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Last man on Protection Island

By Ross Anderson, Lea
Port Townsend Leader Contributing Writer


Protection Island, WA - When Marty Bluewater comes home to Protection Island, he gets a rather mixed reception. As he eases his boat into the windblown harbor, a beached seal lifts its head and rolls its eyes as if to say: Oh, him again. And the deer barely notice as he drives his rickety van up the bluff and across the grassy island plateau.

But when Marty bounces up to his weathered home at the top of the bluff overlooking Discovery Bay, the result is sheer chaos. Hundreds of glaucous-winged gulls take to the air, swooping and screeching in protest, while newborn chicks scamper off toward deeper grass.

Marty takes it all in stride. As the last and only full-time resident of Protection Island, he has reached an unspoken pact with his feathered and finned friends. For all their natterings, the gulls nest just steps from his house and his cabin roof is caked with guano. Rare rhinoceros auklets have burrowed under his deck. Lanky cormorants perch nearby, spreading their wings to dry.

It's all part of living in the middle of a federally protected menagerie.

"The yakkety-yak can be a little annoying," he says, standing in the doorway of his home. "But you get used to it. And in October, the gulls head south, and this place gets very quiet again."

As most everyone hereabouts knows, Protection Island is a federal wildlife refuge strictly off limits to people, boats, automobiles and virtually anything human. Signs on the beach warn boaters to stay at least 200 yards offshore. The only exceptions are the hired caretaker (and presently there isn't one) and the occasional authorized wildlife researcher.

And Bluewater, a retired Seattle Parks employee, whose home is perched atop the south bluff, commanding a spectacular view of Discovery Bay and the Olympics. He comes and goes year-round, loading groceries and fuel and other supplies onto his small cabin cruiser at the Cape George Marina, making the short crossing to the island, then transferring them to his rusted van for the trip up the bluff to his home.

Bluewater is a tall, muscular fellow with long, salt-and-pepper hair, bronzed skin and high cheekbones that suggest his Native American roots. His island home is a blend of rustic beach cabin and '70s bachelor pad, decorated with Plains Indian art and driftwood scavenged from island beaches. Previously married and divorced, he's grown accustomed to his solitary life.

"I guess some people think I'm strange, living alone in a place like this," he says as he steers his loaded van across the island. "But when they come out for a visit, they see I'm living a dream. There's no place in the world like this."

It may be true. The top of the island is about a square mile of windblown trees scattered across a rolling, grassy savanna that serves as Bluewater's back yard. After three decades of visits and now three years of residence, he knows its every nook and cranny. He knows the skeletal trees where the bald eagles perch. He keeps track of the booming population of blacktail deer. He'll tell you when the gulls migrate and nest. He reads the sea to know when a windstorm is brewing, when he's liable to be island-bound for a few days, which is fine with him.

And when visitors, authorized or not, approach the island, he's likely to be watching from his living room window.

All this in a place where, strictly speaking, he's not supposed to be. The federal government allows him to stay for one simple reason, he says: "I was here first."

How this happened is a case study in the thorny relationship between people and their government and Mother Nature.

Protection Island

Protection Island is a slightly bent triangle of earth, less than two miles long, stretching east to west across the mouth of Discovery Bay, some five miles west of Port Townsend. It's something of a geographical oddity, left behind when glaciers carved the Puget Sound region a few thousand years ago.

The island was named by the English explorer George Vancouver, who stepped ashore in 1792 and gushed about an island landscape "as enchantingly beautiful as the most elegantly furnished pleasure grounds in Europe."

Over the years, the island was inhabited by a series of less poetic pioneers, hunters, squatters and farmers who tried to grow wheat, potatoes, chickens and a few cattle. But farming was handicapped by winter storms, the shortage of good water and the long boat trip to Port Townsend.

In 1965, the island was sold for $275,000 to a group of Seattle investors, who decided to subdivide it into some 800 vacation lots, complete with roads, a marina and airstrip. When they ran newspaper ads across the region, several hundred people bit.

