The lone human on small Protection Island, where birds and deer are the primary residents, says he's "living a dream."
PROTECTION ISLAND, Jefferson County — When Marty Bluewater comes home to Protection Island these days, he’s astounded by the silence. He listens to the ocean waves lapping on the beach 150 feet below his deck, or to the hiss of the breeze across the grassy plateau that is his back yard. Occasionally, he hears a dog barking on the mainland two miles away.
One might expect this, since Bluewater is the only resident of this 2-mile-long island, otherwise reserved for seabirds, harbor seals and blacktailed deer. But just a few weeks ago, the atmosphere was sheer chaos. Hundreds of gulls swarmed around his rustic home, swooping and screeching while newborn chicks scampered toward deeper grass.
Now the gulls are gone, having flown off to scavenge along Puget Sound shores or, as Bluewater puts it, in the parking lots at Seattle burger joints.
“The yakety-yak all summer can be a little annoying,” he says. “But then they’re gone, and I sort of miss the racket.”
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This is just one of the trade-offs in living here. Each summer, hundreds of gulls nest just steps from his house, and his cabin roof is caked with guano. Rare rhinoceros auklets have burrowed under his deck. Lanky cormorants perch nearby, spreading their wings to dry.
It’s all part of living in the middle of a federally protected menagerie, where people aren’t supposed to visit — let alone set up housekeeping. The once-populated Protection Island is now a major wildlife refuge, off-limits to people, boats and automobiles. Signs on the beach warn boaters to stay at least 200 yards offshore.
The only exceptions are the hired caretaker (and currently there isn’t one), the occasional wildlife researcher and Bluewater, a retired Seattle Parks employee who, in a very real sense, is a survivor — not of Mother Nature, but of a legal and bureaucratic process that seeks to preserve it.
“I guess some people think I’m strange, living alone in a place like this,” he says. “But when they come out for a visit, they see I’m living a dream.”
Bluewater is a tall, muscular fellow with long, salt-and-pepper hair, bronzed skin and high cheekbones that suggest his Native American roots.
He comes and goes year-round, loading groceries, bottled water, propane and other supplies onto his small cabin cruiser for the short crossing to the island, then transferring them to his rickety van for the trip up the island’s south bluff.
His island home is a blend of rustic beach cabin and ’70s bachelor pad, decorated with Plains Indian art and scavenged driftwood, and commanding a spectacular view of Discovery Bay and the Olympics.
After three decades of visits, and now three years of residence, Bluewater knows the island better than anyone.
But there’s another reason the government lets him stay: He was here first.
The isle’s human history
How this happened is a case study in the thorny relationship between people and government and Mother Nature.
Protection Island is a slightly bent triangle of earth that stretches east to west across the mouth of Discovery Bay west of Port Townsend.
It was named by explorer George Vancouver, who stepped ashore in 1792 and gushed about a landscape “as enchantingly beautiful as the most elegantly furnished pleasure grounds in Europe.”
Over time, the island was inhabited by a series of less poetic farmers who were ultimately discouraged by fierce winter storms, the shortage of good water and the long boat trip to Port Townsend.
In 1965, the island was sold for $275,000 to a group of Seattle investors who decided to subdivide it into some 800 vacation lots, complete with roads, a marina and airstrip. One of the takers was Bluewater, who had just graduated from the University of Washington. In 1971, he plunked down $7,000 for his dream lot on the edge of the bluff. A few years later, he built his cabin.
All this caught the attention of certain people in Port Townsend, who understood that Protection is a natural wildlife refuge. It turned into a classic struggle between two groups equally enamored of the same unique real estate. One group treasured the place as a vacation getaway, the other as a wildlife reserve.
When the government held public hearings, Bluewater pleaded for his dream home.
“I cannot conceive of giving up my property,” he said at the time. “I am willing to do anything to prevent this. I’m also willing to assist with any safeguards to insure that the unique, fragile character of the island is protected.
“The swallows that nest under my roof, the chipmunks that live under my deck and the seagulls and auklets that nest in my yard share ownership of that land with me.”
About 20 years ago, Congress created the wildlife refuge and bought out most of the landowners. A few holdouts were allowed to keep their homes for the lifetime of the original owner. Today, just two cabins remain.
Bluewater has been a good neighbor, says Kevin Ryan, a supervisor at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the island.
Bluewater comes and goes, visiting family and working with Native American programs in Seattle. Now and then he has visitors, but usually he lives alone.
“It didn’t come natural to me,” he says. “I’m pretty social, and I’d never done anything by myself. But living here was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever done with my life.”
In harmony with nature
While he is not a trained scientist, Bluewater has become a naturalist simply by being there. He roams the island, snapping photographs. While the bird populations fluctuate, he’s seen huge increases in the numbers of deer and bald eagles.
Eventually, he hopes to compile his photos and videos into a documentary on the island’s natural history.
Summers are nice, but he prefers the winters, when most of the birds leave their nests while the storms move in.
“You can’t imagine the winds out here. There are days you can’t stand up right outside my house.”
In a heavy blow, the cabin will shudder and Bluewater will hunker down. But then it lets up, and the silence returns.
Perhaps the lesson, Bluewater says, is that people can learn to live in harmony with nature.
“It’s a shame that the people who own this island have to look at it from a distance,” he says. “They should bring people out so they can appreciate it.”
That’s not likely, says Ryan of the FWS. The government is working on a new management plan, but visitors probably won’t be part of it.
Except Bluewater, who, for better or worse, has become part of the ecosystem.