I remember the day they asked me if I wanted the job as the caretaker of this island. As I walked back across the island so that I could phone my wife and tell her, I looked up in one of the beautiful fir trees and there sat a huge bald eagle. They are big, impressive creatures. I took it as a sign that I should take the job. My wife could not have been happier.
We moved into the house that you see in the photos. It was a spectacular view with windows on the sides facing the water. You could actually look down and see starfish and seals in their natural habitat. My wife used to sit on the couch and catalogue the species of birds she would see. She was in heaven. For nine months of the year it was only us two on the island. Each morning I would deliver her by boat to Lopez Island where she would then drive about 20 minutes to the main town to work at the marina. At the end of the day I would pick her up. There were occasions when the sea got so rough that I could not pick her up. There were other days when I was delivering her that she had to take a big jump to get on the dock. I admire her bravery and toughness in doing that.
This was June of 1992. It was an intense job with many things to do. On the island there were two houses and four guest houses and a large gazebo on the water. There were tennis courts, a greenhouse, a large garden, horses and chickens. I remember the day I brought a group of 25 chickens home. They actually can suffocate each other by all gathering in a corner of the box, so I was very concerned. While I was checking the box I actually almost drove off of the road and killed us all. Darn chickens! I loved picking up the eggs each morning. We got to a point where we were collecting a couple dozen a day. I ate as much as I could, but delivered the others to our friends on the neighboring island. Our garden was also prolifically productive so there was a ton of good produce.
One of the families that owned the island was connected to the largest bulb farm in the world in the Skagit Valley. They would provide us with boxes of bulbs to plant. It was sensational to watch them come out in the Spring. We planted a tremendous number of annual flowers as well to cover the rockeries outside the houses and also to fill in around the lap swimming pool. The lap swimming pool was glorious. I would fill it by pumping salt water from the sea up and over a cliff in a firehose, across a field and into the pool. We had a filtration and heating system and the owners wanted the temperature at a very specific point. I became quite good at trouble shooting all the aspects of filters, heaters and so on. I cleaned the pool daily and once had to empty all of the water to paint it. We also had a small hot tub next to the main house that the owners would occupy. So, I had to learn all about that as well. Lots to learn about water pumps, filters, sealing gaskets and more. When nobody was on the island, I would go over and sit in the hot tub and look out to sea. Magical stuff.
We had a lot of equipment to maintain on the island. We had a diesel, one cylinder boat, an outboard 19 foot boat and then a smaller boat with a small outboard engine. I had to learn how to maintain all of these pieces of equipment and engines. Being in the salt water means a lot of maintenance work. On the island, we had a Kubota tractor, an electric golf cart, a rototiller, a Honda lawnmower a wood chipping machine and much more. I read the manuals of each and every piece of equipment and had them on a regular maintenance schedule. My love of trailbuilding came out while on the island. I built trails all around the island and kept them very clean and well maintained down to sweeping and raking them regularly. Mowing in the summer took about ten hours per week.
Two of the “enemies ” of the island were deer that would swim out to the Island and eat the vegetables and/or roses and the raccoons that wanted to eat the chickens. The owners wanted me to shoot them, but I honestly didn’t really know how to use the shotgun we had and didn’t really want to kill them. I built tall fences around the garden to keep the deeer out and that seemed to work. I also sprayed the flowers with substances that would scare them away. I heard that if you urinated by them, that would do it also. One night, the owners insisted I do something about the raccoons. I went out by the chicken shed in the dark with the shotgun and a big flashlight. I tried to use the gun, but it just wasn’t going to happen. The gun was also there to scare away boaters that tried to sneak on to the island. On a couple of occasions I just walked to the shoreline with the gun in hand and looked out at the potential trespassers. That seemed to do the trick.
I learned so much on the island about plumbing, water systems and mechanics on the island. One cool aspect of the island was that we collected water off of all of the buildings and stored the water in cisterns beneath each building. I would measure how much water we had frequently and whenever it rained I would go out in my raincoat and make sure all of the gutters everywhere on the island were working well. We would then pump the water up to a water tower in the center of the island. It would then feed the buildings via gravity. Monitoring the water was a constant thing. If there was a leak in any pipe on the island, the entire tank could drain and we would lose all of that water. Every time I passed the tank I would check the gauge that monitored the water.
