Decatur Island is one of the bigger small private islands in Washington State’s San Juan Islands. There is no ferry service, but people do not have to have their own boat to get there. The Island Transporter service brings large items and Island Express and Paraclete charter boats bring people and their supplies. Residents even have cars, though getting them on and off the island must be pricey enough that they never leave because judging by all the dead cars in the woods along the roadsides it looks like the place old cars go to die. All of the roads on the island that I’ve seen are gravel rather than paved, and don’t see a lot of traffic.
Some people who like isolation live on Decatur Island year round. It even has a school – one of the few one-room schools left in the country. Students can attend from K-8, and finish with High School on neighboring Lopez Island, whose district the Decatur School belongs to. The class is quite small, often only 2-4 students. There’s a country store building near the school, which used to be open seasonally. It was closed all summer last year and I don’t know when or if it will open again. It was the only store on the island. The store once had a little motel upstairs, which is now an Airbnb. Most of the island’s vacation homes and cabins are private, but sometimes there are listings at Airbnb for cabins that are actually on Decatur rather than a neighboring island. You have to look carefully though because googling for cabins on Decatur will also bring up places on Lopez and other islands.
I take my dog Piper out for a walk or run every morning. Our most recent visit to Decatur happened to be during the time when the whole western part of the country was shrouded in smoke from numerous wildfires so this trip we stuck to walks. Photos from that trip tend to look gray and dreary due to the smoke in the air, which also kept visibility pretty limited most of the time. One day we walked a long way up the beach on the main part of the island and came across a wonky old cabin sitting crooked on a bit of land about a foot above the beach. It would have appeared to have been abandoned ages ago if it weren’t for the brightly colored new-looking kayaks out in front of it adding a spot of cheer.
Tides were low in the mornings so we often walked down the beach. Mostly along the long stretch going from Decatur Head where our cabin was to the main part of the island and beyond, but sometimes it was low enough to walk most of the way around Decatur Head, most of which has just cliffs and no beach when the tide is in.
There are also small trails up on Decatur Head. In normal times when the area isn’t blanketed in smoke the trails near the edge have excellent views. Decatur Head is the island end of a tombolo, which is defined as a sandy isthmus joining an island to the mainland.
Without that sandbar, which consists of a beach and a narrow gravel road, Decatur Head would be a separate tiny island. On the mainland end of the road the options are up a hill to the mainland of the island or down a long stretch of beach – at least at low tide. At high tide there isn’t much if any beach on a good portion of that stretch.
Considering the smoke we were shrouded in everything was pretty much gray. Sometimes we couldn’t even see the water from the beach, but sometimes we could see a bit of water between the beach and a sandbar, which was often populated by hunting herons or other birds. Seagulls and oystercatchers are common there, and though they are land birds rather than seabirds crows often joined the low tide hunt for seafood.
The beach is mostly rocky, but had some stretches of sand with or without rocks. It has quite a population of sea anemones with many of them in the sand rather than attached to rocks. They all close up when out of water, but the ones in a tide pool stay open.
Flip over a beach rock and you might find tiny crabs hiding underneath. There were also lots of snails, barnacles, and some limpets clinging to the many rocks. When the tide was out far enough to get to the seaward side of big rocks, purple and orange starfish could be seen clinging to the rocks.
Most of the beach is below a high cliff with little access from above, though there are a few places where residents have made primitive trails, and one had a ladder to get from the beach to a climbable part of the hill. In some places the cliffs have had recent landslides with bare dirt edges and sometimes vegetation clinging on for dear life. In one spot a lone tree at the top stands triumphantly on the only bit of land that hasn’t yet fallen.
Kelp is a giant seaweed that grows in the shallows. Usually it is found near land, but sometimes there are shallow enough places where the sea floor rises and you find it out in open water. Tiny roots hold this outsized plant in place, often clinging to tiny rocks. With a large bulbous float sporting lengthy fronds it’s easy to see how kelp often washes ashore.
Some mornings Piper and I walked up the hill to the mainland. The wildlife seen most often there is small island deer, which are black-tailed deer, but smaller than the same type of deer not in the San Juan Islands. If you walk around the island for very long one is bound to show up. On our last morning there we took a road we hadn’t been on before and found a house made from shipping containers.
One day my grandson Justin and I took a long afternoon hike with Piper. We took a road we hadn’t been on before and walked all the way to the end of it. For most of the way the road looked pretty well maintained, probably due to the fact that it had powerlines to maintain as well as entrances to people’s property. It seemed like pretty much a sudden boundary between well maintained and not so much where there were no more powerlines alongside the road and any entrances to properties beyond that point looked as if they hadn’t been used in decades. As the road went down to the water it came to a corner where a trail led to a little bench with a view of the water and a sign beyond it labeled as a trail on what looked more like a deer trail than one people walked on much so it didn’t appear to get much use. The road went the other way along the water’s edge, though up too high to actually get to the water.
It ended at a place where powerlines went from the water up through the woods. Some old pilings in the water looked like there may have been some sort of place to dock when the powerlines were first built. There are undersea lines connecting islands like Decatur to a power source elsewhere, but Decatur also has a new array of solar panels to generate their own power near the school and the old store, which are not far from Decatur Head.
After satisfying our curiosity as to what we would find at the end of the road we went to the other side of the island near the airport where there’s a parklike area with mowed trails through vegetation grown up through what appears to have once been an orchard. The airport has a mowed grass runway and is for small planes only. Near the beach at the park type place a grassy meadow comes equipped with giant picnic tables. There was nobody else there. We had our lunch at one of the giant tables. Justin wanted to go to the beach there, but the tide was in and the beach was underwater so we went back to the cabins instead. Our total hike was just over 14 kilometers and we saw a deer, one person walking another dog, and one car went by so it’s a pretty good pretty good place for social distance vacationing.