Converging with the San Juanderers



Rick Martell, aka “The Captain,” eases the Wauquiez 38 Snow Goose ever closer to the authors Holy Grail, as Merle Barnett scans the shores for signs that the object of the quest had once passed this way. Harold Barnett

The dark-green Old Town kayak, with the slightest flick and dip of the paddle, moved me quickly away from my snoring mates aboard Snow Goose, the Wauquiez 38 lent us by Roger Van Dyken, owner of San Juan Sailing in Bellingham, Washington. Months before, I’d contacted Roger, telling him I was coming to his neck of the woods for a wedding and that while I was there I wanted to explore a few of the San Juan Islands, just west of his Squalicum Harbor base.

I had simple objectives for this mid-August bareboat charter: to walk a few trails, grill salmon for dinner, and take a voyeur’s peek at the shorelines via small-boat forays. My nautical dance card, then, was pretty open, with one marked exception: I couldn’t-no, I wouldn’t!-leave Snow Goose without finding Sentinel Island, the tiny patch of land where author June Burn and her husband, Farrar, homesteaded. After all, when I fall in love with words, I fall hard. If June Burn saw it, breathed it, experienced it, then so would I.

Burn mostly wrote in the 1920s and 1930s-most notably in her column, Puget Soundings, in The Bellingham Herald, but often simply for the love of the process. She never let money, or the lack of it, get in the way of dreaming big dreams and living as she felt life should be lived. She was a maverick. She quit jobs when it seemed the entire nation, in the throes of a depression, struggled to find work. She camped out in tents, hitchhiked cross-country, and lived off the land by reading and learning to identify the edible plants that sprung up around her. She prized the lessons taught her by mistakes of any kind, and she looked forward to both stimulus and response with a sense of humor. Here was a woman who could laugh at herself yet preserve her self-esteem-my hero!


Roger Van Dyken had eagerly pulled out the welcome mat for our crew: Rick, my partner of a dozen years; Harold and Merle Barnett, whose son’s wedding had brought us to Seattle in the first place; and Carol Vernon, a friend from Rhode Island who’s better known as a yacht captain, a racing fiend, an engineer, and a naval architect with a few America’s Cup campaigns, as a consultant, under her belt.

When I first decided to sail in the San Juans, I’d crammed every bit of available information about this territory-for me, as yet uncharted-into my head: tales of explorers George Vancouver and Robert Gray; of Indian tribes and the secrets of their totem poles; of Seattle, software, salmon, and, of course, Starbucks. But when I took to the islands’ chilly waters in a kayak early that first morning aboard Snow Goose, I wasn’t thinking of those things. I was thinking of June Burn.

June Burn had company in all of her good mischief: her husband, Farrar, whom she’d known about a month before they married and set out from Maryland to homestead one of the San Juans, sight unseen. Essentially, when the world zigged, the Burns zagged, then wrote about it. To me, they were the original San Juanderers. Any sailor could identify with their stories, and especially with the whimsy they attached to everything they undertook, which included sailing an 18-foot metal U.S. Coast Guard lifeboat they’d bought for $5, converted to a sloop, and outfitted with basic provisions, a tent, and a typewriter.


Dreamscape Drifting
All of which explains why I found myself drifting along the eastern coast of Lummi Island, just outside Bellingham Bay, much as June and Farrar Burn must have, over ochre starfish in the clear, clean water beneath me, wondering where the current would take me, and, more to the point, if I was strong enough to handle it and get back to the boat.

I slid out of Inati Bay, where we’d made our first visit the evening before. After months of planning, flight arrivals snagged by summer storms, and a quick toast to the newlyweds, I couldn’t wait to strike out on my own and retrace some of June’s tracks. Taking Roger’s advice, we’d picked a route from east to west across the top of the archipelago, taking advantage of mild southwesterlies. Yet somehow, I hoped, I’d find a way to let the course of a 21st-century bareboat charter converge with that of a brave 20th-century homesteader.

Windless mornings were a constant throughout our trip, and I savored them. I could ignore my paddle often enough to just sit and look out at ribbons of soft mist slicing mountainous islands away from their watery underpinnings, which made me think of the classic landscape scenes by the 19th-century Japanese woodblock artist Ando Hiroshige. Every so often, a trawler or a ferry in the distance would break the silence with a noise about the level of a mosquito’s. I’d turn my head, and quick as a bug, it would be gone.


