It was a March morning when Everett school kids would get an extra day off. It was an early spring morning when Rainier skiers would get a fresh blanket of powder. It was a long awaited morning when we were to take delivery on a new Hunter 36 and sail her from Lake Union to Gig Harbor. At least that’s what we thought.
It was a March morning with far away winds hurtling up from the south. It was an early spring morning with a bitter cold front clawing down from the north. It was a seductive morning with highs and lows opening and closing drizzly gray curtains on a thin blue sky. We only knew part of that – the sunny skies part. We were returning to the Sound after a long enforced absence and anything would have been a sunny day.
Tori, our broker, and Patti’s parents helped us through the locks and into Shilshole’s gas dock. We topped off, bundled up and waved goodbye under cold, crisp skies and a 7 knot breeze in our face. The dodger/bimini/connector paid for itself quickly as we left the last buoy behind and chugged out into the bay on our 27 horse Yanmar. The instruments, so carefully checked in the previous two days were lit up and giving us confidence that we could eat pizza that night in Gig’s Tides Tavern.
How different sailing felt to us than it must have been for the ancients creeping down these bays and straits 250 years ago. How awesome, impenetrable, and menacing were these tree lined shores to them? What spirits did their superstitious minds conjure up to stalk them down the empty shores?
Soon Seattle disappeared on our port side into a squall. White caps rose up on our starboard. The trees on Bainbridge Island turned black and a black cloud curtain closed on the last of the pale skies to be seen that day within 100 miles. For all we could see of civilization from the cockpit, we could have been Midshipman Sanford in his gig searching for anchorage in 1841. Our Yanmar thumped and pushed but the tide had things to do behind us and slowed our speed over water to a mere 3.5 knots. Then the wind came to meet us in force.
We felt the brush of an impatient hand heel us out of its way. We rose to the top of a surprisingly insistent wave and slapped down hard on its following neighbor. Never having had a boat this long in rough water we were slow to find the right angle to catch the waves and reduce the battle. The swells cheated us by changing their direction every moment. Great splashes from the bow sent bullets of saltwater at the dodger. The rain above turned to hail and left its icy deposits on the seats and the coiled lines. The wind grabbed the bimini slowing us down even more. We wrestled with the sea for an hour and never seemed to move past the bulk of Elliott Bay. When we saw the same Bremerton ferry pass us going west and then east again we knew we weren’t destined to make Gig Harbor in daylight.
With a new boat and old crew, nasty weather and conspiring tides, we turned our frozen hands and feet to the charts. Blake Island was dead ahead but the book said it was closed. Closed? The lodge house with its famous plank salmon or the marina with its stone jetty shelter – closed? We didn’t care. Even if we had to tie to a mooring buoy it would at least be in the lee of the south wind and we could hole up until the situation changed. We dodged another ferry and scoped the island with our binoculars for a glimpse of the channel pilings so vaguely remembered from a visit 17 years before. The rain beat heavily on the canvas.
The island was dark but we picked our way in. The trees groaned under the wind but shouldered the air a hundred feet above our mast and gave us the calmer water we sought. The hissing of the whitecaps faded off and only the steady chunk, chunk of our engine broke the silence.
But there, what was that? Where? Above us? Behind us? What was that extra thump? Depth was good, engine was steady, but there, again, what was that extra thump? Surf? We scanned the shores for waves but saw only the wreckage of the great December wind storm that had ripped and strewn a dozen trees on the beach where the outgoing tide taunted them to float.
Thump. Thump. Is there another engine? No boats in sight. Thump. Thump. It seemed too rhythmic to be natural. Thump. Thump. There is no human source to be seen. Thump. Thump. Thump. Sometimes it was distinct. Sometimes it was ripped away from us by the winds aloft as if grabbed by a hunting eagle and carried crying into the night. Thump. Thump. Thump.
We glided around the gray breakwater and cut the engine. Our momentum carried us nicely over the suddenly still water that barely breathed on the rock beach. We reached the deserted docks and quietly tied up. Thump thump, grumbled the air. The pines whispered knowingly at us as they swayed together against the wind. A pair of Canadian geese honked angrily from the beach but stood their ground. Across the park meadow a deer looked up from its grazing and stalked stiffly away. Thump, thump echoed the forest. A splash off the quarter revealed no source. We were intruders. The sun slipped away but we didn’t notice. It was long past natural daylight.
With the tide low the empty island loomed over us. Fantastic designs of bears and orcas peered down from the dark lodge house. Thump, thump. Surreal faces and distorted postures pressed their lidless stares down on us. Thump, thump. We stepped off the boat. The thumping disappeared.
Warily we climbed the ramp and dutifully read the park instructions for moorage, payment, and avoiding the animals. We felt foolish putting cash in an envelope on a deserted island but we did. It didn’t impress the geese. Neck arched the male cronked a warning as we passed up the path. Others camouflaged in the thickets around the meadow joined in. A kingfisher added his protest as we walked up to the lodge.
Dusty souvenirs and furniture squatted glumly behind the windows opening into the empty gift shop. Darkness glowered from the recesses of the building. A “Closed for the Season” sign hung at its lonely duty station inside the door.
We left our nose prints on the glass and retreated through the rapidly closing darkness to our boat. As we reached the ramp it came again…thump, thump, thump. Rhythmic, insistent, fading on the wind, flitting into the sky. Then stopped. Then returned. Thump, thump, thump. It was everywhere and nowhere.
The twilight showed nothing. The building showed nothing. The geese said nothing. The trees whispered their ancient incantation of rustling and groaning as we hustled on board and locked up the hatch. It stopped again.
We put on music, but it didn’t seem to fit. We turned it off. We turned on our diesel heater and pretended its little clunk, clunk, clunk could dispel the cold and the presence outside. We poured the last of the wine from the launching and tried to relax, warm in the cozy light and lulled by the scent of chili beginning to bubble on the stove. We had successfully distracted ourselves from the mystery, from what we had begun to call the “Spirit of the Island.” We laughed like nervous children daring each other to knock on the haunted house.
Then the hull knocked on us.
I sprang to the hatch and bashed my head. A voice called out. I ripped a fingernail fighting with the deadbolt. A light pierced my eyes.
“Hi,” said friendly park ranger standing on the dock. “Just wanted to check and make sure you are all right.”
We gasped our surprise.
“Yeah, I’m here pretty much all year. I spend about five nights a week in the winter. Lots to do now with all the trees fallen across the paths and such. That’s my house across the meadow.”
“Oh, that’s just the tribe practicing. Opening of the lodge is next week and a bunch of them were backstage practicing the ceremonial beats. Hope they didn’t spook you out or anything.”
Nope, not us, not really, not too much…