If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you know that I’m a big fan of native plants. Each spring, I comb the woods and fields for the first budding Calypso orchids, starflower, twinflower, white fawn lily and other favorites. But I’m not a flower snob: I find all plants fascinating. When I recently got an invitation to tour an Orcas Island iris garden at peak bloom, I jumped at the chance.
Charlie’s happy place: the iris garden he created on his 15-acres on Orcas Island
Like recalling the first blush of love, Charlie Carver vividly remembers when he first laid eyes on a wild iris while hiking in Colorado some 40 years ago. The graceful form, seductive petals and flirty colors stopped him in his tracks and changed his life.
He dedicated himself to begin seriously studying and collecting a wide range of iris cultivars, and quickly became an expert on their history and propagation. When Charlie moved to Orcas Island, he brought his beloved irises, cleared space for a large garden and began expanding his collection.
Parts of an iris flower
Charlie’s devotion to his plants is complete. He lives very simply so that he can pour his time and passion into his gardens. Nationally renowned among serious flower people as “Charlie the iris guy,” he’s currently Chair of the American Iris Society (AIS) National Collections Program where he’s on the leading edge of efforts to catalogue and preserve as many iris cultivars as possible.
Charlie’s personal Orcas Island collection has grown to more than 1,600 varieties of iris. Many are rare specimens and more than half are considered historic, meaning they were introduced more than 30 years ago. His special interest is in dwarf iris. He collects both standard dwarf bearded iris (SDB) which are 8-16” tall and miniature dwarf bearded iris (MDB) which are 2-8” tall.
What I expected to be a short tour of interesting plants turned into an entire afternoon immersed in the beautiful, exotic blooms, with Charlie providing an in-depth expert tour into the spectacular world of irises.
Below are photos of just some of my favorite flowers from his collection. Click on the photo to see the cultivar name. Even captured with just a cellphone camera, which doesn’t do them justice, I think you’ll understand why these remarkable flowers have now become some of the island’s most fascinating and beautiful imports. Enjoy!
‘Into the Woods’
‘Mikey Likes It’
Looking to pursue your passion and live simply on Orcas Island? Contact me!
One of my favorite things to do is walk around our little seaside village with my daughter. Our town is full of beauty. While we may be regulars on our familiar sidewalks, we rarely venture far from the beaten path. A few weeks ago we decided to walk from the UW Medical Center back to our office in town, and I was shocked at how much there was to see! There is trail and I am sure many people walk this route daily, but it was new to us and we were not disappointed by the abundance of art around every corner!
Our first stop was the Orcas Center where we were met with lovely Buddhas and a giant Orca. Even though we “see” them all of the time, this was the first time we actually walked up and observed. The pieces of work inside of the Orcas Center are constantly rotating. We are so thankful to be able to have access to such an amazing place of music, theatre, culture, and art.
We soon moved on to find even more statues at the St. Francis Catholic Church! I hate to say that I did not get a picture of their beautiful stained glass window on the other side of the building, but we were more focused on statues at this point in the walk. We both very much liked the little bare foot girl.
Once on North Beach Road we came to the Salmonberry School. Their fence is lined with years of student art and I just love it! I am particularly fond of their Imagine painting, as I may have a slight obsession with The Beatles.
Just past Salmonberry School is Orcas Island Children’s House. The wee babe is friends with most of the kids, as she attends their Preschool, and it was at this time that our leisurely pace took a turn because she immediately ran off to find friends. We were honestly surprised to find their playground full of happy children, as we thought it was Saturday! Nope. It was Friday. Such is island time.
Now this is the way to welcome Fall – by celebrating with our community at Orcasong.
So honored to receive the invite and have a chance to check out this new and exciting farm I’ve been watching for many months. I live just around the corner and have been watching the transformation, the newest being the lavender fields.
You can feel the energy coming from the farmers tending the land. Fencing was erected, the ground was tilled, materials and farm hands showed up and then the planting. What could it be? Lavender … and the promise of color and sweet fragrance to come!
