Anacortes, Washington is a magical place. Reasonable people can and do quibble over its weather and its relative isolation, but no one in their right mind who has really seen it would say it isn’t beautiful. Most would say it’s drop dead gorgeous.
Though the entirety of Fidalgo Island is considered Anacortes, the actual town occupies approximately the northern third of the island, which, though not technically one of the San Juans, shares their geology and geography. It looks more like a peninsula from the air, but much of its eastern side is separated from the mainland by a canal, and it is accessible via three bridges, two over that canal and one from Whidbey Island spanning Deception Pass. As Anacortes is most well known for being the location of the San Juan Islands’ ferry terminal, all most folks see of it are the refinery you pass just south of prior to entering town, and its only two busy streets, one of which runs most of the length of its small downtown (but skips the interesting part) and the other which heads along the northern side of the island to the ferry, in the process also stopping just short of some of the island’s most scenic shoreline. Consequently many people from the general area (*cough* Seattle *cough*) aren’t aware of its charms.
Several lakes are scattered among its forests, all of which have excellent fishing and some of which are good for more active types of recreation (waterskiing/wakeboarding, cliff jumping…). Most of the shoreline is rocky and dramatic, but there are multiple beaches as well. Almost half of the town’s surface area is comprised of the Anacortes Community Forest Lands (ACFL), which are lushly forested and riddled with trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding. Mt. Erie, in the island’s middle, reaches just over 1200’ high and sports multiple rock faces that attract climbers from far afield. Two marinas make it a boating hub, with unparalleled access to the San Juans. And along with the ACFL there are several other parks, including breathtaking Washington Park in the northwest corner and the northern portion of Deception Pass State Park along the southwest coastline. Orca sightings are relatively common. Everything smells fresh and green.
Here are a couple more of our pics from when we lived there.
They’re ok, but there’s a local photographer who has managed to capture the island’s beauty. Check out his work if you’re so inclined. Here as well. It’s jaw-dropping stuff, at least if you like nature photography. You see the pictures and you think “wait, people actually live here?”
We did live there for the ten years prior to our move to Annapolis, not counting the time we were stationed there for our Active Duty Navy stints. Our house sat perched on the top of a steep, wooded bluff on the west side of the island, looking out through evergreens and madronas at the San Juans and the Olympic Peninsula. Bald eagles soared overhead and perched on our trees regularly. We gasped at and took photos of the sunsets every night until we realized that these sunsets were the norm, not the exception. These were all taken from our back deck.
There were down sides. I mentioned the weather, and though it never bothered me while I lived there, it’s undeniably chilly and often damp in every month but July, August, and September, with stretches of grey that can extend from days to weeks. It’s also quite small, with only a few restaurants and not much in the way of retail. And our house sat on a reasonably busy street, with cars zipping by at 50 mph – having small kids on bikes was a non-starter.
My commute to work was also tricky, entailing an hour and a half drive to the airport followed by a flight to my domicile (initially New York, thereafter Long Beach/LA) prior to starting a work trip.
When we first departed on our adventure, an eventual return to Anacortes to settle was by far our top choice, and it held that position for quite some time, despite an event I’ll describe momentarily. Each time I would get the opportunity to return for a short visit thanks to my airline schedule, I would steel myself for what I imagined was the inevitable feeling of “this place is nice, but I think we’ve moved past it.” And each time I would surprise myself by experiencing the exact opposite.
It wasn’t until we visited for the 4th of July week just prior to our departure on this journey (which, at that time, we were far from certain would even happen) that the first small cracks started to appear. We were on the roof of the Majestic Hotel downtown, having just marveled at yet another magnificent sunset and just about to watch the fireworks, when Tacco and I looked at each other, shivering from the cold. “You know what?” I offered gingerly, “… it’s a little chilly!” What I didn’t add but was certainly thinking, as was Tacco I would soon learn, was “… and it’s July. I mean, I love this place, but shouldn’t we be in shorts right now?” I guess Maryland’s soupy summers, though not our preference, had nudged our tolerances ever so slightly toward warmer weather. And it was hard not to notice how small the town is…
And then came Bend, and Park City, the rocketing West Coast housing market which priced us out of many of the houses we had been previously checking out, and my airline’s partial pull out of Seattle, which promised to complicate my commute even further should we return to Anacortes.
So we drove across Deception Pass very eager to learn how Anacortes would sit with us and with the kids now that we had a year of travel under our belts.
Our plan was to camp first in Washington Park, and then move to the marina for the weekend, which is walking distance to everything downtown.
Washington Park is arguably the most sublime place on an already enchanted island. Tacco has on several occasions called it “sacred,” and I can get behind that — it definitely has that vibe. The campground sits in the interior of the park and therefore somewhat away from its jaw-dropping vistas and waterfronts, but we settled in and wasted no time getting to some hiking.
There are no uninteresting trails through Washington Park; most offer multiple view points, mossy trees and rocks, and calm water lapping against the rocky shore. The only negative during this particular visit was the smoke. 2018’s summer was an especially brutal one for wildfires in the West, and a lingering high pressure system gave the smoke no escape route.
