|The welcoming arbor in Friday Harbor's Memorial Park, across from the harbor, at the foot of Spring Street. Photo by Aaron Shepard.|
The town of Friday Harbor -- named after the harbor that serves it -- is the largest town on San Juan Island, or on any of the San Juan Islands together. These islands lie a few miles off the coast of northwest Washington State, halfway between that coast and Canada's Vancouver Island. But even though Friday Harbor is the largest, it's really quite small. There's not a single traffic light to be seen, and a break in the water main on the town's main street easily made the hometown newspaper's list of top ten news stories of the year.
|Aerial view of Friday Harbor and the San Juan Islands. Photo by Aaron Shepard.|
It wouldn't be accurate to say Friday Harbor is cut off from the mainland. On the contrary, it's connected by some hefty underwater cables and an impressive if mostly aged ferry system. Yet it can certainly feel separate. The mainland is only a few miles away, but there are no bridges, and the ferry ride takes over an hour, even when skipping stops at other islands. When islanders visit the mainland -- as many do regularly for visits to Costco and such -- they sometimes call it "going to America." They see it as a whole different world.
|Ferry and passenger boat landings in Friday Harbor. Photo by Aaron Shepard.|
"You live on an island, you need a boat," says a frequent local ad. Well, not everyone in Friday Harbor owns a boat, but there are certainly many boats in Friday Harbor. The Port of Friday Harbor, a public entity, owns and operates the largest marina in the San Juan Islands, with about 14,000 guest boat nights each year. Also under Port aegis is the adjacent Spring Street Landing, which docks excursion and tour boats. These include two restored tall ships that call Friday Harbor home -- the Spike Africa and the Dirigo II.
|The Port of Friday Harbor Marina. Photo by Aaron Shepard.|
Arriving in the harbor by ferry, excursion boat, or biplane, there's no trouble reaching Friday Harbor's downtown. In fact, it has only one major street -- Spring Street -- and that starts at the harbor. Most of the town's stores, restaurants, and lodging are within a few blocks of Spring Street, so you can reach almost anything on foot within minutes. And Spring Street is also a great place to sit on a bench and watch the town go by.
|The corner of First and Spring streets in Friday Harbor. Photo by Aaron Shepard.|
Part of Friday Harbor's charm is the total absence of big-box stores and national chains and the near-total absence of franchises. There's no law against them, they just don't get permitted. And it's not that islanders don't frequent such businesses -- they definitely do -- but they prefer to do it on the mainland or online. Restaurants especially are tightly controlled, as one couple discovered when they valiantly but vainly tried to open a Subway. There's no fast food in Friday Harbor! And you never need to refer to "small businesses" here, because there is no other kind!
|Teens on Nichols Street, with Coho Restaurant, San Juan Kayak Expeditions, and Cafe Demeter in the background. Photo by Aaron Shepard.|
Friday Harbor is anything but a united community. There are factions here -- propertied retirees, younger alternative types, members of families that have been here for generations -- and that kind of division leads to serious political squabbles. Yet, when you meet people on the street or in the shops or at events, you can't help but think how friendly they are. It's not that the people are different, but that they're not as subject to the pushing and pulling that turn mainland residents into bundles of nervous aggression. In Friday Harbor, the smile is not an endangered species.
|Textile artist Francie Hansen and a young friend at the 2013 Island Artisans Holiday Market. Photo by Aaron Shepard.|
Though not everyone is an artist in Friday Harbor, the arts are important here. Some of the work produced is very fine -- and though some of the rest may not be up to big-city standards, islanders tend to be generous in their appraisals. Galleries feature the work of local painters, sculptors, potters, and photographers. Community theater productions play to sold-out houses. Local bands range from jazz to rock to country, and the city hosts not one but two African marimba bands.
|Kubatana Marimba performs at the 2009 Summer Arts Festival. Photo by Aaron Shepard.|
In a way, Friday Harbor seems defined by its community events, both large and small. On the large end is the Fourth of July parade, which may seem to have almost as many marchers as onlookers. Even bigger is the annual county fair, complete with competitive exhibits, stage shows, foot races, zucchini races, benefit cookouts, displays of horsemanship, and carnival rides. It seems to draw almost everyone in the county for at least a few hours out of the few days it's held. Smaller events are spread throughout the year, often competing for attenders on the same weekend.
|First Annual Bite of the San Juans, October 26, 2014, held at the Brickworks, a community center created from a restored brick factory. Photo by Aaron Shepard.|
Islanders have a love-hate relationship with tourism. On one hand, few care for the way visitors overwhelm the streets and ferries in summer. On the other, the island economy largely depends on the money they spend, and many businesses would simply disappear without the annual summer hordes. (I do enjoy photographing them, myself.) Even with all the tourists, it can be hard to keep things going financially, for individuals, businesses, even the city and county governments. Many islanders work several part-time jobs to make ends meet, and new businesses often appear and disappear quickly. Not many young people can afford to stay, especially with the scarcity of rentals and their rising cost. Most of the island population is either very young or very old, which makes things a bit unbalanced.
|Tourists cruise around Friday Harbor and San Juan Island in a "Susiemobile" from Susie's Mopeds. Photo by Aaron Shepard.|
San Juan Island's one claim to historical fame is also a reflection of the spirit of this community. The Pig War took place in the 1800s, at a time when both the United States and England claimed ownership of the San Juan Islands. It is perhaps the only military war in which no one was killed -- that is, if you don't count the pig. English and American soldiers faced off for twelve years -- meaning they built camps on opposite ends of the island, held joint social and athletic events for the men and their wives, and generally waited for the powers-that-be to negotiate the islands' fate. English Camp and American Camp survive today as two segments of the San Juan Island National Historical Park, attracting many visitors -- though, truth be told, the charm lies more in the story than in the few remaining buildings.
|The restored blockhouse at English Camp. Photo by Aaron Shepard.|
Friday Harbor has no shortage of major parks around it. Besides the historical park, there is the Lime Kiln Point State Park -- a.k.a. Whale Watch Park -- which features not only whale watching but also the lovely Lime Kiln Lighthouse. San Juan County Park is just to the north of that, and the island also features several preserves in the care of the San Juan Preservation Trust. As if all that was not enough, the breathtaking and spacious Moran State Park is just a short ferry ride and drive away, on Orcas Island. And pieces of the new San Juan Islands National Monument are spread throughout the islands.
|Sunset at the Lime Kiln Lighthouse in Lime Kiln Point State Park. Photo by Aaron Shepard.|
Though Friday Harbor and San Juan Island are nearly synonymous in the minds of most islanders and visitors, the island does have one additional town -- the tiny resort town of Roche Harbor. It's popular for yachting, for weddings, and for browsing among the street stalls of artists and artisans. There's a historic inn, a formal garden, and relics of the lime works that are the town's origin -- though the posted historical information discreetly avoids focusing on the working conditions of the lime workers.
|The restored company store of the Roche Harbor Lime & Cement Company. Photo by Aaron Shepard.|
Is Friday Harbor a paradise? Not nearly. But for some of us islanders, as well as some visitors, it's hard to imagine a place we would rather be.