Islanders Guard Their Privacy With a Passion

Times Staff Writer

Katy Lamb has had the same teacher for nine years from kindergarten through eighth grade--her mother.

“I won’t know how to act next year when I go to high school on Lopez Island,” mused Katy, 13.

“Just imagine, I will not be sitting in the same seat all day. I will be going to different classrooms. I will have several teachers, not just my Mom.”

Katy is one of seven students in the public elementary school on this four-mile-long, three-mile-wide, lush, green wooded island, one of 172 San Juan Islands in Washington’s northwest corner.

For 11 years Karen Lamb, 40, has taught on Decatur Island, population 43. Two of her students are her children, Katy, and Reed, 7, a second-grader.


Four students are her brother and sister-in-law’s children, Bill Jones, 6, a first-grader; Jessica Jones, 7, a third-grader; Kres Jones, 11, a sixth-grader, and Jodee Jones, 13, an eighth-grader.

The only student in the school not related to the teacher is Mike Crosson, 14, an eighth-grader, who commutes by boat from nearby Center Island, population 20, where his father is a fisherman.

It was the first week of school and a crisis occurred. The switch on the water pump broke. Students not only carried books to class, but buckets of water as well--for flushing the toilet.

The pump switch was ordered from Seattle over the school’s mobile phone but would not arrive for a couple of days. Living in isolation can be difficult at times.

No ferry boats call at Decatur Island. The only way to the outside world is by private boat or small plane.

“There’s something special about living on a remote island,” said the teacher. “The privacy. We still have the old-fashioned friendships, everyone depending upon one another. My husband and I love it.”

Her great-grandfather, John P. Reed, an Irish immigrant, was the first non-Indian resident of Decatur Island in the 1860s when he moved here and married Karen Lamb’s great-grandmother, Tacee, a Tlingit Indian.

There has been a one-room school on the island since the 1880s. During her 11 years of teaching at the school, Lamb has had as many as 10 students and as few as three.

Colorful Teachers

When she graduated in 1959 she was the only eighth-grader. There were only three other students in the school that year. Her husband, George, built the present schoolhouse in 1982.

“We have had some colorful teachers at this obscure little island,” Lamb recalled. “In the 1890s the one-room schoolteacher shot and killed another islander. The schoolteacher was the only person ever hanged in San Juan County.”

Lamb is an appropriate name in Decatur. Four hundred sheep run wild on the island, progeny of sheep once raised by the schoolteacher’s grandfather.

When Lamb was first married she and her husband caught 55 head of sheep and traded the animals for a half-dozen Black Angus cattle owned by a man on neighboring Blakely Island.

When islanders get a craving for lamb, they don’t go to a butcher shop. They run out and catch one.

But a sheep named Michael, owned by islanders Jack and Donna Westrick, is safe. Michael’s mother died when Michael was a little lamb. The Westricks bottle-fed the lamb, now the only pet sheep on Decatur.

Ryan Drum, 45, is an escapist. He is one of 60 people living on four-mile-long, three-mile-wide Waldron Island in the San Juans.

Everyone on Waldron is an escapist.

There’s no electricity on Waldron Island. No telephones. No stores. No paved roads. No television. The people on Waldron want it that way.

“Everybody on the island came here to get away from people,” explained Drum, a university biology professor before coming to the island 10 years ago. “I came here to get away from my students.”

Drum grows 60 different kinds of herbs on his 20 acres. He sells his dried herbs at $10 a pound through a mail-order business. His 4-year-old son, Bochay, lives with him. A 7-year-old son lives with his ex-wife who left the island six years ago.

“It is easy to dream isolation but not easy to live isolation,” Drum said. “Many think living on a remote island far away from the hectic pace is an idyllic existence. Few can make it past three months. My wife lasted six years, then left.”

Don’t Want to Be Seen

He said there are some people on the island he hasn’t seen for months. “I don’t know whether they are dead or alive. They don’t want to be seen.”