But lavender is not all this farm is producing.
Orcasong’s mission is to restore the land they steward on Orcas Island using ecologically regenerative practices. Guided by the wisdom of nature, they are committed to local resilience and social change and to advance through holistic education, arts and event programming, environmental advocacy and interwoven farm-based enterprises.
You can feel the mission statement when you arrive. On this day, farmers were working in the gardens and offer big smiles encouraging me to come help harvest fresh vegetables, wander and dream in the flower-filled overgrown garden laid out with purpose and standing proud in the soil. I love the mix, feeding the soul and the body.
Walking around the grounds, you can see the love and intention given to every detail. These farmers really walk the talk, collaborating with a team that searches for solutions to keep them connected to the land, the people and this community.
Standing among them, I can’t help but feel how life can keep us spinning in our own worlds, keeping us from slowing down and taking in the gifts right in front of us.
Food, friends, song, sharing, dreaming – it just doesn’t get any closer to “island life” than this experience.
Summer on the islands goes too quickly. Though we have been incredibly lucky to have had such a long summer (it is now the end of September and it is still GORGEOUS outside), I am selfishly wanting it to continue. Summer is not my favorite season necessarily, but this summer was particularly wonderful. I’m not sure if it is because my daughter turned three in June and has morphed into this amazing person with plans and jokes and “deals” and true personality, or if it is because I can see that our home is actually being built. One possibility is because we spent more time on Orcas and were able to enjoy the island on a daily basis. Either way, summer is coming to a close, and it is with a smile that we say “see you later.” Before we do though, I would like to share some of the highlights with you!
Queen of Dragons
Red is her favorite
Reading under the Maple Tree
Hammock fun with Dad
I think her pirate name should be Curly!
The beginning of summer for our little family is Eleanor’s birthday, which is in early June. We have a huge party with tons of friends and family. This year we had so many family members come in that we ended up with three “cabins” at Smuggler’s Villa on North Beach. We had octopus cupcakes, buried treasure, swimming pools, pillow towns, and probably 60 or more lovely souls over that day. My husband BBQ’d for all. We spent the long weekend playing at the beach, visiting with friends who live at “the Ditch” and enjoying the fire by the beach. It was a wonderful way to kick off summer, and it reaffirmed our love for the friends we have made on this island.
BEST BIRTHDAY EVER!
Stealing her presents
Paint sea stars!
Getting the buried treasure pool ready!
One issue many people have on the island during the summer is adequate water supply. As we live on a family property that includes a large food-producing garden, we are counted in that number. The solution is hauling water. While it may not sound glamorous, it is actually a very fun family event! We gathered fairy dust and sprinkled it around, we built a fort beneath a grove of trees, and we enjoyed splashing around in the water! One man’s chore is another man’s adventure? Is that a saying??
Gathering Fairy Dust
Watering the garden
Snacks in the grass
We spent more time at Cascade Lake this summer than we have the entirety of our time back on Orcas. On Sunday afternoons, we would often pack up around 3:00pm or so after Cory had had his fill of digging around the foundation of our addition. We would bring with us buckets, blankets, babies, food, and drinks all packed in our little red wagon. We would BBQ, build sand castles, see old friends, and make new ones. Cascade Lake was good to us this summer. I hope we can continue to venture out there once the leaves fall. The hike around the lake is beautiful any time of year!
We love the shady playground!
“King Julien”cracks me up every time!!
Making new friends
I learned this summer that my child is spoiled by living in such near proximity to the ocean. I cannot count how many times I tried to get her to go to the beach with me and she was not interested!!! Who doesn’t want to go to the beach at the drop of a hat at all times?! My kid. That’s who. I remember begging every day of summer as a child to go to the lake with my mom. I suppose I have to count all of us as fortunate if “too much beach time” is considered a problem! On our final days of summer, I was so happy to get in a last minute trip to Crescent Beach with Eleanor before dinner. On this day, she was very in to cleaning closed clams. Normally she likes to play in the ever-present driftwood structures, feed the birds by throwing dried seaweed in the air, or hunt for “crabbies.” This evening though, she stood in the water cleaning clams for extended periods of time. Maybe she knew it was one of the last times that her bare feet would be in the ocean for a while.
