Writing and Other Pleasures on Orcas in January

An artist residency is a great way to start off a new year. Even better is when that artist residency is at Artsmith on Orcas Island in the San Juan Islands. The islands, part of Washington state and located between the US mainland and Canada’s Vancouver Island, are famous for their resident pods of orca whales. Among the nonindigenous animals that once inhabited Orcas Island was Josie the Kangaroo, an orphaned joey adopted by a steamship captain on a trip to Australia in the years after the Depression. The captain’s home eventually became the Kangaroo Bed and Breakfast where the Artsmith residency takes place. It’s a comfortable and homey abode, about a mile from Eastsound, a little village of shops, restaurants, a yoga studio, and a charming, little bookstore.

The residency accommodates five artists at a time, though sadly one had to cancel at the last minute, so there were four of us—me and another fiction writer Stephanie Carpenter, poet Michelle Peñaloza, and photographer Bryan Aulick. It was a treat to spend a week with these artists. We were an amiable group with a shared appreciation for good food.

Resident artists are responsible for their own breakfasts and lunches, but dinner is prepared by the lovely and congenial hosts, Jill and Charles, who never failed to present a meal, including dessert, that was not spectacularly delicious. Jill, a poet and Artsmith director, joined us in the evenings for dinner and later around the fireplace where we gathered for conversation, reading, or sharing work.

I always go to a residency with an overly ambitious writing goal and this time was no exception. I was sure that the cool January weather with its daily mist and clouds would help keep me resolutely at my laptop indoors. But, of course, a writing day must have breaks, and an Artsmith writing day could be interspersed with a wander on the beach or a walk into town for bookstore browsing, a yoga class, a phone call to my husband, or a mid-day snack of beer-battered fish and chips at the tavern. There was also the hot tub on the residency grounds for a soothing sink into warm eddies amid a shroud of Pacific Northwest mist.

By the middle of the week, I was ready to adjust my goal to a more reasonable number of revised chapters. That was the morning the sun came out. I had just returned from a run and was eating breakfast when Michelle suggested a hike in Moran State Park and later a drive to the summit of Mt. Constitution for the view. Who could say no? We all got into her car.

We did a short, beautiful hike to Cascade Falls and then drove to the summit. As I rode to the top of the mountain in the car, I was amazed that I had once made this climb on a bicycle. Of course that was almost thirty-five years ago, when my husband and I biked San Juan and Orcas Islands the year after we got married. I really can’t remember agreeing to bike up Mt. Constitution and I’m not sure it was in the original plans. I think it was probably a sudden whim of my husband’s. Hey, let’s bike to the top of this mountain! After all, the alternative was to walk.

I had an inglorious moment when, exhausted from the previous night’s poor sleep outdoors without a tent and having burned the calories from that morning’s granola, I simply stopped pedaling, flopped over my handlebars, and wept. My husband waited patiently for me to recover before we resumed the ride to the top.

Even though we’re in our sixties now, I’m pretty sure we could do it again. My husband, who still puts in a lot of biking miles in addition to running miles, certainly could. Me? I still bike and run, but if I were to pedal up Mt. Constitution again, I might have to take a crying break for old time’s sake.

When my fellow residents and I arrived at the summit, we ascended a short rise from the parking lot and were greeted by that breathtaking view of Mt. Baker, visible above the sea of clouds. The kind of sight that knocks the breath from you. The kind of sight that brings tears to your eyes, so intense is the rush, so ridiculously brilliant the splendor.

Though there wasn’t another moment quite like that, later in the week we did a hike in the Turtleback Mountain Preserve on the other end of the island. Once owned by the chairman of Weyerhaeuser, it was purchased by a band of conservation groups to keep it from being subdivided for luxury homes. The mountain, now permanently protected from development, offers plenty of sweeping vistas, all of which were obscured by clouds and fog the day of our hike. Instead we enjoyed the quiet eeriness of tall trees disappearing in the mist.

Too soon the residency ended. It was only a week, but it was full of good work, delightful people, and spectacular beauty.

In 2016, the residency will expand to the full month of January, with residents having the option of a one-to-four-week stay. Get application information after February 1.