The Traffic Jam at Safari Island ???

The Traffic Jam at Safari Island ???

The post below was sent as an issue of my newsletter, Ready for Rain.

In the evenings this time of year, we often hear a deep growling sound coming from across the water that sounds like a call-and-response conversation. We soon learned that the growls come from a group of Steller sea lions that haul out on the tip of nearby Spieden Island. I always imagine them saying “GRRRR, I NEED MORE SPACE”, “UUUUGHHHH, NOT HERE BUDDY GGGGUUUUGGHHH”.

Photo by Rylee Isitt

When Sachi mentioned taking the boat out recently, I knew exactly what to do: investigate the source of the growls and get to know our noisy neighbors, who mainly appear in the spring. But there was a problem. Our boat, Short Story, needed gas. As happened before, we first visited Deer Harbor Marina, which is our home base. Their gas system was out of service again. Ugh. Before adventuring, we needed to fill up and decided to cross the channel to Roche Harbor for gas, and then visit the sea lions. If only it were so easy.

Crossing the channel was a breeze. Once we got across, I noticed four or five larger boats congregating. I told Sachi it looked suspicious. It was a weekday afternoon outside of fishing season. As we got closer, it was obvious that the boats were full of whale watching tourists. We slowed down and watched from afar as the dorsal fins of a handful of killer whales came into view. We were excited to have stumbled upon the spectacle and sat for a bit to enjoy the surprise. 

The whales, of course, are protected and there are laws that govern how close you can get in a boat and what to do when whales are present. These include, according to the Be Whale Wise website:

  • Boats to stay 300 yards from Southern Resident killer whales on either side.
  • Boats to stay 400 yards out of Southern Resident killer whales’ path in front and behind the whales
  • Boats to go slow (<7 knots) within ½ mile of Southern Resident killer whales
  • Disengage engines if whales appear within 300 yards.

The tour guides are usually pretty responsible and we stay behind their boats to be sure. After watching the whales, we decided to head towards the gas dock at Roche Harbor. That’s when we realized that we were stuck. The whales and boats had drifted into the smaller channel between us and Roche Harbor. As long as they were around, we couldn’t proceed. Soon another boat approached us from behind and a second boat came from the direction of Roche, all trying to get through. We both laughed. It was a San Juan Islands traffic jam. The damn whales were clogging up the works! We, of course, were more than happy to wait them out. 

Before long we were on our way to the marina. We’d been to Roche multiple times, but never for gas. As I’ve written before, marina gas stations sometimes work in mysterious ways and we weren’t sure exactly what their process was, other than to park at the gas pumps. Roche, being a higher-end resort, usually has friendly staff helping with gas, but not today. We got out, looked quizzically at the gas pumps, and saw no evidence of what to do next. I went up a catwalk to a commercial area and Sachi went 50 yards down the dock to find an empty shack. We were stuck once again.

Within a few minutes, a guy walked by and I struck up a quick conversation that ended with me saying, “Do you know if there is anyone who can help us with gas?” He looked around and pointed at the empty shack and said “It helps if you park near the shack.” Duh. We were as far as you could get from it. 

Before we could get the boat moved, a young staff member in resort shorts finally arrived and asked, “Can I help you guys with some gas?” He turned on the pump and I started to fill the tank. Once it got full, I let the handle go and waited for the last drops. And then I waited some more. It was like a gasket was leaking and the valve couldn’t close tightly. At the time, I thought the problem could be solved by holding the pump nozzle vertically and handed it to Sachi to replace it on the pump.

Within a few seconds, we realized we had a problem. The nozzle never fully closed and now gas was trickling down the pump. We both tried to jiggle the handle to make it close more fully. No dice. I told Sachi to get the staff guy, who was at the faraway shack, while I managed the leak. As soon as she ran off, I realized that I was in a volatile situation. It was a slow leak, but a leak nonetheless. I was on a dock, over the water, with gas bubbling out of a hose that I didn’t know how to stop. I looked for a nearby spill kit. Nothing I could see. I tried to hold my finger over the nozzle, which was a dumb idea that eventually caused gas to squirt from my thumb.

I danced around for a few seconds and eventually noticed two big white boxes that looked like storage tanks. The top cover was flat with half-baseball-sized dimples that looked like they could hold fluid. So, I quickly placed the nozzle in the center of the cover and made sure the gas could leak into the dimples instead of the ground or on me. Just as I got it set, the staff member ran to my side and turned the manual shut-off, which I didn’t know existed. He apologized and immediately started to clean up. That was true for us, too. Our bare hands were starting to burn and turn white from the gas. By the time it was done, it was obvious very little, if any, gas made it to the water. 

With washed hands and a full tank, we finally made our way back to the channel and headed over the closely shaven shore of Spieden Island, which was once known as “Safari Island”. In 1969 two taxidermist brothers imported exotic game and turned the 500-acre island into a hunting ground, with visitors buying the stuffed trophies of their kills. This created outrage and was covered by Walter Cronkite in a CBS documentary. The hunting business only lasted a few years and when the brothers left, the animals remained. Today you can still see mouflon sheep from Corsica, sika deer from Japan, and fallow deer from Europe. 

