What I Learned from Traveling to Orcas Island during a Pandemic

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.

— Albert Einstein

Mount Baker from the top of Orcas Island

Mount Baker from the top of Orcas Island

Let me offer a bit of a disclaimer before I dive too deep into talking about our time on Orcas Island. This is a travel blog, and this post does have some recommendations and suggestions for things to do on this incredible island. But it is also a reflective piece on our time here during a pandemic. It has been cathartic to write it. I hope you enjoy reading my thoughts, as well as learning a bit about what a wonderful place in the world this is to visit!

Because of COVID-19, we have found ourselves in the extraordinary position of never quite knowing where we will be laying our head at night. In a typical year, we would be traveling in Europe right now, and helping others do the same. We all know, however, that this year has been anything but normal. As digital nomads, whose only property is located in Canada, we have been bouncing from family to friends in the US this year, trying our best not to wear out our welcome.

But at the moment, we are on Orcas Island, a gorgeous piece of land that is part of the San Juan Islands, off the coast of mainland Washington State. It is always a sleepy place in the winter months, but it is especially quiet now due to the pandemic. Even so, our time here has been glorious, and I’ve learned a lot since our arrival on the ferry a few weeks ago.

Island People are Nice

The Crab Man, you can tell he’s smiling!

The Crab Man, you can tell he’s smiling!

People on Orcas Island are SO nice. I mean – everyone here is nice, from the grocery store clerk to the pharmacist to the people we pass on the trails. When we travel, we usually go out of our way to meet people. We love to get to know all kinds of interesting people wherever we go! Sadly, we haven’t exactly been able to do much of that here because of Covid – but we still get a sense of what the people are like. They are islanders – laid back, kind, and caring about others and the world in which we live.

But sometimes, a person’s thoughtfulness can take your breath away. We are astounded by the kindness and generosity of a stranger. 

You might wonder why we came to Orcas Island in the winter during a pandemic. Earlier this year, I was interviewed on NPR’s Here and Now and a listener heard that we had been couch-surfing since March. She is not able to get to her home on Orcas because of the pandemic, so she offered to let us stay here if we wanted to come to Washington State. She didn’t know us. She simply heard about a need that she could fill, and she reached out to help. We are forever grateful. Her example of thoughtfulness is a life lesson for me. 

We have had lovely, welcoming, and extremely comfortable places to stay this past year, but have rarely been on our own since we returned from Italy in March 2020. We wrote about being Nomadic Travel Planners During a Pandemic this past summer. We are truly thankful to all those who have welcomed us to their homes. Don’t worry! We might be back! But we are astonished by the kindness of our host, and our time here on Orcas Island has been lovelier and more satisfying than we even expected.

The Hiking on Orcas Island is Amazing

It’s not too much for me to say that hiking here on Orcas Island has been a balm to my soul. I’m not going to lie – this pandemic has been rough on my psyche. I know many people are struggling from the effects COVID has placed on their lives and livelihoods. I do not want to understate how hard this has been for those who have to choose between heat, and food to eat. I fully realize how lucky we are in the midst of all this. But I think this past year has affected everyone’s look at life in one way or another, even those of us who have been fortunate throughout. So, being able to walk the trails here on Orcas, and spend hours exploring nature, in a safe and socially distanced way, has been a real blessing.

A Western Red Cedar growing between two Douglas Fir

A Western Red Cedar growing between two Douglas Fir

In the weeks since we arrived on the island, we have hiked in Moran State Park, Obstruction Pass State Park, and Turtleback Mountain Preserve. It’s the loveliest form of day hiking to walk in the woods for 7-8 miles and come back to a warm, comfortable home for a cup of tea, work on the computer, and a good book. This, followed by a home-cooked meal and a roaring fire are a of little slice of heaven.

The trails take you through forests filled with Douglas Fir, Lodgepole Pines, Western Red Cedar and Garry Oak. Having grown up in the Midwest, I find the height and girth of these trees to be extraordinary. Some paths lead to views of Puget Sound that are truly magnificent. Pondering life from an open rock high in the sky while munching on a peanut butter sandwich has provided comfort that I simply didn’t anticipate.

In addition to the paths and the views being beautiful, we feel like we have the place to ourselves! Right now, we are often the only ones on the trail. It’s an advantage to being here in the winter, confirmed by the blog 5 Reasons to Love Orcas Island in the Winter. And when we do see someone, they exercise amazing COVID etiquette, masking up as soon as we come into sight. I think being by yourself on the trails even happens in the summer when there isn’t a pandemic. You can see that in The New York Times piece: Loneliness and its Antidote on Orcas Island. Hiking here is pure bliss. I highly recommend it!

Reflecting on Life on Orcas Island

Fresh Orcas Island Dungeness Crab

Fresh Orcas Island Dungeness Crab

There really is a lot to do on this amazing island, especially if you love woods and water. As mentioned, the hiking trails are fantastic. There is also mountain biking and road biking and opportunities to go whale watching. There are great places to eat, I’m told, but many are closed for the season and for Covid. Those that are open are being very creative, with pizza subscriptions and Sunday pop-ups. Getting fresh Dungeness crab at the Co-op and cooking them up for dinner is all the entertainment I need right now!

But nature has been my teacher while we have been here. I am learning so much by being immersed in this environment. There is lots of time to think and observe and reflect when you are walking 5-6 hours nearly every day.

