As one of the San Juan Islands’ “Boundary Islands,” Matia Island (pronounced Ma-TEE-ah) is visited by thousands of recreational boaters each year. The island is incredibly beautiful and has a sense of adventure. It seems to floats on the waters of the Strait of Georgia, east of the boundary between the United States and Canada and northeast of Orcas Island. The sculpted sandstone cliffs above the sand and gravel beaches lure the first-time visitors and continue to fascinate returning boaters who return year after year.
Other attractions include:
- Interesting geological formations.
- A 62-foot float.
- Two mooring buoys.
- Rolf Cove has a limit of five boats to help protect the environment.
- Beautiful pea-gravel beach.
- Hiking trail through lush forest.
- Stunning Sunsets.
It had been awhile since Arlene and I had visited Matia so last fall we plotted a course for the exotic isle. As we rounded the northwest end of the island and Rolfe Cove came into view we discovered, no boats in the tiny cove and had the island all to ourselves. The Island is very popular in the summer, and securing moorage can be difficult.
The park float is removed at the end of October each year and replaced the following April. It is stored in Mud Bay on Sucia Island to protect it from the harsh winter winds.
It’s not advisable to attempt anchoring in Rolfe Cove due to the strong currents and rocky bottom. Some people seem to manage it close to shore by running a stern-line to shore to keep from swinging into other boats or dock. Caution needs to be taken so not to snag mooring buoy ground tackle, we have seen this happen more than once.
Matia Island is one of the islands in the San Juan National Wildlife Refuge and has use restrictions different from most Washington state marine parks. Only five acres at the west end of Matia are developed for public use; the remaining 145-acres are a wildlife refuge, with the use of a loop trail permitted only so long as wildlife and seabirds remain undisturbed.
- Hikers must stay on the one-mile that trial begins at the head of the dock and leads across the island, through towering cedars and lush vegetation, to the south cove. The trail loops back on the southwest side of the island.
- Pets are not permitted on the loop hiking trail.
- Pets on a leash are permitted only in the moorage and camping area.
Matia Island History
Captain Francisco de Eliza, during the 1792 Spanish Expedition, named the island “Isle de Mata.” Mata has many meanings in Spanish, most having to do with lush plant growth. Some believe Matia refers to a woman’s name; it also means “no protection” in Spanish. The U.S. Coast Survey conferred the name Matia in 1954.
Matia is often pronounced May-shahh by visitors. The Native American name for the island was pronounced by settlers of the area as Pee-nooch-on.
In the 1800’s Skookum Tom, a Canadian First Nation, hid out on Matia. He was suspected of murders in both British Columbia and the United States, and Matia made a perfect hideout. The authorities never found him, and he eventually vanished into the shadows of history.
Elvin Smith was an opportunistic early resident of Matia. Dubbed “The Hermit of Matia Island,” Smith squatted on the government land in about 1891 and made a meager living as a mail-order faith healer. He prayed for sick supplicants who wrote him from across the United States. Once a week he rowed his small boat the 2.5-miles to North Beach on Orcas Island and hiked the 2-miles to the Eastsound post office to collect occasional gratitude payments from followers who considered themselves cured. He would also purchase supplies. He lived on Matia 30 years, during which time he planted an orchard, raised small animals. Smith drowned with a friend when their small flat-bottom rowboat loaded with provisions, swamped and vanished in a storm on February 23, 1921, in route from Orcas Island.
To this day, bandits inhabit the island. Before you turn in at night, you’ll want to secure your ice chest and any other movable objects on the deck, or the raccoons may pay you a visit.