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On a voyage of discovery, parentwise, a skeptical landsman cruises the San Juans with his kids and finds the best part of boating is just hacking around

We were throttled down to 500 rpm, trolling for silver salmon in one of the passes in the San Juan Islands off Washington and British Columbia, when the ferryboat cut us off at the pass exactly the way a Chicago truck driver will cut you off on Halsted Street. We had thought he was going to zoom straight up the center of the pass, as any right-thinking ferryboat would, and so we veered our 36-foot powerboat toward the shoreline, about 100 yards away. But the ferryboat kept aiming for the narrowing space between us and the land, and at the last minute we realized that this 1,717-ton hot rod had us cornered, so we altered course. He missed us by about 30 yards and we braced to take his wake. "Sit down!" I yelled at the kids. Now we would find something out. Was I the father of three born sailors or three sissified city kids who couldn't take a little pounding? Whack! The first wave hit us and the boat shuddered. From below I heard the delighted squeals of Julie, 9, and Barrie, 5, bouncing up and down on their bunks. The boat shivered and yawed and things flew around as we lurched some more. Captain Al Mendenhall muttered, "Durn!" which is as vulgar as Captain Al Mendenhall can get. My son Evan, who is 6 and still struggling with his v's and b's, rose three feet in the air, like Gus Grissom, and on his return to the deck said matter-of-factly, "This is fun. I like the wabes." And that was the high point of the trip, kidwise.

It didn't matter that we cruised through Washington state's San Juan Islands for 10 days and rode horses and dug clams and caught muscular salmon and four-foot sharks and collected shells and mauve starfish and explored wrecked tugboats and a derelict British blockhouse and old lime kilns and who knows what all. The apogee of the trip was getting the bum's rush from a ferryboat. Julie, the 9-year-old, said the experience was enough to make up for missing a week and a half of the Soupy Sales show. Soupy is No. 9 on her list of favorite historical personages (I am first, President Kennedy is No. 2, her school bus driver is No. 3 and the Rolling Stones are Nos. 4 through 8). Barrie, a preschooler who has a laugh that could make Ford Frick smile, kept asking when the big boat was coming back. And Evan told me as the day wore on that if I couldn't produce another "gigantic" ferryboat backwash he would tell me what I could do with my boat trip.

I must confess to having had certain anxieties even before our chartered 36-foot sedan cruiser Allu headed out of the Bellingham (Wash.) Yacht Club for the San Juans. For 10 days we would be some 15 miles offshore in the northernmost part of Puget Sound: me, the three kids, Captain Mendcnhall and an old friend of this magazine, Phil Portrey, who would serve as navigator, fishing guide, social director and baby-sitter. At worst, I envisaged a total ennui. I had never thought of boats as anything except transportation or fishing platforms. To me a boat that was not either making a specific journey from X to Y or pulling fishing lines through the water was a perversion. Yet here I was committed to just hacking around 400-odd islands with no destination, no itinerary and no plans. A landsman with no destination, itinerary or plans can be arrested as a vagrant.

On the other hand (I thought as we prepared to cast off all lines), the trip could turn into another Vietnam. The kids would be fighting day and night, ventilating their sibling rivalries in the confines of our small floating battlefield, and I would be spending most of my time trying to mediate, ordering apologies and holding down the decibels.

I promptly decided that the way to fend off this possibility was to let them know who was boss straight off. So when Evan gave me some lip as we were crossing Bellingham Bay toward the cool, green islands, I told him to go below until he could learn to behave himself, whereupon he burst into tears. Little Barrie marched across the cabin, looked me straight in the eye and said in her breathless way: "Judy says—when you boss a child—and make him cry—God feels—sorry for him!" Then all three children went below to ignore me vigorously.

There was simply no end to my ineptitude until I finally gave up and let the natural wonders of the San Juan Islands take over in the entertainment department. I mean, I would get into situations like this: We were cruising near the Strait of Juan de Fuca, and the kids wanted to know how this body of water got its name. Well, I explained, it was named after Juan de Fuca.

"Who is he?"

Well, he was a Greek explorer, and his real name was Apostolos Valerianos.

"Why isn't the strait named the Strait of Apostolos Valerianos? It's a lie to name it after Juan de Fuca."

No, it isn't, because Valerianos sailed under the name Juan de Fuca when he went exploring for the Spanish government.

"Oh, he discovered the strait then?"

No, he only pretended to discover it. Charles Barkley really discovered it.

"Charles Barkley? Then it's a bigger lie than ever!"

