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Digiscoping from Flattop

Digiscoping from Flattop

When friends visit Flattop, they often say, “This is a place that needs a telescope.” and it’s true. Our view is full of interesting things to see in the distance. Coming out of construction, with so many other priorities, we could only say, “We’ll get one eventually.” That eventuality recently arrived, thanks to an early birthday present from Sachi’s parents (Thanks, Jim and Arlene!).

After a lot of research, I found that a “spotting scope” may be the best option for our location. Spotting scopes are used by hunters and birders because they are portable and have real power. The model I have is a Maven CS.1, which is considered a mid-range model.

My goal was not only to see into the distance but to take photos. This turned me onto an idea called digiscoping, which combines phone photography with telescopes and spotting scopes. It took more research than I expected, but I now have a reliable way to attach my phone to the scope. The attachment is called a Phone Skope.

This time of year, bald eagles are common on our property. They hang out on a Douglas fir that’s clearly visible from our living room and I made it a priority to test the new scope on our feathered friends. I was not disappointed.

Sometimes video footage comes out better than photos. Here’s four minutes of a bald eagle doing eagle things:

As boating season kicks off, I’m sure I’ll be snapping pics of ones that I find interesting. This is a small cruise ship called Wilderness Legacy.

Looking further across the Salish Sea, we can see Canada and the layers of islands in the distance more clearly than ever before.

I’m hoping to use the scope to take photos I never thought possible. More soon!

Anatomy of a Speed Run

Anatomy of a Speed Run

The alarm went off at 5:20 am and I rolled around in bed until the light came on. Sachi was up first and fed the dogs, who were slightly confused. They’d seen this before and were wondering: Are we going, too? We were up to catch the 7 am ferry to the mainland.

As always, we bring food and a bunch of water bottles for us and the dogs. Wine totes from the grocery store work really well for that.

water bottles in a tote

✅ Sustenance

The longer we live on Orcas Island, and at the mercy of ferries, the more we learn to optimize. It’s normal to visit the mainland as a day trip. You take an hour-long ferry ride over, run errands, and come back on the ferry. The question becomes: What can you get done between ferries? If you plan poorly, you might waste hours waiting for the next ferry. This is where optimization matters most.

This time of year, there are two ferry options for the return home, a 3 pm and a 7 pm sailing. In any other season of the year, it would be difficult to get reservations on these sailings because they’d be full of tourists. In January, we can get reservations for one, both, or show up and hope for the best. As a general rule, we don’t leave these things to chance. 

We left home at 6:15 am, both dogs curled in the seats, with the goal of making the 3 pm ferry home. It was going to be close. Our list was full of errands with unknown durations. Things had to line up just right to work.

boarding a ferry

✅ Caught the 7 am ferry

The original reason for the trip was a doctor’s appointment. Once it was on the calendar, our thoughts turned to what else we could do during the trip. Our car needed its 75k mile service. We needed things from Costco. We needed to eat and get gas. How could we optimize our time?

A complicating factor was that our errands were spread across NW Washington. When I made the doctor’s appointment, I also made an appointment to get our car serviced at the dealership, which is 45 minutes from the doctor’s office, up Interstate 5, in Bellingham. 

The dealership was our first destination and we arrived, with both of our cars, by 9:45 am.

✅ Dropped off the car

We told the intake guy at the service counter a familiar story: We were in a time crunch and trying to make a 3 pm ferry. We’d need the car ready by about 1:15 to make it work. Service people in our region are used to islanders on speed runs. He was gracious and said he’d see what he could do. This variable had the potential to change our plans. If the car was ready at 1:30 instead, we might be pushed to the 7 pm ferry.

We needed to work Costco into the mix and decided to visit the one near the dealership. As we parked at Costco, Sachi said we could only spend 30 minutes inside and we both took it as a challenge. It was a small trip… milk, lots of veggies, etc. They were out of eggs. EGGS. For one of the first times ever, we approached the checkout without a line. The universe was aligning. As Sachi paid, I ordered us two hot dog combos for $3 in total. There was no time for other food options. We made it back to the car in 30 minutes.

