No matter where you go on this private island — really; there are not that many options — someone is going to say a friendly hello.
ISLANDS LOOM LARGE in the imaginations of authors, filmmakers and daydreamers. Anything can happen on a piece of land severed from the rest of terra cognita. You could be marooned (“Robinson Crusoe”), lured by hidden gold (“Treasure Island”), menaced by creepy experiments (“The Island of Dr. Moreau”) or chased in a downpour by dinosaurs (“Jurassic Park”). It’s a long trip back, and the forces of law and order are thin on the ground. What will triumph? Will it be basest instinct (“Lord of the Flies”) or the forces of good (“The Black Stallion”)?
In real life, we have it pretty good with the islands of the San Juan archipelago and beyond. Orcas Island comprises 57 square miles, and tiny Skull Island, in Massacre Bay off Orcas, is merely 2.5 acres. You can pick the adventure you’d like to have.
People desiring a private, low-key adventure turn to private, residential islands. Hat Island is one of these. It sits between Everett and the southern tip of Whidbey Island. There is no public transportation to or from it, only a private ferry. There is “no commerce,” as one homeowner told me. No store, no post office, no gas station. There is a phone booth, where a card next to the phone lists extensions you can call for free. About 50 people live there year-round, and another 200-plus visit on weekends and vacations. The island has had a couple of names over the centuries, but now everybody calls it Hat.
“ADVANTAGES? IT’S VERY PRIVATE. You know all your neighbors. Everybody waves,” says Mike Immel, a retiree who divides his time 50-50 between Hat Island and Seattle. “Disadvantages are few. You can’t go out for dinner, but you do ‘go out’ because your neighbors invite you over for dinner.
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“We have great beaches. We have one of the most beautiful marinas in the Puget Sound region. We have unlimited water because we make our own.”
Immel, a former commodore of the tiny Hat Island Yacht Club, is currently treasurer of the island’s board of directors.
About the miraculous-sounding water: Hat Island has a reverse osmosis plant, where saltwater is converted to fresh. Hat does have electricity, delivered via submarine cable from the Tulalip Reservation. Cellphone reception is great, thanks to towers at a nearby military base. Homes are served by a septic system.
One particular Saturday morning, skies were gray, but the weather was mild. I sat in the living room of the beachfront place owned by Mike and Julie Murphy. The Murphys’ place is almost all windows in the front room; even the TV mounted above a window is on a collapsible arm so it can be moved out of the way. It’s the perfect perch to have coffee and watch the day go by. Gray whales hunt ghost shrimp right outside their windows. Orcas swim by, and so do plenty of seals.
The Murphys’ getaway is in a little cluster of about a dozen houses that sit where original homesteads were built in the 1800s. Ties are deep here. Their neighbor’s dad built the Murphys’ house, and the neighbor’s grandfather built the house the neighbor now occupies. “A lot of families pass the property down,” Mike says. He’s starting to notice property changing hands a little more often, as people age out of the island life and run out of family members who want their houses and the effort it takes to enjoy them.
The Murphys bought a half-share in the house in 2007 and bought out their co-owners in 2009. When the tide is up, a good chunk of the beach is underwater, and their place is accessible only by boat. That’s how they prefer to arrive, anyway. “We boat in,” Mike says. “I have a mooring buoy. I unload my gear and the family into my smaller boat, and we row in.”
He admits it takes a “certain kind of person to do all that,” jumping in and out of the boat, carrying groceries and supplies, maintaining the buoy and going out in all kinds of weather. Even basic property maintenance has to be planned with precision. The Murphys rented space on a barge for roofing supplies one year, and Mike brought roofers over on his boat. When a nearby dock needed work, the little beach neighborhood pitched in to get it done. The neighbors continue to rely on a set of decades-old dock plans. “It works,” Mike says, shrugging. If he needs something brought over that’s too big for his boat but not big enough for the barge, a neighbor happily transports it in exchange for a bottle of Grey Goose. Again, it works.
