Lopez Island, By the Numbers

July 29, 2011

30 years ago, my mom drove me to the parking lot of a church on a Tuesday morning in late June.  In that parking lot were several buses, lots of moms, and even more kids.  It was my first day of camp, 1981, and my first time going away for more than a slumber party night.  I was 10, almost 11, and I was terrified.  I only knew one girl and she was a year older than me and therefore in a different unit, a different world in camp terms.  We had never visited the camp and I had no real idea of what to expect other than that I would be able to ride horses.  (Like many girls that age, I was obsessed with horses – until I got bucked off of Nellie Gray and my obsession turned to fear.)  I didn’t know that I would be sleeping in a wood-framed but canvas-topped tent, that it would rain everyday for the first week, that I would feel hungrier and colder than I ever had in my short life, and that I would watch the road for signs of my mom coming to pick me up to save me from almost unbearable homesickness.

I also didn’t know that at Camp Nor’wester I would learn how to build a campfire on my very first day, sit in a wagon pulled by Clydesdale horses in a 4th of July parade; learn to sail; swim in water so cold it made my teeth ache; spend every Sunday at non-denominational chapel, eating from a giant bowl of banana split at Sunday “supper”, and taking a hike for peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in the evening.  I didn’t know that I would learn to sleep with my jeans under my sleeping bag so they didn’t freeze in the night; fall in love with an 11 year-old boy; dance the Virginia Reel; sing songs of breathtaking beauty; and feel like my heart was being ripped out of my body when it came time to say goodbye to my beloved counselors and friends.  That was only the first year.  In later years, I learned to play the guitar and sing in front of the whole camp, fell in love with plenty more boys, got bucked off more horses, and found out that the best bakery in the world was just down the road.  I have long said that I want to have my ashes scattered over Sperry Peninsula and I know many former campers feel the same way.

(The ferry landing on Lopez.)

20 years ago, my parents took off on a wonderful-sounding trip to Calgary and Banff, Alberta.  They decided to drive and I was between my junior and senior years on college at the time so I was excited to have the house to myself for two whole weeks.  Just before the Canadian border, they were stopped at the bottom of an exit ramp and a car plowed into them from behind at high speed.  The trunk of the car got pushed up all the way to the passenger seats but thankfully, neither of them was hurt.  In spite of the fact that the car was now completely undriveable, they were determined to have their vacation.  They came back to Seattle, re-grouped, rented a car, and threw together a trip to the San Juan Islands and Victoria, B.C.  By this point, they had been going up to Lopez for ten years visiting me and later my brothers in camp and they too had fallen in love with the island.

(Deer are everywhere on Lopez.  If you sit still on our deck for long enough, they will come out of the trees and walk right by you, looking into your eyes as they pass.)

On that trip, in 1991, it rained.  They were staying in a bed and breakfast and they were bored so they walked to town and into a real estate office.  A woman in the office said she had a place they had to see and away they went.  My parents had looked at property before but nothing seemed right.  This one was just right.  It needed some work, it was too dark, had very dated finishes, a deck that was about to collapse, and other problems.  But it was on a bluff overlooking Mud Bay, had easy waterfront access, was just about the right size (small) and, in an amazing twist of fate, faced our beloved Camp Nor’wester.  On a quiet summer evening, we could hear the campers singing after meals and hear the morning bell.  Minor construction began and by the following summer, the house was ready for use.  Since that time, and because of two men’s greed, the camp is no longer there, in spite of the fact that it changed people’s lives for almost 60 years.  We no longer hear singing or wake-up bells and we no longer see teepees across the water or smoke coming from the fire pit in the long house built in the Kwakkiutl style.  We see four monstrous houses with slate roofs built by Paul Allen, one of the founders of Microsoft, one of the world’s billionaires, and a man who almost never sets foot on that beautiful property.

Even though camp is no longer there, I treasure that view and offer heartfelt thanks that my parents had the vision for it.  (Camp Nor’wester continues to thrive on another island in the San Juans.  Our children will go there when they are old enough.)  For half my life we have had that house.  I’ve been up with friends, co-workers, family, my ex-husband, current husband, in-laws, and my children.  There is that cliche “if these walls could talk”.  But oh, if those walls could talk.

(This the super high tech kayak rack that my dad rigged up on the beach.)

