By Margie Doyle
Eclipse Charters’ flagship, the Orcas Express ventures out daily to see the creatures of the Salish Sea — whales, yes, and seals, sea otter, dolphins, foxes, eagles and other sea birds.
And occasionally, Denise and Dan Wilk, owners and operators of Eclipse Tours, have specialty cruises to visit the lighthouses and history of the San Juan and Gulf Islands. The profits from these tours go to local lighthouse preservation efforts, and to the Orcas Island Historical Museum. Looking ahead, on August 17, there will be a “Five Lights By Sea Tour” and on September 9, the Tour through History with local historian Tom Welch.
The “Five Lights” tour takes passengers on a four-hour tour past lighthouses at Cattle Point, Lime Kiln State Park, Turn Point and Patos Island, and past the light at East Point. Orcas newcomers, part-time islanders and their guests mingle with island veterans such as Anne Hay and Joe Floren as Captain Dan navigates the boat through Salish Sea waters.
Past canoes from French Camp near the south end of Lopez Island, “We’re having a fog moment,” Denise Wilk says. The Orcas Express steers south towards the tip of San Juan Island, and Captain Dan assures the sailors, “We’ll stay close to shore and we have radar.”
The Cattle Point lighthouse appears ghostly in the lifting fog. By the time the boat reaches Lime Kiln State Park, the fog has burned away and both the lighthouse and the lime kiln plant are clearly seen, as are the red-jacketed whale spotters that communicate with the whale-watching boats.
Deb Martyn helps crew and host, as she has done for 18 years. Deb is a typical, multi-hatted islander in that her boat job is one of four: the other three are seamstress; massage therapist and Christmas candy-maker.
At Turn Point lighthouse on Stuart Island, the Orcas Express heads eastward. Behind the lighthouse is duplex housing: one side for single men and the other side for married couples. Turn Point has been undergoing restoration under Coast Guard and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) supervision since 2005; future plans may include the establishment of a museum and a guest keeper program at the station.
As Canada is viewed to the south and west, Saturna and Saltspring Islands pass by on the port side. The Orcas Express streams past the East Point lighthouse and then the site of Patos Light Station comes into view.
As the boat patrols before the island, “Patos Bill” LaVernge, once stationed at Patos Island Light Station, tells the passengers of his pre-dawn watches there during his Coast Guard duties there, when he spent his time cooking and baking. Weekly trips for groceries and supplies to Orcas Island weren’t enough for some of the Coasties to counter the isolation, he says.
Denise Wilk is a member of the Keepers of the Patos Light association which arranges work parties, beach clean-ups, celebrations and a docent program. This summer there have been weekly work parties to clear away underbrush for fire prevention.
Denise is passionate about being on the boat and introducing guests to the nature, history and people of the islands. “Your senses are awakened just being out on the water, and seeing things from a different perspective, renews your spirit through nature.” Denise herself grew up on a farm and when she went fishing at 12 years old out of Port Townsend, she knew what she wanted to do when she grew up.
“That still happens to kids that come to us,” she says.
While those onboard Orcas Express often sight the orcas, or the distinctive black and white killer whales, Denise says the whole experience and all the wildlife –Minke Whales, Harbor Seals, Dall’s and Harbor Porpoise, Bald Eagles, Ospreys, Cormorants, Great Blue Herons, Stellar and California Sea Lions, Gray Whales, Transient Orcas (Killer Whales), Elephant Seals and other marine life — always renew her enthusiasm for the tours.
“The Five Lights by Sea” cruise on August 17 checks in at noon to 12:30 p.m. and departs at 1 p.m. from the dock at Orcas Landing. Narration on this trip is done by lighthouse historian Captain Daniel Wilk.
The Orcas Island Historical Museum benefit “Cruise into History” on Sept. 9 departs at 1 p.m. and returns at 5:30 p.m. The $99 ticket cost includes lunch. Local historian and author Tom Welch will spin local yarns on this specialty cruise around Hull Island, venturing into Guerriere Bay and Ironsides Inlet — the names identifying Orcas Island, West Sound and East Sound in 1841 by Captain Wilkes’ Exploring Expedition in 1841.
Tour costs are $99 per person and include coffee,tea,cocoa and sodas. Call to make reservations at 360-376-6566.