Decatur Island is the first island on the left that you pass while on the Washington State ferries. You can't see much from the ferry, but Decatur has a lot to offer if you're lucky enough to visit. The island is very rural with narrow tree-lined roads, and varied topography. Decatur is home to roughly 70 full-time residents and about 237 households. Although it's a non-ferry served island, it's certainly not out of touch with the rest of the world. Power and phone lines are all underground and DSL is available.
Decatur Island is lucky enough to have one of the three one-room schoolhouses in the San Juan Islands. The school is part of the Lopez School District and attendence ranges between one to eight students.
The children benefit from advanced technology, hands-on science projects and educational field trips to explore the many resources of the Pacific Northwest. Often part-time residents will bring their kids to the school for a day or two to experience the uniqueness of being in a one-room school....and many don't want to leave!
Decatur Island rarely, if ever, receives tourism due to the fact that most of the island is privately owned. There are miles of lovely sandy beaches to enjoy but they aren't readily available to the general public. At low tide, a person can explore the whole southern side of the island. There is a public boat ramp but infrequently does anyone arrive who is unrelated to an islander.
But not all of the island is private...
The Kimball Preserve on the South side of the island is open to the public for day use only.Try to visit in springtime when the native wildflowers are blooming.
Decatur Shores is a beautiful 500 acre development on the south end of Decatur Island. Established in the late 70's as a destination for Seattle-based pilots and boaters, the community has evolved over the years and is now home for many full and part-time residents from throughout the Pacific Northwest.
Community amenities include: a 2500 ft grass airstrip, a deep water dock, USPS mail shed, and a 10 acre waterfront park.
On the northwest side of the island, we have the aptly named Decatur Northwest community. It was designed around 90+ view homesites within 600 acres of shared community common space. A number of the homes are built in a contemporary Northwest style and many architects have won awards for the homes built here. The Harmon Barn is a local landmark - a century old log built barn that still stands and is used for the annual sheep round-up.
Community amenities include: a 175 ft deep-water dock, multiple tennis courts and community gardens, private passenger ferry to the mainland, year-round caretakers, and more.
Decatur Head Beach Association is an unique cooperative of 40 families who co-own seven waterfront cabins and one caretaker cabin on the East side of Decatur. The association owns 45 acres, including the almost 20 acre hillside known as "Decatur Head". This area is know for its gorgeous native wildflowers in the Springtime.
Community amenities include: tennis court, community dock for unloading gear and launching a skiff, 8 community mooring buoys, full-time caretakers, and 1.5 miles of waterfront.
Decatur Island is home to a flock of feral sheep that are descendents of a homesteader's farm. They reside in Decatur Northwest and are responsible for keeping the vegetation under control as well as provide endless entertainment for islanders. On the first weekend in May, shepherds round up the resident rams, ewes, and lambs for shearing and medical attention. The even is well attended by the island residents and is culminated with a big potluck.
The Decatur Island lifestyle might be just what you are looking for.
This is a place where you can walk a few miles down the middle of a dirt road, where bird calls are the primary noises that you hear, where picnics on the beach are commonplace.
Children can enjoy freedoms that vanished long ago in a city environment...plus they learn how to clean a crab, spot an eagle, blow grass whistles, run a boat, catch fish, and the fun of spotting a dragon in a cloud....
The local golf course, the Decatur Nine, offers a challenge to even the most experienced golfers. With narrow tree-lined fairways, and unique teeing areas (hole nine is atop an old island vehicle!) everyone has a blast! The 4th of July tournament is an all-island event where as many as 90 islanders compete for the coveted trophies. The caddy shack has clubs, balls, and everything you need to stop by and play a few holes.
"I know I am getting better at golf because I am hitting fewer spectators." - Gerald R. Ford
We know its summer again when the first market starts up! The community market happens at the schoolyard on Saturdays from Memorial Day through Labor Day. The market is just as much a social event as it is a consumer event. Anyone can participate and the vended goods consist of garden veggies to locally made artworks and everything in between.
The community library is a relatively recent addition to the island. A few years ago, the school children approached the owners of the golf course to see if they would be willing to let them use a small abandoned building for books. With a huge island-wide effort, there is now an incredibly well kept and stocked library. Be sure to check out the local authors section which features quite a number of past and present islander's works.
