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Monday, June 2, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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San Juan 'gem' sparkles in solitude

Seattle Times staff reporter

Natural Wonders book


Did you know that you can tell the age of a Chinook salmon by counting the rings on its scales? That a single blackberry bush can produce 13,000 seeds per square yard? Or that the tiny chorus frog's mating song can hit 90 decibels?

Revisit many of the fascinating, mysterious and amazing Northwest phenomena — from delectable chanterelle mushrooms to the poisonous, rough-skinned newt — featured in this series in a new book by The Seattle Times: "Natural Wonders: The flora, fauna & formations of Washington."

This full-color, soft-cover book, which will be available locally in September for $18.95, plus tax, shipping and handling, can be pre-ordered by phone at 206-464-3113 or by e-mail at resale@seattletimes.com.

YELLOW ISLAND, San Juan County — Phil Green is living an island fantasy.

The Robinson Crusoe house built of driftwood and flotsam. The 24-hour Nature Channel outside the door. Then there is solitude. In March, three people came by — a graduate student and her husband, and a neighbor from another island, bringing a beer.

But, consider the following conversation:

Visitor One: "What do you do in the evenings?"

Green: "Read."

Visitor Two: "What do you do during the daytime?"

Green: "Read."

It's a dream for some, but Green, a naturalist and island steward for The Nature Conservancy, is quick to supply a caveat: "Many people would go stark-raving mad here."

At that, he produced a thick binder of study materials for a Cornell University correspondence course in ornithology. He can name, off the top of his head, the 15 species of birds that nest on the island, from crows, white-crowned sparrows and orange-crowned warblers to chestnut-backed chickadees, house wrens and olive-sided flycatchers, whose call sounds like "quick, three beers."

This is Yellow Island, a quintessential island in a world of islands. It is surrounded by water, of course, but it also has an isolation and natural purity that make it a gem among some 400 or so other San Juan gems. But, boy, you better like that sort of thing.

It is a snug little island, 10 acres that a slow hiker can cover in an hour. Fresh water is limited to puddles of rainfall, so the island has no mammals aside from mink, river otters, harbor seals and the occasional swimming deer. That means no squirrels, chipmunks or mice, a blessing for cabin living.

McConnell Island, just 400 yards away, has big-leaf maple, Western red cedar and salal. Yellow Island has none. It also has no Himalayan blackberry, the prolific scourge that came here from Europe via Luther Burbank.

Sheep never grazed here, limiting the weedy plants introduced by their feed.

And, stop the presses: No Scotch broom and no slugs.

Above all, Yellow Island has one of the San Juans' most astounding profusions of native wildflowers. The namesake yellow color might come from the local buttercups or the overall tawny look the island gets as it dries out in summer. No one knows for sure. Either way, the adjective sells the island short in spring, when its eastern hilltop is transformed into a Technicolor paradise.

"It's a pretty gaudy show," said Peter Dunwiddie, the Conservancy's director of research programs.

The show is so spectacular it borders on the unnatural, but that's getting ahead of the story.

The original modern-day hermits of Yellow Island were Lew and Elizabeth "Tib" Dodd, who bought the island for $8,000 in 1947 and started homesteading it in their 50s. First they lived in a tent, then built a house of so much salvaged driftwood that Lew Dodd figured it cost him all of $300.

It's 600 square feet of compromises. Dodd was 5 foot 3, so the doorways are so low people call it a hobbit house. Plumbing is limited to the tap and an outdoor shower. The phone is a cell. There's no electricity.

But the picture window at the foot of the bed looks south over San Juan Channel.

The Nature Conservancy bought the island in 1980 for $200,000 from the Dodd family and posted stewards when the island was opened to the public a few years later. Green, 50, was one of more than 100 applicants when he was hired in 1999, his résumé including a 300-plus-mile canoe trip in the Arctic, trail-crew work in the North Cascades and counting eagles for the Conservancy on the Skagit River.

His wife, Kathy, lives and works in Mount Vernon and comes out on weekends and in the summer. He lives here nearly year-round, wearing LaCrosse boots and Carhart pants, ferrying visitors in the Conservancy skiff to nearby Orcas and Friday Harbor, and keeping daily logs of flowering species, the weather and wildlife. He wears binoculars the way men in the '30s wore ties.

"I don't want to be the one when the whales go by that says, 'Oh, my binoculars are on the other side of the island,' " he said.

Fewer than 2,000 people come to the island each year. You need your own boat, and there's no dock, so more than one-third arrive by kayak. About 350 a month come in April and May, the big flowering months.

When they come, Green acts as the island's Officer Friendly, enforcing a list of restrictions that underscores how much human intervention is necessary to keep humans from making an island less than natural.

No pets, no picnics, no camping or overnight moorage. No smoking, no water, no public bathrooms. No recreation, aside from walking. Watch where you land your boat; some beaches close for seal rearing. And please stay on the trails. Hours — the preserve is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. — are strictly enforced to give wildlife a break from people.

"That's the approach that you have to take when you have a resource like this," said Dunwiddie. "It's remote, but it's still in a heavily populated area."

But there is a type of human intervention the Conservancy favors, and here is where the island's beauty is something less than natural.

For the truth is, if the island were to be left alone, it would end up being a stand of Douglas fir and madrona like any other San Juan island. Dunwiddie, who has studied and done ecological experiments on the island since he was a graduate student more than 20 years ago, theorizes the island is the way it is in large part because Indians gathered camas root on it and occasionally set fire to it to stimulate its production.

Nearby Shaw Island has evidence of Indians going back 9,000 years, nearly to the last ice age. If Indians were here that long, regularly burning the meadows, the environment responded to them over time, said Dunwiddie, making them an integral part of the area.

In that sense, he said, humans are part of nature, and it is possible to have a natural environment in which you want a human effect. Introducing nonnative plants or off-road vehicles are not part of that vision, but human-set fire is.

And while the island is a preserve, Dunwiddie sees himself enhancing it as well. His management is so intense he knows most of the island's trees — not just all of its tree species, but all of its trees.

So, since the early 1980s, the Conservancy has been clearing trees and brush and occasionally burning parts of the island. Watching how the island responds, the staff has seen wildflowers outpace grasses after a fire, often with dramatic results.

"It's not a coincidence that it is a year after a burn," Green said recently as he walked along an achingly colorful eastern meadow torched last year.

Dunwiddie pointed to the edge of the burn. To one side lay a thick thatch of fescue and muted brown meadow. From the other side sprang a riot of glossy-yellow buttercups, glowing-red Indian paintbrush, delicate-white field chickweed and oh-so-purple camas.

It's enough to bring you to your knees, if only to get a better look at the delicately mottled brown, maroon and yellow chocolate lily or the magenta clusters of shooting stars. Looking up, you might see two male rufuous hummingbirds fighting over territory, chasing each other back and forth, up and down.

Or you might see a lone hummingbird light on a paintbrush, giving a viewer just enough time to focus and admire while it dips its quill of a beak into the flower.

Yellow Island is like that, a small island full of small visions.

Eric Sorensen: 206-464-8253 or esorensen@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2003 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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