I scanned the rocky, calico-colored cliffs and marveled at the peeling red bark of madrona trees, whose roots clung like giant claws to the headlands. Beneath the kayak, strop-sized strands of leathery bull kelp bumped into the hard plastic with small thudding sounds and sensations. I gripped the paddle more tightly as I realized it was now more difficult to get where I was going, wherever that was.

Yet I was making progress, and I wanted to keep going. I came upon a gouged-out hillside. Was the harvest here timber or limestone? Never mind, because as the current swirled around a rocky outcropping, I saw my chance for relief in a cove and ducked in. Water there was as still as a pond, which gave my arms a break. I floated around for a bit and peered into the dark woods from the safety of the water; then, figuring that I’d better turn around, I eventually drifted back out and met my prize: In the top branches of a tree perched a bald eagle, the very first I’d seen in the wild. I froze. Slowly, his head turned this way, then that, and with that soft swishing sound which seemed to convey that he thought all was well in his land, he took off.

As the raptor soared, so went my spirits, aloft. I sat up straighter in the kayak and started paddling as fast as I could back to Snow Goose. When I reached the anchorage, I could see Rick sitting there with a cup of coffee in his hands. He smiled. “Shhh,” he said quietly, and pointed. “Look over there.” His booty was a great blue heron, one of those prehistoric-looking marvels, stock still in the branches near a tree trunk where we’d tied off the stern line the evening before. Not only would June Burn have approved of our communions with nature, but the avid coffee drinker (she often wrote about perking up a pot over the campfire) would also, I was sure, have agreed that we’d earned our first cup of the day.


Sucia’s Sandstone
For the next few days, we gently, quietly glided through the islands in scant wind, pillowed by dawn’s diaphanous ribbons of mist, mesmerized on Snow Goose’s deck by the water’s ever-changing surface play, and catching an adventure or three before morning coffee.

Leaving Lummi, we picked Sucia for a lunch stop, as had a lot of our fellow vacationers. We took a look at Fox Cove, but didn’t find the perfect place to set our anchor, so we nosed around under jib to Shallow Bay next door. Dropping the hook there would give us time to take a long walk along Sucia’s fossilized sandstone shores and visit Echo Bay on the other side of this low, horseshoe-shaped island.

Captain Rick got us anchored, then took immediately to his well-honed sport of cockpit meditation. Harold, Merle, Carol, and I piled into one of the fleet of brand-new Aqua Dutch inflatables the charter company had bought for tenders and rowed ashore. Harold and Merle took their time, Carol and I bounded ahead, chattering on about jobs and sailing, but it wasn’t long before we were lowering our centers of gravity and slipping along slimy, seaweed-tufted rocks.

Carol broke out, to no particular tune, in spontaneous song: “Barnacles are my friends, barnacles are my friends!” And though she was determined to avoid contact with their razor-sharp edges, perils abounded, and she took a spill and drew blood, all the while good-naturedly pointing out that at least she hadn’t thrown her back out. The walk actually improved, now that tumble angst was out of the way. The sun was hot and bright, and puffy cumulus clouds threw a Charlie Brown-like cartoon pall over the surroundings. We clung like spiders as we groped and grabbed onto the naturally molded sandstone handholds on the shore, the curling ridges so dry I blew cobwebs away as I grabbed on.

We all piled back into the dinghy and rowed to the east end of Shallow Bay so we could take the short walk across a thin ribbon of land to Echo Bay. With its views to stately and narrow North Finger and South Finger islands, it was about as populated as any gorgeous island would be on an August day in a place known for its short summer season. And all the company felt great: Kids swam and collected crabs, campers set up around fire pits, people lazed around on beached logs. Classic wooden sailing beauties like Folkboats mixed with squat MacGregor 26 motorsailers designed to efficiently power and sail its crews around in changeable weather.

“The weathermen keep saying it’s going to get worse and worse, but it just keeps getting better and better!” I overheard someone exclaim. It was a refrain we’d hear time and again during last summer’s remarkable string of sunny days in the region. Yet I couldn’t have agreed more with his incredulity: I’d been warned repeatedly of the trademark gloom, doom, and dampness of the Pacific Northwest, yet I found nothing but blue skies, fresh air, and lightheartedness all over, even in Seattle. No wonder June fell in love with it when she first saw it. I certainly did.

