Unplugging in Prevost Harbor

Stuart Island is largely for off-the-grid living.

Stuart Island 000 copyThe San Juan Islands are a lovely boating destination any time of year. We went in the spring, when weather can be a challenge, but the payoff is having to deal with fewer other boats. An ideal stop in the islands is Stuart Island Marine State Park. The park has two harbors, Reid Harbor and Prevost Harbor, separated by an isthmus. Both harbors offer secure anchorage and moorage, but our preference is Prevost Harbor because it provides better protection from the prevailing southeasterly wind.

Stuart Island is the northwesternmost island in the San Juans, only accessible by boat, situated threeand- a-half nautical miles north of San Juan Island’s popular Roche Harbor and 11 miles northwest of Friday Harbor.

Entering Prevost Harbor from its east end is not advisable. At high tide, it may appear safe for passage, but it’s full of drying reefs and rocks. Many boats have left their mark. The safest entrance into the harbor is between Charles Point and west of Satellite Island. Stay in the middle of the channel and harbor until you’re adjacent to the park dock. It would be wise to consult your charts before your arrival. Several well-charted shoals lurk beneath the surface, and boaters tempted to take shortcuts may find themselves unhappily impaled on barnacle-covered rocks.Stuart Island 021 copy

The mile-long, three-tenths-of-a-milewide harbor contains a park dock with a year-round 128-foot float, seven buoys, linear moorage, and plenty of good anchorage in 20 to 30 feet of water over a mud and kelp bottom.

The harbor’s shoreline and shoaling rocks are wonderful to explore by kayak or dinghy, offering plenty of sealife and wildlife for viewing. As Arlene and I slowly motored the dinghy around the harbor, seals were sunning, a family of nine otters was roaming along the shoreline, a couple of eagles were soaring overhead and a school of small fish was surfing and jumping, forming a mosaic of ripples on the surface.

Stuart Island is the eighth largest in the San Juan archipelago and named by the Wilkes Expedition in 1841 in honor of Frederick D. Stuart, the captain’s clerk on the expedition. The park was acquired in four transactions between 1952 and 1975, purchased from the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Coast Guard and the Washington Department of Natural Resources.

Today, approximately 15 year-round residents call the 1,786-acre island home. There are no “amenities” associated with city living: no electricity, telephones, cable TV or running water. Islanders have adapted with solar panels, generators, wells and propane.

Stuart Island offers boaters plenty of opportunity to get off the boat and stretch their legs. The eight-tenths-of-a-mile eastern loop trail wanders from the head of the dock along the harbor’s shoreline, across the island through a forest and back west atop the rocky cliffs overlooking Reid Harbor. In the springtime, the air is filled with the sticky sweet fragrance of madrona blossoms and Nootka roses. The moss on the forest floor is lush like a vivid green carpet. Overlooking Reid Harbor, in the afternoon sun, are a couple of bowls worn in the rocks where coastal Native Americans used pestles and the rock bowls as a mortar to crush and grind dried roots of the Camas plant into flour.Stuart Island 022 copy

A second one-mile trail loops the west end of the park. With fewer visitors during our visit, we were lucky enough to see some of the island’s bashful resident deer. That’s not often the case during the height of the season.

A third trail leads visitors to the island’s schoolhouse and beyond to Turn Point Lighthouse. From the dock, the trail leads across the isthmus west over the rocky bluff above Reid Harbor, and then drops down a steep set of stairs to the beach at the harbor’s head and a gravel county road.

The road climbs for about half a mile to the site of the island’s schools. The schoolyard in the forest is the site of the original turn-of-the-century one-room schoolhouse, which served generations of children from Stuart and neighboring islands. In the early 1980s, a new modern wood and glass openplan building was constructed and the old school building served as the island’s museum and school library. But, sadly, it has since closed. Today, there is only one school-aged child in residence on the island, which isn’t enough to justify keeping the school open.

The schoolhouse is at the heart of the small community and during the summer months this is where visitors will find a treasure chest out front. It’s filled with T-shirts, note cards and other souvenirs sold on the honor system. Each item is packaged with an IOU and an envelope for you to mail a check when you reach civilization again.

Just past the school, bear right onto the county road and continue to the intersection with the road that climbs up from the county wharf at the head of Prevost Harbor, past a few homes. Here, on a clear day, look east over the pasture and you’ll be rewarded with a spectacular view of snowcapped Mt. Baker floating on the horizon.Stuart Island 051 copy

Turn left and follow the road deeper into the island’s rugged interior and into another place and time. As you near Turn Point, all signs of civilization disappear and the forest closes in.

The lighthouse has been preserved as a historic site by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The signal building, keeper’s home and barn were built in 1893 and manned until the light was automated in 1974.

The view from rocky Turn Point is one of the best in the San Juans. It sweeps from Saturna Island’s East Point to the east, past the Pender Islands, up Swanson Channel to Saltspring Island, and then southwest down Haro Strait toward Victoria, B.C. This is a breathtaking spot and one of our fav    orite locations in the islands for a picnic. Turn Point has more to offer than a panoramic view. It’s routine to see freighters and tankers cruising to and from Vancouver, B.C. During one of our visits, we spotted a pod of orcas sliding up the west side of the island and around Turn Point, a very memorable experience.Stuart Island 029 copy


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