A Long Post About A Secret Island

29 Oct
En route to the island.  A friendly face.

En route to the island. A friendly face.

This summer, for the first time ever in my life, I visited an island in Washington State which I had never before had the opportunity to visit. Now don’t get me wrong, there a many islands in the San Juan archipelago that I have not been to – after all, there are 172 named islands and a person without a boat of their own can’t really be blame for only visiting a handful of them.

Do you see what I see?  Not a great photo, but still cool to see.  Even in the era of a mere 400 pairs of Bald Eagles in the entire USA, the San Juans had a good percentage of those eagles.  We'd see them often from our house.

Do you see what I see? Not a great photo, but still cool to see. Even in the era of a mere 400 pairs of Bald Eagles in the entire USA, the San Juans had a good percentage of those eagles. We’d see them often from our house.

I’ve been to all of the major ones which have ferry service: Orcas (of course I put that one first), San Juan Island, Shaw and Lopez. Oh, wait. I might not have been to Shaw, come to think of it, I can’t remember for sure. I know I was on Lopez a few times as a kid with the library kid’s program doing puppet shows over at their library, and I’ve been to San Juan several times as well. Beyond that I’ve been to Sucia, Matia, and Jones, all of which are entirely owned by the Washington State Parks. Oh, and I’ve been to Indian Island (formerly known as Jap Island – they went from one politically incorrect name to another). Out of 172, that’s not very many.

Boo and her cousin, checking out the beach.

Boo and her cousin, checking out the beach.

Well, now I can add another island to that list. Only I can’t name it for you. Why, you ask?

Because the inhabitants don’t want to be known.

This island has no ferry service. You can only get there by plane or small boat. Or big boat with a smaller boat thrown off the side.  It has no electricity, though many people do have generators and/or solar panels. It has no stores. No paved roads. No internet cables, phone lines, annoying telephone poles that mess up one’s view. Some of the people do have cell phones and wireless internet.

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The island does have a public school with 8 students, which I THINK only goes up through 8th grade. Most families seem to either move off the island when their kids are in high school or send them to live with friends or family elsewhere. Either that or they send them to boarding schools. The school is under the overview of the Orcas school district, and back when I was a student on Orcas students on this mysterious island used to send their kids to Orcas every day for school, though no one seems to do that anymore. They have a one room schoolhouse with a nice library and a separate computer building that the locals can pay a monthly fee to use.

A not great photo of the schoolhouse.  It's hard to take photos from the back of a moving truck - even if it is moving slowly!

A not great photo of the schoolhouse. It’s hard to take photos from the back of a moving truck – even if it is moving slowly!

There is an airstrip on the island and a post office though the mail boat only comes three days a week. There are several unmanned farmer’s stands, working on the honor system. And the farms sell their wares at farmer’s markets on other islands. They have many social gatherings – I think some sort of craft fair had been going on when we were there. I know they have picnics and musical gatherings and poetry readings – lovely, “old-fashioned” stuff like that. (I wish I had more opportunities to do things like that!)

My son found a message in a bottle within minutes of arriving on the beach.  No, we can't show you the note because it would give away the name of the island!  But it was a really cool discovery!

My son found a message in a bottle within minutes of arriving on the beach. No, we can’t show you the note because it would give away the name of the island! But it was a really cool discovery!

They do have a self-governing system. Two islanders are part-time county road workers and they take care of the few roads that are considered county roads. There are no road signs, in fact, no signs whatsoever. There is a public county dock that anyone on the island can use. You can’t tie your boat up to it but you can load and unload there and then you have to anchor out or, like the residents, have your own buoy that is safely anchored. There is only one other dock on the island and it’s privately owned. No more are allowed by the islands own self-governing system. Here’s another interesting fact: only 1 indoor toilet is allowed per household, though you may have as many outhouses as you may like! This may not be strictly followed, but it’s the official law.

The necessary outhouse.

The necessary outhouse.

The private dock.  It's taken in in the fall and not put back out until late spring.

