A New Kind of Island Life – From Maui to San Juan Island

I said aloha to Maui about 6 weeks ago….the goodbye kind of aloha. Which is sad. But change in itself isn’t sad. It’s exciting and life-giving and sometimes earth-shatteringly stressful (moving off a remote island chain and realizing how much junk you’ve accumulated and can’t take with you is just that, STAH-RESSSS-FULLL). And when you leave one island for another, it’s inevitable that things will be changing.

And you better embrace that shit, or you’ll drive yourself crazy with why‘s and what if‘s. Nah. No time for that.

I’m not talking about a Maui-to-Kauai kind of island swap. Although that would’ve been sweet and I would’ve already turned purple from an absurd level of acai bowl consumption.

We’re talking about, you know, a minuscule 2,700 mile step over the Pacific Ocean to the Pacific Northwest. This is a Maui-to-San Juan Island kind of island swap. A much bigger change, with the driving force being an awesome new job as a naturalist up here. The fam is 8 hours away by car instead of 7 by plane. Eating local now means no more mangos or avocados or pineapples or lilikoi but lots of apples and cherries and Walla Walla wine. I will no longer get weird looks wearing my cowboy boots out and about (not that I minded being a wannabe paniolo in Makawao). People actually know what I’m talking about when I say I’m from Coeur d’Alene, not automatically assuming that I grew up on a potato farm or a corn field (seriously, it’s not Iowa). It’s a shift from mahi mahi and ahi on the menu to crab and shrimp.

So, the San Juan Islands form this amazing archipelago in the northwest corner of the U.S. Think the literal Pacific Northwest. Right in the corner of Washington. Just a quick boat ride from Canada. I moved for the job, yes, and it’s amazing and I love it. But one of the most exciting things about this summer is that it’s the first time I’m experiencing a proper, full Pacific Northwest summer since before I hopped in an overstuffed minivan to head cross-country to college (fun note: that same minivan is now my camping/road-tripping adventure buddy).

Notre Dame was great, and I was blessed with so many amazing opportunities for travel and studying abroad and volunteer work – cage-diving with great whites, surfing in Bali, road-tripping New Zealand, and working as a bartender in rural South Africa were among the highlights – I wouldn’t trade those years for anything. But, it also put me far away from the happy little corner of the U.S. that I grew up in. That’s the great thing about travel. When you come back, you realize how much you’ve changed, but you remember what it was that makes you who you are.

And being back up here, even on an island that’s still a ways from home, is like a blast from the past with a crazy spin that feels like a window to my future. The other day I was driving across the island, from harbor to harbor, windows down and a refreshing San Juan Island (SJI) breeze blowing in, and I felt the weirdest, happiest sensation that took me straight back to my childhood. It was a combo of the summer heat, the dry air, the smell of the pine trees…I can’t pinpoint it, but it felt like summer as it should be, like a summer I haven’t experienced in six years. No humidity, and none of that I-know-it’s-June-but-it’s-winter-because-you’re-in-the-southern-hemisphere vibe. PURE PACIFIC NORTHWEST SUMMER.

So stoked.

I wanted to wrap this up with a just a brief synopsis of island life here in the PNW versus island life on Maui. I’m still on an island. People still operate on island time. And there’s boats aplenty, thank gooooodness. But it’s the key differences that make both of these experiences so unique and magical for me.

Days Off – Usually Involve Saltwater or Hiking

Whether we’re cliff jumping into the clearest, bluest oceans in Maui, or paddle boarding around Roche Harbor and drinking beer, days off are best spent adventuring outside with friends. It don’t matter the island you’re on.

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Maui – Hitting the Road to Hana (Venus Pools)

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PNW – Paddle-boarding Roche Harbor

Camping Style

Camping in Maui is like a gentle introduction to life outside. Forgot your tent? Whatever, set up a hammock. Or, like me, toss a sleeping pad in the bed of a pick-up and hope it doesn’t drizzle like it always does in Hana.

