Busing Around The Islands -- New Island Transit Services Offer Flexibility And Economy To Visitors Who Walk Off The Ferries

SAN JUAN ISLAND - We were perched on rocks warm from the afternoon sun, squinting impatiently at the water of Haro Strait and hoping to see at least one killer whale.

In the distance, Vancouver Island was a dark blob; along the shore, pleasure boats passed slowly, and a few feet away, Mary Miller, a docent at Lime Kiln Point State Park, was telling several dozen of us that several big black-and-white orca whales had passed earlier in the day and would be back - sometime.

From the nearby lighthouse, a fog horn blasted at the sunny sky, almost as if it was calling to the fickle orcas.

After an hour without an orca sighting, my patience faded and I hiked up the 50 yards of dirt path to the road and caught the 3:30 bus back to Friday Harbor.

Yes, that's right . . . a scheduled bus . . . on San Juan Island.

About the only differences from Seattle are that island buses here are smaller, don't come around quite as often and cost more to ride.

Catching a bus sounds surprisingly urban for this rural island, but scheduled public transit service is in its third year here. On nearby Orcas Island, buses began operating in May. On Lopez, bus service is to begin in a few weeks.

In a place where isolation and rural privacy are treasured, the coming of scheduled bus is a big change.

So far, however, the buses don't seem to have disturbed the pastoral calm and in the long term may prove to be a protector of the peace by reducing the number of cars that come charging ashore at state ferry terminals.

Adding an option

Before the transit buses came, visitors to the islands had several options:

-- They could bring their cars and suffer possilby long waits for the ferry.

-- They could leave their car at the Anacortes ferry terminal, then catch an expensive taxi or depend on island friends or resort vans for on-island transportation.

-- They could bring motor scooters or motorcycles or, as hundreds of active travelers do, bring bicycles to puff and pedal over the island's hilly roads.

My two-day tryout of the islands' transit system began at 10:10 a.m. on a recent Wednesday when a state ferry dropped me at the Friday Harbor terminal.

Of the 20 bicyclists and a several dozen other walk-on passengers, I was the only one who went looking for the bus stop.

My plan was to bus to Roche Harbor, about 11 miles north of Friday Harbor, for lunch.

The schedule called for a San Juan Transit shuttle to leave for Roche Harbor at 10:50.

That was too early for me. Instead, I walked through the shops on Spring Street and checked out yachts at the public moorage before returning to the bus zone on the edge of the ferry terminal parking area to catch the 11:45 bus.

On this day, Paul (Tag) Myser, owner of the competing Island Transportation Services, was greeting riders at the Friday Harbor bus zone opposite the ferry terminal. His full-time schedule would begin the following Saturday, so he had time to check out the opposition.

Although the two firms provide different levels of service, there's serious competition.

Myser's fleet includes two used city-type transit buses that seat about 25 for San Juan and smaller bus for use on Orcas.

Dan Ward, owner of San Juan Transit, whose family has owned property on Dinner Island south of Friday Harbor for 30 years, operates six coaches, bought from an airport shuttle service, that seat about 20.

San Juan charges $8 round trip to Roche Harbor. Island Transportation charges $6.

Through an agreement with the resort, San Juan Transit delivers its passengers to the entry of the resort Hotel de Haro. Myser's buses discharge riders on the county road a few minutes walk from the hotel.

San Juan Transit buses loop around the island on a scheduled basis, serving English Camp, Mitchell Bay Road, San Juan County Park, Lakedale, Cattle Point and the island airport as well as Roche Harbor, Friday Harbor and Lime Kiln State Park.

Myser's buses have scheduled runs only between Friday Harbor and Roche Harbor.

San Juan Transit will operate here all year. Island Transportation buses run only during the two-month summer season.

Changing dynamics

"This changes the dynamics so much," Myser said of the scheduled bus service.

On summer Sundays, those with cars must get in line by about 6 a.m. to get off the island between 2 and 4 p.m., he said.

Visitors who come on foot and ride the buses can leave at their leisure. The ferries "never turn down a `walk-on,' " Myser said.

A former aircraft inspector who was raised on Friday Island (a local name for Brown Island just off shore from the town of Friday Harbor), Myser once drove a double-decked London bus for an island hotel. He lives on a bus.

Angie Duncan and Felipe Carbonell, who operate Angie's Cab Courier on Lopez Island, expect state approval to begin operating a 13-passenger bus there within a few weeks. The scheduled service from the ferry terminal to the south end of the island will "hit all the high spots," Duncan said.

Complementing island life

It was 11:45. Though the one-way fare is $4, I paid $18 for a pass good for unlimited riding for two days on San Juan and Orcas islands. A one-day pass is $10. Children under 12 ride free.

Island roads wind, climb and dip. Sometimes bus patrons could see the sea; more often views were of broad tawny meadows rimmed by trees. Horses, sheep and llamas grazed, while farmers bailed hay.

Although bus schedules list specific stops up and down the island, drivers will stop and pick up anyone who flags them down. They also will drop passengers at homes and at other spots along their routes.

As we passed a line of bicyclists struggling up a hill, Peterson said island buses carry "quite a few" bicycles and their riders. "We always find some (bicyclists) who over-challenge themselves."

Peterson dropped us at the Roche Harbor resort and I wandered down to the docks where John Rasmussen of Seattle was cleaning the windows on his boat.

Rasmussen likes the shuttle bus service but had a couple of suggestions.

"If they would coordinate with the ferries, it would be great," he said. "And there should be a place to leave baggage so people can walk around Friday Harbor while waiting for the ferry."

