A Northwest Passage

Sun Staff

Looking at my teen-age daughter and soon-to-be teen-age daughtersitting slouched and sullen at the airport at 6 in the morning, having beenrousted before daybreak for a flight to Seattle, I wondered how this vacationwould go.

I was hoping for a week of family bonding and fun -- a cousin's wedding, areunion with friends, an excursion to the San Juan Islands and a few days inthe city -- but traveling with sometime members of the SDT (Sisterhood ofDisaffected Teens) can be tricky business.

If you are the parent of grown children, you have likely put thoseturbulent teen years out of your mind. And if you have sweet toddlers oradmiring grade-schoolers at home, it may be impossible to comprehend that yourlittle rays of sunshine will one day be capable of gale-force emotionalswings. Slumped in their seats, the girls' sleep-deprived body language spokevolumes: You call this fun?

My wife and I lugged our uncertainty on the airplane along with our bags,and off we went to the land of Starbucks.

According to the experts, family vacations work best when the children areinvolved in the planning process. In theory, this is a fine strategy, but withthe reality of the kids' go-go lives -- camp, swim team, pet-sitting,part-time job and social calendars that rival those of heads of state -- inthe weeks before the trip the moment never seemed to present itself to sitaround the dinner table and break out the Pacific Northwest maps andguidebooks.

As the plane lifted off, I briefed Carolyn, 15, and Molly, whose 13thbirthday was just around the corner, on the itinerary: After the wedding, wewould head to the San Juans for three days, then back to Seattle for threedays. We would get the best of the great outdoors on Orcas Island, includingwhale-watching, and then the best of the city.

The girls nodded tiredly, which in the language of SDT means: Whatever.Then they retreated to their headphones and CD players, thereby declaringthemselves in an adult-free zone.

Lush, cool Northwest

The settlers who founded Seattle in 1851 were a hardy bunch. They came tothe Northwest by way of the Oregon Trail, in what was a grueling 2,000-milejourney.

My family was feeling similarly scrappy as we loaded the rental car andheaded out of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. We had survived the flightacross the country, the leaden airline pancakes and the couple behind us whosesnack from home was a container of hard-boiled eggs.

Because we had crossed time zones and gained three hours, it was only 9:30in the morning, but the girls were rested, and although their headphones wereat the ready, they were excited to be seeing a new part of the country.

Even from the interstate, it was obvious we were a long way from the EastCoast. We had left browned-out, heat-oppressed Maryland and arrived in a placethat was green and lush -- and chilly. It was barely 60 degrees, a perfectspring day in the middle of summer.

"The air smells good here," one of the girls noted.

Later that afternoon in a lovely outdoor garden, we would help launch Jeffand Amber on the road to matrimony. And soon after, we would hit the roadourselves, meeting our friends and heading north for the coastal town ofAnacortes, where a Washington state ferry would shuttle us to Orcas Island.

The great outdoors

The San Juans, a 457-island archipelago in the upper Puget Sound, arecloser to the Canadian border than the U.S. mainland. Formed by volcaniceruptions, a couple of ice ages and the relentless effects of water and wind,the islands feel wild and untamed. Only a handful are inhabited, and Orcas,the largest, is said to be among the most rugged and most beautiful.

Orcas is also home to the highest spot in the archipelago. On a clear dayfrom Mount Constitution's lookout tower you can see Vancouver, the snowcaps ofMount Rainier and Mount Baker, and dozens of islands far enough in thedistance to appear in soft shades of blue and gray.

With our friends, we explored Moran State Park, hiked fern-filled paths towaterfalls and later mucked about on the beach at the great waterfront housewe had rented through the Internet.

Although the house had an entertainment center complete with satellitedish, the TV was not turned on during our stay. The kids were content to playon the beach, climbing on boulders, wading in the tide pools to examinestarfish, discovering what they were certain was a pearl in an oyster,submerged just out of their reach in a rocky crevice.

The beach was not sandy, but covered with fairly amazing rocks, the productof the area's volcanic history.

The rocks, of various shapes and sizes, were jet black, auburn, slate andpale chocolate. Many had patterns and striations, like tiny planet Jupiters,and all had been worn smooth by the eons and the tides. We couldn't resist theurge to pick them up, and more than a few would make the trip home.

Sitting on a large piece of driftwood, watching Mount Baker looming grandlyin the distance, it was a pleasure to see Carolyn and Molly having fun withoutbenefit of phone, computer or CD player.

The kids might not have cared that the San Juans are actually part of anunderwater mountain range, or that the British and Americans nearly came toblows in 1859 over a territorial dispute that became known as the Pig War, butit was clear that they understood the most important thing -- that communingwith the natural world can be a deeply satisfying experience.