Deer Harbor Sand Castles
Crescent Beach in Autumn
Thank you Orcas Island for a beautiful season. We welcome fall with smiles.
Looking out from one of the stunning viewpoints atop Orcas Island’s Turtleback Mountain or Mount Constitution, it’s easy to imagine that the evergreen archipelago spread out below you has existed as-is since time immemorial. Indeed, the rock you’re standing on may be more than 500 million years old!
Far from being permanent, however, Orcas is part of a dynamic system that has changed in remarkable ways within the blink of an eye—geologically speaking.
Ancient oceanic rock on Turtleback Mountain – from Mexico!
For one thing, back when dinosaurs stomped around the landscape, Turtleback Mountain was at the bottom of the sea. And it was in Mexico. Yes, Orcas was once south of the border where Baja lies today! In fact, all of the San Juan Islands are still slowly sailing through the cool waters of the Salish Sea, moving northeast at about an inch-and-a-half a year.
An elephant-sized Giant Ground Sloth roamed our turf just 12,000 or so years ago
During the last ice age you could skate across Orcas Island, which was buried beneath a mile of ice. It was the advance and retreat of glaciers that ultimately shaped the dramatic setting you see today, smoothing and scarring the rocky highlands while excavating the deep channels that eventually filled with seawater and turned hilltops into islands.
Not too long ago, our island wasn’t even an island. Orcas was part of a larger land mass upon which very large—but now extinct—animals such as giant ground sloths, short-faced bears, mammoths, and herds of nine-foot-tall buffalo roamed.
A fascinating archeological discovery was made on the east side of Orcas in 2003. Though a dozen Orcas sites have unearthed remains of the extinct giant bison, Bison antiquus, bison bones found at the Ayer Pond in Olga were the first to show evidence of human butchering. The significance of this discovery is that it puts humans in the Salish Sea by 14,000 years ago — a thousand years earlier than previously believed.
I find all of this quite mind-blowing, and a good reminder of what a tiny blip of time we have on this beautiful earth. One of my favorite poems, Mary Oliver’s The Summer Day, asks so elegantly:
Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
While I’m still trying to figure that out, I realize I’m actually already doing it: living a simple life on Orcas Island, with a genuine love for the world around me.
Sandi Friel, Realtor and life-lover on Orcas Island
Dreaming of the simple life on Orcas Island? Contact me to help find your way home.
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You start on the mainland, bags packed and ready to go have some fun with Grama T and Grampa J. at their Orcas Farm. Since there are so many dirt roads on Orcas, Grama’s car is filthy, so we need to run it through a car wash. Be sure to make time for that and fueling up. In July, a stop at the berry stand is a priority, even if you’re riding in a dirty car and running on fumes, you still stop for berries. The car is loaded and headed to Lane 3 (or whatever lane they are using today for reservation holders). Those of us who have had many ferry rides remember the days when Lane 3 was for Orcas only.
One of the best things about having a Grama who lives on Orcas is that she probably is into everything and this year was no disappointment. Grama T is on the Board of Lahari, a non-profit that supports aging in your home. Lucky for us, she and Grampa were entered into the 4th of July Parade in Gramps’ old Model A. This Model A has parade history with long-time Islanders Wilma and Buck Ray, and is one of many “island rides” Gramps has collected. Lahari’s new program is Orcas Door to Door, and is designed to pick up and deliver seniors to appointments and events. Car loaded down with bling, off we went down North Beach Road through Eastsound, horn a-tootin! Orcas Island’s 4th of July Parade always ends the Mayoral Race where we elect our new Mayor for the year. This is a fundraiser for Children’s House and gets all ages out and involved in our local pets and politics. Congrats to Hudson, our new Mayor.
Back at Grama’s house, we spent the remainder of the day playing in last year’s 4th of July Parade First Place float, the playhouse. There is always something going on here!