✅ Costco Groceries

✅ Brunch

Next was my doctor’s appointment, 45 minutes away. We drove down I-5 and arrived with a few minutes to spare. We took the dogs on a quick walk and fed them.

two dogs in a car

✅ Dog Care

Every minute that went by added a bit of pressure. They called me in and the doctor arrived in a reasonable amount of time. We talked for 10 minutes or so and I was trying to be curt. This variable was working in our favor and I didn’t want to compromise it.

✅ Doctors Appointment

I returned to a car full of excited dogs and Sachi focused on the task at hand. We agreed that we’d immediately head back up I-5 toward the dealership with the hope that the car would be ready. Before we left the parking lot, I received a text that it would be ready by 12:30. Sachi looked at me with a smile, “We’re going to make it.”

We drove up 45 minutes up I-5 and picked up the car with a bit of time to spare.

✅ Picked Up the Car

Sachi had an idea for adding one more stop. Mainland gas is cheaper, especially at Costco. If we hurried, we could fill both cars on the way to the ferry. So we drove back down I-5 to the second Costco of the day to fill up.

✅ Gas for Both Cars

We arrived at the ferry terminal by the skin of our teeth and were both looking for a late lunch. Sachi, as usual, had planned ahead. We ate leftover chicken and rice as we made our way back to Orcas Island. It tasted amazing because it was tinged with victory.

✅ Late Lunch

The speed run was successful and Sachi slept on the ferry.

✅ Nap

We arrived home before dark.

Witches on the Water 🧙‍♀️🌊

Witches on the Water 🧙‍♀️🌊

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

When you live in a small place, it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of awareness. There can’t be that many secrets among a few thousand people on an island, right? After having lived on Orcas Island for a few years now, I’m realizing that the island is full of traditions that aren’t at all accessible, or obvious.

We share a chat app with a few groups of friends on the island and a couple of the women started to talk about finding paddleboards for Halloween. Paddleboards? What a weird thing to use as part of a costume, I thought.

After a bit of questioning, I found that there is an island tradition called “Witches on the Water” or “Witches Paddle” that takes place on Halloween day. Just like it sounds, women on the island dress as witches and paddle around a section of the island and back.

This was news to me and I didn’t want to miss it. There were no announcements or fliers. In fact, the only way we knew the location and timing was by asking friends. I believe this is by design. No one, I assume, wants it to be a big deal and I hope the witches forgive me for highlighting it here.

On an uncharacteristically sunny fall day, about 40 witches boarded their vessels and paddled out across the cold waters of the Salish Sea.

Photos

witches on paddleboards
witches crossing sign

All-in-all, not a bad way to spend a Halloween afternoon.

One Famous Sea Star ⭐️

One Famous Sea Star ⭐️

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

It started on what seemed like a typical autumn day. The weather was calm and Sachi was feeling the pull of crab traps. That feeling, which I feel too, is similar to the feeling of gambling; a rush that comes from the chance to win. Every fisher feels it, I assume, and many know that as long as you’re on the water, there’s no way to lose. 

dungeness crabs in a trap

We boarded Short Story and headed out to Deer Harbor with our supplies in a small bucket, a cooler, and a dry bag. The whole process happens by rote at this point, having gone to check the traps on most days of every week since mid-July. 

This day would be different, but not that remarkable in isolation. As one of the traps came to the surface, I heard Sachi say, “Whoa!” in a tone that was part surprise and part anxiety. It looked as though an alien had entered the trap. It was a bright orange sunflower sea star with 19 arms and we weren’t sure what to do.

sunflower sea star lee lefever

We both were flummoxed for a moment. We knew sea stars are harmless to people, but this 19-armed creature looked like it evolved to be a warning to humans, like a brightly colored spider or snake. Some scientists now believe that our reaction to spiders and snakes is innate and not learned. Perhaps, somewhere in the backs of our minds, an ancient voice was telling us that the bright orange creature in our trap could be dangerous.

In reality, we humans are far more dangerous to it.

Sea stars on the pacific coast of the US have had it rough recently. Starting in 2013, over 90% of them died due to sea star wasting disease. No one is certain what caused it, but many think the culprit was a sudden change in ocean temperatures. Sea stars that used to be incredibly common in our area simply vanished over a few years. Since then, the ocean ecology seems to have been out of balance. 

