San Juan Archipelago
including Spieden Island where the author
June Burn homesteaded with Fararr Burn.
This card courtesy of publisher Smith-Western Co, Tacoma, WA.©
from the archives of the Saltwater People Log.
Apologies for taking so long to coax June Burn back to share another of her soothing stories through the northern islands she knew so well.
"The little group of upper San Juans around the Canadian line is a favorite resort of the Natives. They can find as much employment as they want cutting cordwood in the winter, fishing in the summer, and resting a good deal between jobs. The Native women lead lives of purest romance and maybe you think they don’t know it! My neighbor, who employs them off and on his farms, will admonish a wife of one of his workmen, urging her to stay at home more and prepare suitable food for her husband who is working hard at the wood cutting. He doesn’t make any progress to speak of! She will grunt, maybe smile sheepishly, maybe even make some sort of reply. But she won’t stay at home and cook. Not she!
Early in the morning of a day sunny or gray–– what difference does the weather make?–– Native women can be seen out trolling up and down the channels. A woman-full dugout canoe rowed, maybe, by one little 6-year old boy and his 7-year old sister, will glide around the point, head in to the beach for no apparent reason, and deposit its entire human load. Perhaps to go berrying with little buckets and cedar bark baskets. Maybe they will gather sluckus if the tide is out (sluckus is a narrow, long, leaf-like sea plant that grows on the rocks and which may be gathered at low tide on most of the rocky beaches. I believe it is sea lettuce, though am not sure.) They may build a small fire and boil something or other in curious kettles. They may only sit around and talk or hunt agates among the various colored gravel of the beautiful beaches. I wish I did know what their comings and goings mean.
Right now, I see Old Katherine, fat Isaac’s wife, sitting up on a yellow grass bank hunkered over her knitting tending a miniature campfire. Her colorful washing of blue work shirts and pink petticoats flaps on a line behind her. The youngest born of one of the women out fishing in a nearby channel lies in a little box near Katherine. She is “minding! it. And meanwhile of what is she thinking? Neat and tidy is Katherine and something of a leader among them, I think, though there again I am on unsure ground.
I’ve grown so accustomed to seeing the Natives around the islands I know best that it wouldn’t be coming home if they were not here now. Stewart Island’s nearness to the Canadian border keeps them here. They sell their sluckus in Victoria, whence it is shipped to China for soup. They get 10 and 15 cents a pound for it dried and sometimes return to America with 30 or $40 worth of gaily painted washpans, calico, outing flannel, fancy china, and who knows what all else stowed away in their cedar dugouts. Relatives live on the Canadian side, also, which keeps them visiting back and forth across the line. Further down the islands one hardly ever sees a Native save as their dugouts or motor launches pass back and forth in the channels.
Once, when the boys and I were summering on Johns Island, General and his family, with old Isaac and Katherine, decided to go up to the Sucia Islands to gather sluckus. General came up to my cabin to ask me to take care of his chickens while he was gone. I promised, but later discovered he had taken them with him, fearful, perhaps, that I might forget to look after them a mile down the island from me.
They pulled out early one morning on a fair tide around my end of Johns Island out into the channel towards the Sucias. In General’s thirty-foot dugout five people sat on the bottom of the boat or on thin narrow slats across the edge. Besides the family, there were two boxes of chickens, one of a hen setting on her eggs and the other of the hen whose five chicks had just hatched. There were tents and bedding, cooking things, and boxes of food, a crippled lamb donated by Spieden to be killed for food, every personal belonging of both women of the family, and sacks in which to gather the sluckus. It was the fullest boat ever I saw. And to top it all, in the bottom there lay the flat rocks on which they would build their little campfire in mid-channel and cook their food in the boat while it was moving along.
Two weeks later the family returned, General who had done the bulk of the rowing, looking thinner than ever and very hungry. They had got a hundred pounds of sluckus for which they would receive a fourth of what they would have made if they had stopped at home and cut cordwood. But that was not the point. Gathering sluckus to sell for lots of money was only an excuse. Romance was the main crop, although they did not know it. They perhaps don’t bother to say in words what it is that drives them through terrific tides after little dabs of sluckus or clams or fish and it may be that they don’t question themselves at all. But I’ll bet old Isaac could phrase it if he chose!
Hello, high bluffs of Spieden! This long mountain ridge up thrust high and steep above the water is the first island we knew. Its people neighbored and fed and transported us in homesteading days. The very tip of the three-mile-long island was itself, homesteaded many years ago by a naturalized soldier from the English Camp, Robert Smith. To have climbed so high to find his perch proves that he loved hard things. It is his daughter who lives there now, never having known another home. She has running water and electric lights now and radio and piano and automobile and boats and wealth. But the marvelous scape of sea and island and sky and snowcapped mountains from the top of Speiden is what holds her there. See you tomorrow. June."
June Burn. Puget Soundings. The Bellingham Herald. 26 October 1929.