We also had a chance to check out next year’s parade entry – an old fire truck that was used at a private residence years ago for fire protection. I wonder what Grama and Gramps will dream up for next year’s parade entry. Collecting island memorabilia and sharing history is a big part of this island family life.
And, lucky for us Grampa knows the nice people at Island Hardware and Supply and he has a truck (well a few he’s collected). Grampa just called those people up to check on swimming pools, then came home with one for us! It is always hot on the 4th!
The last weekend in June, the Garden Club showcases local gardens and raises funds for projects and grants to island non-profits, including the “Farm to Cafeteria” garden at the public school, a seed library at the library, rain gardens in Eastsound Village, and many other wonderful projects. The Garden Club meets monthly and members have a wealth of knowledge and local know-how for growing flowers, vegetables, fruit and native plants. Grama T showed us how to pick peas and raspberries in her garden. Although not on the tour, she has many remedies for growing and eating. This year she has a few choice words for the raccoons who enjoyed all the Rainier cherries before Grampa could get out and protect the tree trunks.
There’s always a good meal in Grama’s back patio with BBQ of local beef brisket, greens from the garden, roasted baby potatoes-carrots-leeks-garlic-broccoli, peas right out of the pod, raspberries and Roses’ bread. Desert was Lopez Island Creamery ice cream smothered in strawberries. Family, food, friends. Does not get better than that!
When the summer days get too hot, Grama always knows where the best beaches are on Orcas. This time she took us to Westsound near the Orcas Island Yacht Club. There are two docks located there, the OI Yacht Club’s and a County public dock. Grama and Gramps sometimes take their sailboat, the Blue Pearl, to Westsound and hang out on these docks – easy walking to the Westsound Café. Also, deep into Westsound is Massacre Bay where you are sure to get some wind. Today we just collected shells and searched for sea creatures. This beach is usually empty and is quite sizable at low tide. Clam digging and crabbing are my favorites. Hope we get to do that next time. Today we made friends.
If you are going to visit your Grama be sure to tell her all about the island fun, family, friends and food that is happening for kids on Orcas!
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Last summer I listed and sold a property in Crow Valley on Quick Three Beers Lane. I was tickled by the creative address, and as a bird lover I knew right away the name had nothing to do with a cold brew. Quick Three Beers is a birder’s phrase for the three-beat song of the elusive Olive-Sided Flycatcher, my favorite feathered summer resident on the island (click here to hear the song at Cornell Lab of Ornithology).
Photo: Garth McElroy/Vireo
These remarkable birds fly from as far as South America each summer to nest in northern places such as Orcas Island. As soon as they land, their mating calls begin. If you’ve spent any time here in May through August, you’ve certainly heard them. Actually spotting one, though, is a challenge. The Flycatcher perches high in the tree tops, and its camo colors make it all the more challenging to find.
It took a few summers of living here before I caught a glimpse of my first O-S Flycatcher. I followed the sound through the woods and waited for the bird to take flight, catch its snack and return back to its perch – a feeding routine it repeated again and again. The bird has a distinctive head shape, and I became successful at identifying it from a distance. But I wasn’t able to get a really satisfying look. Until recently.
Situated at the top of a ravine and nearly eye-level with the upper canopy of the trees below, our living room is an ideal bird watching spot. Last week an Olive-Side Flycatcher claimed a nearby bare madrone branch for an afternoon of hunting, and I was thrilled to finally get closer to the bird I cherish.
We’ve kept a wildlife log for the last 11 years, marking the arrival and departure of migrating birds on our property along with other events in nature. Though the Flycatcher’s numbers in the world are diminishing quickly due to loss of winter habitat, so far without fail, they arrive in May to nest on our property. Their mating calls signify the arrival of summer to me, and always make me smile.
Do you love birdwatching? The San Juan Islands are part of the Pacific Flyway and a great place to watch birds year round. Contact me to find your very own perch.