The private dock. It’s taken in in the fall and not put back out until late spring.

Also on the rule books is that there is to be no sharing of your own utilities with the neighbors, so if you own solar panels or a generator, it’s yours alone. My insider says that he knows this rule is broken, but for whatever reason, it’s the official stand. The police will visit the island, but only if they have to, which is not very often. An ambulance of sorts is manned by islanders who have been trained and you can buy Med-flight memberships for absolute emergencies. One very cool thing about that is that the islanders will pay for a family to be members if they can’t afford it. There is a tanker truck to haul water for big fires and there are three trailers with water to hook-up to which are stationed around the island at various points.

See the solar panels?

See the solar panels?

If residents have propane heaters, refrigerators, hot water heaters, or stoves, they have to haul their own gas and propane in their boat or have the island’s water taxi pick it up for them for a nominal fee. The mail delivery guy who lives on the island will also pick up groceries or pharmacy supplies or hardware store stuff for residents.

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This island is about 3600 acres. It has about 100 permanent (year-round) residents and about quite a few more houses that are used only seasonally. The population actually doubles in the summer, especially on the weekends. It has one main road which kinda loops around but doesn’t even cover the entire island. It is navigable at speeds not to exceed about 10mph. Not because they like to make up rules like that but because to go any faster is to risk life and limb and gas tank. The roads are full of potholes and surprising bumps, twists and turns and gorgeous views.

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The island vehicles are, for fairly obvious reasons, old beaters. If you’re going to ship a car or truck over, you’re not going to ever want to do it again. Many of the car’s doors have long-since disappeared and one head light is quite the norm. My insider borrowed a truck one night years back, and had to use a flashlight after dark – they started out with a headlight and then it shorted out. Oh, and by the way, the road is one lane only.

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This means that you can drive along it, your windows rolled down on your old beater truck, and literally grab a hold of the vegetation along the road if you so desire. The evergreens, salal bushes, Scotch Broom, Oregon Grape, ferns, daisies, blackberries and salmonberries are close enough to pick a bouquet. And you’re going slowly enough to maybe even fill your bucket for a blackberry cobbler!

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Of course all this one-lane, super-slow driving means that if you run into another car coming your way you – or he – have to back up through said twists and turns and bumps and holes until you can find a place in the road where you can pull off. There are quite a few turn-offs, but still, one needs to be good at backing…which I am not.

Let’s just say that if I was driving there I’d most likely be dead pretty quick.

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Most people, for obvious reasons, get around on bicycles. Which is another reason to drive slowly. There also may be chickens in the road. Or bunnies. Or goats. But there will never be deer in the road, as there are none on the island, nor are there raccoons, squirrels, mice, opossums or skunks. There are rats, though. Plenty of those. And there are owls. Lots of them. They must eat the rats. And the frogs.

Most of the residents of this island are there because they want to get away. To do their own thing. To live a sustainable lifestyle and simplify their lives. Some are there just because their anti-social. Some want to have a get-away which truly is away from everything. Those ones often are the seasonal folks who spend their winters in Seattle or elsewhere, earning the money they need to keep up their get-away.

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There are no tourists. None. Tourists are not welcome. They can’t be kept off legally, from the county road, anyway, but they sure are not smiled upon. This is not a place for a casual visit. This is a lifestyle.

Lest you think that the beach is full of people, let me hasten to assure you that this is all our crowd.  the beach was completely empty.

Lest you think that the beach is full of people, let me hasten to assure you that this is all our crowd. the beach was completely empty.

Turns out, however, that if you have an “in”…you can take a peek. So I did. With someone I know well and who, after going there for several years, finally invited me to visit. I say “finally” without bitterness! The home they have there is not winterized and so they can only be there for a few months out of the year and even then only on the weekends, due to the annoyances of real life. Even if they could be there and stay warm with their woodstove, just getting there risks your life in the swells and winds of a Puget Sound winter. There was a return trip, a year or two ago, during which this person truly wasn’t sure h’d make it. When he did, it was time to put the boat up for the winter. No more trips back and forth. No more tempting fate.

