As with most San Juan Islands communities, Deer Harbor is known for its recreation and tourism, including kayaking, whale watching, and fishing. Many people fish for Dungeness Crab, Rock Crab, and shrimp. The community has marina's for docking.
When the first Europeans arrived on Orcas Island, in Deer Harbor they found a Lummi Indian encampment along the slough which connects shallow inner basin with the main harbor. Their split cedar long houses measured 100’ by 20’. Each housed three generations of a tribal clan.
The Lummi here spent their time fishing, hunting and gathering, which they preserved by roasting or drying for winter use. Rows of dugout cedar canoes were drawn up on the shore in front of the long houses. The usual life was periodically disrupted by raids form rival northern tribes in search of slaves, wives and food. They made their way down from Canada through the San Juan Islands in seagoing cedar canoes 50’ in length with 8000 pound carrying capacity.
Early exploration took place in 1792 by the Spanish and the 1840s by both the American's and British. The first White settlers arrived in 1852. Many of whom had traveled through the area on their way to the gold rush in Fraser River Valley in Canada.
A group of four Hudson Bay Company hunters, Louis Cayou, Jim Bradshaw, William Moore and Ed Guard, arrived in Deer Harbor one autumn to hunt deer for the winter meat supply. They camped on the Deer Harbor spit where a bridge now crosses the slough. Between 60 to 70 deer were killed during each hunt. The meat was taken back to the post in Victoria, British Columbia in large canoes. They remained on Orcas Island, establishing a small encampment on the inner bay of Deer Harbor where there was plenty of fresh water and grass for grazing animals.
By 1858 the name Deer Harbor first officially appeared on British Admiralty charts of the San Juan Islands. By the 1880s, a small community had formed in Deer Harbor, with regular mail service. The first government installed navigational light appeared at Pole Pass. A kerosene lantern was lit and hung on a post each night.
The following decade, Orcas Island and Deer Harbor saw great changes. Deer Harbor’s first schoolhouse was built in 1891. Orchards were established, fields of peas came into production, jobs developed in fishing and cord wood production. Large quantities of wood were required for the lime works and the steam engines of the early vessels serving the area from the mainland.
A number of boats and ships served Deer Harbor in the early years. The Evangel ran the mail to the San Juan Islands in 1883. Later the Libby, Rosalie, The Islander, and Yankee Doodle served the area with mail, freight and passenger service. The Buckeye which was built in Cascade Bay on Orcas, was a Deer Harbor favorite. She made frequent runs up the slough to pick loads of locally grown peas, rhubarb and grain.
Across the slough on the west side of Deer Harbor Henry Cayou, son of Louis, established a very prosperous salmon cannery. He had a reputation as the best fisherman and fish trap designer in Washington State.
During the early 1900s the Deer Harbor community developed from it’s homestead settlement roots. A new two room school house was built in 1905. This school building housed 75 students, grades 1 through 8 from a variety of nearby islands.
In 1907 the Pearmain brothers built Deer Harbor’s first dance hall on the east side of the slough. The new dance hall served as the home court for the first basketball team on Orcas Island. The Deer Harbor team played under kerosene lamp lights which were protected by chicken wire.
The first foot bridge across the slough built in 1915 linked Henry Cayou’s fish cannery on the west side to the community on the east side.
With the arrival of prohibition in 1919 a new form of commerce flowed through the San Juan Islands. Fast boats making runs between Canadian waters and Seattle traveled through the San Juan Islands with revenue agents on their trail. The Pole Pass area was a particular favorite of the rum runners. It offered numerous small coves for eluding the revenue agents. A greenhouse was built just east of Pole Pass for Rhubarb production. It was later discovered that the shelves were hallow for bottle storage and it had a “basement” containing a working still. It was closed down when agents noted an unusually high interest in the rhubarb trade.
Further up the Pole Pass Road toward the Deer Harbor post office Ruth Brown established her Four Winds * Westward Ho Camp for girls and later for boys. A coastal defense observation post was built behind Norton’s Inn in 1941 to help with the war effort. The Deer Harbor community made sure it was manned 24 hours a day and the Nortons made sure the observers always had coffee.
Summer temperatures are low, average the 71 in the hottest months of July and August. The coolest month is December with an average high of 46. There is about 28 inches of rain on average each year.