Friday, July 17, 2015

An Island Adventure Worth Writing About

by Jean Henry Mead



The Tatoosh Islands

I was invited to Tatoosh by my brother Bob, a career coast guardsman, who was in charge of the small island group collectively named for a chief of the Makah Indian nation. The three small islands are the most northwesterly point of the continental U.S. and located in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, half a mile from the coast of Neah Bay, Washington. The lighthouse, Cape Flattery, was located on Tatoosh's main island.

My vacation to Tatoosh was an adventure from the start. My first plane belly-dived onto the runway in Stockton, California, because the landing gear failed to release. A rough landing but, fortunately, no one was hurt. It did, however, result in a six-hour delay before a replacement plane arrived. That placed us in Seattle-Tacoma airport at about 4 o’clock in the morning. At 6:30 a.m. I learned that I was to fly the remainder of the trip on a three-seater, single engine Cessna--no larger than my car--over the Olympic Mountains to Neah Bay. By the way, it was my first ever trip by plane.

Seated behind the pilot and another passenger, I could see the mountain peaks protruding through the clouds and I’ve never been so frightened in my life because air currents had us falling dangerously close to the peaks. When we reached the tiny airport some miles from Neah Bay, the landing strip appeared to be  a narrow, cracked sidewalk with weeds growing between the cracks.

My brother wasn’t there to meet me, so I hitched a ride with the other passenger, who was stationed at the coast guard base located on the Makah Indian reservation at Neah Bay. Halfway to the base we noticed a car parked along the road with a long, familiar pair of legs hanging out the door. It was my brother Bob, who was sleeping it off from a night at the club on the base the night before. It had been two months since he had been off the island. 

We then proceeded to the base where we waited for a small boat to come from the island to pick us up. When we reached the main island of Tatoosh, an inexperienced coastie was operating the crane which lowered the boatswain’s “chair” to the ocean to pick us up. The wooden box was about two feet square and six inches high and connected to a cable. I was lifted from the boat up a sheer rock face that appeared to be a hundred feet high. I screamed like a wounded water buffalo. When I reached the top, the box was swung to a wooden platform, landing hard enough to nearly break both my ankles.

Did I mention that the airline lost my luggage?

Cape Flattery on the main Tatoosh Island

I wore my brother’s coast guard uniforms for a week, and fortunately, one of the coasties had a pair of tennis shoes that fit. The fog horn woke me repeatedly during the night although the other inhabitants of the island were able to sleep through the noise.

I loved the lighthouse at Cape Flattery, located at the western end of the half mile by quarter mile island. The lighthouse was built in 1857, and the island has alternatively been inhabited by Makah Indian fishing parties, the coast guard, weather bureau employees and the navy. The guest book was fascinating to read and I wish I had been able to photograph some of the entries. It told of 19th century fishermen and explorers who visited the island by climbing the rocks. Some of their companions drowned or were killed from falls in the process.

I nearly lost my own life when I volunteered to mow the jungle-like undergrowth that threatens to take over the island. The tractor slid backward down an embankment and nearly went over the edge onto the rocks below. Once was enough. It still gives me shivers thinking about it.

A bird sanctuary is located adjacent to the main island (upper left in top photo) where I watched a variety of colorful sea birds take off and land, as well as seals and other marine life. Across the Strait of Juan de Fuca is Vancouver Island, Canada, which I could see on a clear day, which wasn't very often. When I wasn’t watching sea birds and visiting the lighthouse I enjoyed playing pool with the coasties and watching films in their small basement movie theatre. 

We were fogged in the morning I was scheduled to leave so I was able to stay two extra days. The morning I left, a small coast guard cutter arrived with my luggage, so I dressed like a civilian and boarded the cutter for the trip back to the mainland. Five minutes later, a wave swamped the boat and I looked like a drowned rat when I boarded the small plane for the trip back to Seattle. During the subsequent trip home, my plane left without me in Stockton, California, so I waited again for another plane.

I'd been expected to start my first newspaper reporting job several days before I returned home and was nearly fired before I began. The publisher said he'd traveled to northwestern Washington several times and had never heard of Tatoosh. Thankfully, I was able to whip out an island postcard, which saved my job. I also wrote a feature story about the trip.

The island is no longer inhabited and no coast guardsmen or weather station employees remain. Tatoosh has become one of the  most intensively studied field sites for marine life in the world. Studies have discovered how various species are linked to one another through a network of interactions and how environmental changes resulting in the extinction of certain species have affected the marine life food chain.

Anyone who now wants to visit the Tatoosh islands must ask permission from the Makah Indian Reservation officials at Neah Bay on Washington’s beautiful Olympia Penninsula . . .

4 comments:

Jackie King said...

Fascinating! I had never heard of these islands. As I was reading through the article, I kept thinking you had done this recently. Was I ever impressed by your physical feats! I was also relieved when I realized you had taken this trip when you were young.

BTW: Did you ever retrieve your luggage?

Bill Kirton said...

What a trip, Jean! Great description of experiences that, while sometimes very scary, must have made you feel you were living life to the full - because you definitely were.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Yes, Jackie. The Coast Guard delivered my luggage an hour before I was prepared to leave for the mainland. : )

Jean Henry Mead said...

I probably wouldn't brave the trip now, Bill, but it was the experience of a lifetime.