Creative photos and essays from the San Juan Islands


No man is an island

No man is an island

Even before I moved to the islands I remember a fellow passenger on the ferry pointing out tiny Armitage Island off the south east coast of Blakley Island. He said, “How’d ya like to own an island? That one’s for sale!” The thought of owning one of the San Juan Islands had never occurred to me. He quoted some price, I don’t remember how much, but it was enough to keep me from excitedly jamming my fist into my pants pocket looking for spare change. “Only that much?,” I replied. He didn’t catch my sarcasm, for he apparently felt the price most reasonable.

I’m no more “well off” now than I was then, so I won’t be dashing down to the realty office to buy the next private island being put on the market. But to own a piece of the rock is still a dream many visitors and residents on the islands fantasize about. I did find the next best thing, being a caretaker of someone else’s island paradise. For a number of years I was employed by the Seattle Yacht Club as outstation manager of their Henry Island outstation, a 20 acre plot where club members can tie to a dock, take a shower or do some laundry, and have THEIR piece of the rock by proxy. In the winter with no club members around, it was like owning the place without the tax and utility burden. I’d go out on exploration expeditions, watch the deer visit in herds at night to eat the grass, and just soak up the ambiance, a good alternative to ownership. My big brother Dick did me one better by caretaking ALL of 516 acre Spieden Island off the north shore of San Juan. Dick, handyman par-excellance, had a huge workshop, a diesel generator, and a log lodge, even a sawmill where neighboring back-to-the-landers from Stuart Island came to cut lumber for their buildings.

But now, living in what amounts to a hotel, I long for that intimate island experience, it’s not enough to live ON an island, I want to own one!! True, I have no debts, but that’s not enough. Reality is, the small islands are still waaaay out of my reach dollar-wise. Then recently, on an exercise machine and at the same time reading on my Kindle Fire, I ran across a reference to gaining ownership of an unclaimed tiny island via the Homestead Act of 1870. Was it still possible? I was getting excited! However, an online search couldn’t even find references to an 1870 act; 1862, yes, but no 1870, so my faith in the author’s authority was slipping fast. Then, on reading further, I learned the very last homestead issued by the government…was in 1988 in southeast Alaska.

Floyd Schmoe, the author of “For Love of Some Islands” actually did gain title to Flower island off the east shore of Lopez. He had gone to the County clerk’s office and was told there were ‘fragmentary’ bits of land that could be applied for, but it was a convoluted process with no assurance of ultimate ownership. Or, the clerk said, one could simply occupy the land, and after a certain amount of time, if no one disputed your claim, you would own it under the ancient law of preemptory rights, better known as “squatter’s rights.” Schmoe did just that with Flower Island.

So the little boy in me is looking at the island in this photo (I can’t, or won’t, say where it’s located) thinking that maybe this piece of the rock could be mine. Of course that’s all it is…rock, and I’m too bound by my conscience to build a building there, how the neighbors would hate that, but I could see myself in a cozy tent in the summer time having paddled there by kayak, enjoying MY island.


One response

  1. I will have to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder! When I see the barren rock in the picture, I see a barren rock and in me, it does not invoke a need to own a piece of the “rock”. I think of all the delicious rock cod and other fish varieties that inhabit the area around the rock. The thrill of pulling up a 100+ pound halibut, now that, would be a thing of beauty, and something to behold!

    February 3, 2013 at 8:41 pm

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