Littoral Wanderings
I don’t mean to diminish the splendors of a Bristol-kept monohull; after all, I love boats with well-equipped galleys, heads and hot showers, comfy settees and good reading lamps, smart rigs, lots of canvas, and inviting decks. Indeed, Snow Goose came with all sorts of these delightful amenities, carefully maintained by her owners and the charter-company staff.

But I love little boats with absolutely none of these things, too. With a little boat, you can poke in and out of overlooked corners of shorelines and shallow coves. Little boats provide big thrills on small outings-say, a few hours on a Saturday afternoon or a weekday evening, when the sun’s about to set and the sky is ripe peach and blue. Little boats put you right out there with the dragonflies, the cormorants, the herons, and the fry, the silver fins of game fish making arabesques before they flop and vanish beneath dark, mirrorlike water.

Full-Moon Fever
There’s another thing about little boats: When you’re in one, and the tide goes out, you can actually get out of it and drag it along the mud if you must. This has happened to me plenty in New England waters, and it could have easily happened again at Prevost Harbor on Stuart Island the morning of August 13. Once again, I was reminded of the impact of the moon, especially the full one, on my life, and it made me realize I’ve got this foolish habit of ignoring Mother Nature, always to my regret.

We’d motorsailed to Stuart after Sucia, because I’d started making noises about our itinerary, time frames, and how we absolutely had to get to Sentinel, about three miles south of Sucia, so I could indulge in my author worship.

It was pretty obvious that we weren’t locals; by the time we got to Prevost, the sun was low, and every other boat had that settled look of having been tucked in for hours. Kids played in their water toys, people grilled dinner off the sterns, and cockpit cocktail hours were well under way. We found a tree on a small point of Satellite Island, where the YMCA has a summer camp. Duly noting the “No Trespassing” signs, I consulted a guide book, which warned that the Y discourages visits to Satellite. I vowed we wouldn’t make a lengthy expedition out of our row ashore to carry a line from Snow Goose’s stern to a tree.

Maybe we should have taken more time, for next morning, when I ducked out on my snoozing cohorts, I thought to myself, gee, we didn’t look that close to the tree last night, did we? Sometimes it takes awhile for things to sink in, but I soon realized that we must have tied our shore line too short. Whatever; I dreamily embarked upon a harbor tour of Prevost, using the Aqua Dutch instead of the kayak, and I wandered over oyster shells embedded in the rocks of the shallows while I stole glances at baby seals with their mothers.

When I got close to the boat, nearly two hours later, Rick was all business, giving me the Look of Stone from his helmsman’s perch. It was just past 0900, and this full-moon tide was still headed out and promising to leave us with up to 10 feet less water beneath the keel by noon. Carol was in the kayak, closing in from the other direction. She and I paused yet again to admire a sunflower star that the boat’s shifting position revealed; with so many tentacles, the golden glob looked like about a dozen starfish clumped together. That was about as much of a nature moment as Rick would tolerate, and in the next minute came terse and clear commands to untie the stern line and get ourselves back on board. Off Snow Goose motored, and before I knew it, we’d made our way past Johns Island to starboard, with Spieden Island looming farther off and-dare I think it?-Sentinel just behind it.

An Island World
We zippered up in fleece and had a chilly, sloppy beat in blue-black water smeared with short, choppy whitecaps past Spieden’s sloping hillsides and its long, incongruously golden grasses. There I was, plying Spieden Channel, yet I imagined an African veldt and wondered if an antelope might dash into view. Actually, that might not have been such a stretch, for the island had once been an exotic-game-hunting preserve, and some of its creatures had managed to survive.

We were getting so close to Burn territory that I was itching to see their oft-trodden course from Sentinel to Spieden. They often wrote of dashing back and forth to overnight with a farming family who “adopted” them. And I wondered-though she never abandoned a light tone in her storytelling-how difficult it must have been for June and Farrar to survive there and live the island life decades before the summer throngs moved in.

Burn likened Sentinel to candy, but her inaugural row to it, loaded down with provisions and a portable typewriter, was anything but sweet. Current and chop bedeviled them, the boat flipped, and they had to turn back. But they were diehards, and they ultimately reached their goal.

