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09 August, 2009

Counter-clockwise on Cypress, and a Surprise Sojourn to Lummi

The next morning dawned foggy and cool, but as the sky inched toward brightness, the captain took off to pick up the honcho in Anacortes. I checked email; neither of us can fathom how an island with no phone line gets internet, and I failed to let the office know of my connectivity, because that kind of mundane BS would anger the gods who had delivered me to this island refuge. Nor did I spend undue time on personal email or follow facebook links, because the tide was falling, already below normal low, and such times are dear to aquatic archaeologists.

Among the assortment of field footwear, I’d brought some muck boots, waterproof and insulated. But being mortal and base, I cursed my busy life, which had prevented me from fabricating mud-shoes, which are like snow-shoes, but for walking on mud-flats. Indians had them, and even if they could be bought in stores, I would want a pair fashioned by my own hands. Steam-bent cedar rims and a complex web of otter hide that would leave a trail of beautiful prints to entertain the crows and baffle whatever clam-digger might pass before flowing tides swallowed the fleeting image.

But I digress. I walked the tidelands, discovering fire-cracked rock here, bottle frags there, an odd concentration of rocks…the things that make sub-sea-level archaeology so much fun. Oh, and deflated jellyfish of an enchanting hue. I wondered if they revivify when the tide comes in.

So the boat came in from Anacortes, and we three talked about the island, its sites, its characters, and the fairly vast remembrances of a honcho who worked his way up from the bottom over a generation. Especially in a place where ‘civilization’ ebbed long ago, it is the caretakers who know about a piece of land. Well, the poachers and pot-growers, too, but I don’t know them yet.

Then off we went, exiting Secret Harbor and hanging left until we reached the opposite side of the island. Honcho piloted, while we sat outside and watched the shore pass us by, jacketed against the cool and life-jacketed against the Bellingham Channel, then Rosario Strait.

Our destination, the eponymous island in Strawberry Bay, was where members of Vancouver’s expedition landed in May, 1792, and feasted on, you guessed it, strawberries. And onions. Both of which suggest a landscape considerably less forested than what we found on this day. Tribes used to burn land to maintain open forest and meadows (locally termed ‘prairies,’ although any self-respecting Midwesterner would balk at applying the term to tiny enclaves amidst vast forests). This fostered growth of root and berry foods, as well as allure sure to bring in the deer and other meaty treats. A funny thing: the nice canoe landing where we pulled in turns out to be an artifact of the Honcho, who years ago remedied the absence of one by bringing in a road crew to blast the offending boulders to smithereens, leaving the welcoming gravel beach we see today.

More suspicion and circumstantial evidence here than an actual site, and when I looked at what an archaeologist had thought might be a site close to 20 years ago, I saw less than met his eye. Still, a very cool island: bird-covered rock at the south, kelp beds on the fringes, lovely madrona trees (which prove that beauty is situational—the same pealing red epidermis revealing greenish mesodermis on a human would be hideous and infected burn), and glacially sculpted bedrock. I indulged in some crazy cliff exploration without mishap, and shot photos galore of everything except archaeology. Then we all sat together on an eastern cliff to compare the bay now with the bay on photos taken more than a century ago of a fish-trap, trying to figure out where it must have been.

Then we motored over and he dropped us two off on the shore to look for fish-trap remnants. The trap was basically a row of pilings extending from shore well into a known salmon run, strung with net to force them into a spot where the fishermen would net them (‘Brailing’ is the term used for the harvest on one of the blurry action photos). Version 1 set out straight from shore, but did not work, at which point the boss man nailed a chair to a piling and watched the fish, then decided that a dogleg back to the south would work, which it did. Purse-seiner boats often waited beyond the end of the trap to scoop up the smart fish. Traps were outlawed generations ago, after people noticed that stocks had been decimated.

So anyway, our survey, still yet benefitting from low tide, turned up nothing by way of fish-trap v1.0 or 1.1. But I did find a couple of semi-circular walls of stone where cobble beach gave way to sand. These are probably old-time clam gardens: low stone walls exposed at low tide and submerged at high, formed of stone cleared from the muck to improve clam habitat and define a family’s harvest area.

Our work done here, the spontaneous consensus was to head to Lummi, eponymous island of the Lummi Tribe, where our agency manages a piece of land. Beautiful arcs betwixt islands, the boat performing a stately hula until throttling down in a small bay, one of the only landings on a cliff-bound coast.

And not far off an odd site. Midden almost entirely of clam at a place where digging for them would be difficult or fruitless. Steep land, the only fresh water a pitiful seep. I think I know why people still came here, but I sure as hell ain’t telling the internet.

Then back to Secret Harbor, sweeping white wakes under a sunny sky. Fish jumping, birds diving, currents ripping.

Now, the common misconception is that a state worker landing at 4 or 5 PM would call it quits. But no, daylight on an island is too precious. Honcho took off in his boat, while us two hydrated at the field station, then readied for a walk to the south shore. She got a tank of elixir sure to slay alien thistle, and I my same old 30-pound pack of archaeo-gear. There we found the homestead of Nedrow, inventor of some sort of saw, as well as an old olivine mine. Homes cut into hillsides and mines more massively cut into hills are easy pickin’s, archaeologically speaking, and the waning afternoon for me was a matter of walking the beach and clicking off GPS points and photos as I found stuff.

The thistle-slayer tank empty, the sites recorded, we headed back. I fashioned chicken chili verde with squash, and we supped. I put off writing this and read Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, which is excellent. Fell asleep and dreamt of falling into a dreamless sleep.

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