Guemes Island homes, real estate, and tranquility… seven minutes, yet worlds away.
Though it is only a seven-minute ferry ride across Guemes Channel from downtown Anacortes, (and less than two hours from the drum beat of Seattle), Guemes Island feels worlds away and that is the way islanders want to keep it.
An eight square-mile patchwork of fields, farms, orchards, and sun-dappled woodlands, Guemes Island offers a laid-back, peaceful alternative to today’s over-booked schedules, with the commercial conveniences of friendly, small town of Anacortes just across the channel.
A busy community center and whopping dose of local spirit fuel Guemes’s slow-paced, rural character. Though artists’ studios and telecommuters’ home offices are tucked into the landscape and down beckoning gravel roads, Anderson’s General Store is Guemes’s lone commercial establishment. And while residents originally resisted its opening, Anderson’s, located adjacent to the Guemes ferry landing, is now a much-loved gathering spot, serving up daily breakfast, lunch, dinner, evening entertainment, and a sure-fire place to catch up on local doings.
The store’s motto sums up island sentiment: “If we don’t have it, we’ll explain how you can get along without it.”
Partying and working together
Guemes Islanders have long pitched in to get work done as well as to celebrate their accomplishments. The New Year’s Day Polar Bear Plunge kicks off the year, followed by the Woodchopper’s Ball (February), 10-k Dog Island Run (June), July Fourth Parade, Halloween Party, and Holiday Bazaar (November), as well as plant and rummage sales and gallery tours.
Residents of the tight-knit community also gather frequently for weekly lunches, health screenings, soup suppers, Friday family nights, yoga classes, local history and alternative energy discussions (the firehouse is solar-equipped), and to support the island’s small library, manage the busy community center, or rally to help preserve a valuable natural resource.
Guemesians are committed to preserving their island’s rural character while supporting the community’s needs.
The modest fee for the community center’s weekly lunches supports an innovative service program to help keep all Guemes residents’ regardless of age or income active and healthy. Guemes Connects provides community members with free and low-fee transportation for doctor’s visits, shopping, visiting, public transit connections, and trips to various off-island destinations. Guemes Connects also offers assistance with meals, respite care, home maintenance, and even computer problems.
And in another example of island spirit, community members recently joined forces with San Juan Preservation Trust and Skagit Land Trust to preserve the island’s tallest spot-Guemes Mountain. “The mountain,” as the 700-foot peak is fondly referred to, includes 70 acres of undeveloped woodlands and wildflower-washed meadows with 360-degree, unobstructed views of the Cascade Mountains and San Juan Islands. Acquisition of the parcel would ensure the property remains undeveloped and open to the public. Some $560,000 remains to be raised of the $2.2 million goal.
For every day adventure, Guemes Island residents and visitors need only step outside to find clamming, crabbing, fishing, boating, hiking, biking, kayaking, and birding, to walk the mile-long stretch of public beach by the ferry landing (respectful visitors are usually welcome to explore most private beaches as well), or simply to watch in amazement as the sun rises or sets. And in addition to two local community parks, access to a host of activities like scuba diving, charter fishing, and whale-watch and sea kayak tours are available just across the channel in Anacortes.
For both locals and curious off-islanders, an island website offers a vibrant sampling of island doings and conversations. On-island, the dockside chalkboard, an active community center, church, library, and food and music gatherings at Anderson’s General Store keep everyone connected.
Homes sweet homes …
With miles of shoreline, many Guemes Island homes benefit from jaw-dropping views of the surrounding San Juan Islands as well as, to the east, dramatic glacier-capped Mt. Baker and the Cascade Mountain range. Nestled within its orchards and woodlands, interior island homes soak in Guemes’s pastoral charm.
Residences range from back-to-basics to spectacular. While residents from all income and social strata work side-by-side on common causes, the places they call home can vary from seasonal cabins and handcrafted, off-the-grid homes to dramatic cliffside perches, and private Northwest woodland getaways. There’s also land available to build your dream escape, quaint beachside cottage, or the perfect retirement home.
While there are no public campgrounds on Guemes Island, visitors can get a taste of island life-or enjoy a romantic getaway-with a stay at Guemes Island Resort or by booking one of the many vacation rentals.
Guemes Island was first identified by noted explorer George Vancouver in 1778, though evidence of prior use by native populations exists in several island locations and historical accounts. The island was named during a 1791 Spanish exploration of the area in honor of the Viceroy of Mexico Juan Vicente de Güemes Padilla Horcasitas y Aguayo, 2nd Count of Revillagigedo!
The first European homesteader, Jim Matthews, moved to Guemes in 1865, followed shortly by an orchardist and shop keeper, plus farmers, loggers, shinglemakers, some unsuccessful miners, and even a smuggler, who brought in Chinese laborers (as well as opium and wool) through Canada at $500 a person. By 1871 the island boasted a population of 100.
Islanders have always relied on the water for transportation. To stock up on supplies or to see a doctor, early settlers rowed to La Conner. Passing steamers brought passengers, freight, and mail and picked up wood to fuel their engines. Privately operated ferry service began in the 1890s, becoming regular in the early 1900s. In 1963 Skagit County bought the existing ferry and took over service.
By the end of the first decade of the 1900s, Guemes Island was a successful farming community, with thriving orchards and berry, vegetable, dairy, and poultry farms.
Spearheaded by the Ladies Social Club, money was raised and, in 1914, the present community hall built. Over the years, islanders regularly volunteered labor and contributions to clear roads, build a school (today, students attend school in Anacortes), church, and fire hall, improve the ferry dock, and remodel the original social hall.
Guemes Island also has seen its share of industry, including shrimp fishing and a shipyard that employed 600 people during World War I. Following the first Anacortes’s arts and crafts festival in 1962, the area began to attract artists and writers, who continue to be a vibrant part of Guemes culture.
Attesting to the island’s continuing appeal, descendants of many of the early settlers are among the approximately 800 current island residents a population that more than doubles, come summer.
Getting to Guemes Island …
Getting to Guemes Island is easy, with some two dozen car and passenger ferry runs daily. The Guemes Ferry, which is operated by Skagit County and not part of the Washington State Ferries system leaves from 6th and I streets in downtown Anacortes. You can leave your car in the convenient parking lot on the Anacortes side and explore Guemes via one of three easy bike loops, or walk to Anderson’s General Store for a meal and some cool music and a brew on the porch. Alternately, drive on the ferry and cruise along the island’s shorelines, by open fields, and down tree-shadowed lanes to experience Guemes “island time” for yourself.