I finally decided to set up a surrogate villain and function merely as a pal to my children, a friend, more a brother than a father. "Come here, pals," I said, and assembled them in convention below. "There's one thing you pals should know about a boat," I whispered. "The captain is the absolute boss. If he tells you to stand on your head and whistle Melancholy Baby, you better do it!"

"Why would he ask me to stand on my head and whistle Melancholy Baby?" Julie asked.

"I don't mean it literally," I said, but three puzzled faces reminded me that none of them knew what literally meant. By the time I had finished trying to explain the unfortunate reference to Melancholy Baby, I had hopelessly confused everybody and doomed my children to going through life thinking of charter-boat captains as weird tyrants who order people to do ridiculous things and you better do it! I muttered a silent prayer of thanks when the first island came into sight.

That night, moored against one of the long fingers of Sucia Island, I realized what a blessing Al Mendenhall and Phil Portrey were going to be. In the first place, astounding as this may sound, they actually enjoyed taking children on a cruise. Al is a weekend sailor who owns a business in Bellingham and takes lunatic fathers on charter trips in his sedan cruiser (a brand-new Ed Monk design, which, for those who care about such things, sleeps seven, has a flying bridge, a 300-hp Interceptor engine, 27-knot top speed, 14-knot cruising speed, Walters V-drive, Wagner hydraulic steering, 42-inch draft). Al used to play reed in pit orchestras at burlesque houses in his home town of Indianapolis before he came out to Washington. The four-a-day epoch of his life does not seem to have scarred him, but it has left him with a residuum of hoary humor for entertaining children. Sample:

Customer: I'll have two eggs.

Waitress: How do you like your eggs?

Customer: Fine.

Waitress: No, I mean how do you like them cooked?

Customer: Even better.

If you don't think that's funny, you've never been 10 days at sea with your children. I am proud to say that my 9-year-old daughter was able to match Captain Al joke for joke. She would say, "What is the biggest pencil in the world?" and he would say, "I don't know," and she would say, "Pencilvania." When the guffaws (some of them sincere) had died down, Julie would say, "What does your clock say? Answer I don't know."

"I don't know," Al would answer dutifully.


The other member of the crew, Phil Portrey, runs a gas station and auto repair shop in Ferndale, Wash. and spends most of his time away from it.

A few years ago Phil decided to take an outboard-motorboat trip to Alaska to show that it could be done. Everybody around told him he was crazy to set out on such a harebrained trip. Portrey's answer was to make the 2,000-mile journey in an open 24-footer (SI, May 9 & 16, 1960) and come back as refreshed as if he'd just gone fishing. Once, when he took his 72-year-old father out in a 16-foot open boat, the gas line broke loose and covered the bottom of the boat with flaming gasoline. The Portrey père et fils raced five searing miles to the beach, sank the boat in shallow water, recovered some floating frankfurters for lunch, refloated the boat and went out and caught five salmon. When a Portrey sets out to do a thing, he does it.

The two of them, Captain Al and Executive Officer Phil, made life comfortable and low-pressure on board, which is essential for a cruise with children. Even their mode of speech was relaxing and restful; they dealt in well-seasoned, carefully tested phrases in marked contrast to the convoluted tergiversations of the effete East. "Say when!" Phil would say as he poured for Al and, after a bit, Al would say, "When!" Al made the children laugh by telling them they were more fun than a barrel of monkeys, and they laughed again when Phil asked if he should start the stove and Al told him he could fire when ready, Gridley. Phil ended each meal by saying, "I've had it," and soon all the children were making the same announcement. They picked up enough mots to last three years in the public schools of Connecticut.

And if the children admired our boatmen for their proficiency with simple, clear English, I soon learned to admire them for their seamanship in a body of water that presents problems unknown to most Sunday sailors. In this far tip of Puget Sound all sorts of mysterious actions and reactions are going on beneath the surface. Cold Alaskan tides pour down Georgia Strait to the north and meet the warmer tides coming up the Strait of Juan de Fuca to the west; these two saltwater rivers blend in whirling conjunction and then slam into a vast infusion of lighter fresh water pouring into the bay from the Fraser River and other streams. The result is a "living" bay, almost exactly like a pot of water just before it comes to a rolling boil. Crossing from one San Juan island to another in a dead calm, we would see constant etchings on the surface that bore testimony to the mixing process going on underneath. Every now and then, for no visible reason, patches of water as big as a mile square would erupt into noisy whitecaps, while the surrounding waters remained flat. Here and there we would see whirlpools slowly swirling, with treacherous knots of logs at their centers. Once when we were "mooching" (drift-fishing), we came to an invisible whirlpool that turned us a full 360° before spinning us gently off the rim. During the spin, our lines, at various angles from the stern of the Allu, never varied in their distance or direction from the boat. Phil Portrey swears he has seen upwellings of this working body of water so intense and sudden that bottom fish like red snapper and rock cod were propelled to the surface with their air bladders billowed out of their mouths like balloons. "I shudder when I look back on my first trips out here," Al Mendenhall said. "At first we only had a 24-footer and I used to take the whole family out in it, and the only explanation I can make for getting away with it is that the Good Maker puts his arm around you the first few times and after that you're on your own. I finally had a couple of bad experiences, so I went to the Coast Guard school and learned what to do in these waters."