Alma's country store is located right in the middle of the island, down the road from the schoolhouse. The store carries non-perishable food and drinks, books, some tools, and gift items. In the past, the owners and volunteer island chefs have hosted weekly dinners but the list is small so you have to jump on it quick!
The store has new ownership as of June, 2023. The island is very excited to see what the new owners decide to do with the place!
Located at the very south tip of the island sits the Kimball Preserve. This land is managed by the San Juan Preservation Trust and is open to the public for day use only. The beaches and woodland trails are only accessible by water and make for a lovely destination for kayakers and small craft boaters.
To live on the Decatur Island, do you have to have a boat or a plane?
No…there are a number of airlines that offer charter service to the island and two passenger ferry companies: Paraclete Charters and Island Express Charters that provide daily transportation multiple times during the day. Many residents use these “water taxis” exclusively for their travel needs. Often, islanders state how fortunate they are to be able to travel to the island without having to endure long ferry lines to get here. Typically, one can get out to Decatur on a 25 min water taxi ride compared to a couple hour wait for a Washington State ferry.
Why would I choose an island that doesn’t have ferry service?
Most of the people who like the non-ferry served islands, love the fact there is no tourism so there is a real sense of "community". Many love the unique interaction you can get with nature when you don’t have cars and busy roads to deal with. It’s a healthy lifestyle and you’re often challenged in ways that don’t happen on a ferry-served island and certainly not on the mainland.
What is the social scene on Decatur?
Even though the population on the island is small, that doesn't mean that there isn't a social environment! Residents often get together to enjoy the market, participate in holiday festivities, workshops and literary readings, or upkeep the library and other community assets. The 4th of July weekend is the busiest time and the island is bustling with a parade, 5k fun run, golf tournament, and fireworks from the beach.
What about garbage and fuel?
Trash removal is the responsibility of each property owner. Most people recycle as much as possible and take their trash off-island regularly and bring their fuel in 5 gallon cans. Fuel can be purchased in bulk, from Richardson Fuel. The fuel barge comes to the island every 4-6 weeks.
What happens in the case of a medical emergency?
Every year, a number of island resident volunteers receive training in Wilderness First Aid. There is always the opportunity for new residents to be trained as well. There is a first aid station at the airstrip and a smaller one at Decatur Northwest. The dispatcher on San Juan Island is wonderful at coordinating either the sheriff’s boat with paramedics or the Airlift NW helicopter to come an evaluate the patient and possibly provide transportation to a medical facility. Most people have a Airlift NW membership that supplements their regular insurance so they have little or no costs should they need to be transported.
What do people do for work on Decatur Island?
Most of the full-time residents are self-employed. In recent history, with the increase in remote work, more Decaturites have been able to work from home using the internet services on island. Its certainly a perfect place to live a more relaxed lifestyle while still getting the job done! Still the majority of owners use their properties as second homes and visit the island as part-time residents. Decatur is a fantastic getaway with all of the island activities that it offers.
Are there any services on the island?
The island has a small store and a one-room school (K-8). The store is currently for sale so we'll have to wait and see what the new owners decide to do with the place.
How easy is it to go to another island if you want to go out to lunch or shop?
Many residents have a small boat that they can take to the county dock at Hunter Bay on Lopez Island. They leave a car there in the county parking lot and go to Lopez Village or to the ferry landing; where they might go as a "walk on" to Friday Harbor for lunch or shopping.
How do you get bigger items like vehicles or building materials to the island?
There are a number of barge companies that service the island. Island Transporter in Anacortes is often used but other options are available. In addition, both of the water taxi companies can transport a surprising amount of freight (for an extra charge) and Island Express can even move golf carts!
Are there any contractors on the island to do building projects, install utilities or do land clearing?
Yes, there are a couple of local contractors in the surrounding area that are excellent and can help you with most type of projects.
Is it expensive to build on Decatur?
Building materials come to the island by barge so additional transportation costs will be incurred during the construction process. Licensed contractors are available on island, including excavation companies; however, subcontractors may be needed for electrical, plumbing, and insulation. It would be wise to add an additional 25% to their cost estimate for the "rural island factor".