In most towns and cities, the word “commute” conjures an image of concrete, gridlock traffic jams—but not in the San Juan Islands.
Many islanders from Lopez, Orcas and Shaw commute five days a week to work or attend school on the more bustling island of San Juan. On a typical day for the average island commuter, sea life, algae-covered-pilings, and towering evergreens are all part of the daily grind. But what the ferry commute makes up for in scenic beauty and leisure time aboard, it lacks in flexibility.
Shaw Island sisters and sophomores Adriena and Kendra Pew chose to attend Friday Harbor High School for its reputation in academic excellence. They adhere to a strict schedule of waking up and eating breakfast, with few minutes to spare before it’s time to head out the door and catch the ferry.
“We’ve been riding ferries our entire lives, so that wasn’t a new experience,” Adriena said. “But getting up early and coming home later, we had to learn to be patient and use our time wisely.”
Being fixed to a schedule doesn’t limit the Pew sisters. They’ve learned to work around their time constraints and often do homework on the afternoon commute so they can relax for the few hours they have at home, before it’s time to get up and do it all over again. Both girls participate in an array of extracurricular activities, like the school play, Orca Bowl, and track and field. When an event they’ve committed to runs later than the last ferry scheduled, they stay with a friend in Friday Harbor.
San Juan County Prosecuting Attorney Randy Gaylord is the self-proclaimed “longest ferry commuter that rides the inter-island ferry.” Gaylord has been commuting from Orcas to Friday Harbor since 1995. He’s only missed the ferry back home once, but reserves the right to miss the ferry in the morning three to four times a year. He’s seen changes on the ferry over the years.
“When I first started there were no cell phones, no internet,” he said. “It was more of a time to talk to people.”
Electronic distractions or not, people on the ferry still use the time to catch up with fellow islanders. Some people use the time to catch up on sleep, while others get ahead on exercise.
Nursing a knee injury, these days Gaylord spends his time on the boat doing physical therapy.
“Everybody makes the commute what they want,” he said. “When I arrive on the ferry it gives me a good separation from the office and I’m ready to close down my day.”
Dr. Leyardia Black, a naturopath from Lopez, sees patients three times per week in Friday Harbor. She’s been riding the ferry for many years, and finds time more precious as she’s gotten older.
“The older I get, the challenge is time,” she said. “I have to finish my work when I get home.”
Black has developed friendships over the years with fellow ferry-riders, and the bonds she’s formed are cherished mementos. Even when the schedule changes, and the ferry ride home becomes the later and longer “milk run,” she won’t be complaining.
“It beats driving on the 1-5,” she said.
Ferry workers are also important members of the commuter community. From high school graduates to retirees, they’ve welcomed newcomers and said goodbye to those that have moved on. Washington State Ferries deckhand Craig Hanson has worked in the San Juans since the year 2000 and has been able to get to know the daily riders.
“That’s why I work here instead of the other routes,” Hanson said. “Because it’s 90 percent commuters.”