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Rattlesnake Island: Your Own Inland Empire

October 09, 1987|BETH ANN KRIER | Times Staff Writer

CLEAR LAKE, Calif. — As private islands go, it's huge: 54 acres complete with ancient Indian ceremonial sites, a herd of goats and Barbados sheep, an oak grove worthy of a George Lucas Jedi battle scene, peregrine falcons and 8,000 feet of lakefront.

Even for California, it's relatively high priced: A dog-bone-shaped parcel floating in Clear Lake near the middle of the state, it's on the market for $5.75 million, though realtor/owner Paul Dennett admits that he and his partners "are willing to be chiseled down to about $4 million."

Although the asking price has raised eyebrows in real estate circles, Dennett points out that the still-primitive property--about a 2 1/2-hour drive northeast of San Francisco in Lake County--is the largest inland island on the West Coast.

The partners were able to purchase it at a bargain rate of "less than half a million dollars," he says, because the corporation which previously owned it was under court order to divest some of its properties.

Although Dennett, his family and some neighbors have owned Rattlesnake Island since 1976, none of the owners has resided there for longer than a brief camp-out. They all live on other, far-smaller islands in Clear Lake.

The only inhabitants have been a succession of caretakers and occasionally some Pomo Indians from the nearby lakefront reservation, who dispute the partners' title to the island. The Indians maintain that Rattlesnake Island--which reportedly has no rattlesnakes--was originally part of their land and was stolen from them by the federal government. They acknowledge, however, that there's little likelihood they will win the land back anytime soon as they can't afford to take the matter to court.

Dennett, who calls the Indians "good neighbors," has nonetheless posted "No Trespassing" signs on the island where he played as a child during family vacations in the 1930s.

Even though as a kid he always dreamed of living on one of Clear Lake's islands, he says that "people who live on islands have to be, I don't know, a little weird."

In fact, Dennett's first wife lasted only about three years on nearby Windflower Island before packing up her belongings and leaving the island and the marriage.

Dennett and his second wife, Helen, have lived on 2 1/2-acre Windflower since 1968. For several years they resided in a makeshift one-room house Dennett built with his uncle. It had no electricity until 1979, and baths were taken in the lake or by bucket.

Rugged Rusticity

Moreover, the Dennetts say, it was in that one-room house that they reared their six children (two of his, four of hers) from previous marriages. If that seems like privation to most people, they see it differently. By the time each child was in kindergarten, for instance, he or she had learned to swim, ski and drive a boat across the lake to catch the school bus.

By 1979, the Dennetts had completed building a much larger and, by all accounts, stunning home on Windflower Island, doing everything themselves except for installing the kitchen cabinets and carpeting. (He holds a degree in structural engineering, with a minor in architecture, from UC Berkeley.)

So enthralled is the couple with their small, secluded world (from which they venture only on rare occasions) that they never change their clocks to daylight-saving time. And they no longer own a car, preferring to take a boat or a seaplane.

Time to Move On

Dennett claims he'd like to keep Rattlesnake Island for his family but can't afford to buy out his partners. Needed was a new dream. So Dennett and his wife decided to sell Rattlesnake Island, possibly also Windflower Island and their home (unofficially on the market for $1.5 million) and explore more of the world's islands, most likely in Micronesia and the Caribbean.

"We've been playing with the island for several years and just decided it's time to get on with a new adventure," says Dennett. Adds Helen, who still sleeps outdoors with her husband every night under a canopy at the edge of the island, "Our idea of getting away is to go someplace that's more primitive than this. We want a shack someplace on the water."

How does one go about selling an island?

Celebrity Pitch

Dennett figures the place is perfect for show-biz stars looking for a secluded retreat that can be reached quickly by air (it's about a 45-minute helicopter or seaplane ride from the San Francisco and Sacramento airports). So he's sent material pitching the island to about 600 celebrities.

Thus far the stars have remained largely unmoved by the mailing, but Dennett says he did get a nice, handwritten reply from Charlton Heston. And Malcolm Forbes, a fellow island owner, responded by "inviting us to his island off Fiji."

A classified advertisement in Islands magazine brought about 50 inquiries. And at the moment, Dennett says, a Middle-Eastern investment firm is seriously interested.

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