It’s the ferry, stupid

Those of you who don’t live on Lummi Island, the center of the universe, may believe that there are important news items to think about: things like health care, earthquakes, unemployment, or even the fact that the space station toilet is stopped up (astronaut pee contains a lot of calcium) or that an 8 year old kid named Mikey is on the no fly list (he has the same name as a terrorist).

We on this important island (population about 1000 in winter, growing to 3000 in summer), however, know that what actually matters in the public realm is the ferry.

Many people (that is, many among the select group who have ever heard of Lummi Island) think that the island is part of the Lummi Indian Reservation.  It isn’t.  The ferry crosses Hales Passage, a five minute run, and docks on the mainland at Gooseberry Point which is in the Lummi Nation.  In order to get to Bellingham one has to pass through about 10 miles of reservation land.

Like many others, I like passing through the reservation.  There is another culture to learn about, another tight-knit community to compare with the outside, and, along the shore, some beautiful sights of fishing eagles and gulls, islands, sand bars and mountain views.

A ferry has been operating across Hales Passage for more than 100 years.  At first it was operated by the owners of a salmon cannery (no longer in existence) located here on the island which employed thousands of people, many Chinese.  In 1924 the ferry and the route became county property.  The present ferry, the steel, double-ended dual diesel powered Whatcom Chief, was built in 1962.

The ferry at night

The ferry at night

I love the Whatcom Chief.  When I first moved to the island, 10 years ago, I was 67 years old and newly divorced.  My divorce was polite, but all divorces are stressful.  I felt terrible about leaving the man I had been married to for 20 years, a nice, smart man, but one who had an intractable alcohol problem.  Whenever I pulled my car into the ferry queue after a day in Bellingham taking care of my mother or my ex-husband (both often had medical issues) or doing errands, the sight of the Whatcom Chief meant that I was about to leave my troubles behind.

Five minutes would take me to a slower, quieter world: a world of woods and fields, of beaches and sunsets, of cows and llamas and sheep.  A world of crab pots and organic gardens and parties.  A world where most mornings I walked down the hill to the coffee shop called “Well, Latte Dah!” next to the only island store, and while drinking my latte worked a crossword puzzle with my friend Gwen, who owned the coffee business.

I got to know the hardworking folk who run the ferry.  Many of them are my neighbors.  They are out on the deck or on the bridge in all weathers and rough seas.  They tumble out of bed at all hours and power up the ferry to get people to the hospital for medical emergencies.

The ferry is our life-line to the mainland.  It takes children to school.  It brings the power trucks over when we have a power failure.  It brings the police over if crimes are committed (though that is rare in this tranquil place).  It brings the recycling and garbage trucks.  And the mail.  And UPS, and FED-EX.  It takes people back and forth to work in Bellingham.

I can’t imagine how we would get on without the ferry.

In September the Lummi tribe announced that the dock lease at Gooseberry Point would end on February 14 (yes, Valentine’s Day) 2010.  They will not renew it, they say.  They want Gooseberry Point for a marina and a wildlife refuge.

The island was stunned.  The county had negotiated a 25 year lease with the tribe a few years ago.  However, the lease needed to be okayed and signed by someone at the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, and the person who was supposed to do that had died before he got around to signing it.  End of lease.

A group of islanders has organized and hired a law firm.  There are people in the group at the extremes of the greater political spectrum, but they are working together on this.  There is a web site.

There is no viable alternative to a ferry dock on Indian land.  The configuration of the coastline is such that any other place would mean a ferry journey of at least an hour.  The Whatcom Chief, fine vessel that it is, could not manage hour long trips in rough seas.

There are recriminations back and forth in the press between the tribe and the island folk.  The tribe says it might go for a 70 month lease if the county spends millions of dollars on reservation roads and sidewalks.  The trouble with that is that the county, in these days of recession, hasn’t got much money to negotiate with.

I don’t think the ferry will stop running.  But I am not sure.  The county is run by an executive who keeps getting reelected (he’s been in office for the entire 15 years I have lived in Whatcom County), but his skills are political, not administrative, and I am told his legal advisor is lazy and marginally competent.  That would seem to be born out be our present predicament.

Islanders are nervously stocking up on staple food and supplies at Costco.  My dentist, who has a house here on the island, says he is looking into buying a landing craft.  People are worried about property values and obtaining mortgages.

There’s a rumor that the tribe will put a chain across the Gooseberry Point dock on Valentine’s Day.

One thing I am sure of: a ferry fare increase.

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22 Responses to It’s the ferry, stupid

  1. Annie says:

    Wow, that’s exciting. Way more interesting than the space station clogged toilet or that poor little Mikey! Will you end up as latterday Robinson Cruesoes? Or maybe the ferry will change to a dead-of-night schedule of landings in secret coves of the mainland! I look forward to the denouement of this one, could be ver-r-ry int’resting…

  2. Anne, A bit tardy but wanted you to know that I am really 76–not 60 as you surmised in a comment on my blog. Thanks anyway: I can hardly recall what that particular year was like other than a great birthday song!

