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San Juan Island for whale watching

By Jon Bauer,
Staff Writer,
Anacortes American

Were it not for cooler heads and Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany you might be plunking down Canada's colorful currency for that "I (heart) Friday Harbor" T-shirt.

A long-standing border dispute between Her Majesty and her formerly loyal subjects in the States very nearly came to blows in 1859 over the ownership of the San Juan Islands. Fortunately, the only casualty was a Hudson's Bay pig who rooted up the wrong potato patch.

Island viewSan Juan Island, the site of the aborted war, offers visitors something for every interest. Shoppers, bicyclists, hikers, sport fishers, beachcombers, history buffs, whale watchers, boaters, photographers and others cross paths on the archipelago's second largest island.

The ferry lands you in Friday Harbor, the island's only incorporated town and San Juan County's seat of government. Friday Harbor plies its visitors with many tourist shops, galleries and restaurants. Other attractions in town include the Whale Museum and the San Juan Island Historical Museum, a two-story home a half-mile from the ferry landing on Price Street. The Whale Museum features displays and short films on cetaceans, life-sized models and whale skeletons. And opening this year is a special exhibit based on the richly illustrated children's book, "The Storm Boy." The museum is three blocks from the ferry landing at 62 First Street.

Friday Harbor and the San Juans gained some fame as the backdrop for the Free Willy movies, which have since spawned movements to free other captive whales, including Keiko, who played Willy before being replaced by mechnical whale-bots for the sequel.

Those who would rather watch truly free whales can take a bus, drive their cars or ride their bikes to Lime Kiln Point State Park on the island's west side, otherwise known as Whale Watching Park.

Whale-watchers cling like barnacles to Lime Kiln's rocky shoreline waiting for a glimpse of orcas, Minke whales, Dall's porpoises (which often are mistaken for orcas), harbor porpoises and seals. The orcas normally pass through Haro Straight during the summer months, but biologists have found no definite pattern to when the orcas pass through the straight on their way to feed on salmon and seals. Be patient and try to make more than one trip to the park, and you may be rewarded.

Lime Kiln LighthouseThere are no guarantees that the whales will appear, but on a nice day with a warming sun and the sound of pounding surf, one can hardly complain.

Those who do grow weary of the wait can take a short walk along the shore to the Lime Kiln Lighthouse, built in 1919 and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Heading south along West Side Road offers a view to rival Highway 101. Across Haro Straight you can see the Olympics to the south and Victoria, British Columbia and the Saanich Peninsula and Victoria to the west.

Continue south and follow the signs to the American Camp of the San Juan Island National Historical Park. The American Camp and it's northern neighbor, the British Camp, are what remains of "The Pig War," a military build-up that had more to do with a clerical error than the shooting of a pig. Park brochures and displays reveal what almost brought U.S. and English troops to hurling lead at each other.

A few original buildings still remain at both camps. And the American camp offers an interpretive center with the Pig War story and a short walk through the camp site with plaques offering glimpses into what was there. A recently built white picket fence now shows the extent of the camp. In one corner, an officers' duplex, the laundress' quarters and a flagpole are all that remains of the camp.

A self-guided tour leads visitors around the grounds of the former encampment, and displays provide some interesting facts.

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