And therein lies a lesson for parents traveling with teens: Don't be tooambitious. Overload the kids with culture and history and they will probablyignore most of it anyway. Instead, allow time to kick back and do nothing. Onvacation, the value of doing nothing is highly underrated.

That first night in the San Juans, we watched the sun set and the fishjump, skipped some rocks on the water, then walked up the steep steps from thebeach to see deer nibbling on the raspberry bushes in front of the house. Wesat on the sun porch and stared at Mount Baker some more.

It was after 10 p.m., and still light out, when the kids announced thatthey were getting up at 6 o'clock the next morning to find their oyster andpearl at low tide.

Had I heard that correctly? Teen-agers on summer break getting up on theirown at 6 a.m.? Obviously, Orcas Island had yet to establish a chapter of theSDT.

This place is good for the soul, I thought. No wonder the hippies came.

Laid-back island

"I had a pony tail when I first moved here," says 55-year-old Jim Nelson,who with his artist wife, Betsy, owns Orcas Island Bayside Cottages, where weare staying.

When the Nelsons moved to Orcas Island in the mid-1970s, they were amongthe many free spirits in their 20s who were gravitating to the San Juans.

"We moved up here about a year after we got married," says Jim, originallyfrom Nebraska. "First time I ever saw the place, I knew I wanted to live uphere somewhere."

The Nelsons were drawn to the beauty of the San Juans, and also to thepace. "It really is a laid-back sort of lifestyle," he says. "That's been theattraction: Laid-back, relaxed. And whatever you do here in terms of thecommunity, you can have an impact because it's such a small place."

There are about 4,500 full-time residents on Orcas, and in the village ofEastsound, the island's commercial hub, the hippie vibe is strong. In additionto spotting the occasional "Follow Your Bliss" bumper sticker, visitors maynotice an unusually high number of VW buses.

Besides the pharmacy, hardware store and supermarket, Eastsound hasinteresting restaurants with cozy outdoor seating and cute shops intucked-away garden courtyards. There is no shortage of tie-dye and handmadejewelry for sale. At the Clinic of Tibetan Holistic Medicine, you can gethealth consultations and treatments, and nearby, the Orcas Everlasting shopsells teas, espresso and chocolate along with "island products and fou fou."

Orca encounter

Horseshoe-shaped Orcas is surprisingly large. From our rental house nearObstruction Pass on the island's southeastern tip, it's a 30-minute drive tothe ferry landing on the southwest side, where the Orcas Express is docked.

Dan and Denise Wilk have been running Orcas Island Eclipse Charters for 12years, and are well known in the area for championing the rights of theresident Orca whales. When the movie Free Willy II was filmed here in 1995,that was Captain Dan and Denise onscreen playing the marine patrol in theirboat.

On the dock before our 10 a.m. departure for a three-hour tour, Captain Danshows us on a map where the whales have been sighted, and that's where we'reheaded. Finding the whales is an inexact science that relies mainly on anetwork of spotters. But because the animals travel 100 miles a day in searchof salmon, there is no guarantee they will be seen.

It's a gorgeous morning -- sunny with scattered clouds and bracingtemperatures in the mid-50s. The Orcas Express' 15 or so passengers arebundled in fleece, sweatshirts and foul-weather jackets. There is a heatedindoor cabin, but on deck it will be red-nose cold when the 56-foot boatreaches cruising speed.

There are currently 82 whales living in the region in several pods. J pod,which makes its home year-round in the San Juans and lower Puget Sound,consists of four families, 18 whales total.

We learn that the animals have a matriarchal social structure and remainwith their family their entire lives. (I wonder if this fact makes Carolyn andMolly glad they are not Orcas.)

The whales are smart. They work together to fish, and communicate using alanguage of clicks and whistles. At one point during the trip, a hydrophone islowered into the water so we can listen to whale discourse, but on this daythey aren't talking.

While Captain Dan navigates, Mary Miller, a naturalist who moved to OrcasIsland with her husband three years ago, acts as guide. She points out baldeagles and their nests, sea lions, herons and other marine creatures as wecruise, and provides details about the islands we pass along the way,including the one owned by actor Gene Hackman.

Not far from Lime Kiln lighthouse near Haro Strait, we come upon nearly twodozen other whale-watching boats, many from Canada. As we approach slowly,someone yells, "Six o'clock!" and there is an Orca in our wake, swimmingtoward us.

Before long, there are whales all over the place, and everyone moves fromone side of the boat to the other as new sightings are called out. We havefound J pod.

Captain Dan keeps a respectful distance from the animals, but we are stillclose enough so that he and Mary can identify individual Orcas from markingson their dorsal fins.

