Finding culture and crowds at Roche Harbor

About a week before we got to Roche Harbor, I found an announcement on San Juan’s paper of record that the resort was curtailing its Fourth of July festivities this year.

There would be no games or parades. No bar entertainment, and attendance was being limited in a variety of ways to reduce the crowd size for the normally packed July 4th weekend. The tone of the announcement was full of regret and apology, blaming the party-pooping on COVID, of course.

Honestly, the idea of smaller crowds at Roche Harbor for the 4th was just fine with me.

So after a positively peaceful stay near James Island, we decided to try our luck at Roche Harbor for the holiday. We started off motoring, then rolled out the jib once the wind picked up and enjoyed a leisurely downwind sail to this well-protected harbor on the northwest side of San Juan Island.

Arriving a few days before the 4th, we were able to find a good spot in just enough water for Polaris not far from the dinghy dock near the resort.

Go for the anchorage, stay for the history

Two lime kilns near the commercial core of Roche Harbor. This resort town on the northwest side of San Juan Island is a great stop for history buffs.

We go to the San Juans to get away from the trappings of modern life, as many do. Many of the islands in the San Juan archipelago are accessible only by boat, have little development other than a few vault or composting toilets, campsites and mooring buoys set up by the Washington State Park service.

There are a few places that are developed and open to the public in the islands, however, and Roche Harbor is one of them. It’s particularly attractive to boaters because of its large, well-protected anchorage, and services that can’t be found just anywhere in the islands—grocery store, and a marina so boaters can pump out holding tanks, fuel up, top off on water and recharge batteries.

The Roche Harbor Marina

Roche Harbor has an interesting history for anyone wanting to read it, and much of that history is still visible today. It once was a log trading post for the Hudson Bay Company. Eventually, lime deposits—used to make limestone and other building materials—were discovered and fueled the islands’ lime industry in the late 1800s. In the 1950s, a Seattle businessman purchased Roche Harbor and turned it into a resort.

Today, Roche Harbor feels a bit like a little village, built around the historic Hotel de Haro (still in the traditional 19th-century layout), a few restaurants, the aforementioned grocery story and some lovely gardens. The lime kilns, now retired, still exist near the commercial core, and there are signs to explain what you are looking at and its significance.

The nature of art

“The Siren,” by Roger Small was one of my favorite sculptures at the Roche Harbor Sculpture Park.

The most interesting and surprising thing about our visit, however, was the Roche Harbor Sculpture Park. I was intrigued by the rather effusive write-up in the Waggoner Cruising Guide (a must-read for cruising boaters in the Pacific Northwest) that stated, “We spent an hour in the park and should have spent three more hours. It’s magnificent.”

I had to agree.

The best thing about the park is how immersive the experience of visiting it is, at least if you get there by foot from the waterfront. We walked along a heavily forested road that has poetry posted every few dozen feet, then arrived at a clearing and a crossroad. We crossed it and entered the park grounds, which start in a grassy meadow.

The sculptures themselves range from fairly abstract to literal, cute to grotesque. Several pieces focused on the local ecosystem and issues, such as a tribute to local orcas.

Another plus about the sculpture park: It was a great place for active, wiggly kids like our son, to run around.

Another, my favorite in the whole park, symbolized the circular relationship between the oppressed and the oppressor.

The path through the park meanders through some trees and near a marsh. We easily spent two hours there. Our kids, ages 9 and 12, were able to wander on their own for awhile and interpret the experience in their own way. This allowed us all to have some breathing space for a bit—sometimes our 39-foot sailboat feels small with all of us on board together.

Sailing and being outside offers me a lot of opportunity to think and reflect; the sculpture garden provided new fodder for my thoughts and reflections. The day we went was cloudy and cool, and probably added to the transcendent feel.

While in Roche Harbor, we also checked out the McMillin Mausoleum, now called Afterglow Vista. Embedded in forested hills above Roche Harbor’s shoreline, the memorial is full of symbolism and really needs to be experienced to be explained best. Stairs lead to a large table with stone chairs, surrounded by large columns, one of which was left deliberately unfinished—a nod to the fact that a human’s work is never done.

A complicated 4th of July

Celebrating our maddening country.

Despite the history, the art, the reflection and introspection, the real reason we came to Roche Harbor was to party and be a little social, sort of.

Roche Harbor’s Fourth of July celebration is a bit of an event in normal years, and while the pandemic cast a pallor on the holiday weekend, the fireworks were to go on.


And so they did. The rainy weather cleared up just for the Fourth, and the mood across the anchorage felt lifted and lively. More boats came into the anchorage to snag some spots further away from the shoreline, and music blared from nearby boats across the water.

After spending the day cruising the anchorage in our kayak and dinghy, we settled on the foredeck that evening with age-appropriate drinks for all. Then the sun finally dropped enough by about 10 p.m. for the first fireworks to start.

It truly was a great show, an impressive display of fire power and color reflected on the wide harbor for about a hundred boats’ worth of sailors to see. For about 30 minutes, we could forget about coronavirus, our country’s turmoil and uncertain future, about our incredibly racist and oppressive past that is clearly ever-present, and about all we need to do and change to make our country actually great.

For everyone.

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