From this article.

The widespread collapse of sea stars, a top predator and keystone species, has had dire consequences for many of the West Coast’s marine ecosystems. For example, the local extinction of sunflower sea stars, which can live for up to 65 years, has led to an explosion of their primary prey, the Pacific purple sea urchin. On a single reef in Oregon, the population of these animals increased 10,000-fold between 2014 and 2019, to more than 350 million individuals.

Sunflower sea stars, like the one we had in the trap, were recently certified as critically endangered by the IUCN

I was aware of their plight and we brainstormed how to get the sea star out of the trap unharmed and back into the water without touching it. But first, I needed to take some photos. With that out of the way, we dipped the trap back in the water and turned it on its side, and with a little shake, it fell out gently and drifted back down to the shadowy depths. 

sea star in water

My first thought was our friends on the island who work for a non-profit organization funded by UC Davis called SeaDoc Society. Their work focuses on ocean science and the rehabilitation of the Salish Sea and its inhabitants. I looked forward to sharing what I thought was a good sign for sea star recovery. I put the photo on Instagram first.

A week or so passed and an idea struck. I enjoy browsing Reddit and occasionally post photos. One of the communities that seemed perfect and has over 19 million members is called, “Mildly Interesting“. I thought the sea star fit that description, so I shared the photo on Reddit with a short note about it being endangered. This is where things started to hit high gear.

Reddit is designed to be a democratic system. Once something new is posted, the members of the community can each give it one vote: up or down. When something gets traction, the upvotes outnumber the downs, and the post has the potential to ascend to the top of the community page and possibly reach the front page of Reddit itself. 

When I went to bed that night, it was obvious the photo struck a chord. It had thousands of upvotes, with new votes coming by the second. I couldn’t wait to check my phone in the morning to see what developed as I slept. 

To my surprise, the post received over 30k upvotes overnight and reached the Reddit front page at position #10. I was so excited and read almost every comment, including 100+ versions of the question, “how did it taste?” Such is Reddit.  

reddit data
reddit data

That day, I received a succinct message from someone who asked if I was interested in licensing the photo to news organizations. I agreed. He sent over an agreement and questionnaire that gave me a chance to tell the story. I was careful to promote the photo as possible evidence of a sea star comeback and its connection to ocean ecology.

These kinds of relationships are unpredictable. I figured there was no harm in licensing the photo and I might earn a few bucks. More than anything, I expected nothing to happen.

A few days later, a friend on the island shared a link that was a surprise. Fox News had picked up the story and used the photo on their website along with quotes from me, the “fisherman”. I found it hilarious.

fox news story about sea star

Then, the article also appeared on the New York Post website.

new york post sea star

Messages poured in from friends and family calling me, “The Fisherman”. If only they knew that Sachi is the real fisher in the family.  One of my favorite parts of the article is this quote at the end:

“LeFever did not immediately respond to Fox News’ request for comment.”

At a personal level, this was a fun and exciting event to watch unfold. But it’s also a reminder about how little this kind of media exposure matters. It had nearly zero impact on my career or livelihood. I did earn a $75 licensing fee for the photo, which is nice. 

The real outcome, I hope, is building awareness about the sea stars of the Salish Sea and sea star wasting disease. Every person who learns about it is one more potential advocate for taking care of the ocean.

According to Reddit, my post has been viewed over 3 million times and shared over 1,000 times in the past two weeks. The Fox news article has been widely viewed and shared as well. It was not my intention, but I count the few minutes it took to share the photo as a small part I could play in helping the sea stars get more attention and hopefully rebound. 

reddit stats

Since that first catch, we’ve seen three more sunflower sea stars in our traps, so there is growing evidence, at least from our boat, that they are coming back. Here is one escaping just as we pulled up the trap:

sea star escaping crab trap
sunflower sea star
Boat Creep 🛥 🔭

Boat Creep 🛥 🔭

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

A few weeks back, I shared a story called Lee Night that was, in part, about spending an evening watching boats go by our house. I wrote:

As boats float by the house, I can’t help but feel like I’m the creepy guy on the beach watching girls walk by. Every boat is different and interesting in myriad ways.