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Spring has sprung on Orcas Island and so have the dandelions! When I look out across the lush green spring grass and see it polka-dotted with the yellow flowers of the dandelion, I smile. Others see this scene and they shudder, and then make plans for attack.
The dandelion is a flower! However, with its rapid growth and invasive nature, some people are hesitant to admit this and instead call them weeds.
I can understand why gardeners want to keep dandelions from growing in their sacred plots. The root grows strong and deep which makes it particularly difficult to remove. The seeds have the most amazing system for disbursement and can actually travel up to five miles!
But did you know that every part of the dandelion is edible? Yes! It is true! The root can be chopped and roasted and made into a delicious, earthy tasting tea. The leaves can eaten fresh in salads or served sautéed. Dandelion pesto is another delicious way to enjoy this yummy plant. The yellow flowers can be used to brighten up your meal or battered and fried and served as fritters!
Dandelions are good for you too!
Dandelions are fun!
How many of you picked your mother a bouquet straight from the yard as a young child?
Do you remember holding a dandelion under a friend’s chin to determine if they loved butter or not?
Have you watched a child decorate their skin with the yellow pollen from a dandelion?
Ever make a dandelion chain to wear in your hair?
Did you ever just lay in the sunny yellow spotted grass watching the bees happily move from flower to flower?
Can you recall the hopefulness you felt wishing on a dandelion gone to seed?
When you really stop to think about it, you will see that the dandelion is our friend, not a foe. So the next time you see a grassy patch full of yellow spots of sunshine, remember all the children and bees and how happy those flowers make them. And if you happen to be hungry… go ahead a have a snack!
4 year old Mandy holding a bouquet of dandelions!
If you are looking to buy some land on Orcas Island where you can enjoy the simple pleasures of growing your own dandelions, give me a call. I’d be happy to show you some great dandelion patches.
When the time finally came to replace the ailing Channel Road Bridge in Deer Harbor, San Juan County took the high road.
Instead of top-down decision-making, County Councilman Rick Hughes encouraged Public Works to reach out to the community and let the residents guide the aesthetics of the bridge. This engagement process added a year in planning, but resulted in citizens taking ownership and pride in a bridge that they, in a sense, helped build.
Providing the sole access for hundreds of residents on the southwest side of Orcas Island (including yours truly), the Channel Road Bridge crosses the inlet to Cayou Lagoon. The old 52-foot-long timber bridge not only had a deteriorated structure, it was built using excessive fill that reduced the natural channel width by 50 percent, constricting tidal flow in and out of the lagoon. After nearly five decades, the lagoon was literally choking to death with buildup of fine sediment and resulting poor water quality.
Cayou Lagoon as seen from the bridge, with iconic Turtleback Mountain in the background
The new concrete bridge is 80 feet long and restores natural tidal flows which, over time, is expected to reduce sediment accumulation and increase habitat for juvenile salmon, forage fish, shellfish and shorebirds.
The bridge was also designed with an increased width to allow pedestrians to safely cross as well as pause and enjoy the views and wildlife.
County Engineer Colin Huntemer held numerous meetings at the Deer Harbor Community Club to present possible designs and get feedback. He credits the citizen-based Deer Harbor Plan Review Committee for playing an essential role in the entire process.
The community input included selecting the color/pattern of the stamped concrete supporting walls and a unique style of timber guardrail that pays homage to the old timber bridge.
Weekly newsletter kept us informed
Once construction began, County Engineer John Van Lund sent out a weekly update highlighting the prior week’s accomplishments and letting us know the next steps, including any required closures or traffic delays.
When I contacted John over the Christmas holidays to ask that the expanding potholes get fixed, the holes were filled the NEXT DAY.
Residents were so thrilled with the community engagement and construction process, some brought the workers cookies and sent letters of thanks.
With the bridge now complete, we can enjoy safe passage for cars, pedestrians and our finned friends. Kudos to the Public Works staff for setting a shining example of how government can work in partnership with the people.
Deer Harbor Bridge ribbon cutting ceremony on March 7, 2017
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The sun rises over Eastsound Village on a snowy February morning.
