"And just when you think you've got things like that figured out," put in the captain, "you run over a deadhead and rip out the bottom of your boat."
The area around the San Juans has been heavily logged at one time or another, and after every high tide thousands of fat logs take to the water to bob toward some other littoral. Most of them are visible, but a few become heavily waterlogged "deadheads" that ride barely above the surface.
In Roche Harbor on San Juan Island, Mendenhall pointed to a yacht tied up nearby. "That's a friend of mine," he said. "One day when I was sailing with him a deadhead wiped off" the whole bottom of his boat—shaft, strut, propeller, rudders. He got another boat and did the same thing again—the same day! He was so disgusted he told me, 'Al, if the head worked, I'd go below and throw up.' Now see him moored over there? He's done it again!"
The islands themselves are as inviting a natural showcase as is to be found anywhere in the world, and the fact that they are so little known is a tribute to the closemouthedness of the Northwesterners, who know how to protect an asset from spoilage. There are 400-and-some San Juan islands at high tide (nobody knows for sure) and 700-and-some at low tide, all of them in a sort of meteorological pocket sheltered by 285-mile-long Vancouver Island, the mainland, and the Cascade and Olympic mountain ranges. The air comes billowing in from the Pacific with a load of moisture and spills itself on the west coast of Vancouver Island (150 inches a year) or skips over the island and pours on the mainland of Washington and British Columbia, but for the most part it spares the San Juans, which get as little as 23 inches. The islands lie in what natives wishfully call a "banana belt," although your time there will not be spent profitably looking for bananas. The mean annual temperature is 49.5�, and the combination of sunshine and mild temperatures produces a profusion of flowers—shooting star, dog's-tooth violet, Oregon sunshine, pestil parsnip, Scotch broom, Indian paintbrush and wild rose. There are heavy stands of oak, fir, spruce, hemlock, maple, yew, alder and larch, and dotted among them is a strange local tree called madro�a that grows only on the West Coast. The madro�a is deciduous, but it sheds both its leaves and its bark, revealing a colorful underskin of a dainty hue that looks as though it were painted on in orange watercolors. The madro�as grow in gnarled, undisciplined patterns out of cracks in the rocks and thrive on a steady diet of sea spray that would kill most vegetation, and yet they are almost impossible to transplant. Their only competitors as the local arboreal splendor are the apple trees, most of them unpruned and straggly, that date back 50 and 60 years to a time when the San Juans produced most of the vegetables and fruits for cities like Seattle and Bellingham. The Gravenstein apple, greenish and streaked with red, with a crisp meat that snaps when you bite it, was said to have originated on the San Juans, and you can still pick them all over the islands. With the apples came deer, swimming from one island to another, following the harvest like a bunch of Mexican braceros. It used to take two men to pick apples on the islands: one to pick and one to keep the deer out of the buckets. There are 2,500 deer on little Blakely Island, 10 square miles in area, and any pilot with sense will buzz the landing strip to chase the deer before trying to set down there.
The children and I rattled around those islands for 10 days and, looking back on it, I don't think we ever did the same thing twice, nor did we ever strike out. We made three trolls for different kinds of salmon and each time got what we were after. We set out crab pots and brought in enough Dungeness crabs to feed six. In one hour at low tide on Sucia Island we all became doctors of philosophy in clam hunting, collecting a solid quart of shelled meat from "butter" clams, so named by the natives because they used to leave them on a log next to the fire until they popped open, then stick on a dab of butter and gobble them down. Large butter clams are so full of meat that they can't close their shells all the way. We dug them on a tiny neck of land between two bays, an isthmus only exposed at the lowest tides and simply alive with the spurts of water showing where the clams have established residence. There were butter clams, horse clams, steamers, cockles; there were hundreds of starfish on the scene for the same reason we were: to eat clams. Eighteen starfish, in bright purple and rose and coral colors, lay huddled together against the bottom of a tall rock; they were big, a foot across, and they clung so tightly to their rockhold that they would leave their spines behind if you tried to break them off. A few feet away were tidal pools with baby flounders and skates and codfish and eels temporarily trapped in them. Sea anemones, sea cucumbers, sand dollars and china-man's-hats also waited out the return of the tide. Over the whole pebbled beach and its clam fountains and bright sea life hung a medicinal smell whose foremost component was iodine—the same clean, biting odor I used to get in the back room of Doc Raymond's drugstore in Drexel Hill, Pa.
It almost seems redundant that on some of these islands freshwater lakes have been stocked with trout and bass, as if the multitudinous sea life were not enough. In one of them I caught two rainbow trout in the 22-inch class in an evening's trolling, and in another I caught and released six bass in an hour. The freshwater fishing is so good that owners of the islands have requested that only artificials be used, this because a skilled baitsman can take three or four fish almost any day on a single dragonfly or worm.
The San Juans offer a form of fishing that takes all the pain out of starting young children in this fine art. With the boat moving slowly ahead, you jig six or eight tiny unbaited hooks. Herring, which are plankton eaters, think they are looking at silvery bits of plankton moving through the water, and you catch them four or five at a time without bait. Then you can put a whole herring on a larger hook and drop to the bottom for cod, red snapper and dog shark. My two girls hauled fish up from the depths till they were arm-weary. My boy refused to quit until he had hooked what turned out to be a 50-pound shark (Evan weighs 42). He wrestled with the shark for about 10 minutes, then turned to me and said, "I can catch this fish if you'll do me one favor."
"Just turn this handle," he said, handing me the rod.
He wasn't trying to be funny. He was physically unable to land the fish, but he wanted to feel that he had caught it and that my role was minor. So he pretended that I was just doing him "one favor" (I was grateful that Namu had not yet started south). For the rest of the trip we had to hear and rehear how Evan had caught the big shark. My name wasn't mentioned in the recounting.