10 years ago, in the winter of 2001, I brought Randy to the Lopez house for the first time.  We had only been dating a few months and I was almost more worried about that introduction than I was bringing him to meet my parents for the first time.  I knew my parents would love him, former Navy pilot, Harvard MBA, brilliant and kind.  But would he love Lopez?  Would he understand what a special place it is, how important it had been and would always be in my life?  No need to worry of course.  It is a magical island, something he surely would have picked up on even if I hadn’t been along to share the most special parts of it.  I love that we went in the winter together, something I had never really done before.

(Beaches are rocky on Lopez, not a lot of sand.  And that water is bone chillingly cold.  We don’t do much swimming.)

9 years ago, on Valentine’s Day, after a little over a year together, Randy asked me to marry him.  He did it on a most special beach, one I had discovered as a camper.  He likes to tell the story that he asked me, showed me the ring, and that I ran away.  That is not true.  I was overcome and I turned away – there was no running involved.  I had made an unfortunate choice in my first marriage.  I had wasted two years on a re-bound guy that was everything but right for me.  To find myself on my favorite beach, contemplating a life that I had always wanted with someone who was right for me…  It was too much in the moment.  Thankfully, I quickly recovered and said yes.

Later that year, August 24, 2002 to be exact, we got married in the little church on Lopez.  How could we marry anywhere else?  We had a tiny ceremony on a sunny day and our families and very closest friends were present.  It was a perfect day in every way including dinner at our favorite Lopez restaurant and dancing to a bad cover band in the island’s dive bar.  There are several ways to drive back to our house from town and from one of the roads, you can see the church in the distance.  These days, it always makes me catch my breath.  When we went in May, Graham said, “That’s where Mommy and Daddy got married,” to which Spencer replied, “Where were we?”

(4 kids in jammies in the hammock.  What more do you needOK, maybe a cinnamon roll.)

We headed to Lopez last weekend with some dear friends.  Because Randy was on his way back from New Orleans, I drove the familiar route along I-5 and then Route 20 taking us to the town of Anacortes where we catch the ferry.  Randy is usually the family driver, so me being in the driver’s seat allowed me to really think about where I was going and why.  How many times have I driven that path, in how many different cars, with how many different people, in how many different phases of my life.  Camper, daughter, sister, employee,  girlfriend, friend, daughter-in-law, wife, mother.  Lopez will continue to be an important part of our family’s life and I am grateful.

(Randy kayaking with Spencer on his lap.  The piece of land to the left is the previous Camp Nor’wester and the white blob above it is 10,777 foot Mt. Baker.)


  1. What a lovely glimpse into a very special place! Nuni always asks where she was when she sees our wedding photos. My answer? “You were a twinkle in your daddy’s eye.” (K was ready for kids long before I was)

    Comment by Kate @ Savour Fare — July 29, 2011 @ 6:54 pm

  2. Such a beautiful post–love the way you write!

    Comment by natalie (the sweets life) — July 29, 2011 @ 7:53 pm

  3. This is, hands-down, my favorite post of yours to date.

    Comment by cheryl — July 29, 2011 @ 8:01 pm

  4. How wonderful the way you bring the island alive! I wish I had read this before we visited Lopez Island. Our trip there was only for part of one day.

    Comment by Kelly — July 29, 2011 @ 8:16 pm

  5. Wonderful post! Brought tears to my eyes. I just emailed my hubby the link to Nor’wester Camp stating I hope our little one can attend this camp when he’s old enough.


    Comment by Lisa — July 29, 2011 @ 8:25 pm

  6. I love Lope – one of my favorite San Juan Islands. I myself went to Camp Orkila, and have many similar memories. There’s nowhere else like it in the world.

    Comment by CarMar — July 29, 2011 @ 9:07 pm

  7. I loved your reminiscing about Camp Norwester days & wish we had known Lopez then. It’s a magical place for us too – funny how many people use that word – and we now own a little place of our own, dangerously close to those world famous cinnamon buns. There is something about driving off the ferry on Lopez – you’ll know it when you experience it – “home!”

    Comment by Becki — July 29, 2011 @ 10:02 pm

  8. Funny, I just posted about the deer being everywhere, but I meant all over my yard! We have lots of wildlife–beautiful owls, butterflies that I love, but the deer are too hard on the garden.

    Lovely post btw!

    Comment by nancy baggett — July 29, 2011 @ 11:47 pm

  9. I, too, have many fond memories of Lopez–including Holly B’s! I even stayed in a place on Mud Bay, crabbing and kayaking around your old camp. It is a truly special place that I hope to return to in the not to distant future.