As soon as we arrived at the island we spotted groups of fallow deer, grazing the hillside and heading south. It seemed like they were escorting us down the shore. Sachi wondered if they have a water source that they visit every evening. I wanted to believe they wanted to spend more time with us. After a couple of miles of shoreline, the island ended at Green Point, the springtime hangout of the Steller sea lions. 

Just as we rounded the corner, it was obvious that we’d found the source of the growls we could hear from home. Only now, they were coming from huge brown beasts lying on the shore like overstuffed sausages on a grill. Steller sea lions can grow up to ten feet in length and weight over a ton. We kept our distance, but you could see pairs of them interacting. It felt like something you’d see in a nature documentary. GRRRAAAGGG… THAT’S MY GIRLFRIEND DUUUUUUUDE… AGGGGHHHHHHH…. I’M FULL OF FISH… UGGGGGHHHGGGG. 

I’m pretty sure that’s what I heard, anyway. 

I didn’t take any interesting photos of the sea lions on this trip, but I did get this shot of them from a kayak off nearby Sucia island in 2011 with Mount Baker in the background.

As the sun started to set, we moved on and took a quick look at Flattop from the water before heading home. Aside from the traffic jams and gas spills, it was an awesome spring day to be on the Salish Sea. From now on, when I hear the sea lions, I’ll know exactly where they are and maybe, what they’re saying. 

A Thud, Then a Gasp

A Thud, Then a Gasp

There comes a time in every vehicle owner’s life when they are forced to test just how far a tank of gas will go. We see the gauge point to the upper case “E” and say it’s arbitrary; just a label. What matters is what’s inside the tank. We can push it a little farther. 

Last week, we found ourselves in a similar situation. We let the gauge creep uncomfortably close to the “E” and backed out of our slip to get gas. As we approached the marina, which is a short hop from where moor the boar, Sachi asked if I had my wallet. As usual, I didn’t. This has been one of the adjustments to our island and COVID lifestyle. Wallets, to me at least, seem less important; another thing to lose while on the boat. Thankfully, Sachi had our back. 

As we parked the boat by the pumps, we saw signs on the pumps that said “Temporarily Out of Order”. Assuming it was a short-term issue, we pushed the gas lower. One more trip out to catch crab. 

Soon the gauge became an obsession. I found myself glancing down every minute as we made our way back to the marina. We couldn’t repeat this trip without more gas.

The next day, the pumps were still out of order. I called the marina office and asked about a timeline. The person said, apologetically, their gas line was “busted” and it might be two weeks before it was fixed. If I’ve learned anything on Orcas Island, it’s that two weeks could, and probably will, mean two months. We had to make a call. Do we dock the boat and wait for the repairs, or do we try to make it to the next closest marina in West Sound? I called the West Sound Marina to be sure their gas was working. It was.

As the boat planed-off and we left Deer Harbor, I looked at Sachi and said, “Well, here we go!” We were on an adventure and neither of us knew what was to come. The chance of running out of gas was small, but still worrisome. I watched the gauge the whole way and tried to estimate how low it was. A 16th of a tank? A 32nd? It didn’t matter, we were committed. 

We had never needed to buy gas at West Sound Marina, but quickly found the solitary pump on the dock. Unlike your average gas station with a credit card interface, dock pumps are often guessing games. Sometimes there is an intercom you can use to talk to the office and ask questions. Other times they see you and turn on the gas. In this case, I said “Hello, is anyone here?”, thinking an intercom might pick up my voice. After a bit of silence, I pulled the handle off the pump and flipped the lever to turn it on. It cranked up and I was sure we were on our way. After an initial splash of gas, it stopped flowing and I worried we’d used the last drop and would be stranded. 

I called the office on my phone and asked if they were out of gas. He sighed and told me “No, we have plenty of gas. It’s on a timer that stops the flow. If you’d read the sign on the pump, you’d know to call first so we can turn it on.” Then he added, with a bit of admonishment, “Try again, hopefully you didn’t lock it up.”

I glanced at the pump and saw that there was a small sign. It was easy to miss, probably because it looked like the kind of regulatory sign that tells you not to smoke while pumping gas. In Orcas Island terms, it was far too official looking to be noticed. There was no handwriting, highlighter marker, or tattered edges. 

Feeling a little sheepish, I tucked my phone into an external breast pocket that zips vertically and stepped into the boat. Just as I bent over, I heard a thud and than a gasp. Not knowing what happened, I turned to Sachi, who was reaching down with a helpless look on her face. I said, “Was… was that my phone?” Yes. It was. Dammit. I felt so embarrassed. I glanced at my unzipped breast pocket, which should have held it safely.

