Island Experience – Ferry-wise and Otherwise

It sounds like a cliché, but it really was “love at first sight!”  Ten years ago, our next door neighbors in northern California owned a little trailer on Lummi Island in the Isle Aire neighborhood.  When they heard we were vacationing in the Seattle area, they tossed us the keys and told us to enjoy a little get-away at their place.  Once we got here, we knew that this island was where we were meant to be!  Such beauty everywhere you look, friendly community, the reefnet fishing (in the rain even!), the cute little church, the old school; and of course “downtown Lummi Island” by the ferry dock, with our market, PO, Library, Grange, café, gift shop.  A year after first sitting in the Gooseberry Point ferry line, we were semi-retired, and had purchased and moved into a fixer-upper Lummi Island house.  We’ve been here close to 9 years, and are almost finished remodeling.  We are so grateful to be here, living amongst a variety of island characters we now call friends. 

The Whatcom Chief

We learned right away about our ferry, the Whatcom Chief, and the impacts of ferry dependence, mostly good but sometimes challenging.  At the time of our move, our belongings were unloaded and stored for a week on the mainland. Our close of escrow coincided with dry-dock – darned bad timing!  We had to pay extra (again) for our move because the regular moving van would not be able to fit on the ferry.  The cost of other deliveries really added up while we have been doing our remodel – appliances, cabinets, and construction materials – all coming across on the ferry.  We really didn’t mind, we were so enamored with life on this island.   And still are…

We islanders sometimes whine about how we need a bigger ferry.  I grew up only knowing a VERY small ferry (5 cars I think) going between Balboa Island and Newport Beach, Ca.  The Whatcom Chief holds 18-20!  WOW!!  Or maybe you’d hear complaints about having to sit and wait for the ferry.  After sitting hours in Los Angeles traffic on daily work commutes, now sitting in such a idyllic spot is an opportunity to relax, enjoy the wildlife, chat with neighbors, and give thanks for being so blessed to live here!  Yes, we’ve grown to love our ferry, too!

The annual September ferry dry-dock is a special time for us that signals a quieter, less noisy pace of island life.  We enjoy meeting fellow islanders on the “walk-on” passenger ferry.  These are sometimes people we haven’t seen the rest of the year, or ever!  If the weather is nice, we love to climb up the ladder and sit on top of the boat.  The roller-coolers we bought during our first dry-dock still get used year-round when we “walk across” instead of driving onto the Whatcom Chief.

Naively, we never gave much thought to the possibility of a big change in the type of vessel or where the mainland dock would be.  The county has been consistently taking care of this ferry thing since 1925, we were told.  And this route has been in use for over 100 years! 

 Of course, we have been inconvenienced by the ferry rates going up over the years.  I am retired, my husband semi-retired.  We have 2 cars, one on each side.  We “walk across” and make fewer trips to compensate for the increases.  We know we are fortunate that we have that choice to lessen the impact of higher ferry fees.  As the rates rise, we will continue to adjust the number of our trips to town.

On just a trip-into-town basis, a passenger ferry works fine for us.  We use the Whatcom Chief that way much of the time.  I am retired, I don’t have to go into town often, and now rarely buy huge amounts or large items.  And whether the ferry lands at Gooseberry Pt or Fairhaven, it wouldn’t much matter to me, for those types of trips. 

BUT, there are many other considerations and questions to be answered…

  •  My husband is a substitute teacher in the Ferndale School District.  He is routinely requested by teachers of special needs kids – these kids are his passion and his specialty.  They need consistency, and the kids know him.  If we are forced to land in Fairhaven, that will put an end to his sub career – it simply won’t be viable, time-wise.
  • And of course the Ferndale School District – there are full-time teachers living on the island.  Will they be able to make the trip to Fairhaven and get to school on time?  Deal with the added expense?  What a long day if they can even make it.
  • And the kids – will they have to change school districts?  Will Beach School on the island become part of the Bellingham district, too?  Not the end of the world, but a lot of work and expense to change?  Upsetting to the kids?  Or how long will they have to travel to get to their Ferndale School?  Is that even legal to take that long?
  • How many islanders work on the reservation?  Or use the gym, or go to the casino, markets, gas station? What is the impact of an alternative ferry dock location?  Will they be able to continue to go to the reservation?
  • What if an ambulance is required for us or one of our visiting friends?  How often will there be vehicle ferry runs?  Will time delays mean the expense of more air medical evacuations?  Our mothers have each had medical emergencies while here, so this is a real concern.
  • How much is ANY solution going to cost?  Fare increases will definitely be a hardship for us, now that we face full retirement.  We will use it less and less.
  • It appears rates will go up significantly, unless we get some kind of subsidy.  If you combine rate increases, along with a change in mainland docking, delivery costs are going to go up for many things purchased from businesses north of Bellingham.  Will we continue to patronize them?  Smit’s Compost, NorthStar Stone, Samuels Furniture, propane, SSC garbage pickup, cement companies, firewood, livestock feed, etc.
  • What about the businesses ON the island who DEPEND upon ferry access?  Septic, construction, furniture makers, people with livestock, food service, etc.
  • And will our Island Library continue to operate?  If so, will it have to cut back services?
  • How will this affect some of our favorite Island businesses?  The Islander, The Beach Store Café, the Post Office, The Willows, quite a few B&Bs, vacation and regular rentals?
  • What if you are trying to sell your home?  Can you find a buyer?  And sell it for what? Can your buyer get a loan?
  • And if we get just a short-term extension on our ferry lease, will that put real estate on the island in a state of limbo for several years?
  • We appreciate being able to make “a quick run into town” meaning into Ferndale.  I wonder how much business Ferndale will lose, if we land in Fairhaven?  Has anyone checked in with their Chamber of Commerce or City Council? 
  • What happens to the people on the reservation if the ferry no longer goes there and they are stranded on their temporary island due to flooding, as in the past?  I guess then it would be ok to land there?

 What else?   Oh yes, why the secrecy on the part of the County and the Lummi Nation? 

 Bottom line for our little island community:  whatever happens – can people keep their jobs and homes, go to school, stay in business, get to emergency medical treatment, can we all afford the seemingly inescapable fee increases and other cost increases of deliveries?  Change, they say, is inevitable.  And we Lummi Islanders are a “flexible” lot – we will make every effort to make the short and long-term “solutions” work. 

But in some cases people “may be forced to move off-island.”  Whenever you hear this said, it is said in a very sad tone, because it IS sad – especially if you are forced to leave your home because of a change that could have been better.  The news is filled with very sad stories of unavoidable losses,  THIS is avoidable.

The county’s lack of foresight, planning and communication surrounding the extension of the ferry treaty, combined with secrecy and what appears to be incompetence finalizing the original treaty, seems unbelievable.   Now, will we just lie back, settle for an inept solution, and make the most of it?

If need be, will the lawyers of Protect Lummi Island Community (PLIC) intervene to prevent hasty, poor, and expensive decisions from being made as the deadline approaches (3 weeks away at time of this writing)?  Will the State or Federal governments step in to assist us legally and/or financially?  And while we’re at it, will we maintain a spirit of partnership with the vast majority of our Lummi Nation neighbors as we work through the complexities facing us all?  No matter what happens, they are still our neighbors and it sounds like they are not getting the whole story either.

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One response to “Island Experience – Ferry-wise and Otherwise

  1. Pingback: Island Ferry-Follies – Continued… « IslandCAT's Blog

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