    Comment by Desert Lean-to — July 30, 2011 @ 3:09 am

  10. loved reading this, so special…life is pretty amazing.

    Comment by sara — July 30, 2011 @ 5:11 am

  11. Oh I adore all these stories! The one of Randy proposing, Spencer’s reply to where he and Graham were during your wedding, the days at camp… and that part in the car, where you contemplated all the different roles you had filled in your life when visiting Lopez. I love moments like that.

    Comment by Clara — July 30, 2011 @ 12:31 pm

  12. This was such a beautifully written post, Dana, and you’ve made me want to head straight to Lopez island so that I can experience it for myself. It does sound truly magical and I’m so glad you shared it with us!

    Comment by Joanne — July 30, 2011 @ 5:58 pm

  13. This is a beautifully written reflection. I hope that I can visit the island someday.

    Comment by linda — July 30, 2011 @ 7:51 pm

  14. I love reading about your life and Lopez and what a clear and constant character that it has been in it. Very sweet.

    Comment by julie — July 30, 2011 @ 8:13 pm

  15. Oh this made me cry. I’ve heard you talk about the island, but wow is this a lovely piece of writing. For someone who has her own camp, her own beloved island, I totally get it. xox

    Comment by tea_austen — July 31, 2011 @ 5:43 pm

  16. Such a beautiful story and pictures Dana! Our family also has special memories of being at the beach. Dave & I and our kids just celebrated our 23rd anniversary at our place on Camano this weekend. The peacefulness of being “at the beach” is so special. Having teens now, it’s great to get away from all of the electronics, friends and business of their lives to regroup and reconnect. I wish you and your family many more happy memories at your special place on Lopez.

    Comment by Cathy Habib — August 1, 2011 @ 3:31 am

  17. I just came from a visit from a much bigger island that holds my camp memories and I love this post. I’ve only visited Lopez a couple of times but I loved it. The things that stick in my mind are the rabbits that overran the yard of the house I was staying in and the Lopez wave. Beautiful island and beautiful post.

    Comment by Charlotte — August 1, 2011 @ 5:07 am

  18. Loved reading this post. Beautiful photos too!

    Comment by Maria — August 1, 2011 @ 4:31 pm

  19. I got a little choked up at your engagement story. I have never heard it before. How sweet!

    Comment by Catherine — August 1, 2011 @ 7:50 pm

  20. What a wonderful place and how great that it’s close by and you can visit often. Your children are no doubt building great memories there too. Happy Birthday, again. I hope you’re thoroughly enjoying your 41st year!

    Comment by lisaiscooking — August 1, 2011 @ 9:15 pm

  21. Love the Lopez posts, as usual. If you ever stop writing them, I will be sad.

    Comment by Hilary — August 1, 2011 @ 9:16 pm

  22. Dana, your beautiful writings about the people and places you love always bring tears to my eyes. I’ve got a few Polaroids of my grandparents’ early 1980s trip to Lopez and I remember my grandma saying how much she loved it there. It makes me happy knowing such a special place continues to delight.

    A little early, but Happy 9th to you and Randy!

    Comment by Steph — August 2, 2011 @ 5:57 pm

  23. Hi, Dana:

    I went to Camp Nor’wester the same time you did. I think I’m about three years older than you. Unfortunately, I have not been back since my last year in 1984. Thank you for your great essay about your life and Sperry Peninsula and Camp Nor’wester.

    Like many of us, Paul Allen ripped part of my heart out. I can imagine hundreds of us cringing every time we hear his name, or see the absurd ways he spends his money.

    I came across your site when doing a search on Mr. Baker. we tried in 1984 but didn’t make it to the summit. So miserable and wet, but great fun in retrospect!

    Take care…

    Comment by Josh — December 21, 2011 @ 11:12 pm

  24. Hi Dana,

    I’m not entirely sure how I ended up here, but I need to tell you that your post about your connection with Lopez Island is just mesmerizing.

    It makes me want to sell my house, get on a plane and go live there. :)

    Take care,

    The Netherlands

    Comment by Antonette — June 12, 2012 @ 8:29 am

  25. Hi Dana, I just found this post for my 9 year old daughter to read. I am dropping her off at that church parking lot on Monday for two weeks at Camp Nor’wester. Best of luck to you with your move and I do hope you will continue to come back for the yoga retreats. What would we do without your wonderful food at those retreats.

    thankful to still have your blog, though!

    Maria Dozeman

    Comment by Maria Kelly Dozeman — June 20, 2012 @ 8:50 pm

Leave a comment