Now that Labor Day has passed and boating season is winding down, I’m taking an inventory of the interesting boats I’ve seen over the summer. After Lee Night, I admit I became a full-on boat creep, watching from my deck as they float by, unaware of my peering lens. I collected a tiny fraction of what passed, but still captured an interesting group of boats.

Tourist Boats

This summer saw heavy traffic from boats full of tourists, usually going to watch whales. The “whaleboats” as we call them are always noticeable because of their size and speed. Few recreational boaters choose to burn as much fuel.

One that always stands out is Blackfish (which is an old name for killer whales).

Blackfish boat

Another is the Western Explorer.

Western Explorer

Sometimes the whales end up in the water in front of our house and the big whaleboats show up.

whale boats

If you crop a photo just right, you can pretend that a friendly sailboat is the only boat watching the killer whales.

sailboat and whales

Tourists are also ferried around on other boats that are more focused on destinations. This is the Puget Sound Express.

boat on salish sea
san juan safaris boat

Commercial Boats

The Salish Sea is a commercial waterway used by all kinds of boats, both local and international. In the distance, there are almost always huge ships traveling in Canadian waters to Canada.

ship on salish sea

We don’t see these behemoths in US waters our side of Orcas Island, but we see many barges and other large boats used for transporting items to the islands that don’t have ferry service.

barge with truck

You find the strangest things on barges. That’s a two-story house.

house on barge

Lindsey Foss is a fire-fighting vessel.

lindsey Foss

A local service will tow you if your boat has a problem.

Tow US

An sometimes a Canadian Warship goes by.

canadian battleship

Recreational/Private Boats

The vast majority of boats that pass our house are recreational or privately owned. Cabin cruisers are a dime a dozen, but sometimes more impressive boats pass by.

M/V Pelican is a 1930 78ft Classic wooden fisheries research vessel that recently started doing charters.

Pelican Salish Sea

Our friends Mahlon and Deb live on this 65′ boat called Salish Song. Yes, that’s a lovely palm tree adorning their rear deck.

Salish Song

New Pacific is a 97′ expedition yacht that was recently refitted to have a 60kwh hybrid energy system that reduces the use of the boat’s generators.

new pacific
boat on salish sea

Other

This caravel style sailboat is one of the biggest we’ve seen.

big sailboat

Like cabin cruisers, sailboats are very common in all shapes and sizes.

sailboat on salish sea

And of course, small crafts like kayaks. Sea kayaking is one of the most popular activities in the San Juans. Jet Skis are prohibited, thankfully.

kayakers

Not a boat. Or is it?

Float Plane

I’ll miss boating season and being on the lookout for interesting boats. They’ll be back before we know it.

Another Man’s Treasure 🏴‍☠️

Another Man’s Treasure 🏴‍☠️

I’m sure that my first reaction was a subtle roll of my eyes or at least an imagined one. Two twin-size box springs had sat in our garage for a while and Sachi was formulating a plan. She asked around and no one needed them and she didn’t want to just take them to the dump, so she decided to try converting them into something useful. I fully support this as an idea, but I wasn’t sure a box spring could actually become anything much. With a box cutter and pliers, she got to work. 

When we demolished the yurt-shaped house, we tried to salvage what we could. Anything we could give away or use was something that didn’t end up in the landfill. Being new to island culture, we hadn’t yet developed a strong sense of salvage, but we were able to do a lot. We saved many of the windows and gave away the Blaze King wood stove, cedar roof shingles, ceiling panels and more. In addition, we saved at least fourteen panels of hog wire railing material for some future project or new island owner. We had no idea how handy they would be.

Hog wire railing at the yurt

Once Sachi’s vegetable garden got going, it quickly needed support, both vertically and around the edges, as squash plants spilled out over the side of the raised beds. The hog wire came to the rescue on both counts.

hog wire supporting squash

The hog wire also served as a moveable fence we can use to keep the dogs out of the temporary and dusty pile of dirt. 

Aside from what we could salvage from the yurt, the construction project produced its own scrap and we told the crew to save everything that seemed useful. Today a pile of wood and materials lives under our house and is slowly being put to use. 