With the cold wind on our faces and the thrill of seeing the whales intheir natural environment, our senses are on full alert, and the kids as wellas adults respond instinctively. Scanning the water, tracking the whales, weare completely in the moment.

"A mother and her calf!" someone shouts, and everyone heads to the stern towatch the pair swim together. There will be no dramatic breaching or tailslapping today, but we are happy to have seen this much, and the experiencefurther connects us to the San Juans. I have no doubt that Carolyn and Mollywill remember this for the rest of their lives.

It's not easy to leave Orcas Island the next day. A lot more time could bespent here, discovering artists' woodsy studios, taking the sea kayak tripthat was canceled earlier because of rough water, doing nothing on the beach.

But as we queue up for the ferry back to Anacortes, we take heart, forstill ahead is the city.

Beautiful Seattle

There is nothing like seeing a city skyline to make you appreciate thescope of human ingenuity. But turn a corner in Seattle and glimpse MountRainier, and you will also see what no amount of human ingenuity can match.

That is the magic of Seattle. The Emerald City, as it's called, does indeedsit amid the Pacific Northwest's immense natural beauty like a gem.

The city is defined by mountains and water, surrounded by Puget Sound andLake Washington, the Olympic range to the west and the Cascades, with Rainierand Baker, to the east.

If you are put off by the traffic, the staggering real estate prices orSeattle's other urban woes, you need only look at the natural wonders allaround you to gain perspective.

The city energizes, the mountains and water equalize. Given this symbioticrelationship, is it any wonder that the locals cultivate their laid-backreputation while at the same time practically making a religion of caffeine?

We begin our tour at the city's most identifiable landmark, the SpaceNeedle. It's a nice view from the 520-foot-high observation deck, but likemany popular tourist attractions, the needle is overpriced and underwhelming.After about 30 minutes, the kids are ready to go.

The day's main attraction, the Experience Music Project, is only few stepsaway. EMP is the brainchild of Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft and ardentfan of rock 'n' roll and Seattle native Jimi Hendrix.

The museum opened in 2000 to howls of protest about its bloblike exterior,but few people quibble about what happens inside.

EMP is interactive in a big way. Visitors are issued headsets with digitaldevices on shoulder straps. Point the device at exhibits throughout the museumand a recording gives you information. Or, if you're a teen-ager, you can usethe headset to tune everything out and listen to classic rock tunes.

In the Sound Lab, you can form your own band and record a CD, or takelessons on guitar, keyboards and percussion. You can also be on stage underthe bright lights and feel what it's like to be a rock star (and then buy thepicture that proves you were). A guaranteed crowd pleaser is the Funk Blastride, which involves a nifty bit of time travel back to the '60s.

Baby boomers will happily relive their musical coming of age at EMP, andmaybe learn a thing or two about how the guitar evolved from genteel parlorinstrument to electrified emblem of a generation. The kids, meanwhile, willlove wailing away on the drums and guitars.

Arrive early, get your hand stamped, and you can come and go all day. Takea lunch break and ride the monorail downtown, then walk the short distance toPike Place Market and get rained on.

(For most of the year in Seattle, if it's not raining, it's threateningrain. Residents often find themselves defending the weather or apologizing forit. Either way, they live with it. If you see someone in the city carrying anumbrella, chances are it's a tourist; locals find them too much trouble.)

As you make your way among the vendors' stalls at the packed market, youmay at times feel like a sardine (guidebooks warn about pickpockets), butthere is good shopping and eating here, not to mention street musiciansplaying for tips, and an unending opportunity for people-watching.

Snack on warm, roasted cashews while you browse for lunch. At an Asiancarryout, try humbow, a sweet, steamed dumpling filled with vegetables orbarbecue pork. Top it off with a latte at the very first Starbucks, whichopened in 1971. In all, Pike Place sprawls over nine acres and is home to some250 vendors. The action never seems to stop.

For a less touristy market experience, visit Uwajimaya in the city'sInternational District -- formerly known as Chinatown. Uwajimaya bills itselfas the largest Asian grocery store and gift market in the Pacific Northwest.The huge supermarket is full of American products as well as exotic fare(quail eggs, anyone?) and equally exotic seafood: "Fresh local octopus, $2.99a pound."

An adjoining food court offers everything from stir fry and satay to PadThai noodles and the latest fad, bubble tea -- flavored dessert tea oftenserved with gelatinous tapioca balls that are sucked through an oversizedstraw. (After trying bubble tea, my advice is to stick with the octopus.)

We explore the city's neighborhoods with no real itinerary. At the Hiram M.Chittenden Locks in Ballard, we watch a boat being lowered from LakeWashington into Puget Sound, and then, through underwater glass at the fishladder, we are mesmerized by the salmon fighting their way upstream, againstthe current, to spawn.

