I'm Matt, a software engineer and boating enthusiast based in Washington State (but on the move). I started Hermit Cove Boats, offering cool skin and frame boat plans and kits. Check it out!
My previous boat hook was the typical plastic hook on a telescoping aluminum shaft. It went overboard during a difficult (read: botched) mooring operation in Alaya Cove off of Angel Island in San Francisco Bay. By the time Madrone was secured to her mooring ball the boat hook was no longer in sight. It had taken on too much water and gone to the bottom. I picked up a bronze fitting to make a new boat hook while in a chandlery in Anacortes. My hope was to find a branch or driftwood that could serve as a shaft for the fitting.
Anacortes is a town not far from Bellingham, where Madrone recently went back into the water. It is named, oddly enough, not for some first peoples native name for this or that, but for Anna Curtis. It is a hub for the Washington Ferry System service to the San Juan Islands, connecting the car driving world to the many nearby islands. I was in Anacortes waiting for Jon, who would travel with me on Madrone for the next week in and around the islands.
I’d seen these islands before, from water level in a kayak. So I knew a few of them. Notably Cypress Island and Sucia Island. I knew that they have an arranged and well tended beauty that makes one suspect that there is a creator, and that the creator had good days and bad days. For much of the world he held back, but he was on a goddamn roll when he made the San Juan Islands. Not only was the creator at the top of his powers, I believe he also owed a boater a favor at the time. A more perfect world to explore from the water would be very very difficult to imagine.
There are marvelous tides - they ebb and flow like anywhere else, stronger with the phases of the moon, coming and going twice a day - but in the San Juan islands they ebb and flow through 1000 foot deep channels around a maze of islands. This means they go slant-ways and up-ways and down-ways. A patient mariner with a very long rode could travel anywhere by riding the tide when it was in his favor and anchoring the other times. A slight wind to give steerage-way allows you to put your boat in 2-4 knot currents and make great progress on almost still waters in near silence. And if the wind should blow too hard the sheer number of islands and anchorages means that one will be at hand that is secure and out of the wind. Islands always have leeward sides.
Jon and I set out that first morning into a slack tide and soon noticed good fishing signs - random dots on the depth sounder and lots of birds on the water. I dropped a jig over the side into about 100 feet of water, and as I pulled the lure off the bottom doing my best spastic herring impersonation I felt a hit. “Maybe its a halibut” I said. It came up, angry about it, and revealed itself to be a salmon. I never claimed to be an expert. Into the boat it went, where it showed its displeasure by coating my pants and every inch of the cockpit in gore. It puked up squid and herring. I gave it 2 shots of cheap California brandy in the gills. It was slightly pacified. Then it was steaked and filleted.
By this time the tide had turned and the wind had gone from dead calm to a slight breath. We drifted slowly up the Rosario Strait toward Strawberry Island.
Strawberry Island lies to one side of the Rosario Strait like a sleeping turtle. It sits in deep water and rises as one rock from the green depths. It is delicately planted in Doug Fir and Madrone, with a carpet of thick moss and a jeweled array of succulent plants. It has one trail that runs along the turtle’s back from the head to the tail. It can be comfortably walked in bare feet. The island rises to about 100 feet, and the views from the island are amazing and the view of the island is even better.
In the time that it took to drift from the south end of Cypress Island where the salmon was caught to Strawberry Island, I was able to clean the fish, grill two steaks, and make couscous and salad. We ate al fresco with Strawberry Island providing the visual feast. As we cleaned our plates the wind piped up and we moved with almost no effort at 5 knots up the channel. By night we were snug in a one boat cove on Matia Island. The cove was lined with immaculately landscaped cliffs, but also with a gentle pebble beach to allow easy access to the land by dinghy. No one else was around as the sun set over seals playing in the tide rips.
That it was a Friday seemed beside the point. That there was an actual world somewhere else seemed beside the point. This was Disney World for adults, the dreamy promise of childhood made real on a massive scale.
As if to prove the point, that this was a world unlike the one we had left behind, a world designed for the enjoyment of grown up boys, we found an unexploded bomb on that pebble beach, with instructions in French and English to call to the police or the military. Appelez le militaire? Oh mon Dieu!