  3. rosie says:

    I hope you wont be cut off in your prime…from the mainland!

  4. Marja-Leena says:

    Island living sounds so idyllic until this kind of thing happens. Hope it all works out well for everyone.

  5. Sally says:

    At the mercy of a ferry, lovely or not would be very stressful for me. But, you do not seem to be easily stressed Anne, please keep us informed on the developments.

  6. Karin Doyle says:

    Sorry, they have to keep the ferry running. I was going to drop by and visit you this summer. Landing craft – good idea. I’ll come in a LARC!

  7. Tabor says:

    I was returning the visit you paid to my blog recently and now find I am all caught up in your sad challenge. It is too bad that you do not have the leadership needed among your administrators on the island because I think someone who is a good negotiator could get this resolved so that both sides are satisfied. It reminds a little of the ‘bridge to nowhere’ issue we had in America onlyyours is quite real.

  8. Jan says:

    I think two things are certain – the Lummi want the ferry to keep running; they don’t want a wildlife preserve, they want the county to pay for their roads and sidewalks. If they cut the ferry off, the people of Whatcom county (and therefore, the county itself) will become hostile towards them and the tribe won’t get anything.

    The second thing? If the politician who runs the county doesn’t resolve this to the populace’s satisfaction, he won’t be re-elected.

  9. Darlene says:

    What the Lummi tribe is doing is nothing short of blackmail. I hope the lawyer will be able to work this out without a lengthy lawsuit. In the end, it’s the lawyers who win.

    What a beautiful lavender photo of the ferry at night. I would hang that one on my wall.

  10. Rain says:

    wow, that is a tough one and does sound like it’s about them holding out for more money. Does anybody care about just plain people anymore?

  11. wisewebwoman says:

    Oh Anne, that doesn’t sound too good at all. How do small boats manage on your water? I remember when our ferryman in Ireland went on strike and all the private small craft came out and people borrowed cars on the mainland to get around.
    It was approx 2 mile crossing, rough sea but we managed for a summer.
    I hope yours is as easily managed.
    XO
    WWW

  12. Tessa says:

    Why can’t the marina and ferry terminal can’t peacefully co-exist, as they do in many other places? Or is the Lummi First Nation just using the ferry as a negotiating tool with the County?

    However it turns out, I hope it won’t become as violent as recent confrontations here, between Six Nations people and locals in Caledonia, Ontario. I think the problems here might have been resolved peacefully had not the Mohawk Warriors, regarded by many as little more than heavily-armed gangsters, become involved and escalated the whole thing. Hopefully there is no equivalent in your rather lovely neck of the woods.

  13. Reading this post more thoughtfully the second time, believe I have an answer. Get a movie company, preferably young/idealistic/well-moneyed, to start filming the whole thing. Couldn’t hurt, might shift the terrain.

    Here’s hoping you will not be marooned!

  14. Nance says:

    Drifted over from Time Goes By today. Didn’t really expect to be caring about a ferry to a small island on the opposite coast, but I do now. I’ll be back, therefore, to learn the rest of the story.

  15. Kay Dennison says:

    That they are doing to you and your fellow residents is a travesty. I hope you can find someone who can help save your way of life. You are all in my prayers.

  16. Hattie says:

    Just back on my island after a visit to the Mainland and catching up. I hope this can be resolved with satisfaction to all parties.

  17. Mage B says:

    Politics indeed. The indians want something, and are using the ferry as a bargaining chip. I’m so sorry.

  18. Mage B says:

    RYN: Now, I bet you think I’m being funny, but have you considered taking the train. We took the train from SD to Seattle two years ago, in a roomette, and we had a great time. G didn”t like climbing down from the top bunk in the dead of the night, so he said next time we will get a cabin with a bed all on one level. You might check that out. 🙂 Maybe we can have coffee while you are here too. 🙂

  19. Florence says:

    Oh goodness what a situation. I grew up on an island (Galveston) and have always enjoyed the ferry ride from Galveston to Bolivar. It does give the feeling of leaving troubles behind. Anyway, keep us posted on the developments.

  20. Friko says:

    sounds like the Indians have got you over a barrel.
    It’s surely just politics though, it can’t be in their interests to cut you off from the mainland. Some kind of compromise will be found to sort the matter out.

  21. Eva Gloria says:

    It’s not the Indian’s stupid. It’s the county. They’ve known about this contractual discrepancy for several years and have not acted on it. There’s a lot more to it than what is written in this initial article.

  22. Cathy says:

    As usual Anne, you say it so well. Yes, we do love our ferry!

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