"The tides are one reason you really need a flying bridge here," said Phil Portrey, who captains his own 20-footer when he isn't out on somebody else's craft. "You need to be up there to read the water. And you have to throw out all the normal rules. Like in a storm out here, sometimes you're better off going deeper into a storm, if you have to, to avoid a rip. When you're in a storm you've got a wind and waves coming at you from one direction. You can manipulate your boat to handle this. But when you're in a tide rip the waves will come from every direction and pop right up in back of you. If I'm in a small boat and a storm comes up, I either run for it or head for the middle of a kelp bed. Kelp hardly ever grows on reefs, so you're pretty sure you won't go aground if you're in a mess of it. And all that kelp helps settle the water."

"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."

"What's that?"

"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.

Watching my children fish reinforced a lifelong feeling that fishing is the ultimate hope for peace in the world, a balm to the soul, an excellent hair restorative and all-round therapeutic aid for any serious malaise. If we were just messing around doing nothing, the kids might stir up trouble. Evan would say, "Whoever likes me, raise their hand," and everybody's hand would go up, but Barrie's would not go up high enough to satisfy Evan and the war would be on. The instant we broke out the fishing rods, however, peace returned. Provided, that is, each child had his own rod and was allowed to fish for himself, which is another important thing I learned about children on this trip. They don't want any of that baloney where the parent baits the hook, gets the strike and then turns the fish over to the child for reeling in. They want their own rod, to feel their own strikes, to set their own hooks and bring in their own fish, at least to the limit of their strength. They want an identity as an independent operator, not just as Daddy's helper. Given this identity, they can be pleased by almost anything: a long piece of string, a box of checkers, a dog-eared old deck of cards, a bird soaring overhead.

On one memorable day we were watched over by a bald eagle, perched in the top of a tree on a nearby knoll. He was one of half a dozen we saw in all, and he allowed himself to be bullied by a sparrow that dipped and dived at his head in a bold move to keep the eagle away from the nesting area. Phil Portrey told us this was a common sight in the San Juans, and that the eagles usually tried to gain altitude, like a Focke-Wulf 190, to put off the attackers. We also saw blue herons, goldfinches, hummingbirds, oyster-catchers and a merry little bird called the sea pigeon who is good for about six shows a day for the children. The sea pigeon sits on the water in basic black splotched with two white bands near the base of his wings, but when he gets up to fly one sees that he is wearing bright red feet that make him look like a clown. He is a sea feeder and sticks his head in the water—glomp!—with the same alacrity that a human takes a sip of tea, a fact that never failed to amaze the children. As if this were not merriment enough, the sea pigeon sometimes tucks his wings back and dives completely out of sight, coming up minutes and yards away, to the wonderment of the onlookers. When you come near, he will whistle and fuss at you, like a Manhattan cab driver in heavy traffic. I have the sea pigeons to thank for several restful naps in midafternoon. I would also like to extend my thanks to the Bonaparte gull, the merganser and the phalarope, as well as the bittern, the sea parrot and the black shag, for favors granted on this trip.