“There was Sentinel Island, like a green gumdrop, fir trees lifting their beautiful crowns into the sky, sedum-covered bluffs sheering straight down into the rich, green-blue water,” June wrote. “Our island. Our world. We had pulled the ladder up and nobody would come. Nobody knew we were here. How tall these trees, their dark crowns brushing the sky! How still it is!”

And then there it was, all 15 acres of it, and I understood why she called it a gumdrop. It was so convex, so high. My crewmates indulged me with their patience, and we bobbed around a bit, Rick steadying Snow Goose with steering and gentle revs of the Perkins while the churny, choppy current ran two knots against us. I crawled to the foredeck, crouched down against the pulpit, and started snapping pictures. The excited jabber of my internal voice-the part of me that was singing, Here it is, here it is!-contrasted amusingly with the detachment of the lolling, sunbathing seals on Sentinel’s black, rocky shore.

No trace of the Burns’ rough homestead remained; in 1979, the Nature Conservancy acquired Sentinel, and now it’s there for nesting eagles, pigeon guillemots, those seals I spied, and any other creatures that stumble on it-but not people. Today, someone could pass by Sentinel unaware of the legacy this couple left the San Juans. This realization left me feeling a bit let down and at odds with my conviction that we can never save enough of nature from man’s encroachment. In the case of Sentinel Island, at least two human beings persevered and succeeded in repaying Mother Earth for all the riches she bestowed on them.

Mission accomplished, and we wanted to celebrate. From Sentinel, we tacked toward the quaint village and marina at Roche Harbor on San Juan Island, the most populated of this 473-island archipelago, where we treated ourselves to the luxury of an overnight slip. While we hosed down the boat, tossed garbage, and did the mid- to end-of-charter chores, I sensed the buzz and urgency of a pack of vacationers squeezing the best out of the last of summer.

The Good Life
People were everywhere, lounging on the docks, taking kayak lessons, having cocktails in cockpits, strolling in the beautiful flower gardens of the Hotel de Haro, shopping at the arts and crafts booths near the 19th-century limekiln remains. I hopped a shuttle bus and headed toward the island’s county fair, landing smack-dab in a world where the sight of cotton candy mingled with the scent of freshly popped kettle corn and the sounds of kids squealing and guitars strumming the tune to “You are my sunshine, my only sunshine. . . .”

Harold and Merle, retired from successful careers in environmental economics and textile design, sought an art fix. They strolled off toward the Westcott Bay Art & Nature Reserve, a 19-acre dreamworld of life-sized interpretive sculpture. Carol wandered off to walk trails. Rick bought a huge cup of coffee and sipped it while he planted himself on a park bench and engaged in a tête-à-tête via cell phone with his boss. We dined ashore that night at one of the waterfront restaurants in the village for an early celebration of Rick’s 60th birthday. Now loose, relaxed, and rested, we agreed that the charter was the perfect wind down to the nuptials windup.
Early next morning-no surprise-I gave in to the urge to steal one last peek at Sentinel. I took to the kayak, first mindlessly bisecting the intended landing path of a seaplane, the poor pilot of which was buzzing happily along until he caught sight of me. I couldn’t paddle away from the fetch fast enough to give him the clearance he required, so we both altered our courses, he splashing down a bit southwest of his intended spot, and I winding up northwest of Roche Harbor.

This was good, for in June Burn style, I found myself skimming the shoreline of tiny Posey Island, one of the state marine parks. During a circumnavigation in the shallows, I gazed out across a hazy Spieden Channel to the “gumdrop,” now candy-dusted in confectioner’s sugar. A powerboat zipped across, a seal poked its head up through the surface, a porpoise fin slapped and sent spray flying. I wondered if I could cross the channel and get back to Sentinel one more time, but I hadn’t checked the tide table the night before and wasn’t sure what I’d be in for.

In one burst I thought, Oh, just go for it. Then I thought twice-something I know June would never have done-and I was instantly filled with a renewed respect for all this brave San Juanderer had accomplished during her rich life. What separated me from her and other new-millennium explorers was more than time, more than space. I turned and headed back to Snow Goose, content to be a visitor in this territory that for me, until now, had remained uncharted.

Elaine Lembo is CW’s managing editor.