I had to learn how to navigate the sea in all kinds of conditions, as your life was truly on the line. It is hard for me to imagine now that I was out boating in weather with winds up to 60 miles per hour. We would cross the water in the darkness at times and used a big flashlight for that. I planted reflectors on a few key rocks to help us find the way. We also had to make sure of what the tides and currents were doing each day as that also could make things impossible at the docks. Our grocery shopping was done on the other island, Lopez. It was always kind of fun to go into town and say hello to people and run a few errands, but really I just loved the serenity of being on the island where you knew you would never be bothered.
At the time, we did have a television and a cable ran across the bottom of the sea to deliver electricity. As I recall we had about three TV stations and we would watch the same TV shows everyday. In the morning after feeding the chickens I would watch Regis and Kathie Lee Gifford on one of the morning shows. In the early evening we would watch Star Trek and something else. I knew the characters of the shows so well that they felt like family. I would find myself talking to them. It is incredible what such familiarity does to one. We had a dog called, “ditto.” This was a very special dog that had been purchased from a fine line of Labradors. It was a broad shouldered black lab. I loved that dog so much. He followed me everywhere. I would go inside a building to work for hours and he would always be there waiting for me when I left. He had been an outdoor dog before I arrived, but I spoiled him terribly. I loved feeding him egg breakfasts and having him put his head on my lap while we watched TV. A great companion. Later, when I had to leave the island in June of 1994, I remember going across the water in the boat to leave and crying like a little baby. I loved that dog so much, but it was to stay with the island.
I hurt myself again in the fall of 1993 and I don’t remember the exact event. The good thing was that nobody would be visiting the island so I had time to seek medical help. I again went through many exams and finally my Dad suggested I visit an older physician he knew….I believe his name was George. He was at Northgate in Seattle. When I went for the appointment, the doctor was actually very sympathetic and asked me how I was doing emotionally as it must be difficiult. He was the first person to ask something like that. I just started sobbing in his office. I actually begged him to cut me open to find out what was wrong. I thought there had to be something wrong inside me because I was in so much pain. He did arrange for a surgery and they ended up sealing off several places in my body with mesh to prevent hernias. I actually thought that I was doing better. Previously I had been to a psychologist that hypnotized me. Afterwards she told me that what had happened to me was like a death. I had lost the person I was before. My previous life had been all about athletics and running and all of that had been taken away. She taught me how to meditate and imagine that I was running because it would give me some of the same feelings.
It was an intense time period for me to say the least. I am sorry to say that I have thought of suicide a couple of times in my life and I briefly thought about it one day while living on the island.. It all seemed so pointless. I am sorry to say that, but that is how I felt. My dad was so wonderful. He would call and check on me every day. He probably saved my life. The story is instructional, as a little over 10 years later, I broke 3 hours in a marathon and had run the Boston Marathon. You can come back!
My wife and I did not have children and it looked like it may not happen. One morning in March of 1994, I told her that I wanted to stop talking about having children because I was in such a bad situation physically and mentally. It must have been right at that time that she became pregnant as my first daughter was born about nine months later in January of 1995. I can remember the day my wife told me in the small kitchen that she was pregnant. I actually snapped out of my mental funk and knew that I had to figure something out for my soon to be daughter. I got life insurance right away and then started planning. I could no longer work on the island as I simply could not do the job physically. One day when it was very windy, one of the owners was coming up to the island. I had to go out in a small boat and meet their huge boat to tie it up to a bouy and then take them to the shore. As I tried to grab their boat, the waves pulled my boat and their boat apart. I tried to hold them together, but that was when I was injured severely again. Soon I would go in for a second surgery. I applied for teaching positons and actually received five offers. I did not know if I would physicically be able to do it, but I had to try. I ended up accepting a position back at White River High School where I had started my career. Next..how Sierra Danielle, my daughter, saved my life.
2 thoughts on “Managing a 35 Acre Private Island in the State of Washington”
Jim, thank you so much for sharing the adventures and trying times in your life. Both are so meaningful to me. You have had quite the life. I wish I could have know you better at Bethel.
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Thank you for sharing with me, Sherry. That means a lot to me. That you have taken the time to read. I always enjoyed you at Bethel but it was a pretty fast paced place. So now we might know each other better😇 I hope that some of my stories help someone somehow.