Understanding Orcas Surprisingly Mild Weather—and Remembering a Local Meteorological Legend
Orcas Island sits smack dab at the center of the wettest corner of the country, further north and west—and more exposed to oceanic elements—than famously rainy Seattle.
Yet Orcas receives less than half the rainfall of Seattle, thanks to a rain shadow created by the Olympic Mountains: The Pacific Coast range shields the northeastern peninsula and San Juan Islands from the bulk of the precipitation that soaks the Northwest.
Betty Marcum knows that as well as anyone alive. She lives in the little Orcas Island town of Olga, as she has much of her life. It sits only a few miles from Orcas Hotel as the crow flies, but as the car travels it takes nearly 20, looping over to the opposite end of the horseshoe of an island.
Past fields, farms, ranches, harbors and a seasonal roadside stop where residents set out lavender bundles in exchange for poetry, appears a private road named for her family. At its conclusion sit neighboring houses occupied by Marcum and her relatives, for whom the state of Washington awarded a Centennial Award in 1989 saluting 100 consecutive years as a working farm.
After settling on the island as one of its original pioneers, the Willises tended the longest continuously running weather station in the entire country from 1890 until 2018.
Along with her sister Mary and Mary's husband David Fox, Betty's brother John Willis (above) was the family member who most recently tracked temperature and precipitation. Every day he'd meticulously—and voluntarily—log the day's conditions; every week he'd share them with San Juan Journal (then the Friday Harbor Journal); every month he'd forward his findings to the National Weather Service. Legend has it he could guess the outside temperature by simply looking at the formation of the icicles on the roof.
"He was one-of-a-kind," Marcum says.
When George W. Bush was in office, the Department of Commerce bestowed an award honoring 100 years of volunteer weather recording which summoned Willis and the Foxes to the White House to meet with Marilyn Quayle.
Cliff Mass, professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington, sent a letter to honor the vigilance that was read at the ceremony.
“Today when concerns about global change have increased, there is nothing more important than reliable long-term climate records,” Mass wrote. “Of particular importance are climate records in rural areas without significant development because local heating effects from urbanization and land-use change are avoided.”
The Orcas community loved him for more reasons than a little Pennsylvania Avenue shine—namely for supplying dozens of families with desperately needed firewood, and for chainsawing fallen-tree roadblocks when the rare storms really raged. After one intense storm in 1990, the Journal named him one of its "Heroes of the Storm."
When he was short on money for a hip surgery, the community promptly rallied enough cash to cover it.
"I just really feel overwhelmed and a little bit embarrassed," he said at the time. "I don't know whether I deserve all this attention or not. I guess I'll just have to do something to get even with everyone."
He died one year ago today, Sept. 20, 2019.
His service was so prolifically attended it overflowed.
"They had to turn people away," Marcum says.
Last month I drove to the family's property. In 1887 it represented one of the earliest homesteads in the region.
Before we made our way up to the rain gauge and weather station up the hill (above), the same one her grandparents, dad and brother tended for decades, she led a tour through family and Orcas Island meteorological history.
Across generations of Willises, another constant sticks out besides weather checks like the one being conducted by Marcum's dad and grandmother (above): self-reliance. To subsist on their bluff overlooking the Rosario Straight, the family did everything from run a sawmill to build stone fireplaces to raise and shear sheep.
Later Marcum was standing on one of several lush lawns that interlink her siblings' houses, and leads to a vine-sheltered stairway to a private beach.
I asked her how intense the winters get. Crazy, I figured she'd say.
"Oh it's not so bad at all," she replied.
Which is a big reason life on Orcas Island is so good.