Ward later explained that his buses met ferries last year. But if a boat was late and the bus waited, the bus then ran late on its schedule. This year, his bus schedules are not keyed to ferry arrivals. This means ferry passengers may have to wait 30 minutes for a bus to arrive - time enough to stroll through town.

Coin-operated storage lockers are available opposite the ferry terminal near an open air market for storing baggage, Ward said. The place is unmarked and visitors may need to ask for help finding it.

After lunch, I waited a few minutes in the shade of a huge old tree at Roche Harbor to board the 2:15 shuttle to Lime Kiln State Park, the whale-watching area on the west side of the island.

Others who'd planned to join me on the 3:30 bus back to Friday Harbor were so keen on seeing killer whales that they stayed. They had time - the last bus wouldn't leave the park until 5:20.

Island hopping

After an overnight in a Friday Harbor inn, I began the second day of the test by walking aboard the ferry Illahee for its 8:40 departure to Orcas Island. An advantage of not having a car: walk-on passengers ride free between the islands.

When the ferry landed at Orcas at 9:30, John Cook was waiting behind the wheel of a San Juan Transit bus. I was planning lunch at Rosario Resort on the harbor of East Sound.

Cook, an island resident 10 years and a former lumber-truck driver, took us along the edge of Crow Valley and pointed out Turtleback Ridge rising above the farms below. He guided the bus along the narrow road through the Enchanted Forest and pointed out the home of Richard Donner, the Hollywood film producer best known here for the film "Free Willy," about a killer whale.

At Rosario, several passengers were waiting for Cook.

They were bicyclists who had "over-challenged" themselves the day before by riding the eight miles from the Orcas ferry dock.

Cook parked the bikes in the aisle of the bus (some buses, however, have storage boxes at the rear) and drove away with the tired bicyclists. (The resort provides van shuttle service in its own minivans from ferry and excursion boat docks for its guests, but the smaller vehicles won't handle a fleet of bikes.)

Myser said hauling bicycles is big business for his Orcas bus, particularly for those who want to ride down Mt. Constitution but not up it. He said he plans to expand the bicycle carrying capacity of his bus.

At about 1:20, Tom Belcher drove his bus into the circular drive at Rosario. We set off for Orcas. (On other runs, the San Juan Shuttle buses go to Doe Bay and Olga on the south end of the island and to other resorts.)

Belcher drove into Orcas about 2:10 and I boarded the 2:40 ferry. After stops at Shaw and Lopez, I walked off the ferry at Anacortes.

For me, the island transit systems passed the test. The buses were on time, the drivers were friendly and knowledgeable. I didn't miss my family car one second.

Not for everyone

But, just like transit in Seattle, the island buses may not be for everyone.

For a family of five on a week-long camping trip, the family van or station wagon would make more sense than a bus. Campers might find island buses convenient for day trips, particularly if the kids are under 12 and can ride free.

Transit buses don't serve every road and shoreline community on the islands, so all summer residents probably won't count on them.

The most dramatic benefit of busing through the islands is avoiding the long lines that develop at ferry terminals on weekends and holidays, saving time and grief.

A former Times reporter, Bob Lane spent several years reporting on regional transportation issues. ----------------------------------------------------------------- IF YOU GO / Busing around the San Juan Islands

Home base for transit buses operating on San Juan and Orcas Islands is the state ferry terminal on each island.

At Friday Harbor the buses line up in a zone along the edge of the parking area reserved for cars waiting to board ferries. (It's on the left as you leave the ferry.) San Juan Transit and Island Transportation Services post schedules on a light pole at the waiting area.

On Orcas, buses wait along the road directly above the terminal.

San Juan Transit provides brochures and printed schedules for all its runs. Island Transportation Services does not.

Talk to the drivers about the trip you plan to confirm that service is available when and where you want. Double-check last scheduled runs for the day, to avoid being stranded.

If you arrive in Friday Harbor with time to spare and want to explore the town, store your baggage in a coin-operated locker across the street from the ferry terminal before catching the bus you want.

San Juan Transit fares on San Juan Island range from $4 for a one-way trip to $10 for an all-day ticket. On Orcas, one-way fares range from $4 to $7 and round-trip from $5 to $11. The system sells $15 day passes on Orcas and for $18 one may buy a two-day pass for San Juan and Orcas islands.

Island Transportation charges $3 to ride from Friday Harbor to Roche Harbor. On Orcas its fares are $1 less than San Juan Transit.

The Lopez Shuttle Bus hopes to begin transit service on Lopez Island in a few weeks. One-way fares will range from $1 to $5, depending on the length of the trip.

For more information on transit within the islands, phone: -- San Juan Transit: (360) 378-8887. -- Island Transportation Services: (360) 378-8886. -- Lopez Shuttle Bus - (360) 468-2227.

Getting to the islands

The most common way to get to the San Juans is by ferry from Anacortes. Information: Washington State Ferries,, (800) 84-FERRY.

Other ways to get to the San Juans include passenger excursion boats from the Seattle area, such as Clipper Navigation's San Juan Explorer (phone 448-5000) and the Mosquito Fleet (206-252-6800) which offers daily service to Friday Harbor from Everett.

The San Juan Island Shuttle Express (360-671-1137) operates out of Bellingham during the summer season, transporting foot passengers to Orcas Island and Friday Harbor.

Flying is a quick and popular way to reach the islands. Kenmore Air (800-543-9595) flies float planes from Lake Union and Lake Washington. West Isle Air (800-874-4434) flies from Boeing Field.

For more information on getting to the islands - and about sights and accommodations - contact the San Juan Islands Visitor Information Center, P.O. Box 65, Lopez Island, WA 98261; phone (360) 468-3663. - Bob Lane