In the woods, I notice the trees and rocks and moss that is most unusual. I don’t notice the regular forest growth so much, but am attracted to what is different from the rest. We remark on these, and on how extraordinary and beautiful they are. That makes me wonder about people who are “different.” Sometimes we tend to shy away from them. Instead, we should embrace their unique nature, and appreciate their distinct characteristics. They are the special ones, just like the tree that is unusually bent, or the roots that are remarkably knobby. The anomaly in the forest is the one I find most beautiful. I feel like I should take this on as a life lesson as well.

I also see objects in the forest and compare them to other things I am familiar with – the Grinch, a drama mask, an octopus, a Halloween tree. It’s fun to make these comparisons. But perhaps I should just accept them as they are, with their own unique beauty.

The Grinch's fur in moss

The Grinch’s fur in moss

An abandoned mask by the trail

An abandoned mask by the trail

An octopus in the woods

An octopus in the woods

Halloween on a lakeshore

Halloween on a lakeshore

The trees offer us great wisdom. Some of them have been here for hundreds of years. They were on this island, growing, facing winds and storms and droughts, long before our country was even founded. As I walk through the woods and admire their longevity and strength, I see beauty, vision and hope. They have survived so much, faced challenges, have scars, and still stand strong. We can get through this.

The tallest trees often have no branches on the bottom. Earlier limbs have fallen off and left tiny scars that you don’t even notice anymore unless you look really hard. Will this be our experience after this pandemic period morphs into the next stage? Will we survive, more beautiful than before, and stronger still, because we have moved through this time? I hope so.

There are Certain Things I Really Miss

We are being extra careful traveling during this pandemic. We are doing our part to try not to get the coronavirus, so we don’t spread it, and clog up the healthcare system. That means that we aren’t doing a lot of what we normally love to do when we travel.

Sometimes we just don’t know where we’ll end up

Sometimes we just don’t know where we’ll end up

Usually we are learning about culture and history, meeting people, and checking out the restaurants and wineries. There is a great list of restaurants on Orcas on the Chamber of Commerce website, but most are closed now due to the season and the pandemic, and those that are open are mostly take-out only. The fact that we can’t do what we typically do when we travel, but we are still loving it, makes me ask myself why we really travel.

I believe it is to experience new things. It’s to grow and hopefully become better than we were before. To develop new perspectives and understandings. This is why I love exploring the cultural differences between countries, and why I am enjoying being enveloped in my natural surroundings. Because I hope to learn and grow from the experience.

Reading is Fundamental

I read a lot. I have read so much about people and politics and pandemics in the last year that I think my head just might explode. Between my many multiple “devices” I really do get burned out sometimes. There are just too many screens. There’s an excessive amount of “noise.” This has taken me away from reading books for pure pleasure.

Here on Orcas, I am finding the peace of mind to step away from my screens a bit and read some good books. I’ve missed it. Elsewhere, I would just get too distracted to concentrate on a novel for pleasure. But here, I’m somehow able to sit back and really enjoy reading again. Maybe it’s the crackling fire that makes it all so warm and wonderful.

Where Do We Go from Here?

Not all the days have been clear blue skies

Not all the days have been clear blue skies

We are still sorting that out. We have tried to buy a house, but haven’t found the right fit. We made a decision to travel 4 years ago, and that has simply been difficult lately, although we are still finding a way. Hopefully, as you follow our journey you will know when it will be safe for you to travel too.

I really do want to caution everyone to be extremely careful if you decide to venture out. If you are going to travel, do it safely. Do not go anywhere near crowds, and if you are going to eat at a restaurant, choose one with outdoor dining. Support local restaurants by ordering take out.

Even though we are in the business of selling travel, we first and foremost want you to be safe. We all need to do our part to stop the spread of the virus.

Traveling with masks and social distancing will likely be the way we move forward. Double masking, using a medical mask and a cloth mask over it, is even better. Vaccinations and testing will help significantly, we just aren’t sure how long it will take to distribute them to enough people. Variants are definitely an issue. Travel will be different as we move through the next stages of this pandemic.

Domestic travel will open first. Each country handles the situation differently, so staying abreast of regulations is important. Euro Travel Coach can help with that. Check out our Covid Resources on our website. You can also drop me an email if I can help you understand the rules for where you want to go. Some require tests. Some require quarantine. Some will likely require vaccination in the future.  

As you can see, I have learned a lot during my time here on Orcas. Perhaps patience, kindness, and an even greater appreciation for nature, are among my most important lessons. Stay well, everyone!

Contemplating the meaning of it all on Orcas Island

Contemplating the meaning of it all on Orcas Island

 Dreaming of travel to Europe when things open up again? We can help with that! We are here for your custom trip planning to Italy, France, Ireland, the UK and all of Europe. We are experts in creating custom travel itineraries and leading small group trips to European destinations. We also book European cruises! Feel free to reach out via email — We’re always available to talk about travel!

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Betsy Ball – Betsy is co-founder and partner of Euro Travel Coach (ETC), which crafts custom European vacations for independent travelers and leads small group trips to Europe. She is a passionate and culturally curious traveler who thoroughly enjoys sharing her love for exploring Europe with ETC clients. Prior to founding ETC, Betsy taught International Business at Tarleton State University in Texas (part of the A & M System) where she led study abroad trips to multiple European countries and other worldwide destinations. She retired from teaching two and a half years ago and now travels 9 months of the year in Europe. She has a degree in hotel, restaurant management from Michigan State University and an MBA from Southern Methodist University in Dallas. She also holds a Level 3 certification from the Wine & Spirits Education Trust.

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