A case for patience on the family trip

The scene before the storm (and the Orcas).

The scene before the storm (and the Orcas).

We came. We saw. We weathered one of the biggest tantrums of 2015. And we experienced magic.

There’s really no other way to describe tonight’s experience at Lime Kiln Point State Park here on the San Juan Islands. The outing had it all: Smiles, tears, shrieks of terror, and screams of joy.

In the end, the experience was a classic case study about the yin and yang of family travel, a picture-perfect snapshot of how bad can become good, a fitting demonstration of why we moms and dads must practice patience above all else.

The night began around 4:30 p.m., when Powerwoman and I decided it might be fun to pack a picnic dinner and head to the park for a little whale-watching. This spot, on the west side of San Juan island along Haro Strait, is renowned as one of the best places in the islands to see Orcas from shore. We had heard reports of whales on that side of the island and thought we might get lucky.

We packed a dinner. We drove to the park. We got to the trailhead. We started hiking. For the first few minutes, everyone was happy. R was singing. L was counting clouds.

Then, at the picnic table, as we broke out our meal, disaster struck: BEES! HARASSING US!

My wife and I didn’t mind the little buggers. The girls, however, FREAKED OUT. R started flailing her arms and moaning. L started crying uncontrollably and shrieking like a banshee. Just as Powerwoman and I started contemplating pulling the rip cord and heading back toward the car, the whales arrived.

In that moment, we were faced with a dilemma: Flee the situation to pacify the children or stick it out to pursue our objective of seeing whales? After much deliberation, we decided to stick it out.

The moments that immediately followed that decision were horrendous. L’s anxiety prompted blood-curdling screams—shouts so loud some onlookers wondered if they should call the cops. R, in an attempt to flee a nagging bee, lost a flip-flip into the ocean (thankfully I was able to retrieve it without injuring myself).

Gradually, however, once we put the food away, the bees stopped swarming, and the girls’ terror dissipated, too. As the kids calmed down, more whales came. And more. And more after those. Some surfaced no more than 30 feet from where we were sitting.

After about 30 minutes of whale crossing, it became clear we were witnessing something pretty rare: An entire pod of Orcas passing by “together.”

In response to this spectacle, the kids’ moods changed completely. Instead of yelping in terror, they were cheering for more whales. Instead of yelling, “Bees!” they exclaimed, “Another dorsal fin!” every time one surfaced in front of us. Instead of insisting that we go home, they were begging us to stick around for more.

When we finally did leave, in the car on the way home, the “whale show” (as they called it) was all they wanted to talk about. The incredible sighting made us grown-ups forget all about the bee incident, too. It was as if the bad stuff never happened.

The lesson? When traveling with little ones, sometimes a little heaven is worth a whole lot of hell.

I’m not suggesting parents turn deaf ears to miserable kids and subject their children to hours of horrendous conditions every day. I am, however, saying that every now and again, we moms and dads might be rewarded for practicing patience in particularly taxing situations.

Identifying those situations isn’t easy; heck, they’re probably going to be different for every family. But when you do manage to stick ‘em out, persevering can have its benefits—for everyone involved.

You can go back again, with family

I call this, "Orca Window."

I call this, “Orca Window.”

I was hunched over the sink washing dinner dishes when I saw them through the kitchen window—first the telltale blows, then black triangle-shaped dorsal fins rising from the surface of the water.

“Orcas! Orcas!” I screamed. “Girls, get out here! There are orcas!”

This was the moment I had dreamed about, the very instant when my kids would see the namesake animals of this blog and come face-to-face with the marine mammals that had eluded me for the first 24 years of my time on Earth. Put simply, this was why we had come to the San Juan Islands in the first place: To see these very whales.

It took a few minutes for L and R to understand and appreciate the gravity of the situation. First they couldn’t see the whales from the living room of our vacation rental. Then they complained about how “small” the animals appeared. Only after I pointed out a baby did they start to come around.

And come around they did. They sang songs about the Orcas. They vocalized like Orcas. They pretended to be Orcas and chased each other around the living room. They requested Kindle books about ‘em, too. (Subsequently, they have asked to go to the local whale museum so they can learn even more.)

The San Juans have represented a special place for me since 1999. That summer, after a few years of living in the concrete jungle of Manhattan, I decided I needed to experience some open space. I never had seen Orcas in the wild, and knew there were some resident populations of the whales out here in the Pacific Northwest. So I bought a plane ticket to Seattle and a passenger ferry ticket to Friday Harbor. And I improvised the rest.

Over the course of two weeks that first summer, I lived in my tent and worked off my cell phone and a laptop from a coffee shop. I also kayaked a ton and saw literally hundreds of Orcas. The next summer, I came back for three weeks and did the same stuff. In the summer of 2001, I came again (that time with friends).

That middle summer, after one of the most intense animal encounters of my life, I vowed to bring my family here someday, and promised to make sure my kids wouldn’t wait as long as I did to see Orcas in the wild.

Which is what brought us here this year. It’s also what prompted us to rent this house—the house sits along the southern tip of the Island with a commanding view of the confluence of Juan de Fuca and Haro straits. I knew this was a spot where we’d be able to see whales without getting in a whale-watch boat. I was right.

We’ll be on the Island for a grand total of 13 days, and, already, the kids (and Powerwoman, for that matter) are saying they never want to leave. Whales! Beaches! Lakes! Mountains! This place has it all.

For me, however, San Juan Island has something even more meaningful: Memories. I forged the first set here at a time in my life when I was totally alone. Now that I’m back on the islands surrounded by family, I get the opportunity to make new ones with the people I love most in the world. I can’t think of a better gift for any of us.

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