United States: Washington wanderings

By Pamela Wade

It's amazing what Americans get up to in the corn rows, writes Pamela Wade.

Families seek the best and brightest pumpkins at Swans Trail, near Snohomish north of Seattle. Photo / Pamela Wade
Families seek the best and brightest pumpkins at Swans Trail, near Snohomish north of Seattle. Photo / Pamela Wade

Farmer Pete cheerfully announced that they had "lost a teacher in there this morning".

"The kids all came out okay, but I never saw the teacher again."

Standing there in his plaid shirt and braces, he seemed quite unconcerned that there might be a wild-eyed woman with a clipboard still flailing about in the maze behind him, hemmed in by densely planted 3m sweetcorn canes.

In the corn pool, children were laughing as they waded and swam through a vat of dried corn kernels. Beyond, in the pumpkin patch, mothers with toddlers loaded into wheelbarrows wove through the plants, looking for the biggest, brightest, most shapely pumpkin.

The sun shone warmly. On the horizon Mt Baker made an unreal white triangle against the blue sky, and friendly cats purred around our ankles. It was a hard place to get stressed.

Maize mazes grow up - literally - outside cities all across America in the autumn. It was ironic a teacher went adrift in this one at Swans Trail, near Snohomish, north of Seattle, because it was sown in the shape of the state of Washington specifically as a teaching tool.

Every major feature of this Pacific Northwest state was faithfully recreated in maize for classes of 10-year-olds to find their way through, from plains to mountains to temperate rainforest.

There was more educational enjoyment further up the freeway in Bellingham.

A lively town on the edge of a sheltered bay, it's known for its farmers' market selling "22-mile food" (that's their definition of local), its Upfront improv theatre owned by actor Ryan Stiles, and a wide selection of appealing places to eat and drink. The wild-caught salmon at Dirty Dan's is a revelation to anyone who has only ever eaten the farmed variety.

But the Spark Museum of Electrical Invention is the real hair-raiser. Among its rooms of primitive generators and elegant cabinet radios is a hands-on static electricity device that will make your hair stand on end.

There's as much fun here as information - I particularly enjoyed channelling my inner Beachboy by playing the theremin - and the curators get boyish thrills from operating the MegaZapper, a Tesla coil lightning machine, allowing people to get close to four million volts of electricity.

Across the glossy pewter waters of the Salish Sea, things are much more laid-back on San Juan Island.

The pretty clapboard houses of Friday Harbor line wide streets and the harbour itself, where fishing boats rock gently alongside fancy yachts. It's so peaceful I see a trio of otters galumph along a jetty to their nest in the sea wall.

Up the hill is the Whale Museum, which keeps close tabs on the three pods of orcas that live in the area, inspiringly named J, K and L. I'm pleased to find that Kiwis are especially welcome here, thanks to the sterling work done by marine biologist Ingrid Visser.

While I'm nosing around the exhibits, which include whale skeletons (plus a human one for comparison), sound and video recordings, and a handy pair of binoculars on the windowsill, the friendly staff report a sighting on the other side of the island.

I drive there, momentarily diverted by a handsome black fox beside the road. At Lime Kiln Point State Park there's a cute little lighthouse on a rocky point, plenty of noisy sea birds and a harbour seal, but no orcas: presumably they got diverted too, and are off chasing salmon. It's not a wasted trip, though, as nearby is English Camp and the story of the Pig War of 1859.

Blessed with rich soil, abundant timber and teeming seas, the island was coveted by the US and Britain, who managed an uneasy co-operation for many years. It all nearly fell apart, however, when American farmer Lyman Cutlar shot a trespassing British pig: military camps were hurriedly set up at opposite ends of the island, both under strict instructions not to be the first to fire a shot.

The orders held, and the Pig War was eventually resolved with the only casualty the unfortunate porker.

In the meantime, both sets of troops enjoyed an enviable life on the island, especially the Brits, their blockhouse tucked under great oak trees beside a sheltered inlet.

Today's residents feel equally fortunate, although those living at Roche Harbor with its pretty wooden church and peaceful marina steer clear of "too frantic" Friday Harbor.

Driving through the green countryside where wild deer browse under the trees and a lavender farm makes a splash of purple, suddenly my ferry trip back through the dotted islands to the mainland, Mt Baker's white triangle straight ahead like a beacon, seems much less appealing.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Bellingham is a 90-minute drive north of Seattle.

Accommodation: See fairhavenvillageinn.com.

Over the water: San Juan Island is an hour from Anacortes by car ferry. The San Juan Suites are an elegant place to stay.

Further information: See DiscoverAmerica.com for more on visiting Washington.

Pamela Wade travelled around Washington as a guest of Washington State Tourism.

- Herald on Sunday

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