It’s not as though Herron Island is isolated from the rest of the world. After all, our ferry, the 11-car red-and-white M/V Charlie Wells, plies the three-quarters of a mile between the island and the mainland on a daily basis, braving all manner of weather and logging over 3,000 round trips each year.
In the 1960s, Herron Islanders considered a bridge to the mainland, but rejected it because of the complicated logistics and regulations, the price tag and perhaps the realization that the island would no longer be the same peaceful getaway.
As it happened, Herron Island is no longer simply an occasional weekend getaway. It is now home to a large number of year-round residents, in addition to the many vacationers and weekenders. While talk of a bridge does come up every once in a while, all of us, part- or full-time islanders, have adjusted to the rhythm of the ferry, even if we grumble at long lines on summer weekends.
After all, being fully dependent on water transportation is not so different from what life was like in Puget Sound in the late 1800s and the early part of the 20th century, before there were roads. Back then islands and coastal communities relied on the many privately-owned steamers, collectively nicknamed the Mosquito Fleet, which offered regular service to and from urban hubs like Olympia, Steilacoom, Tacoma and Seattle for mail, merchandise and passenger travel.
And yet there is a time every other year when something of a rite of passage tests our island resolve: It’s the two to three weeks when the Charlie Wells is off to dry dock.
Every two years the U.S. Coast Guard mandates an out-of-water inspection and maintenance. On the appointed date the ferry is off to a shipyard, where it will also get a new paint job and facelift as needed. During that period, life on the island is like in the Mosquito Fleet days — but without the Mosquito Fleet.
Islanders mobilize. Those with boats offer rides to and from the mainland to islanders who commute to work. Mainlanders meet island kayakers at the ferry terminal to deliver fresh produce. Stocking up is a little like preparing for a three-week backpacking trip, and even though restocking is possible, if a little complicated, most of us manage to load up the pantry and the refrigerator.
Unless of course the fridge goes on the fritz, as happened to a neighbor during this year’s dry dock, which meant waiting four days for a new part that the neighbor canoed across to the mainland to pick up. All was not lost, however: neighbors rallied and offered to keep perishables in their own refrigerators until the part arrived. It does take an island.
“I look at it as a game of ‘Survivor,’ ” said Joyce Major, who recently moved to the island. “Enough coffee? Check. Enough chocolate? Nope: all eaten Week One. Power outage? Hope not — no generator!”
“Between COVID-19 and dry dock, my cat has been successful in teaching me how to take 64 naps a day,” said longtime islander Janet Podell. “And did I get enough wine to last me through dry dock?” One does need to be prepared.
The island is enveloped in preternatural stillness when the ferry is away. By early fall the usual soundtrack of summer maintenance — lawn mowers, chainsaws, weed eaters, pressure washers — has faded away, but there is also very little car traffic. Apart from pickleball diehards, a group of walkers, and me riding laps around the island on my gravel bike, there is almost no other outdoor activity.
I have been through three dry docks so far, having moved here full-time after being a weekender for several years, and I used to think that I just imagined the silence. But no, the soundlessness is almost palpable. Dave Weber, a neighbor who moved here with his wife Jenny a few months ago, put it best: “I’ve noticed it’s like ‘it-just-snowed’ quiet,” he said.
“We love the quietude of the island,” said Geri Lambrecht, who lives here with her husband York and their two dogs, Remi and Cally. “We’re on a pretty busy street, so we don’t miss the traffic at all.”
As I write this, the ferry and our crew just returned safely from this year’s dry dock after an epic nine-hour journey on a day of gale force winds, heavy rain and record lightning and thunder. In these times of self-isolation, lockdowns and quarantines, having the Charlie Wells home is a source of comfort for all of us.
That, and the peace, tranquility and views out our front doors — in Lambrecht’s words, it’s all lovely and comforting.
Joseph Pentheroudakis is an artist, historian and avid birder who writes from Herron Island