Imagine – in weather like that – what it’s like to be a permanent resident of the island! The kids who travel daily across the water for high school have to have a place to stay on the other island where they go to school. Either that or they’re homeschooled. The residents have to have enough food to make it through storms that can last for days and bad weather that lasts for weeks. They have to plan ahead, can their veggies, pray for enough protein to come their way. This is not an easy life. But it is the life they have chosen. And, by golly, they want to be left alone to do it on their own.

And so I will not name the island. But how could I resist telling you about it?!

By the way, if you know the name of the island I’m writing about…please keep it to yourself. Thank you.

PS – Thanks to my secret source for much of the information on this post!!

Can you tell what this is?  It's an ancient buoy - very cool!

Can you tell what this is? It’s an ancient buoy – very cool!

Ten points if you know what these are.  They're sitting on the buoy. If you compare the two photos you can see how amazingly huge they are.  Never have I seen such big barnacles in my life!

Ten points if you know what these are. They’re sitting on the buoy. If you compare the two photos you can see how amazingly huge they are. Never have I seen such big barnacles in my life!

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10 Responses to “A Long Post About A Secret Island”

  1. Minnesota Prairie Roots October 29, 2013 at 7:49 am #

    This was really really interesting. I had no idea places like this still existed. It would be a fun place to visit, but I doubt I could live here.

    • Gretchen O'Donnell October 29, 2013 at 8:10 am #

      Yeah, I don’t think I’d want to be there full time either, but a wee place to go for a week or two…that I could go for!

  2. Gwen Stephens October 29, 2013 at 9:11 am #

    What a fascinating post. I recently read “Night Road” by Kristin Hannah. In this novel the characters live on a Washington island and commute to Seattle and neighboring islands for school, work, etc. After looking up the island I learned it was a fictional setting, likely based on a composite of real island life in Puget Sound. These folks on your mystery island, however — what hearty people! Couldn’t imagine living so primitively. So interesting to read about!

    • Gretchen O'Donnell October 31, 2013 at 12:07 pm #

      I have read two books by Hannah – one, Summer Island, I bought because the cover had a picture of the Orcas Hotel on it – it’s clearly the hotel, drawn/painted, and I couldn’t resist! I haven’t read Night Road, though. Might have to check into it! She lives in WA and even though I don’t love her writing style, I do appreciate her descriptions of Washington!

  3. cravesadventure October 29, 2013 at 1:54 pm #

    I so want to check out Washington State (i.e. San Juan Islands, Seattle, Mt. Rainer, Olympic Penisula, etc.). Great Captures – thanks so much for sharing your adventures:) Happy Tuesday!

  4. Hotly Spiced October 29, 2013 at 6:45 pm #

    It’s very beautiful but I’m not sure I’d like that kind of lifestyle full-time. Especially as the winters are so harsh. We have friends living on an island about 40 minutes from where we live. Visiting them is a nightmare as there’s no where to park before we have to get on the boat so that’s the first challenge. The next is hauling all the stuff like your shopping etc. And my friend says it’s not good when it rains because getting out on the boat is challenging so I think for me, the inconveniences would far outweigh the benefits xx

    • Gretchen O'Donnell October 31, 2013 at 12:08 pm #

      Yes, definitely not everyone is cut out for such a life. I think I’d like it part-time! Sounds interesting where your friend lives, though! I remember your post about that island with all the birds that is way out in the ocean – a weather station, is it? I forget exactly, but it sure was interesting!

  5. gardenfreshtomatoes October 30, 2013 at 8:59 am #

    Sounds like the Secret Island is better organized than my Small Town :)
    Thanks for the amazing visit…

    • Gretchen O'Donnell October 31, 2013 at 12:11 pm #

      LOL! I have a feeling that they have very few rules. I think that the basic rule is to do your own thing while being as green as possible…

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