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It Was Hard for Writer Barry Siegel Not to Feel Like an Intruder. His Presence on Waldron Quickly Unsettled an Island Fighting for Its Vision of Community. And Some of the Fiercest Battles Were Among Themselves.

October 28, 2001|BARRY SIEGEL

What comes now? Another outsider, another potential threat. * This time, I'm the outsider. David Loyd's 22-foot aluminum work skiff carries us through blue-gray waters dotted with the thickly wooded hilltops of a submerged mountain range. Together they make up the San Juan archipelago. We are in the far northwest corner of the country, 30 miles east of Victoria, B.C., crossing swift, deep President Channel, where the winds and current can be treacherous. Wrapped in mist, Waldron Island looms before us, a 4.5-square-mile, 2,900-acre fortress. * We swing around the sheer sandstone bluffs of Point Disney, then turn toward Cowlitz Bay, a broad, open cove on the west shore. Here is the island's only public dock, one of just two docks on all of Waldron. You can load and unload, but nothing else without the risk of having your lines untied while you're gone. A few small, weathered boats bob at lonely mooring buoys. There's no protected anchorage on Waldron, a problem elsewhere, a godsend here. It keeps people away. No anchorage means no marina, no boaters, no tourists.

Waldron lacks far more than a marina. There are no grocery stores, no shops, no cafes, no commercial establishments of any sort. There are no power lines, no phone lines, no water lines, no sewers and no public ferry service. There's no public land other than four miles of primitive county road. Waldronites (about 80 in the winter, 200 in the summer) could have such things, but decline. In fact, they've adopted a land-use master plan that forbids them. It's not so much that Waldron abhors modern conveniences. It abhors what comes with them.

Here is the island's masterstroke: Realizing it can't directly ban unwanted people or the mainstream world, Waldron instead bans what draws them. To maintain the kind of community they value, Waldronites endure a deliberately hard life. A willingness to do without is their one true protection from all they long to avoid.

Stories abound about those who try to violate Waldron's barriers. Patrons of a tour boat that regularly cruised too close to shore found themselves watching the Waldron postmaster urinate at the water's edge. A photographer for National Geographic once managed to land on the island, but then couldn't get anyone to open their doors. Guidebooks for boaters warn that Waldronites "value their privacy . . . . Some do not respond cordially to uninvited visitors. . . . Visitors on public roads are likely to be questioned."

Let us have one place where things can be our way, Waldronites have long implored. Revel in your pop culture and mass-market comforts if you want. Just give us this one hilltop at the continent's edge.

With constant struggle over the years, they usually got their wish. Then came the invasion.

Waldronites awoke early one morning in August 1997 to find a 35-person landing force armed with rifles, dressed in flak jackets and camouflage, creeping across their island, pounding on doors, slapping on handcuffs. Federal and county agents had arrived by barge under cover of night to round up a handful of marijuana growers. That they did--along with 850 mature plants seized from six parcels.

Waldronites responded with dismay, both at the invaders and those on the island who attracted them. The drug raid was more than a startling intrusion; it provided fuel to those in San Juan County who already regarded Waldron as an island of primitive eccentrics. Dope-growing hippies were easier to dismiss than committed advocates of responsible land use. No matter that Waldron shelters a fair share of professionals and PhDs, poets and mechanics, plumbers and farmers. Some headlines warned ominously of "fear and intimidation" on Waldron. Other accounts painted the island in warm and fuzzy hues, a bucolic throwback to simpler times.

Neither version--paradise or menace--made sense. You don't hold off the world and carve your own domain with a squad of stoned or snarly dreamers. The work of Waldron surely was more complex than that. For years while visiting the San Juans, I'd stared across President Channel at this island, full of wonder.

I won't take anyone who is going to harm the island.

Beside me, David Loyd is talking into the wind. A tall man who doles out words as if each costs him a dollar, Loyd runs a private ferry to Waldron, the only transport other than a small airline that lands Cessnas on a dirt runway. He's standing at his boat's helm in a yellow full-body rain slicker, eyes to the water. He'd thought of settling his family in Alaska, but instead came to Waldron a dozen years ago. He has trouble believing anyone would voluntarily live on the mainland.

"I do screen people," Loyd is saying now. "For crime. For those who are just crazy. For those who want to get at someone on the island." He turns from the water, looks at me, repeats himself. "I just won't take anyone who is going to harm the island."

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