Brian J. Cantwell
This island isn’t all about nuns, but you’ll be hard-pressed to avoid the topic. Especially if you’re driving too fast on that first hairpin curve just up from the ferry dock, and you meet the prioress rounding the corner in her Subaru.
Yes, the head nun of Our Lady of the Rock monastery drives an SUV. She’s a small woman—you might have to look carefully to see the black-and-white wimple above the steering wheel.
Shaw became famous as the “nuns’ island” in the 27 years during which Franciscan sisters operated the rustic wooden ferry dock and ran the neighboring general store. Ferry passengers bound for bigger islands in Washington’s San Juans would line railings to snap photos of the women in their habits as they tended the one-lane auto ramp.
But while those nuns left Shaw in 2004, two more orders remain on the island—a branch of the Benedictines, on a donated 300-acre farm called Our Lady of the Rock, and a small contingent of the Sisters of Mercy.
So it is still the nuns’ island.
That says a lot about Shaw, a quiet, mostly wooded, untouristed 7.7-square-mile island from which you need to hitch a ferry to Friday Harbor if you want “bright lights.” The smallest of the four ferry-served islands of the San Juan archipelago, it’s the perfect place for a cloistered life, whether you’re heaven’s gatekeeper or just a Gates (both Bill Sr. and Jr. have places here). The day I arrived, mine was the only car getting off the ferry.
But the big news on Shaw is there’s now tourist lodging where before there was none. Steve and Terri Mason, who took over the store and dock, now rent out a 110-year-old waterfront cottage that the nuns formerly occupied.
Shaw is quiet by design. Zoning prohibits businesses beyond the existing store and the headquarters of a grandfathered-in firm that makes fish tags.
With only about 250 year-round residents, it seems that everybody knows everybody.
“Oh, yeah,” said Steve Mason. “They know what you’re going to do even before you think about it. It’s like a family, with all that goes with that!”
I got a tour from Chris Hopkins, a Shaw resident whose family bought vacation property here in 1959. A former fifth-grade teacher in her mainland life, she, like many residents, helps out at both the school and library. Shaw has its own district to run the 22-student school.
Why not become part of a larger library system or school district?
“People here have their own way of doing things and they just do not want to abide by some other rules,” Hopkins said.
But it takes a village, or a bunch of islanders, to raise the kids. The nuns from Our Lady of the Rock, who came in 1977, pitch in to help with their education. Mother Hildegard (aka Dr. Hildegard George), a plus-size nun who says what she means and means what she says, leads 4-H outings in birding and geology.
The monastery is another option for a place to stay on Shaw, and as “guest mistress,” Mother Hildegard is a visitor’s first contact.
The nuns offer guest quarters for a few visitors at a time, from whom a reasonable donation is expected (the seven-member order gets no outside funding from the Catholic Church, and raises much of its own food on the farm).
Guests may come to pray—the chapel is an architectural work of art, with stained glass of Mount Baker—or to help with farm chores, or both.
“You don’t have to be Catholic, but we do want you to somehow partake in our life,” Mother Hildegard explained as she showed me around, shadowed by her two big Portuguese water dogs, Kokopelli and Bella.
For campers, there are 11 simple sites at Shaw Island County Park, on sandy South Beach (https://sanjuanco.com/CAMP/parkreservations).
If you go:
Getting to Shaw Island: It’s a 55-minute ride to Shaw aboard Washington State Ferries from Anacortes if you get a direct boat; most sailings require stops at Lopez and/or Orcas islands first. Check schedules. Standard-size car and driver: $48.30 round-trip in peak season, additional for passengers. For schedules and wait-time alerts: www.wsdot.wa.gov/ferries.
Lodging: The quaint waterfront cottage (a former nunnery) next to Shaw General Store sleeps 4-6, with full kitchen, $150/ night. More info: www.vrbo.com/334848 or 360-468-2288.
To request a stay at Our Lady of the Rock monastery, contact Mother Hildegard at 360-468-2321 or email@example.com.
More Camping: Besides Shaw Island County Park, Blind Island Marine State Park in Blind Bay offers four primitive campsites for campers arriving by wind- or human-powered watercraft. See www.parks.wa.gov/.
The outer islands
The San Juan archipelago includes almost 200 islands. Some of the most popular are Sucia, Stuart, Cypress, Clark and Jones Islands.
For info on marine state parks: www.parks.wa.gov/boating/moorage.
Water-taxi service to outer islands, from Skyline Marina in Anacortes
Brian J. Cantwell is a Seattle Times reporter.