San Juan Archipelago, WA.
"I suppose almost everybody has a favorite version of the legend of Andy’s Island. We acquired ours when we acquired the property. Not, as with real estate, 'or record,' but by word of mouth, as in 'Legend…any story coming down from the past, especially one popularly taken as historical although not verifiable.' [Webster]
It didn’t matter about the details. The story and the island were a part of our lives. So when Andy’s Island was nearly destroyed by fire one hot summer day, I shed angry tears. Not for the legend- that can’t die- but for the man who made it.
As we heard it, Andy Brown was a part-Lummi Indian fisherman who found and homesteaded one of the rocky bumps clustered near us off the west shore of Shaw Island. Navigation charts will not even dignify them as islands; they show them as reefs, snugged close to an inlet and barely managing to keep their heads above water at high tide. Andy’s was the largest, yet it was small enough to pace off in approximately two minutes. Nature had been there ahead of him to do the landscaping, and as always she had done a superb job. An exquisite coverlet of deep, soft moss had been laid across the seams and wrinkles, with accents of lichen and sedum, thickets of wild roses, low growing juniper trees and, incredibly, cactus plants. The island was so appealing that its miniscule proportions hardly could have mattered to Andy Brown. It was his, and he loved it with the peculiar passion a man reserves for his own land.
He built a little cabin of beachcombed wood and put up a proper outhouse. When he was finished there was a driftwood compound that included as well, a smokehouse and another wood and stone building, probably intended for use as extra living quarters. Andy Brown fished, poached an occasional deer on Shaw, kept any eye on the summer folk nearby, and was known to be fairly sociable.
During the nineteen sixties or thereabout, the federal government mandated active possession of the rocks and reefs that numerically comprise the San Juan Islands, and ordered squatters to vacate their premises. They made a few exceptions, but possibly because Andy Brown hadn’t had time to “prove up” his claim, he, too, was dispossessed with little ceremony.
He walked out of the cabin, climbed into his boat, and went away leaving everything behind as it was. When I first stepped on the little island in 1969 I found what was left- a cardboard suitcase lying open on rusted bedsprings, some tattered clothing, chipped enamel kitchen utensils, and a few furnishings, crudely but lovingly, it seemed, created for his creature comforts. Even in that vandalized shambles I could sense the presence of Andy Brown’s dream.
It was shortly after that exploration, the first of many visits to the island, that Andy Brown himself materialized on our beach one day, in search of some local friends he’d heard were helping us install a float. Lean, tall of frame, the man had a good face, seamed and bronzed by his life on the water. He responded with courteous reserve to an interview of sorts I conducted on the spot with, I am sorry to say, the raw curiosity of a newcomer eager for local color. Remembering that now, I think about the look in his eyes whenever his gaze went past us out to the little island a quarter of a mile away.
For a couple of years after that, we saw his fishboat chug past, navigating the reefs with deft local knowledge and then leaving. I think he had come to pat his island, but we never saw him go ashore. And then we saw him no more.
Meanwhile, we came to know and love his island, too. It was every child’s
high adventure, every grownup’s return to innocence, a place one approached reverently, best of all by rowboat. I cherished my quiet times there alone, padding across the green carpeting and making small talk with the resident harbor seals.
On a hot, sad, July afternoon, two young men sped toward Andy’s Island in an outboard, landed, splashed gasoline around the sagging cabin, and set it afire. We could not get there in time to save it, and the cabin burned to the ground. When the miniature holocaust was spent, the stove and other debris lay in an obscene black heap on the knoll Andy had chosen for his homesite. Much of the island was severely burned; miraculously, two of the outbuildings and the rose thicket, some of the juniper and the cactus were spared.
At the time, I wrote in the Islands’ Sounder It will take quite a while for nature to repair the damage, for it was a fragile little island…. I don’t know what has happened to Andy Brown, but I’m glad he didn’t suffer the ultimate sorrow of watching what happened to his island.'
I was wrong about the island’s fragility. But I did learn, later, that Andy Brown had died in an Everett hospital about a year before the fire.
A woman who lived on Lummi Island and knew Andy Brown did me a great kindness. She had read my piece, constructed from one brief encounter and local legend, and wrote to tell me…'he was exactly as you described him…' She said that Andy Brown had been a special kind of man. The letter helped to heal the sense of outrage I had felt at the senseless act of arson, and I was compelled to row out to the island to see what, if anything, had been accomplished by an intervening winter. I beached the boat in the little gravel cove and with my heart in my mouth I climbed the knoll where the cabin had stood for so long.
Something marvelous had happened. The only reminder of the fire was a gradually greening patch of black and the chunks of metal. The other part of the island inside the perimeter of lichen-covered rocks was knee-deep in grass; moss was coming back on the scorched places. A dozen purple finches popped out of the little stone house by the wild roses to scold at me for intruding during their nesting season. And splashed across the whole island were sweeps of blue camas lilies in rampant indigo bloom.
It was a flamboyant, joyous memorial; the ghosts had been laid to rest. I rowed away with a singing heart, but I’ve not been back since."
Text from Oh Shaw! And other Islands. Jo Ann Morse Ridley. Long House Printcrafters and Publishers. Friday Harbor, WA. 1978.