A few brackets helped turn leftover trim into shelves in our garage.

Steel concrete form stakes became the weight that keeps our shrimp traps in place on the bottom. The holes are perfect for cable ties to keep the stakes in place. 

When our friend, Jon, moved to Hawaii, he gave us a roll of flexible deer fence that worked perfectly to keep bird beaks out of the beets.

The more we looked around, the more it seemed everything we’d saved would someday become useful. This is the salvage sense that took time to develop. We told our contractor, Drew, about some of what we were doing and he said something that stuck with me… “If you don’t watch it, your garden can start to look like a junkyard.” Point taken. The island has plenty of these “gardens”. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure and it can be a slippery slope. 

With the squash supported with hog wire, Sachi turned her attention to tomatoes and peas, which needed support as they grew. The tomato cages we had from Seattle were not enough to do the job. We considered buying more, but our salvage sense started to tingle. 

Off in a far corner of the property was a handful of hog wire strips from building the top part of our fence. These were small and destined for the dump until Sachi had an idea. Over the course of an afternoon, she used the scraps and garden tape to assemble frames for supporting the plants without having to buy new cages. I thought it was brilliant, if not slightly junky. 

The frames needed a bit more to support the plants and that’s when the box springs started to look more useful. Sachi stripped off the fabric and noticed the bent metal springs stapled to the wooden frame. They were not easy to remove, but that was part of the fun.

In an hour or two, the box frames were disassembled and flattened, leaving us with a pile of springs and an idea. If we could attach them to the frames, they could support tomatoes and peas just like a tomato cage. And that’s exactly what happened. The frames have a beauty borne of utility and a reduction of waste. They most likely will not become permanent parts of the garden, but for a season or two while we figure out the long term plan for the garden, they will do just fine.

Before moving to Orcas, I might have questioned the reasoning of putting so much effort into using leftover material. Are tomato cages that expensive? Could time be used more productively? Of course buying cages is logical, but it’s not about that. We can calculate savings and waste reduction all day and still not account for the satisfaction we get from putting scraps to work. It takes time, but it’s fun and useful in a way that can’t be counted in dollars. 

Now that the house is complete and we’re setting up our new lifestyle, we’re both motivated to see what makes sense in terms of reducing waste and reusing what we can. In the past, we had never considered washing and reusing Ziploc bags, but today it’s normal for us. Again, it’s not about the money or even trying to save the planet. If you strip that away, what’s left, I believe, is a smarter, more practical, thoughtful way to live.

Feel the Burn 🔥

Feel the Burn 🔥

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

Soon after we purchased property on Orcas, our next-door neighbor made sure we understood the risk of wildfire and why he keeps the forested property around his house free of underbrush and branches. He explained that wildfire often travels in two forms: low and high. The low version, at ground level, is more manageable. The high version represents the real risk. If fire is able to jump from the ground up into the canopy of big evergreens, it can spread quickly and cause serious damage. 

One way to prevent that destructive jump is to keep the forest floor relatively cleared of “kindling” and remove branches that fire can use as a ladder to the canopy. It was a good lesson to learn early, as wildfire is one of the real dangers on the island, especially in summer. In fact, a few days ago someone’s legal burn pile got out of hand and burned an acre of forest preserve on the island. 

The forested area by our house was a mess when we arrived on Orcas. No one had cleared the forest of debris in many years and it was almost impenetrable. Weeds 12 feet high, fallen trees, and heavy branches filled the space. In 2018, we chose a weekend and went to work with loppers and a battery-powered chainsaw to whip it into shape. Over a couple of days we had a monster pile of wood and brush that needed to be managed. 

My first thought was to rent a chipper that would turn the wood into ground cover. Our neighbor chuckled when I mentioned this plan to him. “Everyone goes through that phase once. Then, they just burn it because chipping is expensive and a pain.” It’s true. Burning wood piles is common here.

In fact, the county issues burn permits for $20 a year that give you permission to burn wood in a safe burn pile on your property, as long as you obey a few common sense rules like being present, awake, and not burning on a windy day. The permits are only valid from October to May 31st, which is our rainy season. 

