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.
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.