Vail Daily column: Voyages of the Pursuit
The 20-foot Pursuit (my old camera boat) was loaded to the Plimsoll mark as we moved away from the launching ramp in Anacortes, Washington. I didn’t know it at the time, but this exploration of the San Juan Islands, the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island in this small boat would change my life forever.
I had no idea whatsoever that such a wonderful geographical area existed. All you need is a small boat, an engine and the wonder at what is over the horizon.
Laurie taught me where to dig for clams and what kind of rocky inlets were best for oysters. I later learned there is a fuel dock almost every 20 miles and backcountry 7/11-type stores at the same fuel dock.
In contrast to Catalina Island in Southern California, where ownership and limited use of a mooring buoy costs as much as $275,000, in the Northwest part of the world, the moorage is often free.
We found great places to explore between Anacortes and April Point, and Green Point all the way to Glacier Bay, just to mention a few. Jamming everything into a 20-foot boat means that every time you want to sleep you have to move two-thirds of what you have on board from the Cuddy cabin to the back of the boat … reminiscent of the years Ward Baker and I lived in our car and trailer. But at least Laurie and I didn’t smell like frozen goat or mackerel!
We had a 6-foot inflatable dinghy with an outboard motor that occasionally worked. One night coming back from dinner in what became known as Old Leaky, the engine quit halfway home and I had to start rowing. While we were having dinner, enough air had leaked out of our inflatable that I had to row and every time I pulled on the miniature plastic oars, in the miniature boat, the boat bent in the middle so that water started coming in on the sides by the oar locks. (We were really a case for some kind of asylum, considering the lurching disasters we got ourselves into. Actually, I have to take credit for it all … Laurie wasn’t able to curb my enthusiasm long enough to think things out logically.)
Fortunately the tide was with us and we got back to the Pursuit still alive.
However, sometime during the night, the tide went out far enough so that our boat was resting in the mud and waist-deep water. Waist-deep, when you consider how far my legs sunk into the mud in the middle of the night. Once again my lack of knowledge about Northwestern 8- to 10-foot tides almost caused a disaster but we avoided it once again. Amazing we’re still alive.
There’s a warning on the charts of British Columbia that at full flood, some areas have currents of 22 knots. Obviously this is a part of British Columbia that you want to avoid at all costs except at total slack. There are stories of 75- and 100-foot-long fishing boats being lost in a whirlpool like a merry-go-round and slowly sinking from site and not a single piece of wood or steel or person on board was ever seen again. This is a part of the world where you pay particular attention to the tides.
People still think Laurie and I are crazy to have done this, but we had a Coleman stove, a Coleman lantern, a Gatorade jug for water, plenty of food in a cold box, a port-a-potty and enough fuel and the excitement of something new every 10 or 15 minutes during the six weeks we were there.
This trip was exciting enough to make me leave Southern California after being born and raised there to move to the rainy Northwest. No matter how much it rains, it’s the most beautiful part of the world in my mind. But Laurie and I are lucky enough to move to Montana every winter, where the rain comes down in the form of white snowflakes.
Between Montana and after making the commitment to build the house here on this small island with the dock and a couple of boats, we really have the best of all worlds.
We can put the crab pots in our boat, drive a mile or so away from our dock, drop them in the water, come back home, fill up the big crab-cooking pot with water, turn it on to boil and go back and get the pots. In that short of a time sometimes there will be more crabs than our licenses allow and so we just pick out the biggest ones to keep. That’s what’s called a genuine Northwest crab fest. Once in a while the neighbors will sponsor a crab cook off where several of the guests compete for the best and most tasteful variation of just plain boiled crabs. There’s crab sushi, crab tortillas, crab salad, roasted crab, and the winner is designated by the applause of the people who test them all.
When I lived in Southern California, my vision of the Northwest was a cedar and fir tree jungle where it rained at least an hour of every day of the year. I have since come to find out that the rainfall in Seattle is only an inch or two more than Los Angeles. Unfortunately, our island has half the rainfall of Seattle and has been designated by Sunset magazine as one of the four best places in America to get married. As a result of that kind of publicity, every bed-and-breakfast on the island has been booked for the entire summer. This is great for the bed-and-breakfast and retail business on the island, and we just kind of hunker down or sneak away in the boat until after Labor Day and let it all slide by. After Labor Day, we emerge and go see what is left of town.
Since those early days in the Pursuit, we’ve expanded our quiver of boats or, what most people call them, fleet of boats to include a 26-foot Shamrock with a small Ford engine, a 47-foot Bayliner, a 16-foot kayak and a 16-foot captains gig. I once added up the footage of all our previous and current boats and realized that we’d owned about 225 feet of boat(s). Pretty fun.
In the old days, a captain was paid based on elapsed time from when he got on board the boat in Boston to when he got off in England or Australia, or wherever. As a result of that they developed the lightweight Captain’s Gig so he could stay in the executive offices until the last possible moment when they would row like crazy and catch the ship, which had already weighed anchor and set sail.
I don’t do a lot of fishing (mostly because I’d rather be catching), but once in a while I go with somebody who knows where the fish are. My intent to catch them is keen but I remember that the supermarket price is less than the cost of fuel for your outboard motor to catch them.
Years ago I had to have shoulder surgery so Laurie and I couldn’t go windsurfing on Maui, so we decided to drive around the San Juan islands and see what they looked like from a car. Two weeks later somebody told us about a wonderful piece of property on Pole Pass.
We walked down onto the point on the property, walked around the property and looked into dirty windows in the boat garage. Within 30 minutes, I turned to Laurie and said, “Let’s buy this place.” Four days later we owned the place, which had no sewage disposal capability and no way to get fresh water. Both were solved relatively simple by making our own drinking water from the salt-chuck with a reverse osmosis machine and getting permission from a nearby neighbor to put our drain field on his property over 1,500 feet away from where our septic tank is.
We found out later that the property had been on the market for almost 10 years and solving the problems were so simple most everybody overlooked their simplicity.
The purchase of our property included dock space next to our property, but it was three years before we had a dock of our own where I could tie up the then-current version of the Pursuit.
Today, we can get in our 26-foot Shamrock, cruise to Friday Harbor for dinner in 20 minutes each way, or to Roche Harbor at the same distance or to West Sound only 10 minutes away. Or, with a little more preparation, we can be off to an adventure as far away as Glacier Bay, Alaska, in the big boat (big to us).
Some people are surprised that we even have automobiles on our island, however our island is the same size as Manhattan Island and New York City. The only difference is Manhattan has 15 million people at lunchtime and we only have 4,000 residents year-round … but with all the visitors, maybe 15,000 in the middle of July.
Of course, there are drawbacks to living on an island with an hour and 15 minute ferryboat ride each way. But as the years have gone by, you have become friends with people who go to the mainland frequently and pick up what you need — as you do for them when you go.
That way, you can spend the days fishing, crabbing, writing stories or, my favorite occupation, sleeping the day away on a sofa on our terrace. It’s OK because I’m 90 and am allowed to sleep as much as I want, my wife says.
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 WarrenMiller.net. For information about his foundation, The Warren Miller Freedom Foundation, go to http://www.warrenmiller.org.
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