Vail Daily column: Rowing through life

Warren Miller
Valley Voices

The Inland Passage, north from Seattle to Alaska, passes right in front of our house in the San Juan Islands. Occasionally we will get a phone call from an old friend headed north for as far as they’re available time lasts. We recently got a phone message from Bill and Minne Isley. They tied up at our dock and sat down that evening in our home at one of Laurie’s spur-of-the-moment potluck dinners. This time she could only round up 18 neighbors who brought all manner of fresh caught seafood — crabs, salmon, shrimp and anything left over in the refrigerator from the last potluck party.

Bill and Minne are way off the scale of normalcy in my opinion.

Bill began his career out of college as a community planner working for a Honolulu firm to help develop Palau, in South Pacific. He has become a world-famous architect from Seattle who together with his partner named David Hewitt designed and built the Bell St. Marina Complex on Elliott Bay, the only pleasure boat marina in downtown Seattle.

Soon after the completion of such a massive civic project, Bill dissolved his architectural partnership because he just got fed up with bureaucracy, committee meetings and occasional requests for under-the-counter payoffs.

As his architectural business had grown, he and Minne would take a month off every summer and trailer their 16-foot captain’s gig rowboat halfway up Vancouver Island to Campbell River, where they would launch that rowboat with all of their camping gear, including sleeping bags, primus stove, tent, waterproof clothes, groceries and then camp on the small beaches in that part of the world.

Support Local Journalism

The tidal currents in one inlet are as high as 22 knots at full flood. Needless to say, you would never venture a boat of any size in tidal currents of that magnitude. Instead you would go through the passage when the tide is at slack or zero knots.

Bill told me that some days they would row and drift with the tide 25 or 30 miles and other days not travel at all.

Laurie and I have traveled extensively in that part of the Inland Passage, originally in a 20-foot boat with a cuddy cabin to sleep in and an outboard motor, so we have the utmost respect for anybody who would travel the same passageways in a 16-foot rowboat. We took many more trips over the years in a 29-footer, a 44-footer and for the past 10 years, in much more comfort in our 47-footer, but always respecting and never forgetting what they went through to accomplish their travels.

Sometime in between those many rowboat trips they built their first house on Bainbridge Island, located a 30-minute ferryboat ride from downtown Seattle.

Bill put his wide-ranging architectural talents to the task and sunk five very tall telephone poles in the ground roughly 34 feet apart. Then he built a five-story house hanging each floor on the telephone poles. It was a tall thin house and as long as they could keep their health and climb up and down those four stories they left a very small footprint on the land.

Bill then did an eight-property subdivision in the area around the house and instead of breaking it up into square or rectangle lots, he drew a circle in which each new owner could place their house, then any land outside of the circle of the building circle was given back to the subdivision as common ground. The accumulation of that common ground was then devoted to the construction of a recreational area which consisted of a large games area as well as a barbecue area with a large roof for the Northwest weather, and it developed a sense of community among the landowners.

While all of this was going on, Minne had her own business of hand-knitted ski hats and traveled around to trade shows in her Mini Minor British motorcar.

During their courtship days, Minne was not sure if things were going to work out so she took a year off and went to Greece with her daughter. Part way through that trial period, Bill got lonely and called her long-distance one night and she jokingly tells the story that she had to reach across her boyfriend’s shoulders and pick up the phone and listen to Bill ask her to marry him. As I said, this is a very unusual and, in my opinion, very outstanding couple.

The year before Laurie and I met them, they had been rowing through a passage called Green Point which is on the mainland side of Canada a few miles east of the inland passage where they saw a for sale sign on a piece of property. They tied up to the dock to look at the property. On that first inspection, they decided to round up some partners and buy it, and they did.

I’ve seen lots of log homes in my travels, and this is still the single most outstanding one. Using the builder’s creativity, imagine that trunk of a tree trunk that is 3 feet in diameter and all the roots are still attached. It is placed upside down right in the middle of the dining room and the roots form the support for the octagonal dining room that overlooks the constantly moving current in front of the house. And it’s the only place within several miles with any flatland at all. And why wouldn’t somebody buy it?

Apparently it had been a nine-year labor of love by a local logger who was very, very creative. Apparently he was so busy cutting down trees and at the same time building this unbelievably beautiful home that he forgot to pay attention to his wife who went from Greenpoint to Reno and got a divorce, so he put it up for sale.

Several years after we met the Isleys, we were up visiting them on our boat and Bill had just retired. Minne had gone out to find him out mowing the huge grassy flat area of the property. She caught him totally naked except for work boots, lying on his back with his arms and legs waving in the air laughing uncontrollably, so pleased that he’d retired. (I did mention that the property was a totally isolated point backed by a roughly 500-foot rock wall with the Green Point rapids rushing by on the other sides.)

Bill made a trip to Costa Rica and wound up buying a trout farm in the mountains. At dinner the other night he told me he kept that trout farm for 15 years, spent a month or two there every year and sold enough fish to pay for his vacations there and make money on the real estate when he recently sold it. He had given part of the property to several families who had helped him with the business over the years so his requirement of the new owners was to honor that property transfer. They are good people, Bill and Minne.

Currently the Isleys live in a trailer park, a short walk from the ferry landing on Bainbridge Island. They moved there to simplify their lives as they wanted to spend more time on their boat and up at the cabin. The owner of the trailer park kept raising the rent so Bill got all of the tenants together, formed a co-op, and bought the trailer park and reduced their monthly payments for their share of the co-op by a substantial amount per month.

When Bill first told me about his particular rowboat, called a Captain’s Gig, I investigated it, finding out it was the fastest through the water for a boat of its size, and so I bought one for myself to use here on our island. It is great exercise and is inspirational at the same time.

This model of a boat was so named because in the early years of shipping from England, the East Coast, etc., the ship captain was paid according to how few days he could accomplish his trip, so he’d send the ship ahead a few hours or day, depending upon the tides, get the final orders from the ship’s office, and then rowed like the devil in the fast row boat to catch up with the ship.

I’ve had the privilege of meeting a lot of very interesting people in my lifetime of travel, many of which have made major contributions to the world virtually without recognition. I believe that Bill and Minne in their own creative way have done exactly that. With Bill’s unique architectural talents of doing the same thing in a completely different way and Minne matching him stroke for stroke in that rowboat and helping Bill to keep his many talents focused, they are truly outstanding people and both deserve to have their story told.

They are more than welcome to tie up at our dock any time they want to. That includes their 42-foot Grand Banks trawler or their 16-foot rowboat so they can tell us about their latest adventure.

Filmmaker Warren Miller lived in Vail for 12 years, and his column began in the Vail Daily before being syndicated to over 50 publications. For more of Miller’s stories and stuff, log onto For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to

Write a column!

What’s on your mind? Share your insights with the rest of the community. What’s going well, not so well? Send your submission to By submitting a column, you are granting permission for the Daily to publish it on the paper’s website.

Support Local Journalism