“The aura of the people here …” he trails off. “Everybody’s real friendly. We don’t have a lot of issues.”
Julie Murphy says she wanted a “family cabin experience,” and they had looked at other islands before they found the little house on Hat. She and her husband have become good friends with their beach neighbors, having communal dinners and birthday celebrations and traveling together. “It’s just so hard to get out there,” she says of the outlying islands.
IT’S NOT THAT Hat is easy to get to, either. Many property owners own boats. The rest have to rely on a private, owner-funded walk-on ferry, called The Hat Express. It departs from the far end of a maze of docks at the Port of Everett and serves the island on a very limited schedule, varying by season.
Those getting off the ferry are greeted by harbor master Barb Conwell, one of a handful of full-time island employees. Conwell seems to know everybody; I had called to tell her I was coming, and the day I arrived, she was giving the 20-plus passengers the once-over, looking for my unfamiliar face. She’s been harbor master for 13 years and is married to Hat’s now-retired longtime maintenance man.
“I fell in love with him and the island,” she says, when I asked how she came to be master of Hat’s harbor. Her job includes monitoring the ferry and the boats coming and going from Hat’s 110-slip marina. She’s also master of the copious files and paperwork in the island’s main office. Immel, the treasurer, wandered by and called the office “our city hall.”
Once you get to Hat, there aren’t many places to go, other than to the neighbors’. Your options narrow more when the tide is up. We set out along the sand early in the day, wanting to avoid getting stranded until the next morning. Hat Islanders really are, as Immel says, remarkably sociable. A visitor suffering from Seattle freezer burn might feel a little bit of a thaw. Even the dogs are happy to see you.
Trudging up the beach, we were met by a curious, gray short-haired dog, which ran full speed at us, circled us, found us to be satisfactory and tore off down the beach, kicking up clumps of sand in its wake. A group of anglers said “hi.” A woman with three dogs said “hi.” She joined us in wondering how a giant rock on shore came to be carved with “1944” and initials that could be “WA” or “AH,” depending on your perspective. She begged, “Don’t put my obnoxious dogs in the paper,” before setting off. We passed a man digging for clams, holding an orange-and-white kitten. His hands were full, so he couldn’t wave, but he did say “hi.” The gray dog that inspected us earlier came at a gallop; surveyed the progress of kitten, man and clams; and ran off.
A group of Hat Islanders collects interesting rocks and beach glass, and engages in friendly competition to see who finds the best treasures. The sand and pebbles are scattered with interesting rocks and shells, not the slivers you see at a heavily trafficked beach. I left a beautiful snail shell on the rocks, and I surrendered to my guide a long piece of clear glass that was once jagged but was now smoothed by being tumbled in the ocean. It looked like a transparent shark’s tooth. After all, I was a guest.
THE FIRST VISITORS to the little island in Possession Sound were Native Americans, who called it Chuh-Chuh-Sul-Lay, or “the place where the little one lived,” according to two area historians, Robert Waterman and Robert A. Brunjes. They fished and harvested shellfish there, but after a disaster killed a fishing party, Brunjes writes, the island “was a place you visited, but never stayed.” When Capt. George Vancouver anchored nearby in 1792, he paused his streak of naming things, and the island kept its relative anonymity.
It was given the name Gedney Island in 1841 by Capt. Charles Wilkes, who said he named it after a friend. A lot of theories were floated over the years about who Gedney was, but his real story, revealed by Navy archives, was shocking: Lt. Thomas R. Gedney captured the ship L’Amistad off Long Island in 1839, and he turned over her crew of enslaved people — who had overthrown the Spanish captain taking them to Cuba and certain death — to the authorities. Not done yet, Gedney claimed salvage rights to cargo, provisions, cash and 54 of the people on board. The captured Africans went to court, arguing they should be freed. Spain did not agree. The case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which sided with the kidnapped Africans, who sailed home.