That first burn in 2018 was a formative experience. I was worried that we’d start a forest fire and forever be known as those people in the neighborhood. We lit the pile and slowly added more and more fuel until it was taller than us. We watched as ashes ascended to the tree branches above the fire. We sprayed the trees with water from a hose for good measure. 

It ended up working well, but was an unexpected amount of work. It turns out that big fires are extremely hot and working near them feels like a death defying experience for the novice. Of course, my need to make it a BIG fire didn’t help. It burned for nine hours and soon became a pile of biochar that we spread in the forest. Circle of wood, I suppose.

 Since that first burn, the little forest by our house had collected its share of debris again and we realized that this spring’s burn deadline was approaching on May 31st. It was time for another burn, so we purchased a permit and watched the weather. A day of rain was coming, followed by a day of calm winds. Perfect. We got to work scouring the wild side of our property for sticks and branches and piled them up by the driveway. 

I thought again about what else we could do with the debris. We could leave it in the forest, which is not good for wildfire safety. Or, we could chip it, which costs more and involves renting and transporting heavy equipment that burns fuel. That left us with the option of burning it for the cost of a $20 permit. Perhaps this is why burning is encouraged by the county. They want people to clear their properties and burning provides a legal, economical, and natural method that anyone can do safely as long as they follow the rules.

With the click of a lighter button, our second burn pile went up in flames. After learning from the first burn, I approached this one with more confidence. My hope was to spend a relaxing afternoon tending a big productive fire, maybe with a beer in my hand. That was more of a dream. The reality kicked my ass. The fire got hot quickly and I soon became drenched in sweat and felt my cheeks become chapped by exposure. There was no time for relaxing because the wood always needed to be broken into manageable pieces and the inferno always needed tending. 

As the fire became bigger I used a shovel to keep it in check and for a moment, felt like a firefighter. The heat from the fire sucked the moisture directly from my skin and made me thirsty. I wanted cold, fresh water far more than a beer. I thought about the people who fight actual fires and how it must feel to work in that environment for days and weeks. I can’t imagine the toll it would take on the body. Firefighters deserve our support and respect. 

Within a couple of hours, the fire was over and a smoldering pile of char was all that remained. Sachi used a hose to douse the flames as I took photos and videos. The rocks under the fire and remnants of wood created a steamy hellscape for a few moments at a time. 

Soon enough, the burn pile was cool and wet enough to be left alone and we went inside, triumphant. We didn’t burn down the house, or any neighboring houses, but did burn a lot of calories and now, the forest was ready for wildfire season. 

In moving to Orcas, I didn’t anticipate the degree to which wood and trees would be a part of our lives. I knew we’d have firewood and construction lumber, but didn’t realize dealing with wood would be a day-to-day concern. In the summer it burns and in the winter it falls and in between it’s always there; constantly moving, growing, shedding, and dying. 

We’ve started to assemble tools of the trade, but haven’t yet invested like our neighbors. They have big gas-powered chainsaws and helmets with shields along with wood splitters for processing their own firewood. This reflects the reality that trees fall every winter and block driveways and roads. They fall on power lines and homes. This should not be surprising, as Orcas is an incredibly wooded place. Our friend RJ is the County Fire Marshal and he told me once that Orcas forests would be healthier with about one-third fewer trees. 

In building the house we did our share of tree removal and at the time, I didn’t like the idea of killing big trees. But now I can see that their beauty comes with risk. Today I’m thankful to have defensible space around our home that serves as a safety perimeter.

gif of tree falling

Many of these are so big that they’ve lived through forest fires and still have the scars. In fact, there is a cedar on our property with visible char from a long-ago fire. 

The best we can do is hope for summer rain and keep our little corner of the island cleared and ready so there’s little fuel for a truly big fire to burn. 

The Pig War 🐖

The Pig War 🐖

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

As I write this from my home office, I can see Canada’s Gulf Islands, which are like sister islands to the San Juan Islands. This view is one I don’t take for granted because living on the extreme NW edge of the US mainland is where I want to be. It feels as if the entire westward expansion of the US has ended here, on the rocky western shore of Orcas Island. It’s nearly impossible to go any further west and remain in America. This is especially true today, as the Canadian border is likely to be closed to recreational boats until 2022. 