On the islands themselves one sees in microcosm the general American exodus from the farms to the cities. Abandoned farmhouses, cabins, schools and mines are all over the place, and almost without exception children can clamber through them. The San Juans are no different from any other rural community that has been deserted in the cityward trend of the last two or three decades, except for the fact that they are islands and therefore relatively free of the vandalism that has stripped the abandoned homesteads on the mainland. We saw old logging camps with equipment intact, mills, lime kilns glutted with wild flowers, beat-up fishing craft lying on the shore, waiting for the salmon to run again. We saw abandoned gold mines, a house with a hand-carved wooden bathtub, a steam tugboat washed up on the beach, with its screw and rudder rusted tight to their pins, a ghost town complete with pear, apple and plum trees and raspberry and salmonberry bushes and a corral for horses. We saw an old barn crumbling into the ground and nearby a house with a single white curtain flapping from a broken upper window and a liberated rose bush climbing all over the front door. Who planted it? When? Where are they now, and where are their children? I had two feelings when I entered the old dwelling: a feeling of intrusion, and a feeling of sadness that everything must pass and change. And yet my curiosity was too overwhelming to let me pass it by. Inside, in the dim light, I could make out an overstuffed chair with an undignified protruding spring, an old skillet, kerosene lamps and the chassis of an American Bosch Magneto radio like the one we had in our living room when I was a boy. On this same island there was even a carefully preserved school-house, complete to the dunce stool in the corner and books on the shelves. This was a particularly sinister schoolhouse, for its teacher murdered a man 100 years ago and was hanged on a knot he had to tie himself for the executioner.

Someone said that you could cruise the islands for a lifetime and never put in at the same bay twice or hear the same story twice. You might, however, wind up at the same marina more than once, since there is only a handful of them in the islands. With small children aboard, you have to stop at marinas every three or four days, not only to refuel but to fill the water tanks, since there is nothing small children want more than water once they find out that the supply on board is limited. Personally, speaking as a landlubber, I found the marinas a necessary nuisance and the last place in the world to visit on a San Juan cruise. To begin with, they were populated by the unpleasant half of the seagoing fraternity: the half that will plough through 30 miles of storm-tossed sea in a $50,000 boat for the sole purpose of lolling around a marina on a hot Sunday afternoon drinking Salty Dogs and telling dirty jokes to other people who have ploughed through 30 miles of stormtossed sea in a $50,000 boat et cetera ad infinitum. The smell is of creosote and gasoline; the sun is hot and the water is full of pop bottles and orange rinds and oil slick, and the people are all there for the wrong reasons. "Tell you the truth," Phil Portrey said, "I think most of 'em come out to compare notes on what the other fellow's got on his boat. Then they run back in town to get the same thing. Look at that express cruiser down there." He pointed to a handsome Chris-Craft that had enough chrome on it to furbish two dozen Detroit sedans. "How'd you like to polish all that gingerbread?

"You wouldn't get me near here if we didn't have to," Portrey went on. "Hey Al, c'mere and look at those two lights on that boat next to us. Now. what the hell does he want with two beams like that? Those lights are expensive."

"You durn betcha," Captain Al said.

"One hundred twenty-four dollars apiece," said Phil.

"You better durn believe it," said Al.

"I'll just never understand the idle rich."

"The idle rich don't understand the idle rich."

"You can say that again," Phil said.

My own conception of marina life was epitomized by the little pink-dyed poodle that had fallen off a cruiser and was swimming in circles around the pilings while a size 18 woman in a size 12 bikini emoted around and cried, "I'll die! I'll just die!" Her husband grappled for the poodle with a boathook but the pup was in no hurry to come back aboard; he was doing the first natural thing he'd ever done in a life of being coiffed and shampooed and trimmed and walked and curbed. As soon as the kids came back from a trail ride, we got away from that marina and back to the sweet smell of failure coming off the sea and the beaches. Julie told me that Soupy Sales had been killed, hit in the face with a lead pie, and the captain told me one of his four-a-day jokes about a Brooklyn kid and a bird that choiped like a boid, and Phil Portrey lifted little Barrie high in the air and told her she was cute as a bug, and I played a simple card game with Evan and went in the tank for two chocolate cookies and a vanilla, and we were all as happy as hooty owls. If I had to spend my life on a boat, I'd spend it right there on the Allu, rollicking around the San Juan Islands with Phil and Captain Al and the three kids. And if that hot-rod ferry wanted to cut us off again and give us the back of its wake, it would be perfectly all right with me. I like wabes, too, and you better durn believe it.



We saw lime kilns ginned with wild flowers and beat-up fishing craft on the shore wailing for salmon to run again.



We caught muscular salmon and four-foot sharks, collected shells and starfish, explored wrecked tugboats, a derelict British blockhouse and who knows what all.



One sees in microcosm the general American exodus from the farms to the cities. Abandoned farmhouses, cabins, schools, mines and logging camps are all over the place, and almost without exception children can clamber through them.



In this far tip of Puget Sound all sorts of mysterious actions and reactions go on beneath the surface. Cold tides pour down from the north and meet the warmer tides coming in from the west.



Phil Portrey runs a gas station and spends most of his time away from it. He once took an outboard-motor trip to Alaska just to show it could be done.