Big bets on Byway Bus project | Guest column

Elwyn Pratt

Elwyn Pratt


Taking a bus out to the westside of San Juan may sound a little counter intuitive to a local, but then again, it is the greener way.

This summer, the San Juan Visitors Bureau is offering a 2-for-1 special on daily passes; $15 will buy two seats on the Scenic Byway Bus Route on San Juan and on Orcas. Regular commuters can get a 20-ride special for $40.

The Scenic Byway connects the icons of the two islands, and it is very convenient for day trips. I traveled on the Orcas bus with Liz Illg, the Scenic Byway project coordinator, to see the solstice parade in June. The pick-up times were aligned with the ferry schedule, so that our shuttle was waiting for us as we stepped off the Sealth. On the ride back, there were six of us in the bus, all chatting about our favorite costumes in the parade. For the first time in my life, I felt like a tourist in the San Juan Islands – in a good way.

I didn’t need to ask many questions. Illg can speak about just about anything with the knowledge of a tour guide and the passion of a local. When I asked her if she liked reading history, she replied that she always reads the history of a place she’s about to visit. She seems at times a teacher, at times a modest social worker, at times a thorough scientist. Illg refers to her current project as an experiment.

“If we give people a free ticket, will they take it?” she wonders.

Her task this summer is to engage locals in something that is widely considered a tourist service. But Illg envisions that the seats will soon be filled with islanders and visitors alike, just like my day on Orcas. In Illg’s own words, the idea is simply to minimize our environmental impact and maximize our island experience. Ideally, some locals will use the bus regularly – even to commute to work.

“It will be hard for islanders to give up their trucks,” Illg admits.  But at the core of the Scenic Byway Bus System project is a keen awareness of what islanders love about their islands.

Illg grew up here in the ‘50s, spending every summer in the Puget Sound area. Seeing San Juan become overrun with visitors, she says, was really painful.But now she works for the tourist industry, inviting people to come because she wants people to learn something.

“I think it’s important for people to have a real experience here,” said Illg. “To understand how our actions impact landscapes like this, and the ocean. I think we do a really good job at stewardship on the islands, so I see visitors’ experiences as a teachable moment – to gain an understanding and a respect for the earth.”

– Pratt, a graduate of Friday Harbor High School, Class of 2011, is a sophomore at Occidental College, in Los Angeles, where he is studying economics, business and communications.