Another reason I don’t take the view for granted is that Orcas Island, along with the rest of the San Juans, could have easily been property of the English, and later of Canada. The story of how the border was drawn, and why, is often referred to as The Pig War, which began in 1859.

At the time, the election of Lincoln was a year away and the Civil War was soon to follow. As tempers flared on the eastern side of the country, the west was still wild and becoming populated with settlers, trappers, and gold diggers. Washington was not yet a US state, but that was coming, too. 

The Spanish were the first Europeans to explore our part of the Washington coast and named many of the islands, like Lopez, San Juan, and Horcasitas, which eventually became “Orcas“. Then came the British and George Vancouver, who sailed into the region and named mountains, rivers, islands, ports, and more from the deck of his ship, the HMS Discovery. Peter Rainier, for example, was his Rear Admiral and namesake for Mount Rainier, which was called “Tahoma” by the Native Americans.  

Americans were settling the Pacific Northwest by land and the British by sea. What is now Washington State was essentially the end of the road in terms of westward expansion, with the territory being surrounded by British territories to the north and west. In the middle of the landmasses were hundreds of islands with ambiguous ownership. Border disputes were inevitable. 

The main issue was commerce. The growing population of the area meant that military and supply boats needed reliable ways to navigate from the Pacific to inland settlements in places like modern day Seattle and Vancouver, BC. To help ensure safe passage, US and British military forces helped protect territories and secure the shipping lanes they considered their own. 

Both sides were concerned with where to draw the North/South line between the US and British territories. This was debated for years and there were two contenders. One potential border, on the east side of the San Juan Islands, claimed them for Britain. The other border was on the west side of the San Juans, near Vancouver Island, which would make the San Juans American. This situation made the San Juan Islands a kind of DMZ, caught in the middle of a disagreement between empires. 

The Pig War

In June of 1859 an American farmer named Lyman Cutler found a large black pig repeatedly rooting in his garden on San Juan Island. He became so upset that he shot and killed the pig. The owner of the pig, Charles Griffin, was an Irish farmer and employee of the powerful Hudson Bay Company. The two men tried to settle the dispute with money, but came to no agreement. One version of events has Cutler saying to Griffin, “It was eating my potatoes”; and Griffin replying, “It is up to you to keep your potatoes out of my pig.”

San Juan Island at the time of the Pig War

The disagreement escalated and led Griffin to demand that Cutler be arrested by British forces. This threat was answered by Americans requesting military protection. This eventually led to a standoff between nearly 500 mainland Americans and over 2,000 British soldiers in ships off San Juan Island. Both sides were under orders to defend themselves and not fire the first shot. 

As the Civil War was about to commence in South Carolina, a lesser-known war was possible in the wilds of Washington State. Thankfully, through negotiation, no shots were ever fired in “The Pig War”, but about 100 American and British forces ended up occupying opposite ends of San Juan Island for about twelve years. 

During the stalemate, ownership of the San Juans remained unresolved and both sides looked for a way to settle it amicably. They eventually turned to international arbitration, with German Emperor Wilhelm I as arbitrator. After meeting for a year, the arbitration commission sided with the United States and set the border in the Haro Strait, on the west side of the San Juan Islands.  By 1874, the San Juan Islands were indisputably American.

Map of the San Juan Islands
Today’s Border

When I look out of my office window over to Canada, I can see huge cargo ships about nine miles away, some of them over 1000 feet long. These ships arrived in the Salish Sea from the Pacific Ocean, just like George Vancouver, nearly 150 years ago. They are headed for his namesake port, Vancouver, BC, and travel exclusively in Canadian waters. American ships bound for US ports use similar lanes that head south to Seattle and Tacoma.

I like seeing the ships in the distance, even if I sometimes worry about an accident or oil spill that could impact our coast. The cities that make up our region could not have become what they are without clear shipping lanes and defined borders. The ships are a symbol of the importance of our region and two nations who found a way to work together so long ago.

The history of this far-fetched place could have been very different, if not for a hungry pig and a German Emperor. The San Juans could have become British and I might be writing from the American mainland, wishing I could be on an island, watching ships bound for a foreign port on the western horizon. 

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