadvertently was shot and killed by his own remorseful brother.
All in the name of a war that never happened, I mused. All that, over a pig?
Of course, the pig was simply the catalyst for all that American-British ill will that roiled on for years, the proverbial straw on the camel's back to instigate another bloody battle between the two burgeoning superpowers.
If they were going to fight, why not fight about who gets to hike these islands? I'd fight for 'em ... or make a barter. I'd even throw in a pig or two.
Hike San Juan Island
How long - American Camp, about 2.5-mile loop around lake, with options for further hiking (including five miles of beach); Lime Kiln State Park, 1.6 miles of hiking trails; English Camp, 4.5 miles total, including two miles of shoreline and 1.5-mile hike to top of 650-foot Young Hill
How hard - easy
How to get there: Take Port Townsend-Keystone or Kingston-Edmonds ferry, drive to Anacortes-San Juan Islands ferry. Drive or walk on. From downtown Friday Harbor, travel six miles south to American Camp; nine miles west to Lime Kiln State Park; or nine miles northwest to English Camp. Parks do not require admittance fee. All areas are child- and dog-friendly.
Reach Michael Dashiell at email@example.com.