Keeper had a bit of a damper thrown on his Anacortes visit as well. We had been working hard over the previous few months to find a time and a way to fly his good friend out from Maryland to join us for a bit, and had determined our Anacortes stint to be the best shot. It would require Keeper and I to fly on the redeye from Seattle to Boston and thereafter to DC in the early morning, meet his friend at the airport, and then do the whole thing in reverse to get him to Seattle, but we were all set to go and Keeper was thrilled to get the opportunity both to hang out with his buddy again and to show him his childhood hometown. Summer is definitively not the best time to fly standby, and this we knew well, but I had checked the loads on all of the pertinent flights, and there appeared to be plenty of space, or at least enough.
Right up until there wasn’t, that is… With everything in place and Keeper and I having driven down to the Seattle airport, we arrived at the departure gate only to find that several last-minute tickets had been purchased, not only on our flight out to Boston, but on the subsequent flights as well. Suddenly the entire plan looked dicey, and the house of cards crumbled. I searched frantically for other options, but nothing materialized. This is a semi-frequent occurrence, familiar to all non-revenue fliers (“non-revs”), but still it was difficult to make the late night call back to his friend’s mom in Annapolis to let her know that our plan had fallen apart and that there would be no visit.
Keeper did take it in stride though, I have to hand him that. We’ll try another time.
Mountain biking is a year-round activity on the ACFL trails, as well as the many other trail systems in the area, and I had cut my teeth on ACFL’s singletrack back in my Navy days. We had a group of junior officers who would try to get together to ride every Saturday morning, and I could reach the trails from my house, so I would often go alone as well. After our Slickrock adventure, I was eager to show Keeper where I’d learned to ride.
What I had forgotten and soon re-discovered, was how technical those trails can be. They’re narrow, steep in places, and riddled with roots and rocks. This makes for more exciting riding, and after watching Keeper struggle to navigate some of the trickier stretches, I suddenly remembered from back in the day several tree collisions and “taco-ed” front wheels, not to mention the occasional unintentional fall into one of the lakes. His bike (my very old bike) wasn’t helping him much either – not only was the front suspension completely non-springy, but it’s a heavy bike, and the front brake is next to useless, having lost one of its calipers. He’s going to need a new bike if we move to… well, pretty much anywhere.
He was a good sport as always though, and we made it through a slightly shortened ride unscathed. As a bonus I was able to show him the spot where I nearly spent a winter night in the woods 23 years ago after having my brand new bike light’s battery go dead on its maiden night ride. But that’s another story.
After a few days in Washington Park we re-located to the marina area downtown, where I recently learned there are several RV sites available year round. No electrical or water hookups, but the location couldn’t be more central. On Saturdays from late Spring to early Fall there’s an outstanding Farmer’s Market that we would now be right across the street from.
One of the kids’ memorable activities from our time living in Anacortes was picking blackberries on Farmer’s Market days, so they were excited to do it again. Blackberry plants pretty much blanket the island, or would if the residents didn’t control them like weeds, and they are huge and tasty when ripe. Some of the thicker patches sit right next to the square in which the Farmer’s Market is held, and there’s a more or less unlimited supply come August. We ended up with berry-stained faces and enough fruit to make several jars of jam. Which Tacco did.
The week passed far more quickly than we had hoped it would, and we faced our return to Annapolis to close on our house for good this time (hopefully!). We enjoyed ourselves in A-Town, no doubt. I think everything I’ve described about our visit was positive. Yet undeniably by the end of it both Tacco and I had at least a taste of the feeling I described earlier – the “I think we may have outgrown this place” feeling. Perhaps having the unpleasant task of cleaning out and turning over our house hanging over our heads affected our receptiveness to its charms during this visit. But I do believe it was more than that. It felt small. Small and a bit remote. I’m not sure those are negatives, but they came across that way this time. And the prices – if they haven’t quite outpaced our means, they’re certainly getting there rapidly. Many of the places in which we had imagined ourselves raising our kids we can’t quite manage now.
The kids’ impressions seemed to track with our own. They liked Anacortes. Quite a bit. But they didn’t seem to love Anacortes.
We will need some more processing time for this, but it’s an interesting development. To be sure, we need to narrow down our options, not expand them, so ruling out a potential future home town helps us. But it’s difficult not to wonder what happened, whether our needs and tastes have changed or we simply found places that seem to suit us better. Or whether possibly this was a temporary impression, colored by our current mental state. Impossible to know, and representative of this entire endeavor… while too much freedom is absolutely not a thing to bemoan, it can make the process of making big decisions dauntingly complex. At some point you just have to trust your gut and make a call. We’re not there yet.
We’re returning to the area after we close on the Maryland house, but we plan to stay in nearby La Conner rather than Anacortes. There’s an impossibly cozy restaurant there in which Tacco and I have nestled in a small booth on rainy nights over adult beverages and done some of our best collective thinking, hatching some of our greatest plans. Sounds like we need another session.
Before that though, time to cut Annapolis loose at last.