Indian Island in the distance.
The “Village Green” all covered in white.
Sunrise over a snow covered Eastsound.
Visitors to Orcas are always asking me if it ever snows here. The answer is, YES! Orcas snow is FUN snow! It doesn’t usually stick around very long, melting long before it loses it’s beauty.
What I love most about a snowy Orcas Island day is how it brings our small community even closer together. We all share in the wonder, the excitement, the worry, and usually the FUN of a snow day. An undeniable shared experience does wonders to make you feel connected to those around you.
Maybe my opinion is skewed. You see, teaching is my other other career. I’m sure everyone remembers the excitement of the announcement that school is closed for a snow day! I am one of the lucky ones that never has to go to work on a snow day. Maybe that explains why I love them so much.
Mandy have a sled race with son Johnny and friends.
Mandy and family enjoying the snow.
The snow started early Friday morning. A snow day is fun, but a snow day at school with all of your friends is really fun! Shortly after lunch the snow started falling in flakes that were bigger than a child’s hand. We had to stop our lesson in Farm to Classroom and rush to the window to watch.
The weekend brought more snow on Sunday night. This time there was enough snow for the Orcas Island Public School to call an official snow day! With more snow falling on Monday night the students received a second snow day on Tuesday. You could hear the cheers across the island.
Orcas Island Public School buses parked for the day, covered in a blanket of snow.
The snow covered school yard and empty parking lot.
My youngest son Johnny enjoyed the snow with his friends on Monday. Toddlers and snow make for a fun combination. We have had mild winters with no real memorable snow since these kiddos were born, this was their first real Orcas snow day experience.
Johnny excited to catch a snowflake!
Frankie says the forecast calls for snow as far as she can see!
Ryan is gleeful after pelting the photographer with a snow ball!
The big kids also know how to enjoy the snow. On Tuesday afternoon the sun was shining bright and the steep hills at Buck Park were calling. My son Jordan and his girlfriend Bethany had fun sledding the hills above the play fields where they will begin playing softball and baseball in just about a month!
My son Jordan and his girlfriend sledding at Buck Park.
Enough about my family. You are probably reading this to learn more about living on Orcas Island. Remember how I said the snow brings the community together with the shared experience? I loved seeing the pictures my fellow islanders were posting on social media during the snow days. I’ll share some of my favorites here.
Tom Tillman posted these pictures from his farm in Doe Bay. I think this driver may have been caught in the storm of ’87.
The snow gives us clues as to what the local wildlife is up too. These bird prints were left outside my sliding glass door. It was fun to follow them and imagine the path of the little birdie that left them.
Deborah Jones posted this picture of the Raccoon tracks with this comment. “Raccoons circling the henhouse busted by the snow.”
Tuesday morning brought this beautiful sunrise on the East side of the island. Teacher Anne Ford McGrath shared this picture along with every teacher’s favorite winter morning announcement, “Snow Day, No School!”
Islander Camille Fleming was commuting off the island for work on Tuesday. Thankfully the Washington State Ferries still run on snow days. Her husband posted this comment, “Second snow day in a row. School cancelled. Flights cancelled. Roads are questionable. Glad the ocean isn’t frozen.”
Southern transplant Liz Guerry posted this picture Tuesday morning with this comment, “Sun bathing in the PNW!
Tuesday afternoon, islander and fellow teacher Nancy Walstrom captured this stunning snow scene from her deck at Buoy Bay. That is Mount Baker in the distance.
Vicki Bartram, my mother, posted this interesting shot of the sun rising in Olga, causing the trees to cast shadows over the snow covered yard.
My partner in real estate, Beth Holmes, shared this photo of the sun setting on the west side of Orcas Tuesday night. These chairs demonstrate nicely the optimism of most islanders, winter is short so why put away the outdoor furniture!
So there is the answer to the frequently asked question. Yes, Orcas Island gets snow and it is a WONDERFUL experience to have!
Mandy is an Associate Broker at T Williams Realty. She enjoys living with her family and friends on Orcas Island, Washington.