At cobblestoned Pioneer Square, the 19th-century birthplace of the city, weshop among the crafts and antiques stores and linger to watch a glass blowerat work. In funky Fremont, which considers itself Seattle's Left Bank, thekids love the Deluxe Junk secondhand store as well as the giant sculpted trollthat resides under a bridge.

And in Bellevue at Enatai Beach Park, one of 400 city parks, we rent kayaksand paddle along Lake Washington, marveling at the bald eagles perched in thetreetops, the waterfront homes and Mount Rainier off in the distance.

We pack a lot into a few days, but it never seems rushed. There are SDTmoments, to be sure, but the kids are happiest and most engaged when we areout of the car and exploring. And therein lies another lesson for parentstraveling with teens: Don't expect miracles.

If you think your young ones are going to grow up overnight as a result ofseeing a new part of the world, think again.

Regardless of how well traveled they are and how expanded their horizonsbecome, teen-agers will still be teen-agers, capable of tuning you out, tryingyour patience and sometimes being mortified by your very existence.

Try not to worry. Somewhere in their mysterious, hormone- addled teenbrains, they get it. Somehow all of what you have done and seen in yourtravels has expanded their horizons. And you can be fairly sure that when theyturn a corner in Seattle and glimpse Rainier -- or later, when they turn othercorners in different circumstances -- they will understand the significance ofwhat it is they are seeing.

When you go
Getting there:
BWI offers nonstop and connecting flights to Seattle-TacomaInternational Airport. For ferry service from Anacortes to the San JuanIslands -- and elsewhere in the region -- contact Washington State Ferries:206-464-6400; www.wsdot.wa.gov / ferries.
Lodging :
Bayside Cottages Orcas Island, 65 Willis Lane, Olga, WA 98279
* Seven rental units, six on private waterfront with wonderful views ofMount Baker. The well-appointed Beach House comfortably accommodated fouradults and four children. Daily and weekly seasonal rates. Three nights at theBeach House in July cost $700. For summer stays, reserve months in advance.
Moran State Park, 3572 Olga Road, Olga, WA 98279
* The 5,252-acre park offers great hiking, cycling, fishing, boating andcamping, along with spectacular views from Mount Constitution.
Orcas Island Eclipse Charters, Orcas Island Ferry Dock
* Three-hour whale-watching tours on the 56-foot Orcas Express. Cost:adults, $46.50; children under age 13, $31.
Experience Music Project, 325 Fifth Ave., Seattle, WA 98109
* Interactive museum where everyone can be a rock star. Open Sunday throughThursday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
* Admission: $14.95 to $19.95; children under age 6 admitted free.
Pike Place Market, Pike Street and First Avenue, Seattle, WA 98109
* Crafts, produce, fishmongers, restaurants and tons of tourists are foundin this bustling marketplace, along with the original Starbucks, which openedin 1971.
Uwajimaya, 600 Fifth Ave. South, Suite 100, Seattle, WA 98104
* Asian supermarket, gift shop and food court in the InternationalDistrict. Open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 11 p.m., and Sunday from9 a.m. to 10 p.m.
For more information about lodging, dining and activities in the San JuanIslands and Seattle, try these resources:
* Orcas Island Chamber of Commerce: 360-376-2273; www.orcasisland.org
* Washington State tourism office: 360-725-5052; www.tourism.wa.gov
* San Juan Islands Visitor Information Services: 888-468-3701;www.guidetosanjuans.com* Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau: 206-461-5840; www.seeseattle.org

An ideal day
5:30 a.m.: Drag yourself out of bed and down to the beach on Orcas Island towatch the sunrise over Mount Baker.
6:30 a.m.: Congratulate yourself on getting up so early, then go back tobed.
10 a.m.: Board the Orcas Express for a three-hour whale-watching excursion,and count yourself lucky if you see these extraordinary animals in theirnatural environment.
2 p.m.: Browse the shops in Eastsound, soaking up the laid-back vibe.Resist the urge to buy something tie-dyed.
3 p.m.: Head to Moran State Park and the Mount Constitution overlook for apanoramic view of the San Juans in all their glory.
5 p.m.: Relax at your rental house, contemplating nothing more strenuousthan a drink and a nap. Later, walk down to the water and watch the kidsexplore the beach.
7 p.m.: Eat in, or head back to Eastsound and dine outdoors at Bilbo'sFestivo Mexican restaurant. At the table with family and friends, considerholding forth on the benefits of travel and widening one's horizons, but thenthink better of it when you imagine the rolling of teen-age eyes that willensue.
10 p.m.: It's still light out. Sit on the sun porch at the beach house andgaze at Mount Baker. If your trip to the Pacific Northwest included nothingmore than this, it would be enough.

-- Bruce Friedland

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