How to Live on a Little Island, Part 1: Dealing with Traffic


Chances are you’ve never heard of Orcas Island. Orcas measures 58 square miles–roughly the size of Staten Island—and is situated in the Salish Sea about 75 miles north of Seattle. Staten Island has about 450,000 residents; Orcas has about 5,000.

From the northern tip of Orcas Island, the water border with Canada is only about five miles north. Due to the odd shape of the America—Canada border in this region, parts of Canada, including Victoria, BC, are south of Orcas. Neat.


Today I’m going to talk about the terrible traffic on Orcas Island. Just kidding, there is no traffic on Orcas Island. Well. There is of a sort. More on that in a bit.

Each day at least six ferries bring people and cars from the mainland to the island. Additional “interisland” ferries travel between the four San Juan islands that have ferry service: Lopez, Shaw, San Juan, and Orcas.

In the winter the ferries are lightly loaded. Getting on a ferry is a breeze. During the summer high season, June through September, the ferries are generally fully booked well in advance. In the summer, ferry reservations become a necessity. The process is similar to buying Pearl Jam tickets. You load the Washington State Ferries website at 7 AM, when they release tickets, and click refresh over and over until the tickets go on sale.

That being said the ferries are the best. They top my list of transit options–Followed by train, car… Way at the end is either bus or plane, I find them equally unlovable. The ferries have room to stroll, beer for sale, and the views are outrageous: Green islands slumbering in the Salish Sea. Giant white mountains to the south, east, and north. Occasionally the captain makes an announcement because whales have been sighted. If you’re having a bad time on the ferry it is undoubtedly your fault.


Ferries you guys, ferries.

The ferry takes about an hour. Poor cell reception forces people to enjoy the view, or work on one of the puzzles onboard. On the ferry I always check to see if I know anybody. I always recognize someone, and its not uncommon to run into a friend.

So back to the Orcas Island traffic. Every time the ferry arrives, a little parade of cars disembarks the ferry and heads down the main road. It’s a merry little parade of Subarus and old pickups. It is the only time there is anything like traffic on the island.

Actually that’s not true. One time I saw a traffic jam in Eastsound, the island’s only town. It was the Fourth of July, and after the (surprisingly extensive and lengthy) fireworks show everybody left town at once. There are only a couple roads out of town and no traffic lights on the island. So for about 10 minutes there was an actual traffic jam in Eastsound. The last car in the jam was the sheriff. Kind of like the end of a parade. After that the town was dead. There’s not much of a nightlife on Orcas.

The highest speed limit on Orcas is 40 MPH. Many islanders choose to ignore the speed limit and drive slower. This is either a challenge to your sanity or an invitation for mindful meditation. I usually opt for the latter. If I’m in a hurry, I know it’s my fault. There’s rarely a genuine reason to rush on the island. I try to arrive to events, jobs, on time. But island time is real. Most people are late to everything. I have at least once done the ferry Gran Prix, racing to the ferry landing to catch a boat. I try not to do this. It’s neither neighborly nor wise to speed on Orcas. If anything, just for the countless, dimwitted, semi-tame deer that wander across the roads.

Island car

It’s much more sensible to arrive early and wait in the ferry line. Like everything else on the island, the ferry landing is beautiful. Yes, there’s a big paved parking lot and a public restroom. But then there’s an old timey hotel, a cider brewery, and expansive views of neighboring Shaw Island. Even the town dump is cute.

Waiting in line for the ferry (visible at the dock)

In the summer it’s easy to spot tourists in line. They’re the ones complaining about the wait, the delays, the poor cell reception. The locals are the ones sitting placidly in their cars or chatting with a ferry worker. Some wait, eh? You shoulda seen yesterday!

Orcas is not big, but due to the winding roads and low rate of speed, it can be 45 minutes from one end of the main road to the other. It is also a curious shape, roughly an upside down U, or “a pair of saddlebags” as Wikipedia notes. The ferry landing is at the bottom of the (western) saddle bag. Town is in the center of the island, where the bags meet. The bottom end of eastern bag is the townlet of Olga, and the resort of Doe Bay. Sometimes I catch myself complaining about a 30 minute drive on the island and then I remember everything on the mainland is at least 30 minutes apart. Also the trip to Target is not punctuated by little mountains, farms, and eagles.

Mt. Constitution road, closed to traffic due to snow, 2016

Neighboring Lopez island has an unwritten waving ordinance, in that locals *always* wave to one another as they drive. Thus tourists can be spotted (and resented) for their unneighborly driving. The Orcas waving ordinance is less strict, though I routinely wave or get waved at. And for some reason, once you leave the main road the rate of waving increases.

To wave like an islander, raise the right index and middle fingers from the rim of your Subaru steering wheel. Don’t make a big deal out of it, as I often do.

I wave to anyone I know, which really means, to any car I know. When I go “off island,” I have to remember not to wave at certain colors of Subaru or Toyota pickup. They’re strangers.

North Beach Road, Eastsound, closed to traffic for trick-or-treaters, 2017

Biking is unwise on Orcas due to the aforementioned dim-witted megafauna and the narrow, winding, hilly roads. That being said I have island friends who bike long distances every day, up and down our little mountain passes like true lunatics. I have island friends who don’t even own a car.

For the car-less there is another option. Hitchhiking is legal, safe, and quite common on Orcas. Many of my car-less friends travel to work, to the store, to the ferry landing (sometimes 20+ miles) in the cars of strangers. There are even official hitchhiking “stops,” complete with county signage, on the main road.

I still haven’t hitchhiked, to my great shame. Like many of my peers I was raised to view hitchhiking as the first chapter in a missing persons report. On the island, however, it’s a way to meet your neighbors. I have friends who have gotten jobs, or a place to stay after meeting someone while hitchhiking. It turns out that all that stands between us is a five minute chat in a car.

And while I haven’t hitchhiked, I’ve received many spontaneous offers for a ride. When I go walking down a road I have to be careful not to look too forlorn, or an islander will pull over and ask me where I’m headed.

Alright, that’s enough for this, the first episode of How To Live on a Little Island.

Fog on the road at Coffelt Farm, 2017

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