But in the Northwest, you need to prepare a bit more unless you feel like freezing your little tushy off. Tents and down sleeping bags and socks (gross) recommended.

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Maui – Palms and ocean waves

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Maui – Prepare for sandy everything

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PNW – Cascades National Park, cold, dense, beautiful

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PNW – Down sweaters and chacos

Hiking

In Maui, you generally hike with the goal of getting to a waterfall or beautiful ocean pools. Sometimes not (like the Pali hike). But there’s waterfall hikes a plenty.

San Juans? Plenty of hiking on the island, but also super easy to cruise on over to the Olympics or the Cascades and get your fix of glaciers and beautiful peaks.

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Maui – Hiking up sea cliffs on nearby Molokai with Dad

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Maui – Waterfalls are to Maui like corn fields are to Indiana

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PNW – Epic mountain vistas

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PNW – Snow

What You Do In (or On) the Water

Maui is a saltwater lover’s paradise. Everyone becomes a mermaid there whether you like it or not. Surf, dive, snorkel, swim, body surf, boogie board, spearfish, boat, cliff jump, tide pool, paddleboard, kayak, get your drink and dance on while jammin’ on a Marty Dread cruise…Maui life is tied to the ocean.

San Juan Island life? Not so much getting in the water unless you’re competing in the log-rolling contest on the Fourth of July in Roche Harbor. The Salish Sea plays a huge part in life out here, and my line of work in particular. You can go whale watching. You can go kayaking. You can still paddle board, if you know what you’re doing. But you don’t really want to be getting your feetsies wet here. It’s cold. 

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Maui – Surf

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Maui – Dive

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Maui – Swim

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PNW – Boat around the islands

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PNW – Go shrimpin’

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PNW – Fishing, duh.

What You See in the Water

My favorite part! So different up here. But the ocean is full of magical creatures no matter where you are. Still collecting photos of creatures up here – think orcas, harbor seals, harbor porpoises, humpback’s, minke’s, sea birds galore…

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Maui – Green Sea Turtle

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Maui – WHALE SHARKS

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Maui – Humpbacks 🙂

Harbor Life

I love harbors. I love boats. It seems like there’s a lot more activity going on in the harbors down in Maui, in general. You got multiple fishing trips leaving at 6 a.m. About 15-20 snorkel trips leaving in the 7 -8 a.m. range and then again for another round in the afternoon. You got whale watches all day in whale season. You got sunset and dinner cruises in the evenings. If you’re fancy like the Ali’i Nui, you even got a party cruise at 9 p.m.

Friday Harbor life is a lot more chill. Prepping and cleaning the boats are easier since they stay cleaner for longer (since you aren’t dunking a bunch of people into the water to snorkel and then bringing them back on board, serving them lunch, and watching them dribble ketchup and lettuce and bean salad all over the deck you spent an hour scrubbing yesterday). Not a whole lot of sea spray to worry about either.

Both harbors are beautiful and charming.

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Maui – 6 a.m. at Ma’alaea Harbor 🙂

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PNW – 9 p.m. at Friday Harbor

What You Do When Watching Sunsets on Beaches

Sunsets are a big thing on any island, most likely because there’s always a west side to watch them on 🙂

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Maui – Drink and…Whatever

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PNW – Drink and Bonfire

Work Life

Being a naturalist means a lot of things, perhaps most importantly an educator and environmental activist. In Maui, it meant a lot of lifeguarding. It also means being a solid crew member and working with captains of all personalities.

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Lifeguard

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Naturalist

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Maui – Learning to drive

I’m in love with both places. Left a bit of my heart in Maui. But I’m re-finding a bit of myself up here on the San Juans. Come discover the magic for yourself and visit!

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Welcoming the sun on the south side of Kauai

 

Saying goodbye to the sun on the west side of San Juan Island

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