Ten years ago a reporter visited Waldron. No one would speak to her. She wrote a story and described the islanders as “80 hostile hermits.” There were 80 residents at the time.

“We don’t want people to know about Waldron,” a 24-year-old islander who asked not to be identified said. She added: “We’re fully populated. There isn’t room for anyone else.”

Winnie Adams, 39, who lives on the island nine months of the year and teaches yoga elsewhere for three months, echoed Drum’s sentiments:

“Very few people can handle this sort of life style. If you like it, it’s bliss. If you don’t, you suffocate.”

Zeo Priszner, 88, buzzes around Waldron’s one-lane dirt roads on a three-wheel motorcycle looking like a World War I pilot in goggles, red-knit wool hat and a blazing yellow jacket. He has a heavy white beard and mustache. He lives in a plywood-fiberglass geodesic dome he built 12 years ago.

All homes on the densely forested, mountainous island were handcrafted by islanders, a few by original homesteaders who first settled Waldron more than a century ago.

“Zeo is our island radical,” explained Stella Fiske, 84, who lives with her brother, Phillip Lovering, 90, an engineer who designed several New York bridges and viaducts.

Fiske said Priszner tries to convert islanders to communism: “Everybody is very polite and listens. Zeo is a lot of fun. But he hasn’t converted anyone yet. Every now and then he shows his slides from a visit to the Soviet Union. He’s very entertaining.”

Lovering and his sister live in a house they built high on a hill overlooking Waldron Dock on Cowlitz Bay. Every morning Lovering raises the American Flag in his front yard and every evening he lowers it, a custom he has maintained since childhood, he said.

Respect for One Another

“People here don’t agree with my ideas. But we all respect one another as individualists, respect one another’s beliefs,” Priszner said. “Waldronites are champions of peace. We have a peace group that meets once a month in the schoolhouse.”

On the town bulletin board at the log cabin post office is a petition signed by Priszner and five other islanders addressed “To the People of New Zealand.” It reads: “We the undersigned citizens of Waldron Island wholeheartedly support the decision of your government to ban port visits by nuclear-powered or nuclear-armed ships.”

Above the bulletin board is a map of the Western Hemisphere entitled “A New World of Understanding,” showing the Western Hemisphere turned upside down with South America on top, the U.S., Canada, and Alaska on the bottom.

The post office at the end of Waldron Dock is also without electricity. The only light comes from a skylight in the ceiling over Postmaster Chris Weaver’s desk and the post office stamp window. Waldron Island probably boasts the darkest post office in America.

On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, weather permitting, Tony Scruton, 45, sails his 27-foot, wooden, double-ender boat the Puffin five miles across President Chanel to the West Beach Dock on Orcas Island to pick up mail, freight and supplies for Waldron Island.

Immediate Replies

He makes two trips each time, enabling islanders to send out immediate replies to letters received. The post office is open on sailing days from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., a busy time on the island.

Nothing other than postage stamps are for sale on the island, no fuel for boats. Nothing. The islanders guard their privacy with passion. They do not want strangers visiting Waldron.

“If you write a story about Waldron, please explain there is no way of getting here and nothing for you to do once here,” said Fred Richardson, 39, who rows five miles once a month from Waldron to Orcas Island to pick up his food and supplies. On a calm day it takes Richardson a little over two hours to make the trip.

Priszner and several others on Waldron are pensioners. Some people moved to the San Juans to find their Shangri-la--like Sue and Ken Shaw, who own and operate the 110-year-old Richardson General Store on Richardson Bay at the south end of Lopez Island.

Shaw, 56, was a vice president of Union Bank in Los Angeles. His wife worked in the business office of Chadwick School on the Palos Verdes Peninsula where they lived.

“We wanted to do something different, to get away from the city. We saw a for-sale ad in the Wall Street Journal for a general store on a small island in the San Juans. That was six years ago. We sold our house, quit our jobs and came up here. We haven’t regretted a minute,” Sue Shaw said.