In the San Juans there are small uninhabited islands like Strawberry and Matia. And then there are bigger ones, like Orcas. The eponymous San Juan. Lopez. Shaw. Each fringed with lovely anchorages. Each trying with varying degrees of success to be like the real world. Our voyage through them felt like a variation of Cook’s or the Starship Enterprise’s. We’d load up the dinghy for the “away team”. Phasers on stun, whiskey and cigars at the ready. Are the natives peaceful on this island?
On Jones Island we met a traveler aboard a Flicka 20, perhaps the smallest vessel meant for the open sea. He bought it in Hawaii and sailed it through French Polynesia before bringing it into the sound. He warned of a gale in the forecast. We pulled out the charts to find a safe harbor. Garrison Bay on San Juan showed promise, several corners turned before the bay is reached, no gale could get us in there. Intrepid, we sailed ahead of the gale, and reached the bay safely.
On the bay is a state park, called “English Camp”. A similar park further down the island can be predicted: “American Camp”. The two sides contended that all these islands belonged to them. A vague treaty left the question open, and it was resolved without a shot by a German arbitrator. English Camp still has the original buildings and well above the camp is Young’s Hill, with expansive views of the Queen’s Land - Vancouver Island and Victoria. I’m sure the English were sad to go.
We hiked up Young’s Hill to view the impending doom of the gale. On the glacier scoured hill top, surrounded by wizened Madrone growing impossibly on the rock face, we met Elder McKay. He is a Canadian Mormon trying to convert the population of the San Juans over the next 2 years. We were not converted, and no gale arrived. On the way down the hill in the dark we found a dead but still standing 15 foot tall Doug Fir sapling. It came down with a loud crack and we hauled it back to the boat. It could be excellent boat hook material.
That night my faith in weather forecasting was shaken, though the boat was not.
The next evening we approached Shaw Island. An island full of Nuns, or so we had heard. I wished Elder McKay luck when he tried converting this population. And what to one man is a cloister of nuns might to another be a cult of amazons. I’ve been beaten by nuns, but not amazons. Which would you fear?
We landed on the island with some trepidation. Signs said no beach fires.
This island had roads, and the roads were lined with feral apple and pear trees, as well as blackberries. Welcome fresh provisions to keep scurvy at bay. Signs said “No Trespassing” and “Private Property”. Even small unimproved strips of land between the road and the water were angrily signed. Then as we walked on we saw jagged white boards, arranged in a semi-circle, random sizes leaning this way and that, jammed into the ground. We walked further, and then we saw ominous faces in the trees. They were masks, nailed to the trees, watching us from the thick brush as we passed by. Around the next corner, a bench by the road, decorated all around with garlands of sea shells, with a roof to keep off the rain, and a surprising sign - “Passerby Bench”. Could it be a trap? We sat and smoked our cigars. We did not see or hear any people.
Later we came to the end of the road, the ferry terminal, a small parking lot, and a store. The store should have closed just 5 minutes before. And surely a ferry terminal would have some workers. But there was no one about. It felt a little like the village in “the Prisoner”, only with a rustic theme.
We went back the way we came humming “Country Road” by John Denver. At the beach by our dinghy, feeling lonely, Jon created a totem to guard us. A witch queen, or perhaps the head nun. I went to work with my draw knife, reducing that Doug Fir sapling to boat hook size. The rough form, 9 feet long and tipped with a fine bronze hook, was complete before we left.
Which is good, because our destination, James Island, was too steep shored to anchor safely alongside, and we needed to pick up a mooring buoy. The hook provided fine service. There were only two mooring balls on this island and no one used the other one. We went to shore to cook a can of beans over a camp fire. That side of James Island looks back over Rosario Strait at Anacortes. The next day we’d return and Jon would head south. We’d completed a loop, dodged dangers, feasted on the wild foods available, seen odd and beautiful things, and had more fun than you are supposed to.
I’ve seen Jon off now, and tonight in Anacortes I cut the boat hook down to 7 feet, and sanded it smooth with an orbital sander to prevent splinters. It was a lovely process to get it to this state, and I believe that no one has a finer boat hook.