There was an awkward silence as we both reckoned with the event. For Sachi, this was another in a long line of instances where my clumsiness or carelessness cost us time and money. She didn’t have to say anything and she didn’t. We both knew exactly what had happened and why. We have learned that the only path out of these situations is problem solving, and having a backup plan. 

My phone is an iPhone X that was recently returned to me with a new $300 screen after I dropped it on gravel and shattered the screen. Now that $300 and the rest of the phone were at the bottom of the sea. The phone is supposed to be waterproof. There was hope. 

We started to consider what could be done. I have retrieved things like sunglasses from the bottom of lakes in the past, but this was different. It was cold and I didn’t have a wet suit. But, just up the street from the marina is an organization called SeaDoc Society that is focused on ocean health. Our friends work there and we knew they had dive equipment. Maybe just a snorkel, fins and a towel would be sufficient? Sachi texted our friend, Erika, to ask if there was any chance they could lend a hand. They were just about to leave the office. No dice.  

The good news was that our tank was full with gas. That problem was solved and I needed to pay in the marina office. I made my way up two catwalks and across a driveway to the entrance of the office, where I was met with someone wearing a mask. I checked my pockets. No mask. So, I walked back across the driveway, down the catwalks and got a mask from Sachi before turning around and walking back. Once again, Sachi had our back.

As I walked up, a salty older man was pushing a cart with a gas can toward the pump and he courteously moved the cart aside to let me go by. On this trip, I made it into the office, where I could finally finish the process. Then the person behind the counter asked a question I didn’t expect, “How many gallons did you get?” I said, “What? I have no idea.” He lowered his head. The same sign I missed before also said to record and report the gallons. More embarrassment. 

I asked if I could use his phone to call Sachi and ask about the gallons. He said, “No,” as he motioned to his co-worker. She was on a call, because, of course she was. As he looked over toward her, he saw an event about to unfold on the dock. The salty guy was just about the turn on the pump, which would have wiped the number of gallons he needed for my transaction. He dropped everything and ran to a window facing the dock and yelled from the office “STOP! STOP! DON’T TURN IT ON!!!” His efforts caught Sachi’s attention, and she stopped the man just in time. Then, Sachi was able to read the gallon count and yell it to me on the catwalk. 

For the third time, I walked back to the office to finally buy the gas. As he was running our card, I told him I had just dropped my phone in the water by the pump. He thought for a second, and said, “I wonder if Gavin is around? He’s a diver and was just in his wetsuit. Maybe he could help you get it.” I couldn’t believe my ears. He handed me a post-it note with Gavin’s name and number. A sliver of hope appeared on the horizon.

After getting back to the boat, I called Gavin on Sachi’s phone and left a voicemail. He didn’t call back for 15 minutes or so and it felt like an eternity. We wandered around the dock and I chatted up a lady refinishing wood trim on a Chris Craft Corsair. It wasn’t hers and we both agreed it was not a practical boat for the San Juans. Beautiful, but more of a lake boat.

I called Gavin again and spent time looking down into the water between the dock and boat to see if I could see it. I saw a crab and some shells, but no phone. Then, just as I was writing a text to him, Sachi’s phone vibrated in my hand. It was Gavin. He was working on his boat in the same marina and said he could come take a look. 

Within a few minutes a young guy appeared on the catwalks and we got down to business. He’s hired as a diver for cleaning boats and other underwater duties. He told us his hourly rate and added that it shouldn’t take more than a few minutes. The water was probably about fifteen feet deep, with good visibility. After assuming the phone was gone, we were prepared to pay him for multiple hours to get the phone back.

In a moment of awkwardness, we negotiated the cost of the retrieval, which was limited by the cash that Sachi and I had with us. This time, I had my wallet and we settled on $100, which was close to everything we had. Within 30 minutes he returned in full diving gear. The water in our area remains in the 50s(f) year-round and we both watched as he added gloves and a hoodie to his wet suit before slipping into the water.

I probably could hold my breath for the time it took Gavin to retrieve the phone, but not in that water. Within a minute, he returned to the surface, with my phone in hand. It was working just as it was when it left my pocket. Man, the relief. We were all amazed.

We paid Gavin for his time, boarded Short Story and headed back to Deer Harbor to check the traps. We brought home three Dungeness crab. If you consider the market price for crab, they helped pay for the return of my phone, so we couldn’t complain. 

Despite all the embarrassing mishaps and miscommunications, we felt so fortunate. We made it to the marina. My phone was waterproof. Gavin answered my voicemail. We retrieved the phone from the bottom of the freaking ocean. It all felt so quaint; a small town network of divers and boaters, who are also neighbors, looking out for one another. And of course, there’s always Sachi with our backup plan.

The next time I go to West Sound Marina, I’ll read the signs and record the gallons. But I’ll also wonder why it works the way it does. Why don’t they have an intercom, or the ability to track the gallons from the office? The best answer and one that will suffice for now is this: Welcome to Orcas Island. 

This story originally appeared in my weekly newsletter Ready for Rain. You can get stories like this in your inbox each week by subscribing to my newsletter.