Flush with nature on Orcas

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      It was such a simple question: "Any fruits or vegetables?" Yet when asked by a U.S. Customs agent, does one bend the truth to protect a couple of avocados or not? And what happens with the uncertain response of "I don't think so…" Wrong answer.

      Identifying the back-seat cooler, a uniformed paw swiped through our carefully arranged mustards and cooked chicken with ease. A deliberate one-eyed squint studied a Ziploc bag. "This sure looks like a pepper to me… Hmm. Does this look like a pepper to you?" We nodded dumbly as he dangled his campfire catch and pointed sharply south. "Pull over to stall five and we'll see what else you forgot to mention."

      Standing abreast of our vehicle we watched nervously as he removed two bananas and two avocados. "People thank it's a game bringin' fruits and vegetables over the border, but you 'ave bugs in Canada that we don' 'ave and we don' wan' 'em." We nodded and smiled graciously. The lecture on parasites specific to the avocado family continued while our two-year-old wailed, her tolerance level having dwindled after enduring the drive from Vancouver, the 75-minute border crawl, and now the half-hour inspection.

      Finally released and singing "Baby Beluga" at full throttle, we drove swiftly to the Anacortes ferry. Upon arrival the friendly attendant advised us to return for the 2:45 sailing as the 11:45 was full. By the time the 2:45 ferry docked at Orcas Island, the usual four-and-a-half-hour journey had been doubled-but hey, this was our first family camping holiday and we were going to enjoy every minute.

      We thought we had come prepared. Knowing the popularity of our destination, I had reserved campsite 54B after careful consideration of the on-line map. When the beaming drive-through ranger welcomed us, announcing that all 136 standard campsites in the whole of Moran State Park were fully booked, we felt rather virtuous. Buoyed by his enthusiasm, we swung the car past the lake and up the short road, counting fellow campers at sites numbered 46… 44… 47… We held our breath in anticipation, like a couple of 54B lottery ticket holders, anxious as to where our precious weekend under the stars would be won. The washrooms came into view and we exhaled mightily as we cruised by 51… 53… There was 54A on the right-was this 54B on the left? No. Oh, but yes. There was the post proclaiming 54B.

      We blinked, and blinked again. Site 54B was a broad expanse of dried grass and loose dirt, fringed by foliage on one side, an incline to the road on the other-and it backed directly and unmistakably onto the toilets. Our outdoor fire pit was so close to the tawny brick wall I figured I could almost roast marshmallows from the very throne itself. Needless to say, this feature had not been highlighted on the map.

      We studied the broad backside of the monolith like a pair of hungry architects. How to diminish such a presence? We angled the tent toward the trees. We dragged the picnic table as far away as deemed permissible. The two portable chairs (with all the spinal support of a half-sucked lemon) turned their backs. The camp stove was placed to ensure a pleasant view when cooking. Workable. But as we industriously unloaded, assembled, pumped, and hammered, a disturbing sound kept repeating itself: YEOWWWHOOSH! Each hydraulic flush sang out like so many church bells calling all to the recognition that another camper had just evacuated. The tinkle of the showers, the thumping of stall doors, the mosquito whine of the blow-dryer, the jibing and laughter of the campers-it all echoed and bounced off that high ceiling and rang in my ears.

      I stood rooted to the parched earth, my upper lip curled in Grinch-like fashion. This was not the wilderness I desired. This was not the adventure I had envisioned. Having endured the border fumes, the 30th rendition of "Baby Beluga", the nauseating carsickness from innumerable 180-degree twists to assess the young charge-YEOWWWHOOSH! It punctuated my thoughts. YEOWWWHOOSH! It punctuated our sentences. It occurred throughout our setup, throughout dinner preparations, and reached an orgylike zenith as we dined on organic risotto, grilled salmon, and canned corn. The sky grew dark and the air turned unseasonably cool-yet the embers of the monolith's backside only gained in intensity, illuminating our site with the power of 10 full moons. We were captive to it.

      I hatched a plot. At 11 p.m., I entered the behemoth. The air was heavy with the pungent odour of latrine cleanser. I studied the walls and finally the ceiling. Humph. What I searched for was unreachable: those fluorescent bulb switches were impenetrable, encased behind a bolted door. Defeated and resigned, I made my way down the worn path to our site. How small and fragile our tent looked in the powerful concrete gleam of the Moran State Park restrooms.

      I poured a glass of Washington wine and slid into one of those spineless chairs, comforted by the knowledge that my daughter was finally asleep. The speckles of the campfire gently smouldered, and the luckier campers slumbered in the downy warmth of their various domes. The monolith quietly hummed its electrical tune. It was actually peaceful. I felt my thoughts slide away. Searching the island sky, way up between the curves of the evergreens I glimpsed stars between the clouds. The foliage rustled gently and a resident blacktail deer emerged. As she ambled over, I felt the summer magic of Orcas slip over me.

      Then-like a firecracker-YEOWWWHOOSH! The emissions of a nocturnal pilgrim broke the night. The deer bounded off. I arose, unzipped the tent door, and entered our luminous home.

      Never trust a campground map.

      ACCESS: Moran State Park is located on Orcas Island in Washington state. From Vancouver it's 135 kilometres to the ferry in Anacortes. The fare is US$48.90 return for two adults; see www.wsdot.wa.gov/ ferries/. The park is a further 22 kilometres on the other side. Buy camping supplies in Eastsound.

      I chose my campsite based on Washington State Park's map at www.parks.wa.gov/. Click on each individual campsite to see any comments or warnings. (This feature wasn't available when I booked, but its "10 feet from rear of restroom" note for 54B would now give you a clue.) The most popular south-end sites are lakeside; No. 8 is the most requested in the park.

      Reservations are accepted for May 15 to September 15 for a charge of US$7 in addition to the standard US$16 site fee. You can also reserve by phone at 1-888-226-7688.

      Moran provides 50 kilometres of foot trails in 2,125 hectares. The Cascade day-use area features swimming, fishing, and rowboat and paddleboat rentals. Drive to the summit of Mount Constitution, the highest point in the San Juans, and take a picnic.