So, you have been invited to dinner at a friend’s house. You were told to go down to Crescent Beach, turn at the tank, go through Raccoon Hollow, past the hatchery, and right past Flaherty’s Hill. Once down the third driveway on the left (which you had been warned may be muddy and full of potholes), you were told that if you passed the goats, you had gone too far. Already running late, you frantically input the keywords “Raccoon Hollow” into your GPS. “We are sorry, we could not find your destination. Make sure your search is spelled correctly.” You jump in your car and pray for a road sign along the way.
Newcomers and visitors to Orcas Island must quickly adapt to the ambiguous instructions and directions that come from long-time islanders. Unmarked, but well-established, local landmarks, such as Fowler’s Corner, Shaeffer’s Stretch, and Flaherty’s Hill cover the entire landscape of the island. In this article, I will be giving a concise guide to navigating the island and translating the obscure geographical terms of the locals.
The first and most difficult mode of direction used by islanders is the use of livestock, mailboxes, notable rocks, and flora as markers. They can be quite vague, but there are a few surefire ways to further specify your route. Keep in mind that a ‘red mailbox’ can mean anything from a light pink to a maroon, or even a mailbox that was once red long ago. There will be many herds of chickens, sheep, and goats, and pay careful attention to the distinctions between the packs when you are given your instructions. Having a reference sheet for different types of trees, flowers, and alpacas is also helpful, as a madrona tree leaning across the road or a family farm is often a significant marker.
The next issue is the unofficially named sections of land. Asking for clarifications in these locations can often lead to further confusion. When told to go to the map corner, asking for an explanation can result in an answer of ‘between Shaeffer’s Stretch and Fowler’s Pond.’ (Neither of which you will find marked on any map.) The most efficient way to understand these directions is to ask several locals for reference points. Before departing, find out the previous three or four owners of the houses around your destination. A house positioned at a critical turn will often be referred to by the island residents by name of the past occupants. If your end destination is the home of a longtime island family, cross-referencing their name with the name of streets in their area can prove helpful, as you may find a clue to their general whereabouts.
The final tip I have to offer when navigating Orcas is the key role of deer. Not only do you need to be aware of the deer’s crossing patterns and general habits while driving, but you must also note their part in Orcas’ geographical terminology. Doe Bay, Buck Mountain, Deer Point, Buck Park, Fawn Island, the Buckhorn neighborhood, Dancing Deer Lane, Buck Bay, and Deer Harbor are all prime examples. There can be quite a lot of confusion distinguishing between these places, and it is generally best to phone a friend. It also serves as a good reminder to be cautious and aware of the many deer you will undeniably encounter on your trek across Orcas.