Saturday, August 2, 2014

My Tatoosh Islands Adventure

I was invited to the Tatoosh Islands by my brother Bob, a career coast guardsman, who was in charge of the small island group collectively named for a chief of the Makah Indian nation. The three small islands are the most northwesterly point of the continental U.S. and located in the Straits of Juan de Fuca, half a mile from the coast of Neah Bay, Washington. The lighthouse, Cape Flattery, is located on Tatoosh's main island.

My vacation on Tatoosh was an adventure from the start. My first plane belly-dived onto the runway in Stockton, California, because the landing gear failed to release. A rough landing but, fortunately, no one was hurt. It did, however, result in a six-hour delay before a replacement plane arrived after two in the morning. We landed in Seattle-Tacoma airport at about four and at 6:30 a.m. I learned that I was to fly the remainder of the trip on a three-seater, single engine Cessna--no larger than my car--over the Olympic Mountains to Neah Bay. By the way, it was my first ever trip by plane.

Seated behind the pilot and another passenger, I could see the mountain peaks protruding through the clouds and I’ve never been so frightened in my life because air currents had us falling dangeously close to the peaks. When we reached the tiny airport some miles from Neah Bay, the landing strip looked like a narrow, cracked sidewalk with weeds growing up between the cracks.

My brother wasn’t there to meet me, so I hitched a ride with the other passenger, who was stationed at the coast guard base located on the Makah Indian reservation at Neah Bay. 

We then proceeded to the base where I met my brother and we waited for a small boat to come from the island to pick us up. When we reached the main island of Tatoosh, an inexperienced coastie was operating the crane that lowered the boatswain’s “chair” to the ocean.. The wooden box was about two feet square and connected to a cable. I was lifted from the boat up a sheer rock face that was a hundred feet high. I screamed like a wounded water buffalo. When I reached the top, the box was swung to a wooden platform, landing hard enough to nearly break both my ankles.

Did I mention that the airline lost my luggage? I wore my brother’s coast guard uniforms for a week, and fortunately, one of the coasties had a pair of tennis shoes that fit me. The fog horn woke me repeatedly during the night although the other inhabitants of the island said they were able to sleep through it.

I loved the lighthouse at Cape Flattery, located at the western end of the half mile by quarter mile island. Built in 1857, the island has alternatively been inhabited by Makah Indian fishing parties, the coast guard, weather bureau employees and the navy. The guest book is fascinating to read and I wish I had been able to photograph some of the entries. It tells of 19th century fishermen and explorers who visited the island by climbing the damp rocks to the surface. Some of their companions drowned or were killed from falls in the process.

I nearly lost my own life when I volunteered to mow the jungle-like undergrowth that threatens to take over the island. The tractor slid backward down an embankment and nearly went over the edge onto the rocks a hundred feet below. Once was enough. It still gives me chiils thinking about it.

A bird sanctuary is located adjacent to the main island and I watched a variety of colorful sea birds take off and land, as well as seals and other marine life. Across the Straits of Juan de Fuca is Vancouver Island, Canada, which I could see on a clear day, which is not very often. When I wasn’t watching sea birds and visiting the lighthouse, I enjoyed playing cards and billards with the coasties and watching films in their small basement movie theater.

We were fogged in the morning I was scheduled to leave, so I was able to stay two extra days. The morning I left, a small coast guard cutter arrived with my luggage, and I dressed like a civilian and boarded the cutter for the trip back to the mainland. Five minutes later, a wave swamped the boat and I looked like a drowned rat when I boarded the small plane for the trip back to Seattle. During the subsequent trip home, my plane left without me in Stockton, California, so I waited again for another plane.

I'd been expected to start my first newspaper reporting job several days before I returned home and was nearly fired before I began.The publisher said he'd traveled to northwestern Washington several times and had never heard of the Tatoosh Islands. Thankfully, I was able to whip out an island postcard, which saved my job. I also wrote a feature story about my trip for the newspaper.

The island is no longer inhabited and no coast guardsmen or weather station employees remain.Tatoosh has become one of the most intensively studied field sites for marine life in the world. Studies have discovered how various species are linked to one another through a network of interactions, and how environmental changes resulting in the extinction of certain species, have affected the marine life food chain.

Anyone who now wants to visit the Tatoosh islands must ask permission from the Makah Indian Reservation officials at Neah Bay on Washington’s beautiful Olympia Penninsula.


  1. Oh, my gosh! If people read that in a book, they'd probably say it was too outlandish to be true. That was a trip you'll definitely never forget, and I'm sure you probably laugh about it now. I hope.

  2. It was an adventure of a lifetime, all right. Actually, I enjoyed the time I spent on the island, but the trip itself was from hell.

  3. Wow! That was some vacation. But at least you got great material to use in your books. :)