One of them was Bluewater, who had just graduated from the University of Washington. In 1971 he went out for a look and promptly plunked down $7,000 for his dream lot on the edge of the bluff. A few years later, he built a rustic cabin.

Wildlife refuge

But there were problems with the development plan - the same problems that had discouraged earlier settlers.

All this caught the attention of certain people in Jefferson County who understood that Protection is not just another island. It is a natural wildlife refuge, a nesting area for untold thousands of seabirds, including rare puffins and rhinoceros auklets. To develop the island would be to push these species to the brink of extinction, they said.

It turned into a classic struggle between two groups of people equally enamored of the same unique piece of real estate. One group treasured the place as a vacation getaway, the other as a wildlife reserve.

When the government held public hearings on the issue, Bluewater showed up to plead for his dream home.

"What is great about our country is that a person, if he is willing, can be free to pursue his dreams," he said at the time. "I cannot conceive of giving up my property. I am willing to do anything to prevent this. I'm also willing to assist with any safeguards to insure that the unique, fragile character of the island is protected.

"The swallows that nest under my roof, the chipmunks that live under my deck and the seagulls and auklets that nest in my yard share ownership of that land with me," he said. "All I want from that land is to be able to enjoy the wildlife and the sounds of the land and the sea."

In 1982, Congress passed legislation designating the island as a national wildlife refuge and allocated $4 million to buy out the landowners. But there were a few "die-hards" who refused to sell, and they were allowed to keep their homes under certain conditions - for the lifetime of the original owner.

A survivor

Today, only a handful of rustic cabins remain, and their owners rarely visit. Bluewater, since his retirement three years ago, is the only one who lives there.

In a very real sense, he's a survivor - not of Mother Nature, but of a legal and bureaucratic process that attempts to protect wildlife by confining it to designated refuges.

At times, the Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the island, employs a full-time caretaker who lives in a home near Bluewater's. And Bluewater has been a good neighbor, says FWS supervisor Kevin Ryan.

Bluewater comes and goes, driving to Seattle where he visits family and works with Native American programs. Now and then he has visitors, but he's learned to appreciate the solitary life.

"It didn't come natural to me," he says. "I'm pretty social and I'd never done anything by myself. But living here was the most beautiful thing I've ever done with my life."

While he is not a trained naturalist, Bluewater has learned much about the natural history around him simply by being there. He roams the island, snapping photographs and keeping track of the comings and goings. He's seen the deer population explode from about six when he arrived to about 60 or 70 today.

He loves the resident eagles, but he worries that their increasing numbers threaten other birds - especially the gulls, whose nests are easy-pickings for hungry raptors.

He loves the resident eagles, but he worries that their increasing numbers threaten other birds - especially the gulls, whose nests are easy pickings for hungry raptors.

Summers are nice, he says. But he looks forward to the winter. Most of the birds move south as the storms move in from the north.

"You can't imagine the winds out here. If it's blowing 30 in Port Townsend, then it's blowing 40 on Discovery Bay and 60 or 70 up here on the bluff. There are days you can't stand up right outside my house."

In a heavy blow, the cabin will shudder and Bluewater will hunker down, knowing he won't be able to run his boat for a few days. He's had windows caved in by 90-knot winds, replacing them one by one with tempered glass.

But then it lets up, and the world survives Nature's punishment.

Perhaps the lesson, Bluewater says, is that human beings can learn to live with the natural world.

"It's a shame that the people who own this island have to look at it from a distance," he says. "They should bring people out so they can appreciate it."

That's not likely, says Ryan of the FWS. The government is beginning to draft a new management plan, but the island is likely to remain off limits to most of us.

Eventually, the issue will become rather academic. Each of those winter storms eats away at those exposed northern bluffs, and each year that shoreline recedes a little more. A few centuries in the future, Protection Island might be little more than a sandbar.

Because nobody really knows how to protect Mother Nature from herself.

(Ross Anderson has yet to skipper his boat all the way around Protection Island.)


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