Locals had called it Hat Island for generations, however, and Snohomish County had been labeling its maps with “Hat Island” as long as anyone can remember. In 1980, The Washington Board of Geographic Names amended the official name to Gedney (Hat) Island. It does happen to look like a giant floating baseball cap when approached from Everett.
THE GRAY SKIES gave way to bright blue. As we set off toward the steep, graveled hill that leads to the center of the island, we noticed the yacht club was open. The gray A-frame is home to Friday-night social hour and a tiny gift shop, little more than a big closet, stocked with T-shirts, sweatshirts, golf shirts and a few knickknacks. The cheerful woman minding the shop warned us not to hit our heads on the giant beam that crossed near the doorway, and thanked us profusely for visiting as we exited.
Are you a member of the yacht club, I asked her. “Well, we do live on an island,” she said, spreading her arms wide, as if to say, if you need a boat, it becomes a yacht real quick. Later in the day, she passed us in a car as we were trudging along in the gravel; she waved.
You do a lot of waving on Hat. We were passed four times by folks driving ATVs, and they all waved. (One might have been the same person looping around twice.) We chatted with a man getting ready to use the island’s golf course, who warned us about its challenges. “When you hit the ball, all you know is that you hit it,” he said. No telling where it went in that forest. A woman tending a lush vegetable garden waved. A man pondering pieces of an enormous tree, cut down to make room for the highly rated volunteer fire station’s expansion, waved. The tree was labeled as free, u-cut firewood, but how a lone person could gather any in a reasonable amount of time was beyond me. Overtaken by friendliness, I said, “Looks like you have quite a job there.” The man laughed. Amid the waving, I took cellphone photos of rabbits, as they are everywhere. They cross the road in groups of four at a time. They perch on lawns like little yard ornaments, scatter into the brush and emerge again, tinier versions of the curious beach dog.
THE CYCLE OF DISCOVERY and anonymity churns perpetually on Hat. By the late 19th century, a few homesteads, a logging operation, and a sand and gravel company appeared. Vacation homes, (rumored) bootlegging and World War II bombing practice came later. Good fishing continued to draw visitors. By the early 1960s, some investors had big plans for Hat, Immel says. They bought land from the few private owners left and marketed what they called “Hat Island Riviera.”
“They platted the island and were selling lots,” he says. Buyers were promised a deluxe resort with a restaurant, general store, deep lake for fishing, runway, theater, yacht club and golf course. Vintage advertisements still hanging in the island’s main office show families in nautical outfits being ferried to this wonderland. (“Not the height of fashion, was it?” Immel jokes.) Celebrities were rumored to be interested. But by ’65, Immel says, “They were bankrupt.” The owners who were left formed Hat Island Community Inc., and turned the “Riviera” real estate office into the yacht club and the lake into a duck pond. Many lots changed hands, into the portfolios of less-dazzled buyers. The golf course became a well-kept secret. And Hat Island, and its Riviera, faded quietly into the background again.
You do see “For Sale” signs around Hat, and ads for lots and homes are even on Redfin. Word is getting out, but it’s slow. More would-be islanders seem to be after its “private” status.
“Right now, I am seeing more people that are either living up there full-time, or splitting their week. And they’re younger,” says Kimla Weller, a real estate agent who has listings on Hat Island. “I also have a couple of vacant land plots pending right now, where the people are from Oregon. I have quite a few clients from Oregon, actually.”
Weller, of Hallmark Homes, has been getting away to Hat for 24 years, having discovered it through her husband’s family. Four years ago, some agents who handled island property moved to Arizona and asked Weller whether she wanted to take over their listings. She was happy to.
“I have some buyers coming from back East tomorrow. They’re planning to build,” she says in our phone interview. You can get a place on Hat starting at $189,000, she says, on up to $650,000.
What’s the allure for Weller, a busy agent? “You know, it takes me an hour (to commute there), door to door. People still don’t know about it.
“It’s just a lot of fun. It’s a little different up there.”